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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1091

Senator KROGER (6:12 PM) —I rise to speak on the Fair Work Bill 2008. In the past few weeks we have witnessed the uncertainty and concerns of many workers who face very real and challenging times. With Australia experiencing pressure from the global economic cooling, many enterprises have been forced to lay off staff. The case of Pacific Brands is but one example. They have sacked 1,850 people, many of them in my own state of Victoria, and regrettably they will not be the last company to do so. For instance, Australia’s largest property developer, Lend Lease, has also announced that it will have to axe 2,000 jobs—20 per cent of them in Australia—whilst ironically businesses such as employment agencies will directly benefit from a surge in demand for job placements.

The Rudd Labor government has demonstrated that it does not have a grip on steering a steady course through these uncertain times. It has no idea how to create new jobs or even how to secure existing jobs. In the December stimulus package Mr Rudd promised to create 75,000 new jobs. Today, there is neither any sign nor any talk of those jobs. With the rising unemployment figures the Rudd Labor government is clearly on the back foot defending its December stimulus package. All talk of new jobs has been quickly dispensed with and we certainly do not hear any defence of the $10.4 billion that was spent. Oh, how easy it is to spend money but how difficult it is to create wealth and stabilise employment. The first spending spree failed to prevent Australia posting its first quarter of negative economic growth in eight years. Our economy is contracting. As we now know the gross domestic product fell by 0.5 per cent in the December quarter, which is evidence that the stimulus package failed. The reality is that company profits are dropping, the economy is shrinking and there is the great fear that Australia will not be able to avoid the global economic erosion, as so many of us had hoped.

Today we are debating a proposal by the Rudd Labor government which, sadly, could make matters even worse. The coalition shares the widespread concern expressed by many employers about the impact of the reforms on business certainty and on jobs. We must be very careful, in our consideration of the Fair Work Bill 2008, to ensure that it does not threaten the livelihoods of many Australians by lengthening the unemployment queues. Some of the proposals are deeply troubling—flawed ideas such as simplified union entry rights, augmented unions’ access to staff records and new unfair dismissal rules. The economic outlook is bleak enough—a situation described by the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Carr, when he said so confidently that ‘no-one’s job is safe’. Treasury forecasts have indicated that economy-wide jobs growth will be zero or negative for the next two years, and unemployment is expected to go up by 300,000 over 18 months. Some economists are convinced Australia’s unemployment level could even reach nine per cent within the next 12 to 18 months. That is two per cent higher than the Treasury estimate. Businesses are deeply worried about these forecasts and the direct impact that declining demand will have on their commodities. They are concerned about the likely effects of the industrial relations reforms—and, may I say, with good reason.

This is a concern that seems to only resonate with the coalition. Coalition senators are worried that the new provisions will give unions far too much power and, as a consequence, could cost much-needed jobs. This bill has been drafted with the union movement uppermost in the mind of the government, a union movement that only represents 15 per cent of the Australian workforce. It is not the Labor government that has fought tooth and nail for the rights of all Australian workers. Coalition governments have, not just for 15 per cent of workers but for all workers. The Rudd Labor government spends much time rewriting history but, as we all know, substance and outcomes are the product of action, not words and spin.

There is no doubt that those opposite are ideologically blind when it comes to this bill. We have not forgotten that it was the unions who funded a $65.5 million campaign before the last election, the most expensive political campaign by any individual group or party in Australia’s history. We have not forgotten that it is the unions who continue to buy their influence in this place and who mandated a levy on each and every union member, before the last federal election, to fight the 2007 election. It is the unions who fight and jostle each other to determine which faction will be represented in which seat. In my patron seat of Deakin, the unlucky constituents have to live without proper representation in the shape of their local member, a former electrical trades unionist. Mr Mike Symon has little in common with the small business owners that reside in Deakin, has little appreciation of the daily challenges that families, parents and carers face and does not understand what it takes to run a business or what the core values are. They just want government to get out of their way and give them a level playing field so that they can create profits and sustain and grow employment. Today we must rise above Labor’s ideological blindness and act in the best interests of all Australian people—and this means including employers. We must strike the right balance between employees’ and employers’ rights. We cannot risk further job losses in these uncertain times.

The Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations held extensive hearings into the Fair Work Bill 2008. The committee considered 154 submissions and held seven days of public hearings throughout Australia. During these hearings, there was not one witness who stepped forward and said: ‘Leave the proposed bill as it is. We have no problems with it.’ In fact, the opposite was true. Unions, enterprises, industry, employer associations were all united in bringing forward suggestions as to how the bill could be improved.

What started with the election policy named Forward with Fairness is in many aspects very different to what we actually consider in this legislation today. Experts believe that the bill, in effect, attempts to turn the clock back. The Fair Work Bill goes back to well before Howard’s 1996 reforms and even to before Keating’s 1993 reforms in reshaping industrial relations. With this one bill, Labor eliminates major industrial relations reforms of the last 25 years with one flourish. It is hard to imagine how antiquated, decades-old IR laws are supposed to strengthen productivity and employment in these challenging times. Labor has dismissed the needs of employers once again. Just read the inquiry committee’s report and you will get the full picture, the full story. The list of employers’ concerns is long, including concerns about unions’ entry rights, demarcation disputes, access to employee records and greenfield agreements, to mention a few.

One particular concern is the controversial right of entry. The right of a union to enter a workplace where it has members has not been questioned and nor will it ever be. But the right of one or more unions to demand access to any workplace where they do not have members is of great concern. Democratic principles are something that we in the Liberal Party of Australia hold close to our hearts, and it is only right that the employees themselves should have the opportunity to determine if they wish to meet with union officials. Any legislation that takes away the right of employees to self-determine what is in their best interests should be considered with great scepticism. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard professed to support this principle during the 2007 election campaign, assuring all that ‘right of entry will not be changed’. Forward with Fairness contained an express commitment to retain existing right of entry provisions. Now, with the bill lying in front of us, we know this reassurance was only a hollow promise and not worth the paper it was written on.

In reality, both the scope of union right of entry and rights on entry have been expanded in the current draft of the bill. Employers and industry associations have expressed their concerns about this proposal. One witnesses at the Senate hearing, Mr Warren Stooke, Principal of Stooke Consulting Group, in giving evidence said:

Succinctly, the bill proposes that the right of entry be changed to the extent that an official or permit holder of a union will have the right to enter a site, whether or not there is an award or an agreement or even a member with which that union has a relationship. To that extent, that official would have a right of entry under the proposed bill to go in on what I would call a fishing expedition. All I can say is that that would probably come to no good and would be very destabilising to the existing relationship. So unless a union specifically has a historical relationship and demonstrable membership within that employer’s premises, then it would be inappropriate for a union to be given right of access as a fait accompli.

Many more share Mr Stooke’s position, among them the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Hotels Association and companies like resources giant BHP Billiton. The new proposed rules could lead to demarcation disputes between competing unions—or, as they themselves call them, ‘union turf wars’. The NSW Business Chamber chief Kevin MacDonald expressed his concerns at the hearings. He stated that the provisions could bring back those bad old days and, as a consequence, seriously harm businesses while rarely bringing any direct benefits to employees either. And it is benefits to employees that we should be on about here.

Of equal if not greater concern is the right this bill gives unions to inspect the records of all workers, regardless of whether or not they are union members. What right has any person to look at the private employee records of another without the express permission of that individual? It is something that we just would not consider in any small business or organisation. Why should a union be allowed to have access to non-union members’ employment records when those individuals have not chosen to be a part of that very organisation? How can an employer assure an individual of confidentiality and privacy? That is a right that every employee has to ask of their employer. There is no spin that can support this potential breach of privacy and the coalition holds grave reservations about the implications of this. Undeniably, this clause is designed to provide unfettered union power at the workplace. Unions will be able to enter the workplace and demand to inspect employees’ records if they suspect a breach of the law.

During the inquiry, the Australian Mines and Metals Association explained how easy it was to justify such drastic action. Workplace Policy Director Christopher Platt said:

Our concern in relation to the Fair Work Bill is, firstly, that the protections in relation to union access to employee information have been removed. It is not just a question of unions being able to access non-member records. Unions will be able to access any record of any employee in the business, and all they have to do is put together an argument to say that that is valid in respect of an alleged breach of the act or an industrial instrument. There is no fetter on that access; there is no person in Fair Work Australia checking that the access is reasonable.

At the moment, unions can under certain conditions access records belonging to their members. Why does this need to be expanded? Coalition senators did not hear any evidence during the inquiry for why this proposition should be changed. The appropriate checks and balances are absent in this instance.

Another area of particular concern to small business operators is the suggestion of change to the unfair dismissal laws. Whilst noting the general intention to reintroduce unfair dismissal rights, I question many provisions in the bill. Employers view unfair dismissal laws as a roadblock to hiring new employees and to possible investment in the expansion of their businesses. With the bill proposing a change to the definition of a small business to a headcount of 15 people, many businesses will consider retracting their operations or will maintain the status quo. In the current unstable economic climate, there will be many businesses with genuine operational reasons that will need to consider ways in which they can improve their businesses in order to look after their staff. In the words of Ms Leah Brown, Senior Workplace Adviser at Australian Business Industrial and NSW Business Chamber, who was a witness at the hearing:

With respect to unfair dismissal, ABI has serious concerns that the Fair Work Bill’s unfair dismissal provisions will be of significant detriment to small business employment. Small and medium enterprises in particular will be averse to engaging employees in an environment where they consider the hurdles to be overcome in the event of a separation expose the business to excessive administrative costs and financial risks.

In closing, the Fair Work Bill 2008 is everything but what it purports to be in name. It needs to strengthen not weaken our industrial relations system, to ensure that all Australians have the best chance in life. This bill should be one that is fair to all not just to the 15 per cent of the working population that are union members.

Sitting suspended from 6.29 pm to 7.00 pm