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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6610

Senator MURRAY (4:21 PM) —I rise to make some remarks on the report of the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002. When the federal coalition government and the Australian Democrats agreed to pass the Workplace Relations Act and agreed with the Victorian government to pass the Commonwealth Powers (Industrial Relations) Act 1996 and for it to take effect in 1997, three systems of industrial relations resulted. Firstly, the Victorian government retained power for industrial relations purposes over certain state employees—I recall in particular the police. Secondly, the great majority of Victorians moved under the federal system, to their benefit. Thirdly, schedule 1A retained minimum employment conditions based on former Victorian conditions that were inferior to those enjoyed by workers under the federal system. I will make it clear that it was never intended that schedule 1A workers should remain trapped there or that the number of workers in that category should grow.

I have used the same figures as those used in the majority report which are based on the Victorian Minister for Industrial Relations' estimate that more than 600,000 Victorian workers were disadvantaged. This is one of the few committee hearings I have missed. As people on all sides know, I have been a fairly diligent member of this committee but I was away at the time. The Labor Party minority report uses two figures—one is of 500,000 workers being affected and the other is of 356,000 employees being affected. Frankly, whether it is 300,000, 100,000 or 600,000 is almost irrelevant. You cannot have a unitary system where one portion of the community is disadvantaged or on an inferior system—you just cannot. So anyone believing, as the coalition and the Democrats do, in the obvious virtues of uniform or unitary workplace relations conditions, cannot justify the continuing retention of schedule 1A. There is no justification whatsoever for not allowing those workers access to conditions enjoyed by other Victorians under the federal Workplace Relations Act. I accept from a business perspective that transitional provisions may need to be introduced. You might not be able to do it instantly, but you must phase in the full transfer of all Victorian workers under the federal Workplace Relations Act conditions. There is no doubt at all that the Victorian government agrees with that proposition. It is the federal government which is refusing to carry through the logic and morality implicit in originally unifying the Victorian and federal systems. That attitude is unacceptable. It is also politically dumb because it provides a great and unfortunate incentive for the Victorian government to try to recreate a state system.

In my capacity as workplace relations portfolio holder for the Australian Democrats, I frequently meet with representatives of unions and of employers, and my message to them is consistently the same: I am a strong advocate of one system of industrial relations in this country, not six. My party has consistently supported that concept. However, if you do not show bone fides, if you do not show goodwill, and allow people to get onto the system, there is always the incentive, the motivation and the desire to recreate a state system. The point Senator Marshall makes is dead right. I know that the Labor Party have real concerns with aspects of the Workplace Relations Act, but they all recognise that the full federal Workplace Relations Act with its 20 allowable award matters is far superior to the minimum conditions available under schedule 1A.

We have to concern ourselves with the living standards and the ability of families who are at the bottom end of the wage sector to look after themselves and, over time, to be able to aspire to a better standard of life— and core to that is that their employment conditions, their work and family conditions, their basic wages and award conditions are as good as Australia can afford. It is self-evident that Australia can afford the federal Workplace Relations Act. Under this act, real wages have been rising and employment has been rising. So why is it that a portion of the Victorian community continues to be held away from the advantages that the act itself provides? I urge the government to recognise that, when they bring the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002 on, the Labor Party and the Democrats between them will seek to advance the cause of moving schedule 1A workers out of schedule 1A and into the full benefit of the federal act. When that happens—which I expect it will—I would urge the federal government to accept that and to let it happen because it is to the advantage of Victoria, it is to the advantage of Australia and it is to the advantage of the ideal of progressing a unitary system.

With respect to outworkers, I, as have other senators in the chamber today, have had long experience of the outworker problem and of the various unions and employers who have advanced their cause through advocacy. I include employers in that because there have been a number of employers who have done good work with the unions in trying to improve the lot of outworkers. In fact, it was the Democrats who first got outworkers recognised under the Workplace Relations Act and included in formal industrial relations legislation. However, it still remains a sector where there are real concerns about the way in which particularly non-English-speaking labour are abused and used by an unscrupulous minority—I hope it is a minority—of employers. Once again, I would urge that, when this bill is considered, we advance that cause as well as we can. Typically, I guess I am not quite as harsh about the improvements of the bill—which are there—as the Labor Party. There are genuine improvements in the bill which should be welcomed, but they do not go far enough. My message to the chamber is very simple: the Democrats will use this opportunity to advance the cause of getting schedule 1A workers out of that situation and onto the full benefits of the Workplace Relations Act.