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Monday, 23 March 1998
Page: 1120

Senator MACKAY (9:39 PM) —We are debating the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] . This bill represents attempt No. 2 by this government to try to break yet another election promise. It represents attempt No. 2 by the Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business, Peter Reith, to deny a section of the Australian work force a fundamental right: the right to appeal against unfair, harsh or unreasonable dismissal.

The government's current unfair dismissal provisions apply to all employers, irrespective of size, but the government now wants to give some employers the power to sack some workers unfairly. Once again in this chamber we have an ideologically conceived piece of government legislation which has no empirical, quantitative or qualitative evidence to support it, nor has it any moral or justifiable grounds for its enactment. As I said in the previous debate on this measure, it is nothing more than a con. It is a con on the small business sector and a con on the broader Australian community.

The government's propaganda machine has been working overtime to try to convince the Senate that this legislation is required to secure jobs. That is not right; it is a con. This legislation will add to what is already a concern amongst Australian workers—the issue of growing job insecurity. This legislation will create a two-tier industrial relations system; a system under which employees will be separated into two groups: one with the right to appeal against unfair dismissal and one without the right. The right to appeal against unfair dismissal is a right which, in a world of increasing job insecurity, is crucial for the protection of workers from the behaviour of unscrupulous employers.

The question needs to be asked: why are we revisiting this legislation? The Senate has already made a determination on this matter. Is it because the government truly and honestly believes that this legislation is important? No, it is not. This government is not, nor will it ever be, altruistic or genuinely concerned about the conditions and rights of average Australian workers. This legislation is here for one purpose and one purpose only: as a trigger for a double dissolution. That is the only reason why it is back here.

The government has carefully crafted a strategy whereby a number of pieces of legislation will be used as double dissolution triggers, and this is one of them. This legislation is being used to divert attention from the real trigger—the Wik legislation. The government hopes that this bill will camouflage its actual objective, which is to implement its Wik legislation unamended, via double dissolution, a plan which has been hatched despite the fact that 90 per cent of the Wik legislation has been returned unamended by the Senate.

We have before us a piece of legislation that is part of that strategy. In itself, this legislation is unfair and unjust—important points which have been ignored by this government in what is a cynical attempt to ensure that its election plans are not derailed. In order to ensure that this election strategy works, the government is happy in the course of it to subvert and sabotage the rights of average Australian workers. More recently, the government has revealed another part of the election strategy: the complete sale of Telstra, with more jobs lost and more job insecurity. Another double dissolution trigger is looming.

Let me say from the outset that the Australian Labor Party opposes this bill. We have opposed it before and we continue to oppose it. I reiterate the view that we stated in the Senate minority report that inquired into this government's first attempt to abrogate responsibility to ensure that workers are protected from unfair dismissal. I will quote from what I believe was an excellent minority report. It says:

We have come to the very firm conclusion the proposal in the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill to exempt small business from the unfair dismissal laws is seriously flawed and cannot be supported.

In our view, there are numerous convincing arguments against the proposal, but in essence they can be grouped into 3 core concerns:

1. The exemption is an explicit breach of the government's pre-election commitments.

2. The exemption is unnecessary.

3. The exemption is unfair.

We held that view then and we continue to adhere strongly to it now.

I would like to remind the Senate of a number of undertakings given by both the Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business and the Prime Minister concerning the rights of workers—undertakings that obviously we now know are in fact non-core undertakings or non-core promises. I do so to put on record the utter hypocrisy of this government. First of all, let us hear what the now Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business had to say before the last federal election on ABC Daybreak on 28 February 1996. He said:

Look, our position's very clear. If you've been unfairly dealt with at work, then you should have a right of appeal.

An ambiguity there I would not have thought. That is pretty clear to me. It was certainly clear to him. The Prime Minister stated on the John Laws show on 23 January 1996:

I'm not going to have a law where an unreasonable employer can capriciously sack a decent, hard-working employee.

Senator Bishop —Who said that?

Senator MACKAY —The Prime Minister, Mr Howard, said that. Again, the Prime Minister on the ABC on 25 January 1996 said:

I'm not going to make it open slather. I'm going to replace it—

that is unfair dismissal provisions—

with a law that's fair to both sides so that if you are doing your job properly you can't be capriciously dismissed.

That is what they said before the election. Perhaps the government could save everybody some angst if they indicated from the outset what is in fact a core or non-core promise. I am sure that the Australian people who have suffered from this government's decisions and policy backflips would probably appreciate it. To make this backflip even more questionable, when the unfair dismissal laws were changed over a year ago the government triumphantly heralded what they regarded as a new era with respect to unfair dismissal provisions. The Prime Minister in his 1996 progress report to the people stated:

I am proud to say that the previous government's anti-job unfair dismissal laws have gone. They have been replaced with a simpler, more balanced system that provides a fair go all round.

What is the Prime Minister talking about here? He is talking about the government's own legislation which they are now attempting to amend. I am not sure that those comments were worth making at that point. I go on to Mr Reith, the Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business, in his speech on the return of the bill from the Senate. He said on 21 November 1996:

We have delivered a workable system for dealing with unfair dismissal . . . and, in doing so, we have expressed an overwhelming community consensus that the previous Brereton system did nothing more than stifle employment growth and create division in the workplace. This was Labor's legacy, and the government has buried it.

That is from the minister himself. I have restated government undertakings to highlight to the chamber that the government clearly did not see an exemption for small business as being necessary. Indeed, it is crystal clear, as I have pointed out, from the statements made by the Prime Minister and the minister that the purported anti-job effect of the previous law had been, as far as this government was concerned, dealt with and fixed. These undertakings show, I believe, the government's duplicity in introducing this measure not once but twice and shows the utter contempt that this government holds for Australian workers and for its own election commitments and core and non-core promises.

What this government is asking us to do by agreeing to amend its own unfair dismissal legislation—I would like to emphasise that point because I think it is a point that has been lost on the government—is to add to what is already a growing problem of job insecurity in the Australian economy. We are being asked to say to workers in the small business sector that we do not believe that they warrant the same level of protection as workers in other areas. So here we have the two-tier industrial relations system.

We are being asked to say to these workers, `If you are harshly, unreasonably or unfairly dismissed, we don't want to know. It is okay to be discriminated against. It is okay to be sacked capriciously. We just don't want to know about it. We are not going to give you recourse to justice in relation to appealing against what may well be harsh and capricious unfair dismissal.' We are being asked to take away the right of appeal against being unfairly dismissed from one huge section of the Australian work force, a highly significant section of the Australian work force. There will be no protection for those workers, no protection whatsoever.

My colleague in the other place Bob McMullan has highlighted a number of cases which show the importance of unfair dismissal legislation, which I will restate for the record in order so that it is reinforced in terms of our opposition here in the Senate again. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.