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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 95

Senator HURLEY (7:58 PM) —We in the Labor Party were told by the government that the old industrial relations system was too complex; various ministers waved thick award documents at us and railed about the difficulty of following the system. Never mind that many workplaces had moved to enterprise bargaining, and the system had become generally much more streamlined, the facts never got in the way of citing a good exception. The resulting Work Choices legislation is barely in place before we stand here looking at an amendment. A rushed change has been implemented, because of widespread rejection of the new industrial relations regime, and adds uncertainty and complexity to the legislation. Look at some of the superficial changes: the Office of the Employment Advocate becomes the Workplace Authority; the Office of Workplace Services becomes the Workplace Ombudsman; the term ‘Work Choices’ gets ditched as a term, and then maybe reinstated. This is before most employees or employers grasped what was going on with the original legislation. Despite the government’s massive spending on taxpayer funded advertising, most people did not understand even the broad parameters of the new system. Despite the government’s heavy-handed attempts to push workers into AWAs, including mandating them for some recipients of federal government funding, most employers and employees have avoided AWAs.

Some of the other changes that will cause confusion and possible legal challenges are that fair compensation appears to be based on a subjective assessment by the Workplace Authority, exceptional circumstances is not defined and the calculation of non-monetary compensation for significant value to an employee is not defined. The Workplace Authority is given wide-ranging, unspecified authority in these amendments. There is no requirement for the director to provide reasons for their decisions, assessments or interpretations. These changes could well result in an intrusive, authoritarian body being able to delve into a company’s business and into the lives of employees.

The government harangued us about the time and cost of the award and enterprise bargaining system. Imagine how much time it might take to deal with, and the cost of, the new circumstances. Employees will have to cope with not only dealing with negotiation with their employer but also dealing with the unwieldy bureaucracy created by this new legislation. They will have to put together their case while dealing with ill-defined concepts and will perhaps have to prove circumstances of their personal lives. Business may also well find it difficult to put together their case—small business in particular. Imagine having to put together a case for exceptional circumstances. Imagine having to put together a case for fair compensation for your business. Imagine having to prove whether or not something is contrary to the public interest. I suggest that that would take up a good deal of any business’s time.

In addition, the government will need another $370 million over four years for the implementation of these changes. So now we find the government not only moving to a more complex formula for workplace relations but having to spend considerable extra funds to pay for it. Why are the government doing this after they spent years arguing that Work Choices was such a good system? It is because the polls were starting to look really bad for the government. This is not about job conditions for ordinary Australian workers; this is about job conditions for government members. They want to be able to stay in power. They want to be able to continue to have their additional salary and perks of office. So when the ACTU mounts a campaign to protect the rights of workers, and the right of unions to represent workers, the government responds by attacking the ACTU and unions. The government feels entitled to spend many millions of dollars on taxpayer funded advertising but reacts with high alarm when anyone dares to mount a response. It tries to bully business groups into spending even more money to counteract the ACTU. It mounts an attack on the ACTU campaign, using a number of the usual members and ministers who are prepared to hector, distort and exaggerate.

Minister Abetz attempted to play his little part in the beat-up about the ACTU campaign manual by smearing me, my husband and my husband’s small business, Magenta Linas Software. He looked up the register of Senate interests and found that I had quite properly noted my interest in Magenta Superannuation Trust as a director, so he came into this chamber and made all sorts of snide insinuations and claimed that I must be linked with Magenta Linas Software, who he stated were involved in what he called ‘dirty tricks’. The truth of the matter is that my husband, like many small business people, has a private superannuation fund because there is no-one else to pay him superannuation. Unlike the minister, he does not have a generous superannuation scheme, so he started a superannuation fund and he called it Magenta Superannuation. You would think, if someone were familiar with business practices, that it would be clear that something called Magenta Superannuation was a super fund. But, no, in his haste to spread dirt, the minister tripped over himself and made a stupid mistake. Magenta Linas Software is indeed connected with my husband, who is one-half of a partnership in that business, but I am not connected with it, or I would have declared it in my Senate interests. I have nothing to do with its operations. Incidentally, neither of the partners in that business has ever been employed by the ALP, as the minister also claimed.

This is the kind of small-minded, petty individual who is part of the team that drew up this Work Choices legislation and amendment—and it shows. These government ministers and members believe that business is entitled to be advised by lawyers, human resources professionals or business groups like business chambers or chambers of commerce but that employees should do it on their own, that unions should be shut out of representing their members and that employees should be discouraged from joining unions. Then they are surprised when unions campaign on behalf of their members to throw out this flawed Work Choices legislation and the government that created it.

The government’s other response is to bleat about the number of Labor members in parliament or candidates for parliament who, at one stage in their lives, worked for a union. I have never worked for a union but I know I would rather be a union employee working for improved benefits and conditions for working people than a government member collaborating to try to push down the wages and conditions of ordinary workers and their families. Union employees are out in workplaces talking to everyday workers. They know the conditions in the workplace and they know the stresses that workers and their families cope with from day to day.

The latest example that came to my office was that of a printing shop employee who wanted to start and finish work 15 minutes earlier to assist in his family life. The employer said no. The employer said no to a quarter of an hour variation in work hours. So the employee said that, in that case, he would finish up his job. The next time any government member thinks about standing up and talking about how under Work Choices an employer and employee will sit down together to draw up an AWA that incorporates family-friendly conditions, they should give that example a little thought. This employer would not budge for a 15-minute variation. And it gets worse. Having accepted this employee’s resignation, the employer then went back to the conditions of employment and enforced a period of notice. He went back to the letter of the law of the contract to exact the last drop of this employee’s blood. So this man, who dared to ask for a variation of hours by 15 minutes, was not paid for his last week at work. This man has gone to everyone he can think of, including the Office of the Employment Advocate, and has got no substantial assistance—and this amendment will not help. This is indeed an unusual example, one would hope, but the government uses extreme examples to demonise unions.

There are indeed employers who want the best for their employees as well as their companies. I have worked for some very good employers in my varied career. I encountered fair and just employers in my career as a scientist. When I went to work in business I encountered encouragement and fulfilment in a range of areas from the Crafts Council of Australia to the Australian Mineral Development Laboratories Pty Ltd. But I have also known of some very unjust practices: employers who exploited migrants, young adults just out of school and low-income workers desperate for a job.

One case that comes to mind is a market gardener who sought to stop his process workers going for a toilet break at any time during their long working hours. Another did not pay his workers the compulsory superannuation guarantee. A mobile food van owner made his employees count and reconcile money and drive back the van outside of paid working hours—and I can assure you the pay was pitiful. In each case one of my first questions was whether the person was a member of a union. The answer was almost always no, because if they had been a member of a union, they would have had a place to go—someone to defend them earlier.

The government knows that neither the Work Choices legislation nor this amendment bill will help the majority of such employees. Now that the Liberal government has a Senate majority and can implement its agenda, that agenda is even more apparent. It is right that executives get appropriately remunerated at high salaries; it is right that companies make record profits; but the government is content for there to be an underclass of employees.

I will also tell the government that the reason Work Choices is doing badly in the polls is that it is bad legislation for a bad reason. Most workers recognise this, whether or not they are members of a union or will ever be members of a union. The government has been driven by extreme ideology to make legislative changes that are unfair to ordinary workers. It has been able to do this because it has a majority in both houses of parliament. I think you can be sure that the people of Australia will ensure at the next election that such a situation will not occur again. The arrogance of a government that has been in too long has led it to make a major error.

Last minute amendments will not change the inherent unfairness of the Work Choices legislation. The Labor Party is committed to getting rid of these laws and is committed to providing a real safety net for workers. Fairness has long underpinned the industrial relations platform in this country—fairness for employees, fairness between employees, and consideration of families and family circumstances. This Liberal government first came into power promising to govern for all. It was rewarded by successive re-elections. It has now assumed such arrogance, such comfort in its power, that it is prepared to destroy a history of all workers in society being given a share in Australia’s wealth—a fair go for everyone.