Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1126

Senator FARRELL (9:17 PM) —I thought Senator Bernardi would have had more empathy with the spirit of this bill given his recent treatment by his own boss. I am disappointed that he is not more empathetic with the spirit and the aims of this legislation. It is with a great sense of pride and satisfaction that I speak in favour of the Fair Work Bill 2008. Like many other senators who were elected in the last election, I ran because I was fundamentally opposed to the then government’s Work Choices legislation and had the misfortune to witness firsthand the unfairness that it visited upon working people in their workplaces.

Senator Bernardi —What about Linda Kirk?

Senator FARRELL —Senator Bernardi, you should have far greater empathy for those workers who were so unfairly treated, like yourself, by their boss. Senator Abetz said today, when he led the debate for the coalition, that Work Choices was dead. But there is a feeling on this side of the chamber that perhaps it is not really dead; it is just in an induced coma. Work Choices, as far as the coalition is concerned, is not dead; it is just in an induced coma and it is waiting for that horrible day when the coalition may return to government. But if, as Senator Abetz said today, Work Choices is dead then we owe it to Work Choices to give it a dignified burial. How do we give Work Choices a dignified burial? Of course, we pass this worker-friendly legislation, and we pass it this week. That is how we do it. After all, this legislation cost you the election. There is no doubt about that; it cost you the last election. It cost you a prime minister. You lost a prime minister over that. At least for those reasons alone you ought to give Work Choices a dignified burial.

Senator Williams —Don’t you think you will ever lose an election?

Senator FARRELL —Not if you keep supporting Work Choices, we won’t.

Senator Cormann —We are not supporting it; you are supporting it.

Senator Cash —You are obsessed with it.

Senator FARRELL —You are the ones that keep talking. I am trying to finish my speech so as we can get on and pass—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Barnett)—Order! Senator Farrell, I ask you not to incite interjections and I ask those on my left to stop interjecting. I note that Senator Farrell listened quietly to Senator Bernardi on my left and I ask that the usual courtesies be shown to Senator Farrell.

Senator FARRELL —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will ensure that I address my comments through the chair. As I said, Work Choices deserves a decent burial, particularly for the way it affected working people—people like Annette Harris. Annette Harris was a worker for the Spotlight company, who was forced to sign an Australian workplace agreement on returning from holidays. She became the face of opposition to the Work Choices laws. As a long time John Howard supporter she became a symbol of how the Liberal Party had abandoned working families in favour of the interests of big business. One of the first retail companies to use the new legislation, the Spotlight chain offered Australian workplace agreements to its workforce that removed penalty rates and many conditions for just a 2c increase in their hourly rate of pay. My union, the SDA was able to get the company to reverse its decision in respect of Annette. It was powerless to help all the new workers the company was able to force onto Australian workplace agreements because of Work Choices.

Work Choices also needs a decent burial because of what it did to the technicians at Radio Rentals in Prospect, in my home state of South Australia. In one of the more shocking examples of how Work Choices contributed to the breakdown of employer and employee relations, Radio Rentals workers in South Australia were locked out of their workplace after wage negotiations broke down. The South Australian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, very ably led by Secretary John Camillo, took up the case on behalf of their members at Radio Rentals and let the world know their story. Upon taking protected industrial action during a bargaining period, the Radio Rentals technicians found themselves locked out of their workplace when they attempted to return to work. The company was trying to force the workers onto AWA individual contracts that offered just a one per cent pay rise but cut out all of their redundancy pay, worth many thousands of dollars. The resulting dispute was one of the ugliest that I have seen and brought unnecessary hardship on both the company and the technicians. The Fair Work Bill, I am pleased to say, specifically states that if the majority of workers want a collective agreement then they are entitled to one.

Work Choices also needs a decent burial because of what it did to some of the most disadvantaged workers in our community: trolley collectors. Work Choices often left workers on low incomes without union representation, without a decent award system and without many basic minimum working conditions enshrined in law. It often left them exploited and underpaid. There was no better example of that than the plight of trolley collectors, who tried unsuccessfully, year after year, under Work Choices to get even a minimum wage, much less any other community standards in the workplace.

Most importantly, Work Choices deserves a decent burial because of what it did to young and part-time workers in this country, many of whom work in the retail industry. An AWA allowed employers to undercut the relevant award in the industry and avoid having to pay overtime or leave loading. The retail industry’s workforce comprises lots of young people, many of whom work part-time hours. One of the silliest assumptions of Work Choices was that, somehow, vulnerable workers had an equal bargaining position with their employers in national and multinational corporations. Many young people simply did not have the experience, the confidence or the skills to negotiate on an equal basis with employers who often employed whole departments devoted to implementing Work Choices.

Not only do Australian workers and their families want to see a decent burial for Work Choices, they want to see the Work Choices casket placed in the grave and covered with six feet of soil. Most particularly they want the Fair Work Bill passed. So I am very proud to be supporting this legislation that goes forward with fairness, restores balance in the workplace and promotes the dignity of ordinary working Australians.

Industrial relations has always played a central role in Australia’s political history. An example of that is the Great Shearers Strike in the early 1890s, which in part led to the creation of the Australian Labor Party. Back then, workers found that industrial gains that they had made in the workplace were taken away by conservative legislators in parliament. So the ALP was formed to pursue a social justice agenda in parliament. It had early successes, setting up the unique compulsory arbitration system.

The Harvester judgment in 1907 was a significant moment in our history. In his landmark decision, Justice Higgins famously ruled that workers’ wages ‘must be enough to support the wage earner in reasonable and frugal comfort’. It was a victory for common sense and an acknowledgment that in a civilised and humane society workers need to be paid a minimum wage that allows them to, at the very least, get by in ‘frugal comfort’.

In 1929 Stanley Bruce became the first Australian Prime Minister to lose both an election for his party as well as his own seat. Stanley Bruce went to the polls in 1929 on a policy of dismantling the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. His aim was to rewind the precedent set by the Harvester decision and to implement a more laissez-faire industrial model favoured by the conservatives. This model was emphatically rejected by the Australian people, with the result that the Labor Party won the 1929 election in a resounding landslide. You might say, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ Eighty years later the coalition tried yet again to undermine the industrial relations system and dismally failed once again.

But until last week even the coalition did not come entirely clean on Work Choices. It was then that Peter Costello let the cat out of the bag. Work Choices was never an industrial relations system for the boom times. Work Choices was put in place for the hard times. It was all about taking away the rights of workers to protect themselves in an economic downturn. It is no surprise that Peter Costello has chosen this issue and this time to rejoin the national debate. Even with a cursory glance at the original Work Choices legislation, it is not hard to see why the legislation was so comprehensively rejected by Australian voters. Under Work Choices, workers were allowed—and in some industries were encouraged—to negotiate away their penalty rates, overtime pay, leave loading, allowances and meal breaks for essentially no increase in their hourly rate of pay. It has always amazed me that it took an election defeat for the coalition senators to see the fundamental unfairness in this system. Australian workplace agreements were at the forefront of the Work Choices policy. Work Choices sought to undo nearly 100 years of progress in industrial relations and was a complete ideological rebuttal of the Harvester decision.

The great irony in the industrial relations debate is the hypocrisy of the coalition’s position. They want to deny workers protection from the extremes of the market but are the first to call for protection when companies get into strife. They are happy for banks to get government guarantees but do not want workers to have protection from unfair dismissal. They support car companies getting government assistance but not job guarantees for workers in small car component firms who are unfairly dismissed. There is an important lesson to be learned by the Liberal Party from Work Choices: the Australian people are not interested in uncontrolled free-market ideology and extremism.

Australian workplace agreements, combined with no unfair dismissal laws and the many anti-union measures contained in Work Choices, created a system whereby all the power was in the hands of employers. While many employers sought to take advantage of workplace agreements, the consequential savings were paid out in largely undeserved higher executive salaries rather than being ploughed back into the business to grow it. The Fair Work Bill seeks to rectify the industrial imbalance created by Work Choices in favour of a system where the interests of both the workers and the employers are weighted equally against one another. And that is the way it ought to be. Both employers and workers have rights and responsibilities to one another. The industrial relations system of any nation should be designed to foster goodwill and cooperation between these two groups. This provision means that businesses will be encouraged to negotiate on a fair and reasonable basis with their workers and hopefully prevent disputes like the one at Radio Rentals. The Fair Work Bill is designed to provide a fair and just workplace relations system for Australia. It streamlines the industrial relations laws. The Fair Work Bill is only a third of the size of the overcomplex Work Choices legislation that stretched to over 1,400 pages.

The Fair Work Bill establishes 10 National Employment Standards that are conditions that cannot be traded away or undercut. These include: maximum weekly hours set at 38 for the ordinary working week; requests for flexible working arrangements where a worker is responsible for a child under school age, and the employer will only be able to refuse these requests on reasonable grounds; parental leave and related entitlements that will provide both parents with the right to separate periods of up to 12 months unpaid parental leave; annual leave whereby all workers are guaranteed four weeks annual leave and surplus annual leave above four weeks can be cashed out; personal carers leave and compassionate leave at 15 days; community service leave to protect workers participating in jury service or voluntary emergency management; guaranteed long service leave, most importantly; protected public holidays but employers able to make a reasonable request for an employee to work on a public holiday and the employee having the option to refuse this request; notice of termination and redundancy pay whereby all employees must be provided a written notice of termination and guaranteed redundancy pay calculated on their continuous service to the employer; and, lastly, the Fair Work information statement which outlines the National Employment Standards conditions to which workers are entitled must be provided by employers. The employment agreements can only be equal to or above the relevant award for that occupation.

The Fair Work Bill also provides all employees with access to unfair dismissal protection subject to qualifying periods. Workers will need to be employed for 12 months if they work in a small business of fewer than 14 employees or be employed for six months if there are 15 or more employees to have access to unfair dismissal provisions. This strikes the right and fair balance between the interests of small and medium sized businesses and their employees. Workers deserve to go to work without fear of being arbitrarily dismissed if they manage to annoy their employer.

The removal of unfair dismissal legislation by the previous government had serious implications for workplace occupational health and safety. By removing unfair dismissal protection the coalition government created a major disincentive for employees to raise concerns about unsafe work environments for fear of losing their jobs. And make no mistake about it: they would have lost their jobs had they complained. The Fair Work Bill will bring back a modernised award system to create certainty and clarity for workers in particular industries. The award system was undermined and neglected by Work Choices. Four-yearly reviews of each modern award will be conducted to maintain a relevant and fair minimum safety net.

To summarise, the Fair Work Bill finishes off the job started with the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act. It destroys Work Choices once and for all, and all Australians will be significantly better off for it. The Fair Work Bill will establish a fair, equitable and balanced industrial relations system in Australia that takes into consideration the interests of both business and workers. All workers’ conditions will be protected by the 10 National Employment Standards that I have already outlined. Workers will all now have access to unfair dismissal protection after a qualifying period, and the Fair Work Bill provides for a simplified award system that will be managed by Fair Work Australia. There are many other excellent aspects of the new legislation that time does not permit me to discuss. However, I sincerely believe that the Fair Work Bill will bring back balance to workplace relations in Australia and will prove to be the new foundation of future economic and social advances for our great nation.