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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12044

Workplace Relations

Ms BRODTMANN (Canberra) (15:27): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations. Will the minister inform the House of the importance of fairness in the workplace?

Mr CREAN (HothamMinister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts) (15:27): I thank the honourable member for her question and make the point that we on this side believe it is absolutely crucial that there be fairness in the workplace. That is why we legislated Fair Work Australia. The reason we had to legislate Fair Work Australia is that the Howard government had stripped away the bases of any fairness in the industrial relations system. First of all, they had moved to a situation that effectively denied collective bargaining, trying to move everyone onto individual contracts, which we know were unfair. I have quoted in this House before the numbers of times and the percentages of cuts to conditions that happened under individual contracts versus collective bargaining.

There was also no requirement under the previous legislation for the employer to bargain in good faith. There were many examples where the employer simply refused to bargain. We have one example of a lockout—effectively a strike—but the place closed down for 13 weeks because the employer simply was not required to bargain in good faith. The third element of an industrial relations system is an important role for the independent umpire if the dispute cannot be resolved through bargaining in good faith. That is the position we find ourselves in now with the Qantas dispute. Clearly the employer, Qantas, had taken the view that they could not negotiate any further. But, rather than seek to get another crack at it, they took the extreme case of announcing that they were going to sack the whole workforce on Monday but grounding the airline in the first instance. The member for North Sydney talked before about employers who had come out and spoken about the risk to the integrity of industrial relations system in this country due to militant unionism. This dispute was not caused by the unions; it was caused by the decision of Qantas to ground its entire fleet. Where is the fairness in the assessment?

We have always understood the importance of getting the parties to bargain—to resolve the dispute, to settle their differences—but we have also understood that if the parties cannot do that then it may need to go to the independent arbitrator, through conciliation and ultimately through arbitration. That system potentially existed in the legislation that they had, but those opposite never would have practised it because their view was that it was in their political interests to keep a dispute going that was about cutting people's wages or conditions or tilting the balance back the other way.

We saw it with the Patrick dispute. We saw it when they allowed the introduction of people with Rottweilers and balaclavas to come in and sack a work force at midnight. That is the sort of industrial relations system the other side supports. We, for our part, believe in fairness and we will practise it using a legislative framework. This government is prepared to act in the national interest and that is just what we have done. We have the airline back in the air.