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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1135

Senator CAROL BROWN (9:55 PM) —It is indeed with much pleasure that I rise to add my voice in support of the Fair Work Bill 2008. On behalf of the thousands of Australian workers who were forced to suffer at the hands of the previous government under Work Choices, I make a contribution to reflect on and to savour the significance of the introduction of this bill. During my contribution back in 2005, when the former government used its dominance in this place to rubber-stamp its Work Choices agenda, I said that, when it comes to the industrial relations system in this country, ‘it is about basic values and the lives of real Australian families’; it is about the value at the heart of this nation—a fair go for all.

While the previous government spent a huge amount of money on—indeed, as Senator Feeney stated in his contribution—an ‘avalanche’ of propaganda trying to convince Australians that these ideas were good ideas, it never worked. The election of the Rudd government with its clear mandate to get rid of these unfair laws is a direct reflection of that, as was the loss by the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, of his own seat. He is only the second PM to do so. The Rudd Labor government is committed to removing Work Choices and creating a fairer and simpler workplace relations system for all Australians. Indeed, it was arguably the government’s commitment to workplace reform that provided one of the strongest platforms for its election. An industrial relations system which balances fairness with flexibility is crucial in economically turbulent times.

Workers deserve to have their basic rights protected and to enjoy a reasonable degree of certainty when it comes to going to work. After all, in a lot of cases, it is not only their livelihood but also that of their family that is at stake. The bill delivers on the government’s commitment prior to the last election to get rid of the Howard government’s extreme and unfair Work Choices laws. In doing so, the Fair Work Bill also delivers on the Rudd Labor government’s Forward with Fairness policy, which was released prior to the last election. This represented an historic day for Australian workers and their families who, under the previous government’s Work Choices legislation, had their basic rights and working conditions stripped away.

We must not forget the situation that was allowed to occur under Work Choices, nor should we ever fall into complacency, believing that such a situation will never be allowed to occur again under a coalition government. Still today the coalition is not committed to delivering the government’s mandate. Still today Work Choices is not dead. Still today there are those who are desperate to hang on to a discredited, unwanted and shameful piece of legislation. Mr Howard might not be here but his policy legacy and his acolytes are.

Let me just take a moment to remind senators of the devastating impact that Work Choices had on workers. In Tasmania, on 12 September 2007, Allison from Devonport and Ellen from Burnie were sacked by Video City for ‘operational reasons’. They were really sacked for refusing to sign an AWA and for seeking union assistance. This is what they had to say:

It impacts on your whole family and your self-esteem. I didn’t like being forced out of work for no good reason, and it was a job I really enjoyed.

Louise and Debby—Debby is a young woman whom I grew up with in Warrane—worked at a hotel that has had many different names over the years. They were sacked for refusing to sign an AWA. The Mornington Inn, as it was called then, was prosecuted and fined for duress, but Debby and Louise were not reinstated. They did not get their jobs back. This is what Debby and Louise had to say:

I had worked there since I was a teenager. When they gave us the AWA I was numb. It was such a big, unfair change.

They are real life experiences and, as we all know, there were many thousands more just like those.

Those opposite would have you believe that any fairness in the workplace should be sacrificed in light of the current global uncertainty and that the Fair Work Bill will have a negative effect on employment levels. They will say and do anything to hang onto this extreme piece of ideologically driven legislation. In the chamber Minister Julia Gillard had this to say on the latest coalition propaganda:

… every day they used to stand at this dispatch box and say that Work Choices was the thing that was propping the economy up. Not many opposition members make those claims now. They were silly then; they are silly now. Obviously, there are a variety of factors that go into the employment horizons in our economy. What the government has been saying very clearly is that we are not immune from the global financial crisis, and everything we have done has been to keep this nation in front and protect jobs. But one of the things we also need to do is make sure we do not leave employers and employees in months of legislative limbo and uncertainty about what the workplace relations laws of this country will be. In these difficult times we should be delivering certainty, stability, productivity and flexibility, and that is exactly what this bill does. We need employees to have confidence that their pay and conditions are secure …

This bill builds on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act, which ended the making of AWAs, introduced a genuine no disadvantage test for agreements and commences award modernisation.

This bill provides a framework of workplace rights and obligations that is fair to both employees and employers. It is easier to understand in terms of structure, organisation and expression and reduces the compliance burden on business. Indeed the bill is just over 600 pages, compared to the cumbersome 1,500 page Work Choices legislation. It contains six chapters: an introduction; terms and conditions of employment; rights and responsibilities of employers, employees and organisations; compliance enforcement; and administration.

The bill’s features include a fair and comprehensive safety net of employment conditions that cannot be stripped away. These are made up of the National Employment Standards, which apply to all employees and can not be overridden, and modern awards made by Fair Work Australia on an industry- or occupation-specific basis. The National Employment Standards provide protections for the most basic employment rights and conditions, including maximum hours of work, annual leave, parental leave, notice of termination and redundancy pay. The bill also includes a new framework for fair enterprise bargaining, with a focus on collective bargaining, rather than on individual agreements that were allowed to be used to ‘bargain down’ under Work Choices.

As the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Employment and Work Place Relations, Julia Gillard, said in her second reading contribution:

This bill delivers to the Australian people what we promised them—fair protections and a productive workforce.

While up until now the new Leader of the Opposition has been happy to take the populist line, declaring that Work Choices is dead, the tide has begun to turn, and he and those opposite, as we all expected, are now beginning to show their true colours—looking for every and any excuse to oppose the measures contained in this bill. What can we take from this? That, even after a good year in opposition and the election of a new leader, the Liberal Party will never guarantee not to return to a repressive Work Choices style of industrial relations system in the future.

We must never forget. Work Choices was an assault on Australian workers and their families. It undermined job security by leaving many Australians vulnerable to unfair dismissal. It left many lower paid workers at the mercy of employers who introduced AWA individual contracts which slashed basic rights and conditions, and it replaced the award safety net with just five minimum conditions. By doing so, Work Choices not only eroded workers’ rights; it threatened to erode the basic standard of living in this country, and what was allowed to occur was a race to the bottom, with many Australian families who could little afford it being progressively forced to forgo basic necessities and survive on less and less.

The Rudd Labor government made a strong statement to the Australian people before the last election that such an assault on Australian workers and their families had to come to an end—that the concept of fairness must once again be restored in the Australian workplace. This bill delivers on that commitment. Indeed, respecting the fundamental rights and conditions of Australian workers is essential if we are to progress this country and to secure a decent standard of living for all Australians. The Rudd government, unlike the previous Howard government, understands this.

The government’s new workplace relations system will provide a strong safety net that workers can rely on in good and not-so-good economic times. Indeed, this security takes on arguably increased significance in uncertain economic times. We need all Australians to be working together to increase productivity and drive employment growth. The challenging global economic conditions we are currently experiencing make it more crucial that we have a workplace relations system which is strong and fair and which helps drive the economy. That is why the government has made the new workplace relations system fairer and more balanced, protecting workers but at the same time not placing unreasonable demands on enterprise. Under the government’s new system, the pendulum has been brought back to the middle, drawing the rights of workers and their employers closer together, where they should be.

While the introduction of this long-awaited bill into this place will undoubtedly generate considerable debate, ensuring that not everyone will be completely happy, in drafting the legislation the government has taken the time to conduct an unprecedented level of consultation with stakeholders right around the country. The minister, I understand, has also taken the time to discuss its details further with the minor parties and Independents. The government has listened and it has consulted, and the result will hopefully be the passage of this bill and the introduction of a workplace relations system that is fair and balanced.

And, as I have mentioned, the bill takes on increased significance in these troubled economic times. This is no time for games, for scaremongering and for preventing the protection of the most basic rights of Australian workers. In stark contrast to what is being peddled by those opposite, now is the time when our workers most need fairness to be renewed in the workplace. Now is not the time to desert Australian workers, nor is it the time to sacrifice fairness in the workplace. I remind those opposite that not only are workers’ rights at stake, but their jobs and livelihoods are at stake. It is time to get the balance right.

I look forward to all Australians benefiting from the certainty offered by a fairer workplace relations system and I am glad, in some small way, to be here to witness the passage of this bill—the bill that ends Work Choices. And on behalf of Australian workers and their families, I wholeheartedly commend the bill to the Senate.