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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1084

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (5:41 PM) —Yesterday, the people of Victoria and Tasmania had a public holiday to celebrate Labour Day. For many people this meant a day off from work to spend time relaxing with their families and kids, but this day represents much more than that. It represents the victory by the labour movement over 150 years ago for an eight-hour working day. As the slogan went: ‘Eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation and eight hours for rest’. Unfortunately today an eight-hour working day is just a fantasy for many Australians. It is something we daydream about, especially during the ninth hour, the 10th hour and the 11th hour of a working day. A recent study showed that Australians work the longest hours in the developed world with an average of 1,855 hours spent at work each year. That is 200 hours more than employees in other developed countries. What is more, over two million Australians work more than 50 hours per week.

One of the main reasons given for this rise in working hours has been job insecurity. The Howard government’s Work Choices laws did nothing to help job security and undermined the basic working conditions of hardworking Australian families. Work Choices gave workers only one choice: work harder or work somewhere else. Family First were the first political party to expose the holes in the Work Choices legislation, because we understood the effect this law would have on ordinary Australian families. Family First voted against Work Choices. Family First also introduced legislation to give back to workers their public holidays, meal breaks, penalty rates and overtime and to protect the redundancy rights that the Howard government had taken away. We voted against Work Choices because it got the balance wrong and workers could be easily ripped off.

The Rudd government has now introduced the Fair Work Bill 2008. The Fair Work Bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation to come before this place because it affects every single working Australian. Family First is committed to ensuring that this time we get the balance right. What is the balance? Family First believes it must be a balance between protecting the rights of workers so that they do not get trampled and making sure that businesses, especially small businesses, can operate competitively and without constraints so the economy can continue to grow, particularly in these difficult economic times.

Family First is concerned that the new Fair Work Bill swings the pendulum too far in favour of big unions, that the balance we are seeking from this bill is missing. We are concerned that some of the demands placed on businesses are in certain cases too harsh and need to be reviewed. In particular, we are concerned about the effects that some of these changes will have on small businesses, most of which are family based. We cannot be blind to the current economic environment. We cannot ignore the difficulties many small businesses are facing at the moment in trying to make ends meet and to stay afloat. We need a set of industrial laws which do not make things even harder for small businesses than they already are. We need laws which are fair for all. Most importantly, we need to make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The new IR laws which the Rudd government has put forward make things tougher for small businesses. They leave them vulnerable and exposed. We need to remember that small business owners, like all Australians, deserve protection from exploitation. Job security, business security and family security must be at the forefront of our deliberations and our decisions on this bill. The last thing we want is for small businesses to be wary of hiring new staff and for small businesses to become more vulnerable and exposed.

The Fair Work Bill needs to differentiate between the small business owners struggling every day just to keep their businesses afloat and large businesses who can ruthlessly sack thousands of workers when the going gets tough. Those are the same big businesses who treat their fat-cat executives with special privileges and give multimillion-dollar bonuses while sending their workers to the unemployment queue. That is why we believe small businesses should be exempt from the right-of-entry provisions. The right-of-entry provisions as they stand seek to turn unions into workplace policemen. Sharan Burrow, it seems, is the new IR top cop.

The Rudd government now wants unions to be transformed into a police force, responsible for going around to businesses, even small businesses, checking to see if there have been any breaches in the workplace. The police are a statutory body. They are responsible for all citizens and they are impartial. The unions, while important, are anything but impartial. The unions, while concerned for all workers, are responsible only to their members. Family First cannot support granting powers of entry to the unions which will turn them into a law enforcement agency to effectively become the IR police. If the government wants to set up a new police squad with powers of inspection, it should establish a statutory body so that it is done fairly and within defined borders. The Rudd government is proposing to allow unions to barge into the workplace and inspect employee records—even those records of workers who do not belong to the union. These powers are extraordinary. I would be surprised if the ordinary worker supported a plan that gives a union access to their private information—information which is about them, not about the union. We need controls on these powers.

Giving too much power to any one side is always a bad thing. It does not matter whether this power rests with big business or with unions, too much power results in one group having more at the expense of another. It moves away from what we are trying to achieve with this bill—that critical concern of balance and fairness. We do not believe unions should have the right to inspect non-members’ records. That is why we have privacy laws—to stop people looking at our confidential information where we do not consent. Unions must not sit above the law. If there is a genuine need for unions to access nonmembers’ records, this must be determined and done by a third party. Unions cannot be judge, jury and executioner.

Family First also believe we need to tighten the regulation in relation to the granting of entry permits. Permits should not be issued more than once for any single suspected breach. There has to be a clear end to the process. In addition, Family First will be pushing that unions should hold a reasonable belief that there has been a possible contravention of the act before they are entitled to enter the workplace. This belief must exist not only at the time they are granted the permit but right up until they are about to enter the workplace. Furthermore, should a union representative knowingly or recklessly proceed with entry after having sufficient information on hand disproving the allegation, businesses should have the right to take action. This will prevent permits being transformed into objects of abuse. Family First believes union representatives must give at least three days notice before seeking to enter the workplace. Family First understand that businesses have their own requirements and cannot be expected to drop everything at a whim. We believe three days is a reasonable compromise.

Family First also has concerns over the unfair dismissal provisions. Sadly, the government has the balance wrong with unfair dismissal. Family First believe unfair dismissal laws are important and are an essential part of the industrial relations framework, but we need to make sure that these laws do not stop small businesses hiring new workers and helping to grow the economy. The government has already acknowledged that small businesses need exemptions from unfair dismissal laws by having something in this legislation for businesses with up to 15 employees. This number is too low and leaves many small businesses unprotected. This number must be increased to 20 and calculated as 20 full-time equivalents. A small clothing shop which has only three workers in the store at any one time but has 20 casual workers on its books must not be classified as a large business.

Family First will also be seeking amendments to the provision regarding facilitated bargaining for the low paid. Small businesses must be exempt from this provision. It is ludicrous to push small businesses into a corner where they are forced into workplace agreements that they simply cannot afford. Exempting small businesses from this law is simply common sense. Moreover, we want the government to clarify who exactly is a low-paid employee. We need to understand the scope of this provision before we vote on it. The government has purposely left this term undefined.

Finally, Family First have concerns about the transfer of business definition outlined in the bill. We welcome the government’s acknowledgement that there are issues with this provision, and we understand that changes will be made in reviewing the provision. We look forward to seeing that. A more balanced set of workplace laws would be better for everyone. It would mean that businesses could continue to grow, and that would mean more jobs for Australians. We will continue to work with the Rudd government to get some changes made to the bill. We are hopeful the government will listen to our concerns and to those of all Australians. We are willing to work hard to make sure that we get it right, because this issue is too important to let political squabbling get in the way of the lives of ordinary Australians and small businesses. This bill must be about moving forwards, not backwards. Let us make sure that this time we get the balance right with workplace laws.