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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3874

Mr HUTCHINSON (Lyons) (11:58): I note the comments by the member for Wills. He has clearly articulated a view that is held by the unions of Australia, and he has articulated that case particularly well. But the reality is that the members of those unions, the individuals, are exactly that—they are individuals—and individuals have different circumstances. Not always are the measures by which an employee judges job satisfaction financial ones. The notion of flexibility in ultimately getting that balance between life and, dare I suggest it, work as a second priority should be the ideal we all aspire to. Let us be quite clear that no employee is being forced to do anything.

The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 will deliver on key aspects of our election policy and not go any further. Indeed, on union workplace access, individual flexibility arrangements and the removal of the ability to strike first and talk later, we are delivering on specific policy promises made by the Labor Party prior to the 2007 election, which were later not delivered.

Through our Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 we are giving effect to a number of commitments in our policy, and further restoring balance within the system. We will do this by a number of measures. Firstly, we will improve the process for negotiation of greenfields agreements to ensure that unions can no longer frustrate bargaining for these agreements through unsubstantive claims and delays, which can threaten investment and delay the commencement of major new projects. In my state of Tasmania, goodness knows sovereign risk and the ability to get big and major projects up is something that is dearly needed. Secondly, we will restore union workplace access rules, reflecting those in place prior to Labor's unbalanced amendments in dealing with the excessive right-of-entry visits by union officials. Thirdly, we will improve workplace productivity and flexibility by enhancing the scope for employees to make individual flexibility agreements that meet their genuine needs as determined by those employees. Fourthly, we will close the 'strike first, talk later' loophole in the good faith bargaining rules, which unfortunately the previous government refused to address. And, finally, we will maintain the value of unclaimed wages recovered for workers by the Commonwealth. The bill also enacts a number of recommendations from the fair work review panel in its 2012 report commissioned by the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten.

Why is the government proposing these changes? The changes in this bill will implement a number of commitments that the government made in the coalition's policy to improve the fair work laws, which was released four months prior to the 2013 federal election. The amendments in this bill will ensure that the fair work laws maintain a strong and enforceable safety net for workers while helping businesses expand, create new jobs and deliver, importantly and critically, perhaps the hallmark of the former Howard government—that is, higher real wage growth. The changes will restore certainty to the workplace relations system and make the laws more balanced and effective, helping to make Australian workplaces better.

But my focus today in terms of my electorate and the things that I hear from the employers and the employees is on individual flexibility agreements. This bill introduces amendments to provide clarity and certainty for employees around the use of individual flexibility arrangements. I will call them IFAs. IFAs are an important tool introduced by the previous government with the intent of enabling workers and their employers to mutually agree on conditions that suit their needs while ensuring that employees are better off overall compared to their underpinning employment instrument. It is pretty basic stuff. Work-life balance is not measured in just one respect. IFAs ought to be an important option to enable employees to, for instance, manage their child care or other caring arrangements, to spend time with family or for other commitments that they have. They are specific to individuals and not designed as a management tool for business, because we are, after all, individuals with different emphases and different interests. It is about a practical life-work balance, and nothing is more valuable to an employer than a capable, happy and satisfied employee. It is often about the union boss's perspective, not the employee's.

These amendments about IFAs are based on the fair work review panel recommendations. They also include further safeguards to ensure that employees are better off. Ironically, and something that is very often lost from a union perspective, this is also in the best interests of the employer. To be clear, the current IFA framework in the Fair Work Act will stay, with additional protections put in place. This essentially means an employer cannot force an employee to sign an IFA or make it a condition of employment, and the employee must be better off overall than they would have been under the applicable award or enterprise agreement. This is often quite arbitrary and not necessarily measured in financial terms in respect of the employee. It is a point that we must understand. A worker must provide a statement to the employer saying that the IFA meets their genuine needs and that they are better off overall. The onus is ultimately on the employee. And, as strange as it might seem, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder: we are all different, we are all individuals, we all have our own aspirations and priorities.

Under the current system, unions can restrict the scope of flexibility terms under enterprise agreements through the bargaining process to only cover a single matter—for instance, the taking of leave. With all due respect, while speaking in favour of these amendments—and in this instance by virtue of union negotiated positions—it would appear quite possible that these conditions could potentially be discriminating against the employee—a little ironic. This means that workers may be denied the chance to have IFAs on other matters even if they or their employer want to agree to more mutually suitable arrangements. The amendments will deliver on the promises made by Labor in 2007 and provide that IFAs may be made in relation to all of the matters currently prescribed in the model flexibility term, to the extent that those matters are covered in the agreement. This will ensure that workers have access to fair flexibility without a veto by union bosses. And ultimately we are all individuals with different passions and different perspectives and this, sadly, is the failing, quite often, of negotiations by a collective.

The bill also implements the fair work review panel's recommendation that employers should, in limited circumstances, have a legal defence if they enter into an IFA in good faith believing it meets all the requirements of the legislation when it turns out later it does not. The defence will only apply where the employer believed on reasonable grounds that all statutory requirements had been met in relation to the IFA. And a reality is that our circumstances change. It is as true for employees as it is for employers. The bill will also strengthen protections for employees by requiring a statement setting out that the arrangement meets their genuine needs and results in them being better off overall. This will make the position absolutely clear. Employees will only make IFAs that provide for non-monetary benefits when the employees themselves make a clear statement in writing why they are better off overall. In a practical sense, what a powerful position that is for an employee to be in, in respect of choice. That employee will be the master of his own destiny.

By way of an example in respect of overtime rates, take an employee. Let's call him Bill. Bill works full time as a mechanic. His employment is covered by an enterprise agreement which has penalty rates. Bill's mum lives interstate in a rural area and unfortunately is unwell. Bill wishes to work Monday to Thursday so that he can travel on Fridays to his mum and stay with her until Sunday. This will allow Bill to help his mum with domestic tasks.

Bill still wishes to receive his normal weekly wage and so does not wish to work part time. Bill approaches his employer to discuss different working arrangements and they agree to make an IFA allowing Bill still to work 38 hours per week by working later Mondays to Thursdays without the penalty and overtime rates that would usually apply to extended working hours. Bill is better off overall because he is able to work all of his hours and help his mum on Fridays—something he values as a significant benefit—and will still receive his normal weekly wages.

Two further amendments recommended by the Fair Work Act Review Panel will be made to provide clarity and certainty to both employers and employees. First, the unilateral termination period for IFAs made under enterprise agreements will be extended from 28 days to 13 weeks, consistent with the position for awards. In addition, the 13-week unilateral termination period for both modern awards and enterprise agreements will be placed in the legislation.

This comes to the heart of this aspect of the bill and the word 'flexibility'—what it means to have a flexible agreement if circumstances change. Goodness knows, life throws things up at us, and this provides the individual flexibility that allows the process of transition for both employees and employers as their circumstances change.

The second amendment will confirm the existing position that the 'better off overall' test for IFAs can be satisfied by exchanging monetary benefits for benefits that are not monetary. This is already the case under the legislation as introduced by the Labor Party while the Leader of the Opposition was the workplace relations minister. This position has been confirmed by the independent Fair Work Ombudsman. The amendment, combined with the government's new requirement for a statement in writing from the employee, will provide greater protection and certainty for all parties.

All other rules relating to an IFA will be retained, including that they cannot be made a condition of employment, must leave the employee better off overall, and must be genuinely agreed to. Anyone who opposes these amendments needs to explain to the Australian workers why they should not have the opportunity to be better off overall if the arrangement genuinely meets their own needs as assessed by—guess who?—themselves. We are, after all, all individuals.

The fact is that this is part of a greater plan for our nation, to allow every Australian the opportunity to be their best. This legislation complements the jobs growth we have seen since the coalition took government and the measures announced within the budget. Since the election the number of jobs has increased by 107,000. The economic outlook in the budget is consistent with the government meeting its commitments to create one million jobs over five years, and two million jobs over 10 years.

We are committed to providing an environment where young people with a work capacity will be required to be earning, learning or participating in work for the dole. We will be removing loan fees for FEE-HELP and VET FEE-HELP from 1 January 2016 to create a level playing field across higher education institutions. Not everyone wants to be lawyer. I can tell you that over summertime the biggest boats in St Helens are owned by plumbers and electricians—and more power to them.

We will be providing businesses with up to $10,000 for employing workers older than 50 who have been on income support for six months or more, meaning there will be a real incentive to engage with and hire older Australians. This is about getting the work-life balance right, and we are a government committed to removing the barriers that prevent a person's entry into the workforce. These measures enhance that message for the nation, for the local community and for the individual, that having a job is the best form of welfare.

The government is strongly committed to these measures. They are necessary to help build a more stable, fair and prosperous future for Australia's workers, businesses and the economy. We therefore call on the Labor Party, and all members of this parliament, to support the sensible and measured reforms included in this bill.