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Tuesday, 24 March 1998
Page: 1187


Senator MACKAY (5:21 PM) —Yesterday, I was in the process of detailing to the Senate a number of case studies where people who had been unfairly dismissed had availed themselves of the current appeal provisions and had been reinstated. I just want to state for the record some of those cases and point out some of the people who, under the government's proposal, will no longer be able to avail themselves of the appeal mechanisms.

Case one involved a worker who was dismissed because she would not enter into an arrangement which constituted a breach or rip-off of the tax system. She was dismissed. Case two saw a worker dismissed because he would not sack a subordinate because she was pregnant. He was dismissed. Case three saw another worker dismissed because he refused to certify that an unroadworthy vehicle was in fact roadworthy. He was dismissed. They appealed, and all of these workers were reinstated because they had been unfairly dismissed.

This proposal is saying to these workers, `Under our legislation, you would not even get a guernsey in terms of appealing. Not only would you not be reinstated, you would have nowhere to go to put your case.' As these cases highlight, not only will employees be worse off but also the public will clearly be at the mercy of the small proportion of business people who are unscrupulous in relation to wilful, malicious, capricious, unfair dismissals.

The Labor Party will not be a party to this unwarranted and needless attack on workers. It is most important to note, as I said before, that these cases are confined, they are small in number. But, to those unscrupulous employers whom I outlined previously, this legislation essentially gives them a legislative imprimatur to hire and fire at will. This legislation is saying to employers, `You have the government's blessing to hire and fire your employees at will—on a whim, in fact.'

Since the defeat of the last attempt to push this unwanted measure on Australians, Minister Reith has been very busy impressing on the Australian community why we need this exemption. He has continually chosen to ignore all the evidence put before him. Instead, when he realised he had no empirical data upon which to predicate the need for this legislation, he paid for his own survey. He commissioned a survey through the Yellow Pages, paid $5,000 out of taxpayers' money—thank you very much—and released his own what I regard as fairly contorted results of the survey. But we never got the questions—and, of course, everybody would be aware that, in terms of any kind of survey, the questions are critical, not simply the answers.

The minister chooses to ignore the fact that unfair dismissal applications under this government's legislation have almost halved in the last year. The minister chooses to ignore the fact that only 154 claims were determined by arbitration. The minister chooses to ignore the fact that most unfair dismissal applications are not against small business employers. I would like to pay tribute to Senator Murray in this regard, given he got several brickbats from us yesterday, for being quite assiduous in urging Minister Reith to provide him with empirical data and also in terms of making out the case that this is in fact politically driven legislation.

According to the February 1998 Yellow Pages survey, small business approval in federal government policies per se still remains negative. The survey clearly showed that work and sales remain the major concern for small business. What a surprise! What is the major concern for business? Demand, not whether they can sack their workers at will. It is demand. They want sales. They want some genuine economic activity.

That brings me to the Bell report, which was into the needs of small business. Did the Bell report recommend a change to the government's newly adopted unfair dismissal laws? No, it did not. It did say there ought to be a review, perhaps after 12 months. So the government report into small business failed to recommend the exemption, but the minister, without any supporting evidence, decided to push ahead with an exemption anyway, ignoring his clear statement and that of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to Australian workers that there would be no exemptions.

All the empirical evidence as to why this legislation is not necessary has been stated and is clearly documented in the Labor minority report—and I urge those senators who are interested to read it. I am sure the government does not want to hear this evidence because it is inconsistent with the propaganda that the government is perpetuating. This government has consistently shown that, when it states that the workplace relations system provides a fair go all round, it really means that only some workers are entitled to a fair go, and this fair go only applies to workers when it suits the government's needs.

With this legislation, the government is actively attempting to discriminate against one-third of the Australian work force. One-third of the Australian work force is going to be affected by this decision, not in substantial numbers, I would suggest—2.8 million workers. There is no justification at all for this legislation. It is a con. It is an excuse for the government to get a double dissolution trigger. It is something the government said it would not do not only just before the election but also after the election and after its own industrial relations legislation was implemented. So it is a pure political stunt. The government is playing with the needs, aspirations and fears of average workers with regard to job insecurity for its own political end. This discrimination will leave these employees with no right of appeal and no protection from harsh, unjust and unreasonable dismissal. We of course, will continue to oppose it.

In conclusion, we say this to the government: this is the line in the sand for the Labor Party. We say, `Enough is enough.' If this government wants an election based on the protection of the jobs of three million Australians, we say, `Bring it on.' If this government wants an election based on whether it is acceptable for average Australians to be sacked on a whim without recourse to appeal, we say, `Bring it on.' If this government wants an election based on what is right, fair and just for all Australians, we say, `Bring it on.' We will have an election on this. Some 2.8 million Australians need to be protected from this measure and from what is a direct con with regard to the Australian people and a blatant and transparent attempt to ensure that the government has yet another double dissolution trigger. We maintain our stringent opposition to this, and we call upon all senators to do the same.