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Tuesday, 29 November 2005
Page: 1

Senator NASH (12:31 PM) —The workplace relations reform legislation being put forward by the Howard-Vaile government is sensible and practical. In spite of the scaremongering we have heard from those opposite, this government is taking the right steps to take this nation forward, and this legislation will ensure Australia’s prosperity into the future.

I took part in the hearings of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee into the provisions of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. Listening to the statements and the questioning of and answers from 105 witnesses who appeared at the week-long hearings has strengthened my understanding of Australia’s workplace relations landscape. I have to say that I am satisfied by what I have heard to date, and I am satisfied with the direction in which the Work Choices legislation is taking this nation. Despite views to the contrary from those opposite, I believe the Work Choices legislation will be good for Australia.

We have been debating in this place and in the court of public opinion the Liberal-National government’s industrial relations reform agenda for a very long period of time. The Work Choices legislation is not something akin to a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It has not just appeared out of nowhere. We outlined the government’s proposal for Work Choices some six months ago, back in May. We started providing more detailed information to the Australian public on Sunday, 9 October. The legislation was introduced into the other place by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations earlier this month on 2 November. As the Prime Minister told ABC’s AM program yesterday morning:

Many of the issues have been debated for months, for years—unfair dismissals—it’s been around for years. So this idea that it’s all new and isn’t it terrible that the Government would like to have it passed by Christmas, I don’t think that’s valid at all.

The Prime Minister is spot on. The outrageous claims made by those opposite and their union masters are just not valid at all. Australia currently has six different industrial relations systems, more than 130 pieces of industrial relations legislation and more than 4,000 awards. There is too much red tape, and it is too hard for employers and their workers to make agreements that suit their individual circumstances.

Earlier this month, I highlighted to the Senate a report by the World Economic Forum that showed that Australia had climbed from 14th to 10th in the World Economic Forum’s 2005 competitiveness ranking. The report said Australia moved up four places because of, among other things, its sound public finances and the innovative nature of its business sector. Discouragingly, Australia ranked only 77th on flexibility of wage determination and 75th on hiring and firing practices. Work Choices will get rid of the red tape and provide choice in the workplace. Work Choices should also see Australia rise up the World Economic Forum’s rankings in the coming years in the areas of flexibility of wage determination and on hiring and firing practices.

I want to make it clear that the bill reflects the National Party’s policies. In 2003, our federal conference passed a resolution that read, in part:

The Nationals believe that employees and employers should be allowed to work together to improve working conditions and productivity. It is only when voluntary agreements and freedom of choice replace coercion and rigid prescriptive rules that work satisfaction, productivity and national economic potential will be recognised. The Nationals’ objective is to ensure Australian workers receive higher pay in more productive workplaces. The Nationals support:

  • Enhanced flexibility in the workplace and measures that reflect the balance between family and work responsibilities;
  • Minimum conditions for agreements to ensure protection, especially for the low paid.

Recently, in September this year, The Nationals federal council passed a resolution that specifically supported the workplace relations reforms. The resolution was passed unanimously, and it stated:

That this Federal Council of The Nationals supports the underlying principles of the Commonwealth Government’s announced proposals for further workplace relations reform and calls for the early release of the detail so that the union movement’s scare campaign can be effectively nullified.

Work Choices will establish a national workplace relations system. The legislation will cover up to 85 per cent of Australia’s workers. Unincorporated businesses such as many family farms that are in the federal system and want to stay there will have a transition period of five years to incorporate. Under Work Choices, it will be simpler to make workplace agreements. They will take effect as soon as they are lodged with a statutory declaration, instead of the time-consuming certification and approval process we have now.

All agreements will have to comply with the new Australian fair pay and conditions standard, which will include the 38-hour week, annual leave, personal and carer’s leave and parental leave. The standard will also include the minimum and award classification wages set by the new Australian Fair Pay Commission. The Fair Pay Commission will replace the adversarial process of setting minimum wages with a consultative approach that takes into account the need to create jobs for the unemployed. Work Choices will protect award conditions such as public holidays and penalty rates when new agreements are negotiated. I want to stress to the Senate that these award conditions can be removed only if an employee specifically agrees to change them in an agreement.

Importantly, the new system will create jobs for the most marginal people in the work force by exempting companies with 100 or less employees from the unfair dismissal law. Unfair dismissal laws currently provide disgruntled employees with the opportunity to take legal action on their way out, even if their dismissal was totally justified. Today it can cost employers up to $10,000 to defend against the most worthless of claims. For years now, as I have travelled around different rural communities right across New South Wales—places like Tweed Heads, Tamworth, Temora and Tumut—small business owners have been saying to me, ‘We’d put more people on, but we just can’t do it because we can’t afford an unfair dismissal claim if it doesn’t work out.’ This is happening right across the state. Everywhere I travel, employers are not game to put people on because of the current system.

Work Choices will exempt businesses with up to 100 employees from the burden of these laws. Work Choices will be good for those in small business, both employers and employees. All employees will continue to be protected from unlawful termination on grounds such as their race, sex, religion, politics or membership or non-membership of a union. I take exception to claims raised by those opposite and their union masters that all employers are bad and that they will use the Work Choices legislation to do the wrong thing by workers. In every box of apples you might get one or two bad apples, but that does not mean all the apples in the box are bad.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that there are no bad employers, but I have not come across them in my travels. On the contrary, it is in an employer’s best interests to have a happy and harmonious workplace. They want to keep their good employees and they will take extraordinary steps to retain them. As Senator Boswell said yesterday, when he was an employer in small business he went to great lengths to keep staff, even paying for their children’s weddings and letting them pay it back out of their pay over time. Senator Boswell is right: the cost of firing and rehiring in terms of lost investment in training and skills is so high that no employer would do it unless he or she was really faced with an unworkable situation.

The Work Choices legislation recognises that the workplace landscape has changed. Take supermarkets, for example. It was not that long ago that supermarkets had limited trading hours on a weekend, restricted trading hours on a Saturday, and shut up shop entirely on a Sunday. Things are very different now. Most supermarkets are open seven days, while many, particularly in city areas, are open 24 hours a day. Employers and employees need to be flexible to meet changing consumer demand. Take Christmas trading, for example. In an effort to meet consumer demand, some shopping centres go so far as to stay open all day and all night in the lead-up to Christmas to satisfy consumer demand during this busy time. We need a system that evolves with the very environment it is set up to support. Work Choices meets that demand. Employers and employees need a situation where both can negotiate a working arrangement that best suits everyone. Work Choices meets that demand. It is all about being fair, flexible and feasible. Work Choices meets that demand.

As a farmer, I know first hand how busy this time of year can be for farmers. In between harvesting crops and bailing hay, many farmers are also juggling other necessary jobs like livestock maintenance and the general and ongoing responsibilities that come with working on the land. Depending on the size of the property, many farmers simply cannot manage the job alone.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator NASH —Perhaps if senators opposite listened, they might learn something. But farmers do manage the job alone, because they cannot afford to go down the path of a possible unfair dismissal claim, not just in a financial sense but also in the sense of the time it takes—time that takes them away from running the farm. I am confident Work Choices will lead to an increase in agricultural productivity, leading to greater prosperity. Farmers could in turn expand their business, both domestic and export. This will lead to jobs growth in rural and regional Australia—something that is very important to this side of the Senate but obviously not to the other.

The Howard-Vaile government will make the Australian workplace relations system fairer and provide a better balance in the workplace for employees and employers than currently exists. Unlike Labor, the Liberal-National government has a plan to reform the workplace, to stop the confusion that exists with myriad pieces of legislation, some of which I referred to earlier, and awards that exist right across the country. The Howard-Vaile government has Work Choices; Labor has nothing, nyet—not a thing. As I said at the start, this workplace relations reform, Work Choices, being put forward by the government is sensible, it is practical, it will allow greater flexibility in the workplace and it will ensure that Australia’s productivity grows into the future.