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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6607

Senator BARNETT (4:03 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

In taking note of the report of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee, a number of things need to be said at this important time in relation to the future of workers in Victoria. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002 enhances the safety net for workers in Victoria who are not covered by federal awards and agreements. The bill provides improvements for Victorian workers, unlike the Victorian government's re-regulation proposal, where they have tried to wrap up the industrial relations system in further regulation and red tape, which causes job losses, and that is a major concern.

So that it is very clear, this bill provides employees an entitlement to payment for work performed in excess of 38 hours a week; eight days personal leave, which can be taken as sick leave, and up to five of the eight days available can be taken as carer's leave; and two days bereavement leave for the death of a member of their family or household. It gives the Australian Industrial Relations Commission power to include supported wage arrangements in industry sector orders.

Why would you oppose such sensible objectives which enhance employment terms and conditions for workers in Victoria? The Victorian government has attempted to re-regulate, but fortunately, as a result of the good commonsense of the Victorian upper house, the legislation was rejected. This was an initiative of the Bracks government, so some people would not be surprised by the fact that it wants to re-regulate workers' rights. Rather than protect workers' rights, the government wants to preserve union privileges. That is really the problem with the Bracks government today and in the past.

I want to make clear what we said in our report and detail some of the evidence that was provided to our committee. I was on the committee, together with some members from the other side. I quizzed the Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Leigh Hubbard, at length on this. Let us make it patently clear what he said about this legislation. When asked if this bill should be passed, Mr Hubbard quite clearly indicated his ambivalent view of the question. It was not the legislation he wanted, but it was better than nothing. He acknowledged that it would be an improvement for schedule 1A employees. That is on the public record and the report has been tabled today. He said that there would be a `minor improvement' for workers in Victoria, yet he was ambivalent as to whether the legislation should be passed.

People on the other side who are on this committee are also not supporting this legislation. It is a very sad day for the Australian parliament and for the workers in this country, particularly those in Victoria, when you cannot have a consensus when you know jolly well that workers entitlements would be improved and enhanced. It is pretty clear-cut. Sadly, some of the other witnesses, including those from the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, did not support the view of the Victorian Trades Hall Council and said that there would be no improvement—a bizarre statement. The Victorian coordinator of the FairWear group and the project coordinator of FairSchoolWear both said that there would not be an enhancement of workers entitlements, as did the Uniting Church in Australia. I throw out as a cautionary note to representatives of the Uniting Church in Australia that when they appear to give evidence at inquiries like this they should consider very carefully what they say, because from all of the objective evidence and views given it was quite clear that there would be an enhancement of workers entitlements.

This is federal legislation that would improve the entitlements, rights and conditions of workers in Victoria. What it does not do is cause job losses, which was the alternative put by the Victorian Bracks government. There are a number of estimates—I make it clear that they are estimates—of the sorts of job losses that we are talking about as a result of the Victorian Fair Employment Bill. Particular analysis was done by the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, VECCI. ACIL Consulting did an analysis and some modelling for them, which showed that there would be tens of thousands of job losses—21,000 to 42,000—over the medium term, over a three-year period. Surely, one job lost would be enough. But that was not good enough for them and for the union hierarchy in Victoria and they dismissed it out of hand. That is not good enough. We need to be objective in this place and make an assessment ourselves. ACIL estimated that, based on national experience with participation rates, these job losses would raise Victoria's unemployment rate from 6.1 per cent in December 2000 to 6.5 per cent and 6.9 per cent respectively in the medium term.

Senator Robert Ray —Where is it right now? It is 5.8.

Senator BARNETT —As a result of federal legislation, there has definitely been an improvement. What did the trade union movement in Victoria say? Senator Ray should know this very well. I hope that he has been lobbying his union colleagues in Victoria about this, because they were ambivalent about whether they would be supporting the bill. The research showed that job losses would extend across all businesses and all regions. About 16,000 jobs would be lost in the city of Melbourne alone, with around 1,000 job losses to be experienced in each of the five non-metropolitan regions. The industry sectors most affected would be accommodation, cafes and restaurants, communication services, transport and storage. It was not just VECCI that we are talking about. Let us have a look at what some other industry and employer groups said. The Victorian Farmers Federation are a group that most people consider to be objective and fair, particularly when you talk about rural and regional communities.

Senator Ludwig —Untrue! Misleading the Senate.

Senator BARNETT —Come on, listen to what they have had to say about the federal awards and the Victorian legislation in 2002, just this year. What did they say? Potential Victorian rural and regional job losses were estimated by the Victorian Farmers Federation to be up to 10,400, during the worst drought in 100 years. Goodness gracious! We have drought conditions in Victoria, the Victorian Farmers Federation are talking about over 10,000 job losses and the Bracks government are wiping their hands and saying that they are not interested, they do not care, because they are beholden to the trade union movement in that state. It is a great sadness that this parliament is caught up in this type of thinking. I want to quote what the current Premier of Victoria said back in 1996 about the industrial relations system. Mr Bracks, as the shadow industrial relations minister, in support of the referral of Victorian industrial relations power to the Commonwealth said:

The opposition supports in principle the concept of a single national system of industrial relations, and it always has.

Senator Murray is in the chamber. He supports the view that the six separate systems that we have in this country is a recipe for disaster and that we need one system. I concur with Senator Murray and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, who has made these points very clear in the last few days. In the Victorian Hansard on 21 November 1996, Mr Bracks went on to say:

It can deliver benefits to both employees and employers by creating a uniform national framework for dispute resolution and the application of minimum employment standards that can be more easily complied with and enforced.

Mr Bracks, I just ask you: please take heed, remember what you said in November 1996 and abide by it. You have been held accountable by the trade union movement in your state and, as result of your legislation, which would re-regulate and wrap up Victoria in red tape, there will be job losses. It is good to see Senator Marshall from the other side, who was on that committee. He will know very well that even the Victorian government's own independent inquiry made an assessment that several thousand jobs would be lost as a result of that legislation. I support this legislation and the government's efforts to avoid those job losses and ensure that there is an enhancement of workers entitlements in Victoria. So be it. Please support this legislation and this report.