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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1014


Senator MARSHALL (8:23 PM) —I thank Senator Joyce for his incredibly passionate support for the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, which is before the Senate today. While I do not regularly look a gift horse in the mouth, when Senator Joyce claimed that this bill will save Australia from the impending disaster of collapse, I am not sure that I would have even gone that far myself. While this bill clearly will deliver productivity outcomes to this country, I am not sure that I actually agree with Senator Joyce’s assessment on just how good it is, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.


Senator Joyce —Mr Deputy President, on a point of order: going to the direction of the statement, I did not say this bill would save the nation. In fact, I said completely the contrary. Senator Marshall may be moving towards a position of misleading.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Mark Bishop)—There is no point of order. If you want to make a personal explanation, you can do it at the appropriate time.


Senator MARSHALL —I am sorry, Senator Joyce. I did not mean to misrepresent you, but I was listening quite carefully. I will enjoy reading your speech and I hope you do not try to change it too much before the rest of us get to have a look at it. I will leave your contribution to one side. I think that is probably the safest thing for all of us.

As chair of the committee that inquired into the impacts of this bill, I want to make some comments. Normally, as chair, I would probably have been a little bit higher up the list, but as the opposition and the minority party’s reports were only tabled not so long ago I wanted to have an opportunity to flick through at least those reports so I could have some constructive response to them. I have had the opportunity now to listen to a number of senators’ contributions. If I have time, I will try to wade through some of the issues that they have raised, to put some of their concerns to rest.

First, let me simply go to the conduct of the inquiry. I know it was said by Senator Fisher and some others that this was a rushed inquiry. I do not know by what standard they are actually judging this. If it is the way they acted while they were in government, it was a very leisurely inquiry. You could even imagine us as having put our feet up. We did not get that opportunity, but it was a very thorough inquiry. We had public hearings in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. This is for a roughly 100-page transitional bill, which had some very specific objectives and achieves them. Make the comparison to Work Choices itself, which was around 900 pages of incredibly complex legislation with an explanatory memorandum that went over 1,000 pages, as I understand it, and then on the very day we went into the committee stages, 30 pages or so of technical and substantive amendments were put on the table after we had gone through our inquiry. For the inquiry into Work Choices, for the extent and length of that bill and the issues that it went to, we were allowed two days in Canberra. Two days in Canberra! It never went anywhere else. If the opposition are actually making a claim that this inquiry was rushed compared to what they did while they were in government, I say they ought to hang their heads in shame and apologise for the way they abused the Senate processes. And it was not just Work Choices. There was bill after bill after bill, as I am sure everyone on this side of the chamber remembers only too well.

This was a comprehensive inquiry where we took 55 submissions from organisations and 268 individual submissions. While you will always get people who say they would like more time, it was important for this government to move quickly to remove some of the potential abuse that may be happening in the workplace at the moment. I will get to that a bit later if I have the time. The purpose of this transitional bill is to give effect to a major election commitment of the government to establish a new fair and flexible workplace relations system and to have sensible transitional arrangements to that system. This is a transitional bill. The short title of the bill is derived from the workplace relations policies released in Forward with Fairness and the 2007 Forward with Fairness policy implementation plan. I make that point because this bill, more than any other, has been subject to detailed consultation with employers, unions and other interested bodies through the consultative mechanisms that the new government has set in place. It was also detailed to minute levels in the policy platform that this government went to the election with. There are no surprises in this bill. There is nothing new in this bill. This was in the public domain as policy before the election. It was not in the detail or the form of the bill itself, but every policy issue was canvassed and was put before the Australian people before the election.

I think, after Senator Kemp’s contribution today about the golden years of the Howard-Costello government, one has to remind the new opposition that they actually lost the election. After hearing Senator Kemp’s contribution, I wonder how that could have been. Maybe these were not the golden years as he would like us to believe and, clearly, the Australian people did not think so.


Senator Bernardi —Leave it to the Australian people. Leave it to posterity.


Senator MARSHALL —We did leave it to the Australian people, Senator Bernardi, and the Australian people spoke. The workplace relations amendment bill would amend the principal act, the Workplace Relations Act 1996, to make a number of changes to the framework for workplace agreements and to enable the process of award modernisation to commence. The bill begins the implementation process and is the first step of a larger industrial relations agenda, which will involve further legislation. Again, I think we need to keep that in mind. If Senator Fisher actually understood the purpose of a transition bill, she would not be raising all sorts of issues that are not actually included in the transitional bill and be leaving those questions open. Many of the issues about the new industrial relations framework that is going to set this country up for the next two decades at a minimum will be contained in the substantive bill that will hopefully be before this parliament in the second half of the year.

It was actually the opposition that referred this bill for the Senate inquiry before the government had the opportunity to do it. The main reason they did that was that they wanted to specifically put their mark or stamp on the terms of reference. Within the opposition’s terms of reference there is an implication that the opposition persist in regarding industrial relations on the basis of an understanding of economic growth which completely overlooks the relationship between productivity and fairness. It is possible to achieve both, and this transition bill sets up the process for us to achieve both. You do not have to have fairness excluded, as Work Choices did, to achieve productivity outcomes. This bill and the substantive bill to come later in the year will be the productivity drivers for this economy. You can do it with fairness, and this legislation will ensure that fairness is enshrined.

An exploited workforce is not a productive workforce, and yet the insistence of the former government in regarding industrial relations solely for the purpose of driving down wages to increase productivity was ultimately damaging to economic progress. It also resulted in the most complex and highly regulated industrial system of any OECD country. When Senator Fisher gets up and says the transition bill and the substantive bill that is to come are not going to simplify workplace relations in this country, what is that compared to? The coalition government put in place the most regulated, cumbersome and complex industrial relations system of any OECD country. We, the government senators who did the report, regard the bill as a measure which takes the regulatory burden from both employers and employees and sets up a new system for agreement-making arrangements to drive productivity. That is what we are doing, and we are determined to see that through in a fair way.

When I was thinking about my contribution to the debate on this bill, I thought about how the coalition senators found it very difficult during the inquiry to give up on AWAs. Given the flip-flop-flapping around—the Leader of the Opposition says one thing; the shadow industrial relations minister says another thing; one minute Work Choices is dead and then it is dead, less some other things—I thought it might be difficult to get the opposition senators, the previous government senators, to tell us what they really believe. But I did not have to wait very long; it is here in this debate. Senator Watson started off by saying there is nothing inherently wrong with AWAs; they allow for flexibility in the workplace. The conclusion to the coalition senators’ report says:

However, the bill reflects the regressive policy of the government in attempting to abolishing individual statutory agreements. This is a step too far ...

Abolishing individual statutory agreements is a step too far. In case anyone is confused, you will see the language change from the coalition. They no longer talk about AWAs. They do not mention AWAs anymore; AWAs are bad. They talk about ‘individual statutory agreements’, but that is exactly the same thing. No-one should be conned by the change in terminology from the opposition. Why don’t you be honest and call them AWAs? You named them, you are stuck with them and, if you want to defend them, why don’t you actually be honest and say that is what you are going to defend?

Senator Boyce told us that this bill will end AWAs and that that will be a ‘sad day for Australians workers’. I have news for Senator Boyce: it ain’t a sad day for Australian workers at all. Maybe Senator Boyce and some of the other senators were listening too closely to Senator Kemp’s speech about the ‘golden years of the Howard-Costello government’. Something has happened between then and now; that is why you are on that side of the chamber. The quicker you come to that realisation and abandon that policy, the better off you will be.

At least, to give the opposition senators credit, they are going to hang on to AWAs and they are going to say so. I am happy to help them publicise that position. I think Senator Boyce went on to say that ‘killing’ AWAs is an ‘empty headed’ aim and that AWAs are ‘much needed’ in our system. She said she was ‘bitterly disappointed’ with the end of AWAs and then went on to tell us there is nothing unfair with the use of individual statutory agreements, which is AWAs. That is in direct contravention of all the evidence that was presented to the committee. No-one said that they were fair. All the individual submissions that came to us said that they were absolutely unfair.

Senator Fisher said the bill is flawed in its policy intent because it removes AWAs. She went on with a very interesting contribution and she said that ‘all these people are saying you could be worse off’. I say to Senator Fisher: if she wants to take evidence given on Senate committees out of context—pull out a sentence here and pull out a sentence there—and rely on that as the bulk of her argument before the Senate, she will not last very long in this place. It was very disingenuous to use some of that evidence completely out of context, picking individual sentences and putting words in people’s mouths. I do not mind when people do it to other senators, and she has done it to me as well, but I suggest that—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Murray)—Senator Marshall, please direct your remarks through the chair.


Senator MARSHALL —I apologise, Mr Acting Deputy President.


Senator Ian Macdonald —She’ll be here longer than you will be.


Senator MARSHALL —Good luck to her if she is. You will be over there longer than I will be here, too, I suggest.

Senator Fisher then went on and thought there was a problem with government senators actually challenging the position put by witnesses and the department, in terms of the policy. It is actually the role of the Senate committee process to not automatically accept the assumptions made by anyone. This is the purpose. We are actually there to challenge and scrutinise legislation before us. If something is not clear, government senators should do that. I suggest that if the now opposition had done that properly when they were in government they would not be in the position they are in now. I think everyone over there accepts that they should never have removed the no disadvantage test. Maybe they should have challenged their government’s legislation during that process—they should have. If they had, things may be quite different. Nonetheless, that was not done. It is not as if the then government coalition senators did not know. Everyone told them. The reports in the committee process told them that removing the no disadvantage test at the time would result in a spiral to the bottom, a race to the bottom, which is exactly what happened. I think Senator Murray in his contribution earlier today said that he told them. I know I certainly told them and I know nearly every senator now on this side of the chamber told them as well.

It was interesting that Senator Fisher, in her 20-minute contribution, talked for 10 minutes about the bill and the inquiry and then went on to the wage freeze for politicians. I am not quite sure about the link to complaining about a wage freeze for politicians. I know that those in the opposition are very bitter and twisted about that wage freeze. I heard a number of senators through the estimates process complaining about it.


Senator Boyce interjecting—


Senator MARSHALL —You say that, Senator Boyce, but I certainly have not heard anyone on our side complain about it.


Senator Boyce —They’re not game.


Senator MARSHALL —The opposition say they have heard people on our side complain about it, but then they say they are not game to complain about it. They really cannot have it both ways. This really shows the shallowness of the debate that they are having here tonight. The problem is—


Senator Ian Macdonald —Your salary’s gone up. You’re getting more now than you were three months ago.


Senator MARSHALL —There we go. See—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Murray)—Senator Marshall, the senators on my left know that interjections are disorderly, and it is made worse if you respond to them. I suggest you continue your remarks through the chair.


Senator MARSHALL —Yes. I will just finish by saying that I guess the interjections show the obsession that the opposition senators have with politicians actually leading by example and showing some wage restraint. Then again, I think that is something that they have to work out with their own consciences, but they will struggle with that.

Then we had Senator Kemp making a bizarre attack. I do not think he used the word ‘treacherous’, but he talked about employer organisations that I think wanted to ‘get into bed with the ALP’ or ‘get the crumbs’ or words to that effect. The problem was he commended a lot of the employer organisations and then went on to describe the one that he does not like, the AiG, as apolitical. I think that is probably a fair description of them. If the AiG is apolitical and all the others are not, but they were the ones who were supporting the coalition in the election, I suggest he probably has not really argued that properly. It was fairly obvious, through the submissions, that many of the employer organisations that had invested so heavily politically in Work Choices were still very supportive of the coalition and would rather not have AWAs removed. But, on the whole, the evidence to the committee was that the transition bill and the substantive bill will be very workable—the policy has been accepted, people are working towards that, and there were no serious concerns raised with moving forward with fairness through this particular policy.

I understand that it is very difficult for the coalition after investing so heavily, politically and financially, in Work Choices. The introduction of Work Choices cost many hundreds of millions of dollars to implement. They also invested nearly $200 million in advertising to promote it. So they had an enormous commitment, politically and financially, to Work Choices, and I know it is incredibly difficult for them to give that away. One thing we can be absolutely assured of—given the coalition senators’ report and the contribution made by coalition senators to this debate—is that, if they are ever returned to government, there will be Work Choices mark 2, and that will include AWAs. They will have a new name for them by then—we have already seen the start of that today. They have not let go of that failed policy. They do not care that it hurt working people, that it stripped them of wages and conditions and left them much worse off. They do not care that there was rarely any—if any—individual bargaining taking place, which is something I want to spend a couple of moments on. (Time expired)


Senator Joyce —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I want to make an explanation under standing order 191: explanation of speeches.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I will remind the senator of the context. These are rarely raised in the Senate, so this is just for other senators who are here:

A senator who has spoken to a question may again be heard, to explain some material part of the senator’s speech which has been misquoted or misunderstood, but shall not introduce any new matter, or interrupt any senator speaking, and no debatable matter shall be brought forward or debate arise on such an explanation.

Please proceed.


Senator JOYCE —I want to lay to rest any conjecture about the bill I was referring to when I said it is more relevant than it was at its implementation. That is obviously the initial Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill, which I feel is more relevant now than it was in initial implementation. My hesitancy is obviously cast against the current Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill. To make a correction, the Australian share market has not gone down by 21 per cent since October—it has gone down by 24 per cent.