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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3867


Mrs McNAMARA (Dobell) (11:29): I rise to support the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. It is important to recognise that this bill will deliver key aspects of this government's policy. This policy was endorsed by the Australian people at the September election. This government is delivering on its election commitments and, through the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014, we are restoring balance to our workplace relations system. The bill will do this by improving the process by which greenfields agreements may be negotiated; ensuring that agreements are not frustrated by unions pursuing unsustainable claims and forcing delays to commencement which may threaten investment in major new projects that are crucial to our prosperity; restoring union workplace access rules to reflect those which were in place prior to Labor's union-friendly amendments; dealing with excessive right-of-entry visits by union officials; improving workplace productivity and flexibility by enhancing the scope for employees to make individual flexibility arrangements to meet their genuine needs, as determined by those employees; and closing the strike first, talk later loophole within the good faith bargaining rules, which Labor refused to address.

In 2007, the previous Labor government promised a fair and balanced workplace relations system that would guarantee necessary protections to employees whilst allowing employers the necessary flexibility required to operate viable and sustainable businesses. Unfortunately, what we saw from Labor was a resetting of the workplace relations pendulum in favour of the union movement. This effectively applied a handbrake to the Australian economy. Labor made a promise, prior to the election, and delivered something entirely different while in government. This is in stark contrast to this government, which is getting on with the job of building a stronger economy so that everyone can get ahead. One of the ways we are doing this is through our commitment to a more balanced and fair workplace relations system. The amendments presented in this bill will provide a more balanced workplace relations system whilst safeguarding workers' conditions and protections. The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 is good for jobs, good for workers, good for employers and good for the economy.

Labor's economic and workplace relations management since 2007 saw the slowest wage growth on record dating back to 1997. The ABS wage price index reflected a mere 2.6 per cent growth in wages in 2013. It was so low that it slipped below the inflation rate as measured by the ABS consumer price index. This meant a moderation in living standards, a decline in employment and a fall in real net national disposable income per capita. These figures illustrate the need to have a flexible workplace relations system, adaptable to the economic challenges present across the economy. Australian CEOs across the mining, manufacturing, services and construction sectors have stated concerns about the lack of flexibility in industrial relations as being an impediment to growth in 2014. This bill will provide clarity and certainty for employers and employees on the use of individual flexibility arrangements.

In theory, individual flexibility arrangements are an important tool. They were introduced by the former government with the intent of enabling workers and their employers to mutually agree on conditions that suit their respective needs while ensuring that employees are better off overall when compared to their underpinning employment instrument. Individual flexibility arrangements should be central to a workplace relations system that supports the varying employment needs of workers in a modern economy. For example, individual flexibility arrangements can act as a real alternative workplace agreement, enabling employees to manage their childcare or other caring arrangements so as to spend time with family or to manage other commitments. These arrangements are specific to the individual and are not designed as a management tool for business. Importantly for the employee, an employer cannot force an employee to sign an individual flexibility arrangement or make an arrangement a condition of employment. The employee must be better off overall than they would have been under the applicable modern award or enterprise agreement and a worker must provide a statement to the employer that the individual flexibility arrangement meets their genuine needs and they are better off overall.

Under the current Fair Work system, unions are able to restrict the scope of flexibility terms under enterprise agreements to only cover a single matter; for example, the taking of leave. This means that workers may be denied the opportunity to make individual flexibility arrangements on other matters even if they and their employer agree to other suitable arrangements. Under the former Labor government, we saw the potential benefits of individual flexibility arrangements traded away for the priorities of union officials and union bosses. There have been widespread calls from business and industry supporting a return to flexibility in the workplace.

In my electorate of Dobell, the unemployment rate of 6.88 per cent sits above the national average. Faced with even higher youth unemployment figures and low workforce participation we need the option of flexibility arrangements to encourage workforce participation. There is a great manufacturing business in Dobell that has had issues with union right of entry. This is a business that is compliant with the law and has an agreed and established system in place for union officials and visits, despite not having a unionised workforce. They are also a lean business. They deal with three major customers who are big-players with a significant market share. They demand suppliers run lean, efficient and productive business operations. However, this has been exploited by union officials through behaviour akin to the lunchroom invasion. There have been 16 visits by union officials to the non-unionised workforce over 12 months. The principle reason given for the visits by union bosses was recruitment. The main line from an union official was that every worker could only get an additional $14 through the union. This local Dobell business has a great employee culture of safety, performance and productivity amongst the 140 staff. The hard-working staff quickly came to the realisation that $14 across 140 staff was going to very quickly make that lean and efficient business not so productive and have an impact on their combined ability to deliver a competitive product on tight margins to demanding customers. This is a perfect example of the right-of-entry provisions being exploited by union bosses for their own benefit, resulting from more broken promises from the Labor Party.

The amendments before the House will deliver on the promises made by Labor in 2007 and ensure that workers have access to a fair degree of flexibility without providing a veto to union bosses and union officials. This bill will address the current imbalance in union workplace access rules, and our changes will fairly and sensibly balance the right of employees to be represented in the workplace, if they wish to be, with the right of employers to go about their business without unnecessary disruption.

The former Labor government opened the door for the union movement into Australian businesses, resulting in 523,700 working days lost due to industrial action in the last three years alone. Labor made no attempt to implement any recommendations in order to reduce such action. Under Labor's policies we saw a devastating loss of productivity across the Australian workforce, primarily as a result of two policy failures: right of entry provisions and the 'strike first; talk later' loophole.

This government sees right of entry as a specific statutory privilege to which conditions ought to apply. Regrettably, some union bosses do not. This bill will amend these provisions insofar as the ability for unions to enter a workplace is tied either to a union's recognised representative role at the workplace or to employees at the workplace having requested the union's presence. Furthermore, a union will only be entitled to enter a workplace for discussion purposes if (1) they are covered by an enterprise agreement or (2) they been invited by a member or employee who they are entitled to represent. The changes proposed by this bill will enact Labor's publicly stated promise prior to the 2007 election—another promise broken.

The bill will also remove the 'strike first; talk later' loophole under the Fair Work Act. The then opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, stated in 2007:

Industrial disputes are serious. They hurt workers, they hurt businesses, they can hurt families and communities, and they certainly hurt the economy.

Mr Rudd further stated that employees 'will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining'. However, once again Labor failed the policy test, implementing a workplace relations framework whereby employees are allowed to strike before bargaining has commenced. This is why in three years we have seen 523,700 working days lost due to industrial action.

This amendment bill will mean that industrial action cannot be the first step in the bargaining process. It will therefore restore a balanced and harmonious approach to enterprise bargaining. The bill also seeks to make amendments to the greenfields provisions in order to help unlock new investment and prevent needless delays to new projects. The Australian Industry Group rightly highlighted in 2012:

Unions currently have too much power to refuse to enter into a greenfields agreement for a new project unless all their demands are met.

These amendments seek to provide confidence and certainty to investors and to ensure that Australians benefit from the prosperity generated by new projects. This will strongly signal to investors that Australia is open for business.

This bill also implements other recommendations from the Fair Work Act review—a review undertaken by the now Leader of the Opposition—including: removing inconsistency that currently exists by allowing employees in some jurisdictions to accrue or take leave whilst absent from work whilst receiving workers compensation benefits; restoring the longstanding position that employees are only entitled to annual leave loading when their employment ends where it is expressly provided for in their award or workplace agreement; and the introduction of the requirement that an employer must give an employee who has requested to extend their unpaid parental leave a reasonable opportunity to discuss the request unless the employer has already agreed to the request.

The measures outlined in this bill deliver on key aspects of our election policy. We must look at restoring fairness and flexibility to the workplace to support new jobs growth. The test for the Labor Party is whether they will support measures outlined in the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 to lead to a more productive workplace relations framework, increased jobs and higher real wage growth. They now have a chance to atone for their broken promises by supporting the measures in this bill—the same measures that they outlined and committed to in 2007.

This bill implements the coalition's publicly stated election policy—nothing more, nothing less. This government released its workplace relations policy well before the 2013 election to address the aforementioned problems within the fair work laws. The measures in this bill will help encourage investment in new projects that are important to the Australian economy by preventing unions from vetoing greenfields agreements. Industrial action will be reined in by ensuring that bargaining must have commenced before strike action can be taken, reducing unnecessary losses in productivity and working days lost, and we will restore much needed flexibility to the workplace through improvements to individual flexibility arrangements, which will lead to increased productivity and fairness. I commend this bill to the House and call on members opposite to support its measures.