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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 9927

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate and Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) (20:55): I thank senators for their contribution to this debate. This bill delivers on a number of significant commitments made by the government. First, we made a commitment to undertake a review of our Fair Work Act within two years of its full implementation. On 22 December 2011 the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations announced an independent panel of three experts to review the Fair Work Act. The independent panel reported to the government in June. The panel concluded that the Fair Work Act is working well and is meeting its objectives and that the economic outcomes under the Fair Work Act have been favourable to Australia's continuing prosperity. Fifty-three recommendations were made to the government by the review panel. Since receiving the panel's report, Minister Shorten has been discussing the recommendations with employers, employer organisations, unions, Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman, state and territory governments, and small business representatives. This has encompassed both formal consultations through bodies such as the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council as well as informal consultations with individual stakeholders. It became clear from these consultations that there was broad support for around one-third of the panel's recommendation. This bill implements these recommendations.

Second, before the election the government made a commitment to have the Productivity Commission inquire into and develop an open, transparent and competitive process for selecting default superannuation funds in modern awards. The Productivity Commission conducted its inquiry this year and reported to the government in October. This bill reflects the government's response to the Productivity Commission's inquiry.

I note that the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee conducted an inquiry into the bill. The Senate committee noted that the evidence before it indicated broad overall support for the bill and that what has been proposed by the government is the product of lengthy consultations and reflects an appropriate balance of the needs of both employer and employee groups. The committee recommended that the bill be passed, and I thank the committee for its considered report on the bill.

Before concluding I want to make a few brief comments in response to some of the issues raised during the debate on the bill. Firstly, with respect to the Fair Work Commission, the government proposes the name 'Fair Work Commission' for the national workplace relations tribunal. We consider this name reflects both the nature of the work of this important tribunal but also its place within the Fair Work system. The government considers the name 'Fair Work Commission' is entirely appropriate for an independent umpire overseeing the Fair Work system.

Regarding vice-president positions, it is important to clarify for the benefit of senators that the Fair Work Act does not provide for statutory vice-president positions within the Fair Work Australia structure. During the minister's consultations with stakeholders, the President of Fair Work Australia, Justice Ross, recommended that two vice-president positions should be created within the commission. Justice Ross recommended this change to ensure that senior legal specialists with high-level expertise are attracted to Fair Work Australia to assist him in the administration and management of the tribunal. Fair Work Australia deals with important and complex matters of industrial law and the government is of the view that it should be structured accordingly. It is the government's policy that appointment of members to the Fair Work Commission be through an open, transparent and merit based process. The criteria for appointment—

Senator Abetz interjecting

Senator JACINTA COLLINS: Senator Abetz scoffs at this point, and perhaps this is my time to reflect on some of Senator Cash's comments. Certainly Senator Abetz was around during the period I recall when Minister Reith was the minister. Indeed, some of the appointments such as that of registrar and others during that period included his senior advisers and in fact his chief of staff, so I do not think the opposition is in a particularly good place to scoff on this matter.

The criteria for appointment of vice-presidents will be set out in the Fair Work Act and are reflected in the bill. This reflects the approach taken in respect of other members of Fair Work Australia and previous iterations of the legislation. The criteria for appointment are the same as those for the president. The process of selecting the two vice-presidents will be open and transparent. It will be merit based. The positions will be advertised publicly. Anyone, including current members of Fair Work Australia, will be able to apply for the positions. An advisory panel consisting of senior officials from the Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations and the ASPC will recommend a shortlist of applicants, and the incumbent minister will then seek cabinet's endorsement for the appointments, as is the usual practice. The endorsed candidates will then be recommended to the Governor-General and Executive Council. Again this is the usual practice.

With regard to default fund superannuation, the government acknowledges points raised by organisations such as Qantas, BHP and ANZ in relation to the treatment of corporate funds under this bill. The government recognises that these comments are made in the interests of employees of those organisations and the government will ensure that there are appropriate arrangements in place so that funds operated by organisations like these can continue to receive default contributions within the parameters of MySuper and the expert panel arrangements set out in the bill. The government commits to introducing any required amendments in the first sittings next year to ensure appropriate arrangements are in place before the commencement of the new provisions in early 2014.

In conclusion, I note that in the public and parliamentary debates on this bill some have characterised the government as going too far and others have criticised the government for not going far enough. Others have raised reasonable policy points of difference. The government has clearly stated that we will continue to work with all stakeholders on the remaining recommendations of the review panel and that, where there is clear policy justification which reflects the government's policy principles, we will make appropriate amendments. Stakeholders want to get on with discussing other policy matters that are important to them.

This bill is largely uncontentious. This was the clear and consistent evidence to the Senate committee. This bill does not represent the last step in workplace relations reform. The government has referred to it as 'the first tranche'—and I note some senators opposite adopting the same language—because that is what it is. The government retains an open mind on all remaining recommendations from the Fair Work Act Review Panel, and none of them have been ruled in or out. We look forward to debating the opposition on workplace relations through the coming months. We are looking forward to hearing their views on unfair dismissals, on protecting the take-home pay of working Australians, on what they intend by way of reintroducing Australian workplace agreements and of providing support and protections for those balancing their work and family commitments. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.