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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 75

Senator TROETH (5:25 PM) —It is with great pride that I stand up today to talk about the Workplace Relations Amendment (A Stronger Safety Net) Bill 2007. Contrary to what has been put forward by both Senator Siewert and Senator Murray, this new fairness test will enhance the safety net for over 7.5 million Australians making workplace agreements. It will allow employers and employees to modify or to exclude protected award conditions but only where employees are fairly compensated. This particular bill guarantees employees fair compensation in lieu of conditions such as penalty rates, overtime and shift loadings. There is also additional protection for vulnerable employees, including young people and workers from a non-English-speaking background.

I would like to take issue with Senator Murray when he mentioned that, in the original Work Choices legislation passed in December 2005, and in this bill as well, coalition senators made no move to amend or ameliorate some of the conditions that we thought needed fixing. You may remember, Madam Acting Deputy President Crossin, that coalition senators—and, I will say, along with Labor senators—held extensive consultations with the department to see that outworkers were not disproportionately dealt with under the original legislation. I have also gone to particular trouble to check out that, in this legislation, their conditions of work will be looked at so they do not suffer any detriment. Indeed, government senators have made several recommendations as a result of the committee hearings which deal with some of the issues brought up by Senator Murray. But I might leave those remarks till later on.

This bill will reassure Australian workers that, when they enter into a workplace agreement, it will be a fair one that has been approved by an independent statutory authority. It builds on the important employment and workplace relations reforms that were undertaken by this government in 1996 and again in 2006. This is a bill that obviously has looked at the original Work Choices legislation one year on and then decided to make appropriate changes in the areas where it thought changes needed to be made. It is a matter of evolution, not revolution.

The system that is now working under the original Work Choices legislation and this bill has helped reduce unemployment to a rate of 4.4 per cent. It has created more than two million jobs over the past 11 years, no matter what Senator Murray says, and it has ensured that a record high 10.4 million Australians are in work. What we want to do is make sure that this country’s future economic prosperity is bolstered by a flexible and modern workplace relations system. We establish in this bill two independent statutory offices which will play pivotal roles in maintaining the safety net. The fairness test is to be applied by the Workplace Authority to ensure that workplace agreements provide that fair compensation. And the Workplace Ombudsman will ensure that employers comply with their legal obligations with regard to the fairness test. The Workplace Ombudsman will also strengthen the policing role that has been undertaken previously by the Office of Workplace Services.

No matter which way you look at it, and no matter which yardstick you use, in every area of economic activity this government has provided exceptional growth, exceptional productivity and exceptional benefits to workers. Look at jobs growth. Since March 1996, two million jobs have been created and 85 per cent of all jobs created have been full time, giving the lie to the story that has been established by the Labor Party and other parties that many of those jobs have been part time.

Senator Brandis —They hate that we’re a friend to the workers, Senator.

Senator TROETH —They do indeed, Senator Brandis. There are now 7.4 million people in full-time employment and 2.9 million in part-time work. As I mentioned before, the unemployment rate in Australia was 4.4 per cent in April 2007, its lowest level in over 30 years, and it has been below five per cent for 12 consecutive months. The unemployment rate for males is four per cent and the unemployment rate for females is 4.9 per cent. If you contrast that with the unemployment rate of well over 10 per cent that operated when I came into this place, the difference is startling.

I note with interest a report in today’s paper that our very successful Work for the Dole program, which helps unemployed people back into the workforce, is not having enough people applying to take up places because presumably they are all out working or in study or training, which is just what we want them to be doing. Long-term unemployment, people who have been out of work for more than six months, is at its lowest level in 20 years. It has more than halved under the Howard government.

Wages was something that both Senator Murray and Senator Siewert mentioned. Recent ABS national accounts figures highlight that real wages have increased by 1.5 per cent since the introduction of Work Choices and, indeed, there has been a 19.8 per cent increase in real wages under the coalition compared with a 1.8 per cent decrease when Labor were in government.

Regarding those workers on a collective agreement compared to those on an AWA, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has again found that non-managerial employees earn $949.60 a week on Australian workplace agreements. This is, on average, nine per cent more each week than employees on a collective agreement, who earn $871.20, and 94 per cent more than employees covered by an award.

Let us look at job security, which is another yardstick. In the year up to February 1991, the retrenchment rate was 6.5 per cent, falling to 4.6 per cent in the year to up February 1996 under the Labor government. Since that time, the retrenchment rate has continued to decline to stand at 2.2 per cent in the year up to February 2006. People value their jobs, they want to keep them and they work hard at it.

Australian workplace agreements are the main point of this bill. Over 380,000 Australian workplace agreements have been lodged since March 2006. The participation rate among the working population now stands at 84.9 per cent—a near record high. That compares with the rate of 63.5 per cent in March 1996 when this government came to power. The participation rate of Australian youth—that is, 15-year-olds to 24-year-olds—ranks second highest amongst OECD countries. There are many more statistics that I could give the Senate, such as on industrial disputations. The number of strikes is now so low that the ABS will not release data on many state industries because there are so few that to do so would identify the individual employers. Worker entitlements and small business convey similarly encouraging figures.

I will now take a look at what has been proposed by Labor in its similar blueprint of Forward with Fairness. Under Labor, there will be no limit on what the union bosses can demand in agreements. Therefore, unions will be able to force employers into having the following requirements in workplace agreements: deductions from an employee’s pay or wages for trade union membership subscriptions; paid leave to attend trade union meetings or union meetings; bargaining fees to trade unions; providing unions with information about employees bound by agreement; that any future agreement must be a union collective agreement; mandated union involvement in dispute resolution; employers will be compelled to invite the union bosses to be a party to every agreement they make with their employees; workers will be bound by union agreements even when they have chosen not to be a member of unions claiming coverage of a site; and Fair Work Australia will tell the parties what they must put in their agreement before it will be approved. Indeed, there are many others.

We have already heard from Senator Wong that Labor will abolish AWAs and that Labor will impose collective bargaining on every workplace by requiring employers to bargain collectively when ordered to do so by Fair Work Australia. In fact, where just one employee in a workplace wants a union agreement, the union will have the right to be a party to any agreement made. Labor is trying to claim that non-union agreements will be available. Why then will it only allow union greenfields agreements and not non-union employer greenfields agreements as well? That is what the current system allows.

Labor has form when it comes to this. Under Labor’s system from 1994 to 1996, for employers to ensure that they could get a non-union collective agreement, they had to notify the unions that they were negotiating with their employees, they had to give unions the right to participate in the negotiations and, incredibly, they had to allow them to be a party to the agreement, if that is what the union wanted. I was glad that those bad old days were behind us. In other words, under Labor you could only have a non-union collective agreement if the unions said so. I must say that that is very unlikely, but that is how it would be under a Rudd Labor government.

By contrast, it is the coalition that has facilitated choice, and that is what workers want these days. The coalition has provided the freedom of association provisions in the Workplace Relations Act and it has offered a choice of AWAs, union collective agreements, non-union collective agreements, union greenfields agreements and employer greenfields agreements. It is what the workers who are working in the business want, not what the union wants.

We have also enabled unions to be parties to collective agreements and bargaining agents for employees entering into AWAs, and we have maintained the right of union officials to lawfully enter workplaces and to take lawful industrial action. There is a continuing role for unions in the workplace relations system. Unions are only asked to act lawfully, just as employers and employees are obliged to act lawfully. That is the sort of system that the coalition has set in place, and I for one am very pleased that that is what we have done.

As I said before, I think that the government senators in the committee hearing we held recently entered constructively into discussions. We recommended that the government consider the various technical and consequential amendments proposed during the inquiry, because there were some unintentional drafting errors. We also recommended that the Workplace Authority take note of those concerns raised during the inquiry about the duration of agreements that might be made when it is claimed that there are exceptional circumstances. This takes up the point that Senator Siewert made. She said that the Greens will be proposing an amendment to set duration of an exceptional circumstances agreement at a certain time. We do not expect exceptional circumstances to go on forever and, of course, there must be a good hard look at those. We also recommended that the Workplace Authority take note of the concerns raised during the inquiry about the application of the fairness test and ensure that these inform the performance of its duties. This bill is about fairness. I believe that the legislation underpins that and I recommend the bill to the Senate.