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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6694

Senator MURRAY (11:09 AM) —That the debate has been, in Senate parlance, wide-ranging I think would be an accepted judgment around the chamber. It is a sure sign that behind the scenes others are scrambling to prepare themselves for other bills, simply because the Senate has been so efficient, productive and effective that we have roared through the legislative agenda for this week so far, on which everybody should congratulate themselves.

Senator Hogg —You have done very well.

Senator MURRAY —We have. Where are we with the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002? There are a few things in the wide-ranging debate that I should pick up on. The first thing is that the Labor Party is seldom given enough credit, or gives itself enough credit, for introducing the first wave of industrial relations reform in 1993-94, which broke the nexus with the past and introduced the modern industrial relations regime that we now live under. The second wave, which the coalition introduced in 1996, built on that foundation. As a result, the combination of those two changes has seen a marked improvement over time in Australian productivity and job creation, and it has led to less industrial action and to greater choice being available to members of the working public.

The Labor Party is sometimes also not given enough credit—perhaps it does give itself credit—for assisting in initiating the decade of strong growth that we have enjoyed. The workplace relations reforms, the first wave of which the Labor Party introduced in 1993-94 and which the coalition followed on with in 1996, have been very much part of that strong growth. The Democrats supported both the first wave and the second wave. When I hear some of the exaggerated remarks concerning the Workplace Relations Act, I am often of the view that they are driven more by an attitudinal objection from a Labor movement than by a real assessment of the act as it stands. I suspect that, if there were a change in government, the actual principles, background and spine of that act would be unlikely to be significantly altered.

Regarding the remark on the issue of choice, which the Democrats feel very strongly about, I must say that, whenever I hear student unions brought into the debate, I just think that you are way off-line. Student unions are not unions at all. They are not there to negotiate for wages, conditions and the basic returns. In fact, they would do themselves a great favour if they dropped `union' out of their name, because the coalition parties have used it as a convenient whipping ground for what is a fundamental principle: when you provide services to students, all the students should pay for them. It is really straightforward. Of course, I must confess that I have a bias in this, as probably the strongest student union representative in the Senate. Having been the Vice President of the National Union of South African Students, I know of what I speak. I just think that you are way off beam there. But the minister, in his remarks, emphasised the importance of choice. The Democrats thoroughly agree with that. The choice of whether or not to join a union or an employees organisation is an essential choice. Sometimes, when I hear it, I just wish that the coalition would go that extra step and recognise that the Labor Party, in fact, discriminates against non-union members who may not join the Labor Party.

I cannot understand how you can quite properly prohibit discrimination on race, gender, disability or origin and yet in politics you can refuse a person access to your political party simply because they are not a member of a particular organisation. I hope one day that matter will be addressed, and the day that bill is brought before this chamber—whether it is from Labor or the coalition—I personally will vote for it. Let us get that issue of choice on the ground.

The other issue which was raised in the broad ranging debate was Steve Lewis's article in the Australian today about the car fund. One of the really interesting facts to have emerged over the last year is the admission by the department that they actually do not know whether days lost to industrial disputes are due to protected action or to unprotected action. The great advantage of the Workplace Relations Act is that it provides for people to have a blue—if you want to have a blue, you have protected action. At the close of an enterprise bargaining period or within a bargaining period you can have a blue. It goes all the way up to strikes and lockouts, which are possible under protected action, and you may not be punished for them.

However, unprotected action has extremely strong penalties available to it, and one of the complaints I have is that, when unions quite properly and aggressively argue for terms and conditions that advance the cause of their members, employers want to come running in here and say to the Labor Party and the Democrats and the coalition, `Change the law so that you can protect us in a situation of bargaining.' Frankly, if it is protected action, they should not be protected from that and, if it is unprotected action, they have the force of law available to them. What has distinguished many employers is that they have been afraid to be as strong as the unions in confronting unprotected action. Frankly, if they are going to introduce a fund to give themselves a bit of backbone in that area, I do not see much wrong with that if it is going to address the issues of unprotected action. If it is going to try to erode the principles and the protections that are deliberately provided under protected action provisions, then I would have more concern.

Turning back to the bill itself, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Genuine Bargaining) Bill 2002 does follow in the footsteps of what we all know as the `mojo bill', the more jobs, better pay bill. There are people in this chamber who it seems have been debating these issues forever. They include Senator Sherry, Madam Temporary Chairman Collins—who is very well-informed— and Senator Ian Campbell, who managed the entire Workplace Relations Act debate from the government side; and of course I was involved too. So this is an informed gathering, and there are a few Labor senators here who, I know, have deep experience in this.

The mojo bill was in fact the third wave, and it was quite properly rejected by Labor and the Democrats. It was a wave too far, if that is not a very bad pun. The Bills Digest No. 125 did say about the eventual bill:

The Government has now substantially modified its proposals and produced a Bill that may be seen as quite uncontentious.

We did not think that and neither did the Labor Party, and we produced amendments consequently. But the bill originally provided for genuine bargaining and for the provision of cooling-off periods in certain circumstances. Not many people look that deeply into the act when they are taking positions on these things, which is a pity, but sections 170MW and 170MV do address the issue of cooling-off periods quite substantially.

The focus needs to be on genuine bargaining. I think the government is quite right to focus on genuine bargaining, and I disagree with some of the points Senator Cook made in terms of their motive. But the Labor Party have also said that you should focus on genuine bargaining, as we have, and they believe that genuine bargaining includes bargaining in good faith, and I agree thoroughly with that. Whether you want to call it genuine bargaining or bargaining in good faith, it has the same intent: you are sitting down to resolve issues of workers' pay and conditions with the proper respect needing to be given to the corporate needs for productivity, outputs and profitability.

The bill itself really addresses protected action circumstances for collective enterprise agreements. As everyone here knows, collective enterprise agreements cover about one-third of all employees—the rest being on individual contracts and awards. The bill affects only one-third of workers and then of course, if you knock off all the state workers that do not fall under it, I guess you are down to 20 per cent or one-quarter or something like that. So it would not change the face of the earth.

However, in manufacturing in Victoria, where the workers very much fall under federal awards, it has particular importance. One of the statistics which has emerged relates to what everybody regards as a distinctive Victorian culture—something like 33 per cent of all days lost are lost in Victoria. Frankly, we have got to improve that. Whether it is a Labor government or a coalition government, you cannot have one state which produces way less than one-third of all gross domestic product for the country producing one-third of the industrial disputation. It signals that something is wrong there. Personally, I think it arises from many causes, not all of which I understand or am equipped to understand. But one of the causes has been a confrontational and somewhat mean approach to workers by successive groups of employers and, indeed, governments—and we discussed that the other day with respect to schedule 1A. A bit more goodwill towards the workers of Victoria might assist in changing what is at its extreme an ugly, confrontational and aggressive culture.

The fear of manipulated enterprise bargaining, primarily in manufacturing—manipulated so that, as a pattern, it would revert to industry-wide bargaining—emerged in the year 2000. Thankfully, the fears related to that proved largely unfounded. But on 31 March 2003 and 30 June 2003 approximately 1,000 manufacturing industry agreements will expire, and that coordinated expiry might lead to some problems. The bill that we were presented with was significantly altered by Labor and us, with five successful Democrat amendments and two successful opposition amendments. Some very important technical provisions survived. Senator Sherry, in his wide-ranging remarks, neatly summarised them into three areas.

The government has, very sensibly, accepted all of those amendments apart from the two that refer to bargaining in good faith, although, as Senator Sherry pointed out, a note on the good faith case did survive. Frankly, nothing much hinges on the survival of the good faith amendments. I think it would advance the law. I think it is an important recognition of both jurisprudence and legal precedent. It has been around in law, and in industrial relations law, forever and it is not going to go away simply because you refuse to accept it into workplace relations law. Nevertheless, the workplace relations law has been without it since 1996. The sky has not fallen in—using the Chicken Little analogy—and I think we can therefore afford to say that we like the good faith amendments but we will not insist on them. I will not be insisting on them on behalf of the Democrats. I am glad that the government has accepted the Labor and Democrat amendments otherwise and I hope that the therefore modest changes which go forward will improve the prospects for genuine bargaining.