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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1141

Senator WORTLEY (10:22 PM) —I rise to speak on the Fair Work Bill 2008. This legislation presents this chamber with a very important and serious opportunity: the chance to bring some fairness and some balance, some decency and some dignity back into workplaces across Australia. It is a chance to move towards restoring the rights and financial and job security of workers, a chance for employees to reclaim a reasonable work-life balance, a chance for workers to once again enjoy a fair way of striking a workplace bargaining agreement.

On 24 November 2007 the Australian people took up the metaphorical spade in the ballot box and they dug the grave of Work Choices. The opposition, while licking its considerable wounds soon after polling day, pronounced this disastrous policy’s last rites. And yet there are members of the Liberal and National parties who would like to see it revived. Some, including their leader in waiting, Mr Costello, have refused to rule out giving Work Choices CPR should they ever have the opportunity of returning to government. He told Channel 9 in relation to these changes:

[They] might have been OK in times of good growth, but will affect jobs in a downturn.

And yet the coalition brought in Work Choices during the previous world boom times. One must question Mr Costello’s logic.

It has been suggested to me that it would not be surprising to see some of those opposite gathered around a ouija board in a dimly lit Parliament House office late at night, attempting to invoke the dark Work Choices spirit. That coalition catchcry ‘Work Choices is dead’ smacks of insincerity and it sticks in the throats of those on the opposition benches forced to utter it.

Of course, ironically, those who support Work Choices are anything but champions of choice. It is a fact that this extreme legislation took choice away from the Australian workforce. It was enacted without consultation with the Australian people or a mandate from the Australian people. It stripped pay, conditions and, ultimately, dignity from many employees, including the most vulnerable and marginalised workers, among them the young, the financially stressed and women. Labor went to the 2007 election with a pledge to the public to repeal these draconian laws, to bury these laws that hurt families and hurt workers by attacking their rights at work; laws that attacked their overtime, their holiday pay, their public holidays, their redundancy provisions and their meal breaks, their rights of association at work; laws that attacked the Australian belief in a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and a fair go for workers; laws that undid a century of progress in industrial relations in this country; laws that made the words ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’ obsolete in a workplace relations context; laws that put almost all of the power in the hands of the employers and tied the hands of employees; laws that slashed unfair dismissal rights, fostered agreements which decimated the safety net and rendered the independent industrial umpire impotent; laws that left workers without an effective right to bargain collectively, marginalised unions and failed to create a truly national system; laws that were all about AWAs while awards were left to wither away; and laws that were unfair, unbalanced and ultimately un-Australian.

It was no surprise then that the Australian people rejected the Howard government and its Work Choices laws unequivocally. The Howard government—Mr Costello, Mr Turnbull, Ms Bishop, Mr Abbott and those now on the opposition benches—went too far and took away too much from too many. The Australian voters said they had put up with more than enough: enough pain, enough exploitation, enough abuse of power, enough of pitting employee against employer, enough of just letting the market rip; enough of the divide and conquer mentality. Still Mr Howard and his followers wanted more. In fact, those opposite, those sitting on the opposition benches, still want more.

The Fair Work Bill aims to deliver on the Rudd government’s election promises to move forward with fairness from some of the darkest days in workplaces and homes around this country. The new legislation will guarantee minimum standards for workers. It is designed to balance the needs of employers and employees and ensure that each has access to simple and clear information on their responsibilities as well as their rights. It will move towards re-establishing stability and certainty for workers and their employers—always important but never more so than during the current global financial crisis. Its passage through this place will see the workplace pendulum start to move back from the far right.

In stark contrast to Work Choices, which was rammed through the parliament once the Howard government gained a majority in the Senate, this bill has been born out of many months of consultation and negotiation. Unlike its predecessor, it stands firm on an overwhelming and undisputable mandate for change. The government went through an extensive and thorough consultation process—including regular meetings with union and employer groups and state and territory ministers—to develop this bill. The Fair Work Bill is designed to give workers renewed confidence, thanks to its structure for clearly outlined minimum wages. Workers will also enjoy a return to freedom of association in the workplace. Low-paid and vulnerable employees, those without access to collective bargaining, will not be forgotten by this legislation as it restores the rights of representation in the workplace. It gives a voice to those who did not have one under the previous heavy-handed regime.

These new laws have good faith enterprise bargaining at their heart, a move that will drive productivity. These laws are underpinned by a strong, durable safety net of basic worker conditions and entitlements. These basic rights include overtime and penalty rates, leave related matters, superannuation, consultation, representation, dispute resolution procedures, and minimum wages and classifications. These conditions cannot be traded away or undercut. It is fair to say this is a significant improvement on the Work Choices framework which was introduced into this parliament in 2005 and became law the following year. The Fair Work Bill’s safety net of enforceable and relevant minimum terms is reliable for all economic circumstances, whether in good or troubled times, such as those we now face. These National Employment Standards were developed after a full public consultation process.

Another major aspect of the new laws is the establishment of Fair Work Australia, a new independent industrial umpire which will replace various bodies, including the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the Australian Fair Pay Commission, the Workplace Authority and the Workplace Ombudsman. Its key functions will include minimum wage setting, ensuring good faith bargaining, award variation, approval of agreements, dealing with industrial action and resolution of disputes and unfair dismissal matters.

As I have already said, this bill and Fair Work Australia are the result of many months of consultation. The draft legislation was considered by an expanded committee on industrial legislation and was subject to an inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. There were public hearings across Australia involving the full gamut of stakeholders. As the Fair Work Bill continues its passage through the parliament we come ever closer to knocking the final nail into the Work Choices coffin. On that day Australian workers can be excused for celebrating—celebrating the end to a shameful chapter in our industrial relations history, celebrating closing the book on the disgrace known as Work Choices.