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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 21461

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (12:32 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002 [No. 2] represents a hostile takeover of state unfair dismissal laws. It has been rejected by the Senate in the past and Labor maintains that this should continue to be the case. The bill seeks to take over the state unfair dismissal systems and then to replace them with a weak federal system. The Howard government is obsessed with weakening and removing, where possible, any protections for working Australians against being dismissed unfairly. Chanting the mantra of `choice and flexibility', the Howard government means a choice for employers to dismiss workers unfairly and to downgrade flexibility for vulnerable Australians.

There was a time when the Prime Minister chanted another mantra—that of states rights—but now it appears that the government is being very directly centralist. Well, not completely. For example, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002 is converse to what is occurring here. The award simplification bill would remove long service leave provisions from federal awards, leaving employers and employees to rely on various state and territory laws for long service leave. In this case, with respect to the termination of employment, the government's core agenda is to reduce workers' entitlements, dabbling within state jurisdictions this time to effect that change.

This bill is identical to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002, which was defeated in the Senate on 11 August 2003. The bill has been reintroduced as a second industrial relations double dissolution trigger. The first was the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002, which would allow all businesses with fewer than 20 staff to dismiss their employees unfairly. With respect to the aims of this bill, the government has made it clear that there is always an array of workplace relations bills on the go in the parliament, particularly since the failure of the second wave legislation. Bit by bit, it is being re-presented to the parliament.

Since the first wave of legislation in 1996, very few industrial relations bills have been passed by the Senate—for good reason, and that is the quality of the content of those bills. Consistently, bills are presented that are against the interests of working Australians. The only workplace relations bills that have not been against the interests of working Australians arise from other sources. We have had—much to my pleasure and content—the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2003. This was demanded by the Victorian Labor government, once it was in an acceptable form. Secondly, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 followed the introduction of a Labor private member's bill.

The other 12 bills that have been in the parliament since 1999—characterised by some as the dirty dozen—further erode the capacity of working Australians to bargain collectively or further weaken the capacity of unions to represent working Australians. These bills, either directly or indirectly, remove the safety net of protection available to Australian workers. These bills are all aimed at achieving the Prime Minister's ambition of an industrial relations environment where a single employee with weak bargaining power is pitted against a powerful employer in a far stronger position.

Let us look at changes to the federal unfair dismissal system. The bill before us today is true to form. It falls into a category of directly eroding the entitlements of working Australians not to be dismissed unfairly. The bill makes a number of changes to the federal unfair dismissal system, such as a reduction in the amount of compensation that can be awarded to an unfairly dismissed employee of a small business from 26 weeks to 13 weeks pay, an extension to the qualifying period before an employee of a small business can claim unfair dismissal from three months to six months and a narrowing of the scope for an employee made redundant by his or her employer to mount an unfair dismissal action. These changes continue to tear away at the basic protections available to working Australians. They erode the concept of a fair go and the capacity of the commission to determine what is most appropriate in each particular case.

I will concentrate on the issue of taking over state jurisdictions. With this bill the government is not satisfied to just erode entitlements within the federal jurisdiction; it seeks to extend the mean-spirited Workplace Relations Act to those workers who currently fall under state industrial relations systems. It would do this by expanding the unfair dismissal jurisdiction of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to all constitutional corporations. This would result in the commission taking over 85 per cent of the states' unfair dismissal systems. As I said previously, this is quite contrary to the state rights mantra of the Howard government in other respects. This will also leave the remaining 15 per cent of employees—those who work for partnerships and sole traders—under the state systems, so the bill does not achieve the government's aim of creating a unitary system of unfair dismissal laws.

What is better characterised as a blatant grab for power cannot be justified on a number of public policy grounds. The bill was introduced less than a week after a ministerial council meeting with the states at which the federal government did not even mention that it was proposing to introduce this legislation. The federal government did not even get agreement on these provisions with the states; it did not even go through the motions. It certainly did not follow the recommendations of the President of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, Justice Giudice, in relation to the importance of consultation and cooperation, highlighting consultation as the way to develop an appropriate compromise on some of these issues.

Some concerns have been raised about the impact on the workload of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. There are significant cost consequences of expanding the federal system while still retaining state systems. The government, in its own budget papers, anticipates a 75 per cent increase in the number of unfair dismissal cases brought before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, at a cost of $16.8 million over four years. Of course, more work for the federal commission means more commissioners. I have to say that, on the government's record of appointing commissioners, this in itself is a significant problem. The government has taken a blatantly one-sided approach to the appointment of commission members, not only on gender issues but also in terms of the backgrounds of the commissioners it has appointed. The vast majority have been from employer and business backgrounds and only one of the last 15 appointees was a woman—a sad fact highlighted in the House of Representatives during International Women's Day.

In conclusion, the bill reduces the level of protection available to employees in respect of unfair dismissal. It overrides state laws and institutions without the agreement or cooperation of the states. This bill is justified by the government on the hollow claim of seeking a unitary system when it still leaves 15 per cent of employees in state unfair dismissal systems at a time when in other areas the government is taking away uniform national standards, such as by having long service leave revert to the various state laws. This bill yet again pursues the Prime Minister's ambition of pitting powerless employees against employers in a stronger position and takes away existing protection for working Australians. There is nothing to commend this bill, and Labor strongly opposes it. The minister used, in the House of Representatives, the example of rail gauges. Unfortunately this would just make another track. This bill has no unitary nature. Labor, as I said in the previous debate on the bill, does support a national unitary system, but this is no way to go about achieving it.