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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1275

Senator PATTERSON (2:10 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Senator Wong. Given that Labor yesterday voted with the coalition to continue the former government’s unfair dismissal regime, will the Rudd government now restore the $1.8 million which was set aside to help disabled people contest unfair dismissal and which the razor gang cut so callously?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —As the Senate will know, a most unfortunate aspect of the former government’s Work Choices laws was the fact that it took away unfair dismissal protections of Australian workers. As the Senate will also know, what has had to occur as a result of that is an apparent increase in claims to other forums, and it was reasonable to expect an increase in claims to forums such as HREOC. The reality is that the Howard government’s Work Choices laws forced many Australian employees to seek some relief elsewhere. We, as a government, have a commitment to unfair dismissal laws which will be fairer, simpler and easier to access. As the opposition knows, we have, consistent with our election policy, committed to introduce those remedies as part of our substantive industrial relations reform. If opposition senators are so concerned about ensuring these remedies return, I look forward to their support for the substantive bill when it is introduced into this chamber.

These new unfair dismissal laws will restore protection against unfair dismissal to nearly double the number of employees from an estimated 3.5 million under the current system to an estimated 6.5 million. I want to make the point that the Rudd government is committed to taking action to assist people with disabilities, including through Minister O’Connor and Parliamentary Secretary Shorten, and working with disability groups to develop a national mental health and disability employment strategy. We have committed to a national disability strategy to increase participation, social inclusion and support for people with a disability and their carers. We are consulting with disability groups on the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and progressing a review of disability standards for accessible public transport. We are also moving ahead with the development of disability standards for access to premises.

The reality is that the budget provision from the previous government provided funding to HREOC to deal with an increase in employment complaints generally following the former government’s Work Choices laws which removed unfair dismissal protection for employees of businesses with fewer than 100 employees. The reality is that this is funding that the previous government had to introduce because of the removal of unfair dismissal rights within the Work Choices regime. As you know, the Rudd government will reinstate those rights in accordance with our policy. If those opposite are concerned about ensuring people have access to reasonable unfair dismissal rights, we look forward to their support.

Senator PATTERSON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, thank for you for all you had in your briefing notes, but it was not an answer to the question I asked. Yesterday you agreed to the continuation of the unfair dismissal laws. Minister, it is a simple question and a simple answer: yes or no. Will the Rudd government restore the $1.8 million that had been set aside to help disabled people contest unfair dismissal? There is no in-between. Will that be continued, yes or no?

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) —I note the opposition’s comments on this issue, and I also note that this was a savings measure which was first identified in February of this year. It is interesting that it has taken until now for the opposition to try to jump on board—that is, not until it was in the paper. I have to say the hypocrisy on the other side of the chamber on this issue is breathtaking. When the Howard government came to power it slashed the human rights commission’s budget by 14 per cent.

Opposition senators interjecting—


Senator WONG —As I said, the hypocrisy on the other side of the chamber is extraordinary. This government is reversing spending by the previous government which was introduced as a result of their extreme Work Choices laws. When the Howard government came to power it slashed the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s budget by 40 per cent and cut a third of its workforce. I am advised the Work Choices funding was the only new funding provided to HREOC—the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission—by the Howard government. You have no credibility on this issue whatsoever. (Time expired)