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Monday, 17 March 2008
Page: 1037


Senator McEWEN (9:59 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows

It is with great pleasure that I speak today on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008.

On November 30 2005, I spoke against the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. I said I couldn’t wait for the day that Labor would tear up that legislation and put it in the bin. And now that day has come.

Australian workers were wronged by the previous Government and I am proud to be part of the Rudd Government that is cleaning up the mess, working towards a better future for all Australians.

Ratifying Kyoto was the first act of this Government. We made a commitment to cleaning up the planet while at the same time cleaning up one of the previous Government’s failings. Another mess left by the previous Government is the economy. The previous Government failed to show fiscal discipline, failed to deal with the skills shortage, failed to prepare for an ageing population, failed to make the most of the best terms of trade in 50 years and failed to address inflation. It also failed to keep its promise of record low interest rates as we saw over and over again. The previous Government was too busy pushing through its ideological agenda, too busy punishing hard working Australians, to address these major issues.

Australia is facing the highest underlying inflation rate for 16 years and it is predicted by the Reserve Bank to stay there for two years. To assist families during this difficult time Labor will introduce low tax First Home Saver Accounts, help to build thousands of new rental properties leased at 20 per cent below market rents, cut out-of-pocket child-care costs and provide a 50 per cent education tax refund to eligible families to cover the cost of education for their children. We are committed to helping families while we deal with the issue of inflation. This is in stark contrast to the former Government which not only paid little attention to inflation, but also introduced Work Choices, cutting the pay and conditions of workers when most needed.

The recent announcement by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that Australia’s unemployment rate fell to 4.0 per cent in February 2008 was exciting news worth celebrating. But to continue celebrating strong jobs growth, we must control inflation and lift productivity. To this end, the Government has developed a five point plan to fight inflation, while boosting productive capacity of the economy and effective labour supply.

We will be working to lift the nation’s productivity as the average annual productivity growth over the last five years has been lower than in any equivalent period in at least the last 16 years. Unlike the previous Government, we have recognised the destructive skills shortage facing our country and its implications for the economy. We have recognised this and have a plan to deal with it. Skilling Australia for the Future is the Government’s commitment to address skill shortages.

This commitment includes establishing Skills Australia. Skills Australia will bring together economic, education and industry expertise to provide Government with advice about the future skill needs of this country.

We will also provide an extra 450,000 Vocational Educational and Training places, including 175,000 for those who are not working or marginally attached to the labour force. The first 20,000 of these places will be available from April I this year.

Today we are tackling the disaster that is, soon to be was, Work Choices.

For months leading up to the election last year, Labor presented a workplace relations policy that resonated with Australian workers and their families. The disastrous effect the previous Government’s IR laws had on workers is real and must be recognised. Work Choices was a mistake and it has been refreshing to hear some members of the previous Government now admit to that, just as it has been disappointing to see others desperately trying to hold onto the ideological dream that was Work Choices.

Labor gave the Australian people an alternative. An alternative that would restore workers’ rights and conditions. An alternative that the Australian public came out in droves to support. Work Choices was not an issue at the margins of this campaign, it was right at the centre, those who voted for Labor voted for these changes. This legislation represents the mandate that the Labor Government was provided with to repeal Work Choices.

Labor’s main pledges in regard to workplace reform were and remain;

  • Abolishing AWAs, but respecting existing contractual arrangements;
  • Providing 10 National Employment Standards;
  • Creating a fast and simple unfair dismissals system;
  • Simplifying and modernising some 4,300 awards;
  • Limiting the ability to take protected industrial action to bargaining periods, supported by a mandatory secret ballot and prohibiting industry wide strikes;
  • Retaining existing right of entry arrangements; and
  • Creating a new independent umpire - Fair Work Australia.

Unlike the previous Government, we were straightforward and honest with the Australian public. During the 2004 election campaign, the then Prime Minister announced the Coalition’s industrial relations policy and then once elected, introduced something completely different. The public did not get to vote on Work Choices that election, their voices were not heard by the Coalition. But in November last year they finally got the chance to vote on it and their voices were definitely heard. Australians voted for change and change is what they are getting. We are a Government that stands by its principles and promises. Today is another example of this.

When Work Choices was first introduced into Parliament, debate was quickly gagged.

As a new Senator, it was disenchanting to see this kind of behaviour happening so readily. We wanted to represent the views of our constituents who were incredibly angry by the way they had been treated during the election.

For the next two and a half years, the Howard Government misled Australians about the impact Work Choices was having on workers. One such example was when the Government forced high paid public servants onto AWAs so it could claim that AWAs delivered wage increases. In reality, low paid workers often didn’t get any wage increase at all under their AWA. The true situation once the legislation had been passed was misrepresented.

We then saw $60 million of taxpayers’ money being used by the previous Government to campaign against Labor on workplace relations. The public saw through their obfuscation of the facts.

The true facts have been provided by the Workplace Authority. After analysing a sample of over 1700 AWAs lodged between April and October 2006, the Workplace Authority compiled a significant amount of data. The previous Government claimed this data didn’t exist.

The analysis of the 1748 AWAs shows that;

  • 89 per cent excluded one or more so-called protected award conditions;
  • 83 per cent excluded two or more so-called protected award conditions;
  • 78 per cent excluded three or more so-called protected award conditions; and that
  • 52 per cent excluded six or more so-called protected award conditions.

The analysis also revealed the so-called protected award conditions that were most frequently removed:

  • 70 per cent removed shift work loadings
  • 68 per cent removed annual leave loadings
  • 65 per cent removed penalty rates; and
  • 63 per cent removed incentive based payments and bonuses.

The data also revealed that 75 per cent of the 1487 AWAs sampled did not provide for a guaranteed wage increase.

These are the statistics the former Liberal Government didn’t want to tell the Australian people. These are the individual statutory agreements that the Liberal Party brought to Australian working families.

This transition Bill is the beginning of the end for Work Choices. We know from the length and complexity of Work Choices what happens when legislation is implemented without full debate and consultation. Therefore we have facilitated much discussion on this Legislation and are introducing our changes in stages. We have struck a balance between addressing the urgency of the Bill as well as the need for research and scrutiny.

Changes that will be implemented by this Legislation include; preventing the drafting of any new Australian Workplace Agreements, putting arrangements in place for the making of individual transitional employment agreements, and providing the Australian Industrial Relations Commission with the resources and clear direction it needs to get on with the award modernisation process.

As already stated, Australian Workplace Agreements were forced upon many workers, stripping them of their basic rights. Following International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, it is particularly pertinent to speak of the impact Howard’s IR laws had on women. The Women’s Electoral Lobby and National Pay Equity Coalition have spoken on the impact Australian Workplace Agreements had on workers saying that ‘the inclusion of appropriate work and family standards into these Agreements was rare and was to the detriment of women trying to balance their work and family responsibilities.’

Since the introduction of Work Choices, a majority of AWAs have been made within the areas of low-paid employment. Such people include many women, young people and workers of non-English-speaking background, and this is the reason that AWAs have had a negative impact on equal pay for women. AWAs provide little flexibility to workers, thus tipping the scales of a good work and life balance. This will no longer be possible following the Bill’s commencement date. No one will be able to sign a new AWA which is fantastic for all Australians now and for generations of workers to come.

Those already on AWAs will work under that AWA until its expiry, and then new employment arrangements can be made. For those employers who currently have staff on AWAs, transitional arrangements need to be made. The transition to Forward with Fairness amendment does this through the creation of individual transitional employment agreements, ITEAs.

ITEAs can be made until 31 December 2009 by employers who had at least one employee on an AWA as at I December 2007. These agreements are designed to assist employers in adjusting to the new workplace relations system and will expire no later than 3 I December 2009. By this stage employers would have gained a greater understanding of the new system and as of the 1st of January 2010, Labor’s new National Employment Standards and modern simple awards will be up and running.

The ITEAs for employees, employers and union greenfields agreements must be lodged with the Workplace Authority Director. If an ITEA fails the no disadvantage test, introduced in this legislation, the agreements would cease to operate and in some circumstances compensation may be payable to employees. This is a big change from what occurred under Work Choices.

With so many Award conditions lost by workers during the time of Work Choices, it is clear that the Government’s `fairness test’ was unsuccessful. This view was supported by The Women’s Electoral Lobby and national Pay Equity Coalition in their submission to the Senate Inquiry. They ‘support the abolition of the ‘Fairness test’ and its replacement with a more effective ‘No disadvantage test’ that ensures that rights and entitlements contained in collective agreements and awards cannot be avoided through the use of AWAs.’

In November last year the number of agreements failing the fairness test more than tripled, with almost 5,000 workers found to have had their wages and conditions cut without adequate compensation. What is even more disturbing is that there were almost 150 000 workers in the queue to have their job contracts scrutinised. With many of the agreements failing the test, it is likely that a large proportion of those 150 000 workers waiting to have their agreements checked, were also suffering under poorer working conditions.

The number of AWAs that failed the fairness test is indicative of the confusion caused by Work Choices. It shows that the millions of taxpayer dollars spent trying to inform employers and the public about `Work Choices’ was a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. The Bill today repeals the requirement for employers to provide a copy of the Work Choices workplace relations fact sheet to their employees. We saw the requirement that companies had to distribute Government propaganda at the expense of the taxpayer as the outrageous waste that is was.

With this legislation, Labor is introducing a new no disadvantage test for collective and individual workplace agreements. The test will apply to all collective and individual agreements made after the commencement of this legislation. Under this legislation, only workplace agreements, agreement variations and terminations that meet fundamental requirements will come into operation.

Another important aspect of the Bill is that it begins the process of award modernisation for the establishment of a modern award system for Australia. The Bill stipulates that the Australian Industrial Relations Commission must give regard to an awards system that is simple and easy to understand and that reduces the regulatory burden on business; that provides a fair minimum safety net of enforceable terms and standards; that is economically sustainable and promotes flexible work practices; and that is in a form that promotes collective bargaining. Labor expects that the vast bulk of award modernisation will be conducted by the end of 2009.

I look forward to the introduction of a more detailed workplace relations Bill which will be introduced into Parliament later this year. This Bill will ensure that by the 1st of January 2010, Labor’s fairer and more flexible workplaces relations system will be in full operation. Until such a time, it is with great pleasure that I commend the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008 to the house.