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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 8606

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (12:13): The Greens are pleased that this legislation has come before the parliament. From the beginning of the campaign by the ASU and others, including workers in the sector, the Greens have been supportive of the pay equity case. That is because we appreciate the value of the work of the not-for-profit and charity sector on which we have just had a lengthy debate in this chamber when discussing the Australian charities and not-for-profit commission. During that debate we talked a lot about the important role that charities and not-for-profits play in our civil society and our democracy. The sentiments expressed then have continued in the debate on this bill. Those not-for-profits and charities could not deliver the services they deliver without the work of those working in the not-for-profit sector. It has been well recognised that those working in the not-for-profit sector are largely women, and for decades they have been significantly underpaid and doing the work that they do because of their commitment to community and their commitment to the people they work with and support. So a lot of the work that has been done, let's face it, has been done due to their sense of commitment, their love for their work and their commitment to the people and the organisations that they work with.

Many of them have been working for very, very poor pay rates compared to what they could get, say, in the Public Service or in the private sector. Having worked in the not-for-profit sector I can speak with authority on this issue. You do the work because you love it but, I have to say, it does not pay the mortgage, the power bills or the rent—if you are not lucky enough to own your own home—and it does not pay the essential food bills. So the findings of Fair Work and this legislation are very important in trying to close that gap and give pay equity to these workers who, for so long, have contributed to a better Australia, have filled the gap when it comes to services that government has not provided, and have picked up after government decisions. Those workers who work in emergency relief organisations are filling the gaps.

As I have articulated in this place on numerous occasions, Newstart is $130 below the poverty line. Where do you think single mothers and single parents who are living below the poverty line get help from? They go to charities and the not-for-profit sector for emergency relief. It is the workers in those emergency relief organisations that are supporting these people through emergency relief, financial counselling, family counselling, mental health services and aged care—but most of the workers there are under a separate determination. These workers are the people who keep our society going. They are critical. Without them we would not have a well-functioning society—or a society that is functioning as well as it is. They are absolutely critical to the delivery of services and to our democracy. Civil society is an important part of our democracy.

The Greens indicated right from the start that we were supportive of that case, and I am pleased to see that we have now got to the point where we are discussing legislation that will deliver these outcomes—albeit that people are going to have to wait eight years. Although people do tend to stay for long-term periods in the not-for-profit sector, that is a long time to wait to see the final outcome of this legislation. Having said that, the Greens will be supporting this legislation. However, I do have some issues that I would like to traverse here. I would like to raise some issues that the Australian Council of Social Services has raised. Also, I indicate now that I have a few questions for the Committee of the Whole, which have been brought to my attention particularly by the not-for-profit sector, in terms of how this will actually operate. I do not have amendments, but if the minister can answer these questions in his summing up I will be more than happy to take those answers. If he cannot, I would like to traverse a couple of questions in Committee of the Whole.

I have been pursuing this issue over a series of Senate estimates. Some answers have been satisfactory and some have not been satisfactory. Subsequently, in discussions with the not-for-profit sector, I had concerns articulated to me about how some of this process is going to roll out. Having said that, as I said, we are supportive of the concept, but there are concerns about the process of how it is going to go roll out. While I do not share all the sentiments expressed in Senator Cash's contribution in this debate, I do share her concerns around how this will play out for the not-for-profit sector and ensure that they are still able to function in a viable manner.

ACOSS point out that they are supportive of this piece of legislation but they also have some concerns. They articulated in one of their briefing papers that one of the greatest challenges arising from the equal remuneration case has been to quantify the cost of the higher wages and ensure that representative government's supplementation funding will cover these costs. Recognising that there would be key challenges at the outset of the process, ACOSS have strongly advocated for a nationally consistent approach to government supplementation funding in responding to this case.

There we have an initial problem and there are a couple of issues that come up here. The way this is being delivered to not-for-profit organisations is that each government agency is going to be providing a letter of offer to each not-for-profit organisation or charity that it has a contractual relationship with. A number of not-for-profits have a lot of government grants—and we traversed in the previous debate the issue of red tape—across a number of agencies. While this deals with, I think, eight government agencies, some have regular, ongoing contracts with, say, three or four. So some organisations will be getting four different letters of offer from the Commonwealth. That is if the contract is directly with the Commonwealth. They will be getting four different letters. Admittedly, one letter will cover all the different grants an organisation has—which is better, I acknowledge than getting a letter about each grant—but they will still be getting three or four.

If they have a relationship with a state government that is part of a national agreement or a national partnership arrangement—and I traversed some of these issues in Senate estimates the week before last—the Commonwealth then negotiates with the states, not with the not-for-profit, even though the funding potentially is coming from the government via the partnership or agreement, as I understand it, and if the state is contributing some of the funding arrangement for that. That is another way that funding will be delivered. So you can see already that not-for-profits will be dealing with a number of entities over this. You can see why confusion is setting in. In my home state of Western Australia we have already had a process where the state government has put in a substantial amount of money. I have in the past taken my hat off to the Barnett government in this respect, in that they have already contributed a large amount of money to help the not-for-profit sector in the Western Australia. I acknowledge that it is not perfect, but it is making a significant difference and there has been significant progress made between the not-for-profit sector and the Barnett government over that amount of money. So here you have a sector that is already dealing with a state government in that process—which, I understand, has been quite long and complex.

I am not across the Queensland issue as much as I am across my home state's situation, but last year we were traversing the issue in Queensland because not enough money was being contributed to the process in Queensland. Some states have already made some progress. The New South Wales government was in the media a couple of weeks ago saying that it did not think the intended offer from the Commonwealth was enough.

However, I go back to where the individuals are with their negotiations with the Commonwealth. The not-for-profits get an offer from a Commonwealth department and it may or may not be adequate and they may in fact contest it. As I understand it, there is a process whereby they can contest that. I have now established through estimates—and I would like to know if this is in fact correct—that if I am not-for-profit A and I contest an offer from DEEWR, for example, it will not affect the offers that I have from the other agencies that I deal with if I am happy with the offer. Originally, there was a suggestion going around that if, as not-for-profit A, I contest that offer, that puts all my offers on hold.

Bear in mind that if I, as not-for-profit A, have three or four grants and am negotiating with three or four agencies at the same time, then I am also trying to work out what is going on through any grants, money or projects I have via a national partnership agreement where the money is being delivered via the state. Then I have to deal with the state over that process. So that is another complicating factor. These are the sorts of issues that I would like to get a bit clearer.

I think that is one of the reasons that ACOSS were strongly advocating for a more nationally consistent approach. They were also really clear that the full range of work undertaken by the not-for-profit sector needs to be taken into consideration and that funding needs to be delivered, determined and allocated through a transparent formula—and I have just traversed some of the complexities about negotiating this outcome.

I am not trying to minimise the fact that this is a complex situation, but it is very difficult for the not-for-profit sector to deal with this complex situation when what they are trying to do is deliver services to the community. This is time taken away from their real missions and real work.

The offer that the Commonwealth will be making will be based on their assessment of what work is undertaken by the organisation as part of Commonwealth related activities and under the industrial relations instrument. That is where it gets complicated for my home state of Western Australia, because Western Australia has not referred its industrial relations powers. So there is some disquiet and potentially some disagreement between what the Commonwealth have calculated as their contribution to the services that are provided by those workers that are employed under the federal industrial relations system.

I have traversed this issue in estimates as well, and I understand from the answers that I got in estimates, in particular from the discussion I had with DEEWR—it is all very well getting reassurance from DEEWR, but I would like the government to confirm this—that, regardless of how the Commonwealth has calculated the percentage of people employed by not-for-profit organisations in Western Australia that come under the ambit of this particular mechanism, if their calculation is wrong, they will still ensure that, if it is a higher percentage, all of those services will in fact be paid. So I am seeking government assurance on that particular point.

The other issue, which touches on the issue that I traversed before, is the implementation cost of this to not-for-profit organisations. I think this is where Senator Cash was going in terms of the impact it has on not-for-profits in terms of implementation. All the not-for-profits that I have spoken to—and I speak to a great many—support this mechanism. I am not for one minute saying the not-for-profit sector are not supporting this mechanism. But what they are very clear about is that there is an implementation cost around these particular issues. ACOSS termed it as an industry support package to ensure that there is additional support to the sector to be able to address this particular issue. I understand the government has not taken up that issue, but I would like to ensure that there is some measure of support for the not-for-profit sector to be able to engage in the ongoing process of negotiation, because it is very time consuming, particularly, as I understand from Senate estimates—and it would be good to have this confirmed—that offers will be going out some time in late November. I would like to confirm what the timing is for the offers that would be made through the state and federal negotiation process—the agreement/partnership process. What has been put to me by the not-for-profit sectors is they particularly would like to know—and it goes to that issue I raised earlier around appeals—the process by which services can appeal the offers made of government funding. They believe it needs to be an independent mechanism to determine the basis on which governments or departments determine services covered by the equal remuneration order, as well as to review the quantum of offers they have made. I would specifically like the government to address that issue.

They also have ongoing concerns that the process of supplementation funding by the Australian government should include an independent process of audit or evaluation throughout the life of the implementation period to ensure that the value of the equal pay decision is maintained. They appreciate—and I appreciate—that these bills are not specifically about that, but quite frankly we are not going to get an opportunity through this place to traverse these issues. They are fundamental to how this funding is going to roll out. They are fundamental to the ongoing viability of the not-for-profit sector.

I would appreciate the government answering those questions, if they can, during the summing up contribution. The not-for-profit community is vitally interested in these issues, in particular in my home state of Western Australia where we do have the added complexities of (a) not being part of the federal industrial relations system and (b) having already been through an equal pay equity process. I am not critical of that. Western Australia is in a lucky situation in that respect, but it does bring with it some additional complexities. I would like to traverse those issues through either the summing up or the Committee of the Whole. I promise I will do it very quickly.