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Monday, 22 March 2004
Page: 21548

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:22 PM) —I want to speak briefly on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002 [No. 2], which is now before us for the second time. If the bill is rejected, as it was in August last year, it will be added to the pile of double dissolution triggers. It is probably no coincidence that half of those triggers are bills that relate in some form to workplace relations matters. The workplace relations area is probably the last remaining ideological battleground between Labor and Liberal. I sometimes wonder if we should give it heritage status, because they seem to have rolled out the same arguments year after year, pretty much stretching back over many decades. Therefore, in industrial relations matters it pretty much falls to the Democrats to try to cut through the various bits of historical ideological posturing to get to the reality that lies beneath the various proposals.

Many of the criticisms put forward by speakers such as Senator Ludwig are quite valid. It is for that reason that the Democrats do not support the legislation as it stands, just as we did not in August last year. As occurred last year, we will put forward a large number of amendments, and I draw the attention of the Senate to the revised sheets of amendments on behalf of my colleague Senator Murray. There are about 33 amendments in total, and they will dramatically alter the legislation and address many of the flaws contained within it. It is worth noting that under Minister Andrews, the new minister, there appears to have been some willingness to at least consider addressing some of the significant problems in the legislation as it stands, but I understand there is not a willingness to address all of them.

I want to cut through the various viewpoints on this legislation to put the Democrats' position clearly. Ours has been a consistent position since the legislation was first proposed and investigated extensively by a Senate committee around the middle of 2003—that is, as a general position the Democrats are attracted to having a single, national approach in a whole range of areas, not least of which is industrial relations. We believe that, if we could get a single, national system of industrial relations, it would be far better than having six or seven different systems around the country, all having variations. For that reason, any effort to standardise or develop a uniform approach is something we are attracted to.

Balanced against that is the fact that we are not interested in adopting legislation that will mean a net loss of the existing rights of employees. There is no doubt that the legislation as it stands would mean a net loss in the rights of many employees. The Democrats have sought repeatedly, including in amendments moved last year during the debate on the first version of this legislation, to ensure that, overall, most workers would not be worse off and that a significant number would actually end up having increased rights. That is the scope we have been looking at. An area that continues to be a sticking point is the probationary period for casuals, which is currently 12 months under federal legislation but six months or lower for many people under state legislation. There is also the issue of the definition of exactly what constitutes an employee under federal legislation and whether people might miss out if they were shifted across to the federal jurisdiction.

So it needs to be said quite clearly that many of the concerns, quite rightly put forward by other speakers, relate to the bill as it stands, not to the bill as it would be amended if the Democrat amendments were passed. The Democrats are attracted to the idea of a single system, but not at the expense of an overall increase in the number of workers who would have a reduction in their entitlements from those that exist at the moment.

It has to be said that this legislation would not establish a single, uniform approach. It would dramatically increase the number of people who are under a single, national system, estimated at up to 85 per cent of workers in relation to the unfair dismissal jurisdiction. There is no doubt that it would be preferable to move to a single, uniform system via negotiations with the states, whether for unfair dismissals or for anything else. The fact is that that will not happen. It certainly will not happen at the moment and I cannot see it happening. Even if we were to have a Labor government at the federal level to go with all the state and territory Labor governments, I still would be extremely surprised if there were a willingness to develop a single, uniform approach. The various interests of the different state jurisdictions are such that I find it very difficult to see that happening.

It seems to me that the only way we are likely to get a significant move forward to a single, uniform system is through a number of jumps, and this would be a significant jump. But, as I said, that should not be at the cost of an overall reduction in entitlements or a lowest common denominator approach. That concern was expressed by a number of speakers from the Labor Party, and I share that concern. That is why the Democrats will not support legislation that would allow a lowest common denominator approach to be adopted by the government. We will proceed with our amendments in the committee stage of the legislation and see how they fare. We will make a final decision, as we did in August last year, as to whether the Democrat test for appropriate legislation is met. It does not appear that that will be the case at the moment, but we will make a case for those amendments and see how we go, as we did in August last year.

Sitting suspended from 6.29 p.m. to 7.30 p.m.