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Tuesday, 10 March 2009
Page: 1147

Senator CROSSIN (10:49 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to be able to stand in this chamber this evening and to make my contribution in the debate on the Fair Work Bill 2008 before us. The legislation has been considered by both houses of parliament under the very strong leadership of our Deputy Prime Minister. I take people back to 27 March 2006—almost three years ago this month—when we saw the introduction of one of the most radical pieces of legislation this country has seen with regard to workplace relations, industrial relations and the impact on workers in their workplace. That was the bill now known as the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2005 or Work Choices, as every single household and every single worker in this country has come to commonly call it. This was legislation that consequently diminished employees’ pay and conditions and their freedom of association. Their rights in the workplace were severely challenged under the previous government—the Howard government—by their Work Choices legislation. It was legislation relating to a policy that was not mentioned in any way in the 2004 election. When people stumped up to the polls in 2004 they had no idea that on the backburners of the National and Liberal parties Work Choices was in its embryonic form. Of course, there was no mention of it in the 2004 election, no capacity for people to either vote for or against such draconian legislation—legislation that was rammed through both houses of parliament. There was barely a four-week inquiry in the Senate at the time—if I remember correctly it was four days. There was dictation as to who the Senate would hear from—two days for the employers and two days for employee groups—and it was to be wrapped up within a week and rammed through with the numbers that the government had. It was put through both houses of parliament. If I remember correctly, the debate was guillotined and there was no notice taken of the public’s concern for such radical reforms.

I heard Malcolm Turnbull—who I think is still the current leader of the Liberal-National Party in this parliament—declare last week that Work Choices was dead. You would not think that that was the position being put by my colleagues from across the chamber tonight, all of whom have spoken against this piece of legislation but who cannot put forward alternative policies. They are too busy squabbling about who is going to be the leader in the next 24 hours. They are too busy squabbling about who might lead their party to put forward strong, constructive policies as an alternative.

In response to Work Choices, a community campaign sprang up right around this country, in every workplace, every household, every industry and every regional town, remote community and major city. People signed petitions. People wore orange T-shirts. People emailed. People conversed with one another in their workplaces. The Your Rights at Work campaign was born. The Your Rights at Work campaign was successfully kicked off by the ACTU, with local community campaigns held right across this country. It alerted people to, and educated them about, their rights at work. When the details of Work Choices became known, people did not like it. They did not like it to the point where it became an absolute millstone around the necks of the then government, which is why they are now sitting on the opposite side of this chamber. It is the biggest single explanation as to why the Howard government lost the last election. The campaign educated people on what the Work Choices changes meant to them. It encouraged people who were affected to speak out. It encouraged people to campaign and advocate for change.

We went to the 2007 Senate election with our industrial relations policy, entitled Forward with Fairness—not ‘backwards with retrovision’ as it was under the Howard government. Forward with Fairness included conditions such as protecting workers from unfair dismissals—a measure which had been removed by the former government. It meant implementing a safety net of 10 minimum standards that could not be undercut or undermined by employers. It gave employees the freedom and the right to become a member of a union if they so chose. It established Fair Work Australia, an independent umpire, to maintain fairness in the workplace and set fair minimum wages and conditions. It allowed awards to set employment conditions such as wages, penalty rates, allowances and superannuation, to name but a few. It reinstated those entitlements and workers’ rights that had been stripped from workplaces under Work Choices.

We released our Forward with Fairness policy in April 2007, so our policy and our plan have been out there for nearly two years. This was followed up with an implementation plan in August of the same year, allowing voters plenty of time to consider the detail prior to the last election. Industrial relations was one of the biggest policies debated at the last federal election. It was one of the biggest agenda items, first and foremost in people’s minds when they stepped up to the ballot box on election day. It was certainly a decider for voters. On 24 November 2007 they made their decision overwhelmingly and voted for Labor, forward with fairness into government.

In my own home town of Darwin, the former member for Solomon, David Tollner, bragged and boasted that his fingerprints were all over Work Choices. Luckily the voters in Solomon do not have to put up with that dirty work and those fingerprints anymore. They have been wiped clean now with the election of Damian Hale. I put it to you that David Tollner was one casualty of that bad policy that had such bad implications for people in the workplace. They did not like it and they chose to show the former government in no uncertain terms exactly what they thought about it.

The bill currently before us delivers on our election promise to rid Australia of Work Choices and replace it with a fair and balanced workplace relations system. ‘Fair and balanced’ are the key objectives and the essence of the Fair Work Bill. What were not fair and balanced were the provisions under Work Choices. This bill clearly reverses that agenda in workplaces. This is a system for workplace relations reform that will promote national economic prosperity and social inclusion for all Australians and all workers. It builds on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act, which came into force in March 2008. That act ended forever Australian workplace agreements. It ended forever the agenda that emanated from the HR Nicholls Society many years ago to ensure that workers were not protected by awards or collective agreements in their workplaces but in fact were the subject of individual contracts and agreements. So the end of AWAs occurred in March last year. The forward with fairness act introduced a no disadvantage test for agreements and began the process of award modernisation.

The Fair Work Bill clearly provides a balanced framework of workplace rights and obligations that is fair to employers and employees—something that Work Choices never achieved. The bill is at least 600 pages long. It is just under half the size of the Work Choices legislation. It is much easier to understand and easier to navigate in terms of its structure, its organisation and its expression.

Debate (on motion by Senator Sherry) adjourned.