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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3956

Mrs MARKUS (Macquarie) (17:47): I acknowledge that the previous member's contribution is not completely accurate in its interpretation and reflection on what members on this side are concerned about. From the outset, can I say that many of us on this side consider that the choice to join a union needs to be just that: a choice. There is a role for unions, particularly for employees when they need representation; however, there are many excellent employers that have an excellent relationship with their workforce and want to build an economy, a business and a future not only for the business but also for those that they seek to employ—many of whom are their neighbours living, working and contributing in their communities.

This bill is a clear indication that the government is on track to deliver on its election commitments for the workers and the families of this nation. We are determined to get the fundamentals right in order to create an environment for businesses and workplaces to thrive. There are a number of key elements to these amendments that I will be speaking about today. We are delivering on specific policy promises made by the Labor Party prior to the 2007 election, but which they failed to deliver on. When push came to shove, the former government could not deliver on what it had promised Australian employers and employees. The coalition government understands that it is absolutely critical to ensure that the economic settings are right to help business prosper, which will, in turn, build confidence for further employment of more Australians. We know that the workplace relations laws need to be attuned to the sensible centre and have the balance of protecting workers but creating flexibility not only for businesses to grow but also for workers to have greater opportunities.

The bill will put in place a number of key commitments from our policy to improve the Fair Work laws. The amendments in the 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 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 even stronger. We believe in reward for effort and in protecting people's jobs.

In the electorate of Macquarie, there are many employers who work hard to create the right environment and economy for their workers to enjoy their jobs. These employers believe in good faith that employees want to work hard and earn a living without unnecessary interruptions and disturbances.

Integral to this bill are the adjustments to the right-of-entry laws. The right of entry refers to the part of Commonwealth workplace laws which regulate the rights of officials of an organisation, such as a trade union, to enter premises. The current laws have created an environment where a union official can go into a premise even when they have no actual members at that workplace. In 2007, the Labor Party promised on multiple occasions that there would be no changes to the union right-of-entry laws. In a press conference on 28 August 2007, the then Deputy Opposition Leader Julia Gillard said:

We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.

These promises were not kept, and unions were given much easier access to workplaces under the Fair Work Act 2009. Can I reinforce and state again that this is about choice for the employer as well as for the employee. Unfortunately, these were routinely exploited by certain union bosses—in one case, up to 200 visits in three months. This has meant that many businesses face excessive workplace visits from unions, even when their employees are not union members and have not asked for the union's presence.

We are amending the right-of-entry provisions to address the imbalance introduced by the Fair Work Act. We 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 inconvenience and disruption. A union will only be entitled to enter a workplace for discussion purposes if, firstly, they are covered by an enterprise agreement, or, secondly, they have been invited by a member or employee they are entitled to represent. We recognise that workplaces need to be places of productivity and growth, a place where workers can get on with the job yet know there is opportunity to be represented, should they wish to. What the former government did was to neglect the 87 per cent of private sector workers who are not union members.

There are also changes to greenfield agreements that, again, deliver on our promise made during the election. We want to ensure that enterprise agreements for new projects can be negotiated quickly to ensure that infrastructure projects are not delayed and to encourage investment for everyone's benefit. Under Labor, the Fair Work laws effectively gave unions the power of veto over new projects by requiring an employer always to negotiate a greenfield agreement with a union. Some unions have exploited this veto power by deliberately causing delays and setbacks, while others have used it as a tool to demand exorbitant conditions. This bill will remove the effective union veto power over greenfield agreements. The bill will establish a new, optional three-month negotiation time frame. This time frame will apply where appropriate notice is provided by an employer to the relevant union or unions. If agreement cannot be reached within this time frame, the employer will be able to take its proposed agreement to the Fair Work Commission for approval.

This is about sending a clear message that Australia is open for business. We want to unlock new investment and ensure that unnecessary delays do not occur. We are about removing hindrances to productivity in the economy. We do not believe in getting in the way of good investment.

The coalition recognises that in the current economic climate there is a need for innovative and creative ways to allow flexibility to people's work structure. We recognise the importance of a balanced life—family, sport and leisure—and that there are workers who are happy to make trade-offs to achieve this balance. This bill introduces amendments that will provide clarity and certainty for employees around the utilisation of individual flexibility arrangements, or IFAs. IFAs were introduced as a tool to enable workers and their employees to agree mutually on conditions that suit their needs, while ensuring employees are better off overall. These amendments are again based on recommendations by the Fair Work review panel.

One part of the amendment is that it will strengthen protections for employees by requiring a statement setting out that the arrangements meet the genuine needs of an employee and result in them being better off overall. The unilateral termination period for IFAs made under enterprise agreements will be extended from 28 days to 13 weeks. This will ensure that the employer is not left in the lurch should the employee decide that the new arrangements are not suitable.

It is important to note here that all other rules relating to IFAs will be maintained. These include that they cannot be made a condition of employment, that they must leave the employee better off overall and that they must be genuinely agreed to. We believe that if a business and individual can mutually benefit, why should both parties not be able to use these negotiations and arrangements? There must be agility and flexibility in workplaces to engage employees and enable businesses to continue to grow and thrive.

Under the current Fair Work Act there is a loophole that enables 'strike first and talk later'. We will remove this loophole, which will mean that employees will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining. The coalition is going where Labor promised to go but of course never got there. Workers being able to strike before bargaining or discussion ever occurred is not sensible and does not do justice to the Australia ethos. This amendment is consistent with the recommendations of the Fair Work review panel. Labor promised this prior to the 2007 election but during six years of governing never legislated this change. They have been all talk and of course have not been able to follow through.

The Abbott coalition government is getting on with the job of building a stronger economy. We recognise that it is the role of government to create the right framework for employers and employees to prosper. There were a number of recommendations made by the Fair Work review panel in 2012, but Labor failed to act upon these common-sense recommendations. We are doing the hard work where Labor has dropped the baton.

These amendments will ensure any barriers to productivity are removed and also ensure that flexibility is available to both employers and employees. This bill implements the coalition's publically stated election policy—nothing more and nothing less. The government is strongly committed to these measures.