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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 96

Mr SECKER (6:42 PM) —I always find it amazing when someone from the opposition—or in this case an Independent—gets up here and says that this is entirely undemocratic. I hate to inform the member for Calare, but we did actually have an election that voted in those people in place in the Senate and here in this chamber. It was entirely democratic and to suggest anything else is ridiculous.

It is my great pleasure to speak today in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005. The Work Choices bill is about delivering a simpler and fairer national workplace relations system to the people of Australia. It will be a system that will make it easier to enter into agreements that suit individual workplace needs. Since coming to government in 1996 we have been continually pushing to provide Australians with a national workplace relations system that accurately reflects the reality of a modern national economy. The coalition are committed to making the workplace relations system better for Australian workers and employers. We have seen significant reforms during this time, including the introduction of flexibilities and a reduction in third-party intervention.

The archaic system currently in place bamboozles businesses and workers, and it needs to be changed. It needs to be not only changed but simplified. Currently in Australia there are six different workplace relations systems, with thousands of federal and state awards. For employers and workers, this is extremely difficult to operate under and causes unnecessary confusion and uncertainty. I regularly see in my electorate examples of these complexities making the lives of employees and employers harder. They must deal with overlapping obligations imposed by state and federal regulations and excess paperwork, and in the case of my electorate many businesses operate on both sides of the border and often have to deal with the Victorian, South Australian or federal systems. This excess paperwork is unnecessary, and we simply cannot impose this on the nation’s work force any longer.

Australia is currently working under a system that was designed in the 1900s to resolve industrial disputes and protect minimum wages prior to the introduction of a welfare system. We do have a welfare system now; we did not then. Times have changed significantly since Federation, and the conflict and disputation model, which was a cornerstone of the original legislation, is simply irrelevant in the 21st century. We now have an industrial relations system based on agreements between employers and employees, and it would seem reasonable and sensible for our workplace relations legislation to reflect this.

This government has recognised that we are no longer living in the 20th century, and, unlike the opposition, it is making and supporting changes that will bring industrial relations into the 21st century for the benefit of all Australians. The changes before the House today are the next step in a process started by the Keating government in 1993, which saw a change from a centralised award system to workplace bargaining. This government has continued working towards this since coming to office in 1996, and the benefits are evident.

The Business Council of Australia recently estimated the benefits of changes to the workplace relations system to be equivalent to $4,200 in additional income per person per year in 2004 alone. This is a pretty amazing statistic, and I am sure if we took back this amount from the hip pockets of Australian workers they would have something to say about it. The average unemployment rate would be sitting around 8.1 per cent if it was not for the workplace relations reforms brought in by this government. Instead, we are enjoying an unemployment rate of five per cent, the lowest in 28 years, and we intend to reduce that further.

Furthermore, we have seen a significant decrease in the number of industrial disputes. The average level of industrial disputes under Labor was 192 working days lost per 1,000 employees. Last year, the level of industrial disputes was 45.5 working days lost per 1,000 employees. That is an extra 146.5 productive, constructive days per 1,000 employees. Frankly, I think that speaks for itself.

It really is a workers’ market out there at the moment, and we will see—in fact, we are seeing—employers competing to hold on to their workers. They are not going to sack them without good reason. Quite simply, they cannot afford to. I have seen many examples of this in my electorate of Barker. There are many employers going to extraordinary lengths to attract and retain workers. There are businesses in Barker paying unskilled workers well above award rates, plus covering accommodation, meals and travel, just to ensure that they have people on board to do the work.

The cornerstone of the Work Choices legislation is the creation of a single national system, free of unnecessary complexities, red tape and duplication. There is simply no sense in having 130 different pieces of industrial legislation or 4,000 awards. We have six different workplace relations systems operating across this country, and we wonder why people are fed up with industrial relations. There are simply too many rules and regulations, making it extremely difficult for employers and workers to get together and reach an agreement in their workplace. We know that the benefits of instituting workplace agreements are wide, varied and substantial, so it would stand to reason that if we can make this process easier and more appealing we should move forward and do it.

But this is not just what the government wants; the businesspeople of Australia also want this. In fact, in a recent survey undertaken by Australian Business Ltd it was found that some 92 per cent of businesses wanted the state governments to sit down with the federal government to develop a unified workplace relations system, which would in turn increase the numbers of workplaces entering into workplace agreements. We are delivering this to the people of Australia. We are delivering this because the benefits are great and the repercussions of holding on to the archaic system we have are even greater. We must not stand still. The passage of this bill will see some 85 per cent of all Australian workers covered by one national system—Work Choices—and it will be a historic day for all Australians.

Work Choices will see the establishment of the Australian Fair Pay Commission. This independent body, which will have at its heart the economic prosperity of Australians, will consult with stakeholders to set and adjust minimum wage and award classifications. After the first determination, expected by spring 2006, wages will be set in stone, guaranteeing all Australians that their wage will never fall below that level. This will provide peace of mind for workers and employers. For the first time in history, workers’ basic rights will be protected by law. Never before have workers been guaranteed those employment conditions that we consider to be truly Australian—those that are at the heart of being Australian and those that make Australia a great place in which to live and work.

With the passage of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005, we will be delivering four minimum standards to each and every worker in Australia. We will guarantee each and every worker a minimum of four weeks annual leave, with the option of paying out up to two weeks of that. We will guarantee that, in the unfortunate circumstance where a worker needs to take personal or carers leave, they will have access to 10 days paid personal leave—and, if they need a little bit more, two days unpaid will also be available—and two days compassionate leave. Becoming a parent is a special time in people’s lives. I have had that great pleasure myself. The Australian government recognises this, and for the first time we will guarantee, inclusive of maternity leave, 52 weeks of unpaid leave for either parent after 12 months of service. Furthermore, we will guarantee a maximum of 38 ordinary hours of work each week.

The Work Choices bill will make it much simpler for employers and employees to enter into workplace agreements. Simplifying the process will have many benefits, but the most important thing to remember in all of this is that it empowers the workers. In this modern society workers are being given more and more responsibility; they are more accountable and they want to make a contribution. They are not only becoming more involved in business outcomes; in many instances, they are driving them. We trust them to run our businesses; it seems reasonable, then, that we trust them with their own employment conditions.

Direct bargaining is the best method of deciding employment conditions. We have witnessed that it has a direct impact on productivity, which in turn increases and sustains prosperity and living standards. Work Choices will make this process much simpler. All agreements will take effect on the day of lodgment with the Office of Employment Advocate. Termination, variation and extension can be arranged by agreement. Workers and employers alike will be protected and supported through this process by a range of new measures being introduced and the preservation of current employment bodies. The Office of the Employment Advocate will provide advice to both employers and employees, ensuring that both parties understand the agreement being formulated and the implications of it. The expanded Office of Workplace Services will be empowered to assist, enforce and prosecute breaches.

Work Choices will see small and medium businesses with fewer than 100 employees exempt from unfair dismissal laws. One particular thing I hear from time to time from businesses in my electorate is that they are always worried about unfair dismissal laws. I have had so many cases of employers saying how they have been unfairly treated over this. They have ended up paying the usual $10,000 or $20,000 go-away money, because it is cheaper than going through the court process.

This bill does not mean that employees will be without protection. They will continue to be protected against unlawful termination on the grounds of race, colour, sex, age, union membership, pregnancy, family responsibility and refusal to agree to an AWA. The government has achieved much through industrial relations reform, and these achievements will increase with the passage of this bill. We all know that the Labor Party will continue to oppose industrial relations reform and we all know why. The important thing is that this government is looking out for the workers of this country and the employers, and Australians will benefit from the changes proposed in Work Choices. Work Choices quite simply makes sense, and it is with great pleasure and anticipation that I commend the bill to the House.