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Wednesday, 25 March 1998
Page: 1227

Senator FAULKNER (10:38 AM) —I join my colleagues in opposing this legislation. The opposition has already put on the public record its clear posi tion on the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill 1997 [No. 2] in both this chamber and the House of Representatives. What we are debating here is the government's broken promise on unfair dismissal and an attack on the security of working Australians and their families.

We are also debating, as my colleague Senator Cook has pointed out, the government's election agenda, an agenda for a politically motivated and socially divisive double dissolution election particularly focused on the issue of race. At the moment unfair dismissal legislation provides for the right of all employees to have access to appeal mechanisms against unfair, harsh or unreasonable dismissal. If passed, this legislation will take away that right for thousands and thousands of Australian workers.

Senator Mackay —Three million.

Senator FAULKNER —Thank you, Senator Mackay. Millions and millions of Australian workers—three million Australian workers, workers who are employed by an operation that has 15 or fewer employees. We just ask the question: why should workers in that situation have fewer rights than those workers who work for larger organisations? That is the nub of it, and not one speaker from the government has been able to defend that position.

I would like to remind the Senate of the outstanding minority report that has been prepared by opposition senators on this legislation. I read that report with a very great deal of interest. They said that the legislation was very seriously flawed. They also pointed out that opposition to the measures in this bill could be grouped into effectively three major arguments. It is worth repeating them. Firstly, this exemption is an explicit breach of the government's pre-election commitments. Secondly, this exemption is totally unnecessary. Thirdly, this exemption is unfair. We stand behind those arguments.

But I think we ought to also acknowledge that this legislation amends the Howard government's own unfair dismissal laws, the government's own much touted, much vaunted Workplace Relations Act. It extensively amended the unfair dismissal laws, which came into effect in January of last year. Who could forget the debates that took place in this chamber around those issues, so ably led by Senator Sherry and so many other opposition senators who participated in the debate at that time?

The Prime Minister and his Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business, Mr Reith, boast that their new system of unfair dismissal laws provide for `a simpler, more balanced system that provides a fair go all round'. There is nothing fair about this exemption. It is an exemption that discriminates against employees who work for a small business employer with fewer than 15 employees. If Mr Howard and Mr Reith believe that their own unfair dismissal laws are so simple and balanced to provide a fair go all round, why do they have to seek this exemption for small business?

We have heard the justification, the naive insistence, that this will boost employment by removing apparent disincentives for small business to hire new staff. But, as Senator Cook pointed out, there is absolutely no tangible evidence to support that assertion—none at all. This does not have any justification beyond what is the government's ideological obsession, which we have highlighted over the two years since this government came to office, to dismantle the rights of Australian workers.

It is worth recalling the recent Morgan and Banks job survey that revealed that 80 per cent of small business employers did not believe that the existence of the unfair dismissal laws affected their decisions to employ staff. Only 16 per cent of small business employers believed they would benefit from the exemption that this legislation provides. I have to say that those figures were also consistent for all other sizes of business.

We have heard about the claim that this government is committed to reducing the burden of red tape on small business.

Senator Sherry —GST.

Senator FAULKNER —Exactly. What about the government's assistance for small business? What is its commitment to reducing the burden of red tape? John Howard is absolutely kidding himself if he thinks that this legislation will solve the problems and relieve the burdens of small business. And just around the corner lies in wait a goods and services tax for small business! We do not know what corner it is around, and we do not quite know when we will get around the corner to see what the government has in mind because they are keeping it under wraps. But we know what that will mean for each and every small business in Australia.

I think the government would perhaps be a little better served paying heed to a recent Yellow Pages Small Business Index showing that just five per cent of small businesses are concerned about industrial laws. But that same survey showed that 84 per cent of small business are far more concerned about this government's lack of action in getting the economy moving.

The point has to be made in this debate that this bill is yet another betrayal of the electorate by the government. This is yet another betrayal by the coalition of the Australian people. They have, of course, had a very good record, I think we would all have to acknowledge, of breaking the promises they made to the Australian people in the last election. I think we would all have to acknowledge their record in that regard.

Senator Sherry —Non-core promises.

Senator FAULKNER —That is true. The other thing I think we would have to acknowledge is the capacity of this government to redefine political terminology and to redefine issues of public policy. If you break a promise, it becomes a non-core promise. The Prime Minister has been absolutely expert in the last couple of days in redefining his own discredited code of ministerial conduct. He has done a good job of redefinition. With those broken promises, the government really has revealed to the Australian people its true colours, and it has done so on many issues of importance to the Australian people.

This is a government that wooed voters with its weasel words about its commitment to delivering to families. This is the same government that talked about protecting the poor and needy in our community. It is the same government, I recall, that guaranteed that no worker would be worse off under a John Howard industrial relations regime. Who could forget that promise?

Mr Howard and Mr Reith promised to give workers a right of appeal if they were unfairly dismissed. What they did not do is qualify it. They promised to give workers a right of appeal if they were unfairly dismissed, but they did not say, `If you work for a small business, that promise does not count.' That was never said by anyone at any time. They did not say, `If you work for a small business, you do not have a right of appeal.' That was never said by this duplicitous government. What John Howard did say in the good old days when he was Leader of the Opposition was:

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

That is what he said. He then went on to one of his headland speeches. Who could forget those headland speeches? He said:

Let me make a hard and fast commitment that when we win government we will ensure that Australia has a balanced unfair dismissal provision which is fair to both employers and employees. We won't tolerate unreasonable dismissals.

On 20 February 1996, the now Minister for Workplace Relations and Small Business, Mr Reith, said that the redrafted system of unfair dismissals would not contain any exemptions. I remind the Senate that he also said, on 28 February, `Look,'—you have always got to worry when he starts his sentences with `Look,' and `our position is very clear'. We have always got to focus, when Mr Reith says, `Look, our position is very clear.' But that is how he started his contribution on 28 February. He said:

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

Nowhere did either of them—Mr Howard or Mr Reith—say to anyone, `There is a major qualifier here. You can have all that, unless your employer employs less than 15 people.' That was never said by either of them, or anyone else from the government, at any time. It is just another example of broken commitment and broken word to Australian workers.

The measures that are proposed by this legislation go to the very core of the lives of all working Australians and their families. There is a very strong link between a worker's role in the workforce and the quality of life that is enjoyed by a worker's family and children. John Howard promised to provide security and certainty to families. Yet this is legislation that does an enormous amount to dismantle the security of employment that Australian workers hope to enjoy. Of course, security of employment—something that the government does not seem to understand—is fundamental to the security that workers have as a family.

We say, look, this is not something that John Howard ought to be messing with. And we say it is an absolute disgrace that he has asked this parliament to do so. This parliament has made a decision about this legislation. It was the right decision. The Senate has expressed its view to the government and properly rejected the legislation. You have got to ask yourself—why are we revisiting it? Why has it come back to the Senate? Because the government does want this ideologically-conceived bill to be a double dissolution trigger.

We say that this legislation is also about the government's election agenda. This is just part of the government pursuing a desire to have a double dissolution election focused on the Wik issue, focused on race. This legislation, along, perhaps, with the Public Service bills, helps to provide a smokescreen for that race election agenda by providing perhaps one or two other triggers for the election. As with the native title legislation and the Public Service bills, the government is not interested in negotiation, it is not interested in compromise; what it wants is confrontation, what it wants is a double dissolution.

Let me say very clearly on behalf of the opposition, we do not want an election on this bill. We do not want it. We do not even want to mask the government's race election agenda. But we are left with absolutely no choice. We are implacably opposed to the measures contained within this bill. We do not and we cannot support legislation which allows people to be sacked, even if that dismissal is harsh, unreasonable and unjust. We cannot support legislation which takes away the right of appeal and the right to job security and certainty.

Our position on this matter remains unchanged. We will go right to the wire on this legislation. And I urge the Senate to stand by the view it has earlier expressed on this legislation and reject this unconscionable bill.