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
Thursday, 29 October 2009
Page: 7613


Senator BRANDIS (12:44 PM) —The coalition supports the passage of the Long Service Leave Legislation Amendment (Telstra) Bill 2009. The bill has the effect of continuing arrangements established by the Howard government relating to the treatment of long service leave for employees of Telstra. In 2006 the Howard government introduced the bill to ensure that employees of Telstra were able to continue enjoying the benefits of long service leave provided under the Long Service Leave (Commonwealth Employees) Act.

It did this in an endeavour to ensure that the transition from government to private ownership of Telstra occurred in a manner that was cohesive, workable and practicable. The Howard government did not wish to alter the working conditions for any employee working for that telecommunications company. At that time a transition period of three years was envisaged. As is now apparent, that period is soon to expire and there has become a need to extend coverage in the manner consistent with the approach and intention of the bill.

I can indicate to the chamber that the shadow minister whom I represent, Mr Keenan, has received communication from Telstra management to indicate that it supports the passage of the bill. I note with interest that the communication indicated that this bill is the result of an agreement between Telstra, its employees and the relevant union, in this case the CEPU.

Like many other keen observers of matters involving workplace relations, I was reminded that things within Telstra have not always been so rosy. Previously there were long-running disputes between Telstra and the CEPU about a wide range of matters. The disputes in that workplace were widely publicised and sometimes heated. Those disputes occurred for a number of reasons and involved a number of technical and perhaps even philosophical disagreements. However, in my view those disputes boiled down to one simple issue. That issue was whether or not Telstra had the right to speak with and engage its employees directly without having to go through a third party intermediary.

Telstra, of course, has previously adopted a position that I believe most if not all employers in this country would agree with—that being, if they want to speak with their employees directly, so be it. There is nothing wrong with management and workers sitting down to discuss issues that affect them both. This is called employee engagement. Those on my side of the chamber recognise that workers and management are the two most important and valuable participants in any employment relationship. The actions of workers influence the success of the business, and the success of the business influences the benefits and culture that the workers enjoy. Employment relationships are two-way streets. Both workers and management have obligations to one another. They both benefit from improving the lot of each other.

Facilitating employee engagement is something the coalition strongly supports. We believe that workers and management are best placed to work things out amongst themselves in a fashion that is amicable, effective and constructive. While third party interference is sometimes warranted, by and large it does little to achieve what could already have been achieved had workers and management spoken directly. Often, sadly, it results in situations that benefit neither the workers nor their managers. Strikes, protests, lockouts, stand-downs, placards and picket lines are all features of the disputes in workplaces where there has been the involvement of a third party. When these types of actions occur, everyone becomes a loser in the end. Productivity drops, workers lose pay and the culture of the workplace can be adversely affected.

In contrast, workplaces that adopt a focus on employee engagement are winners. There has been much research conducted into the benefits of direct employee engagement. For example, direct employee engagement leads to increased levels of emotional attachment. Employees who have a high emotional attachment are more likely to experience higher levels of personal reward for their efforts at work. They feel as though they are working towards a common purpose and have a higher level of personal fulfilment.

Direct employee engagement also leads to increased levels of employee empowerment. There is nothing wrong with having a workplace where employees know that they have a say and role in the broader direction of the business. Letting workers have a say should be a key objective of all workplaces. They make a contribution to a business and deserve their right to be heard.

Worker commitment levels have also been shown to be markedly higher in workplaces that engage employees directly. A committed employee is likely to experience better feelings of job security and is less likely to leave for another workplace. Morale is higher. Higher levels of empowerment, commitment and personal reward are all significant benefits for workers and workplaces generally. Of course, enterprise benefits from employee engagement, too. Once again, studies have shown that workplaces using direct employee engagement have less turnover, higher levels of productivity, higher levels of staff morale and increased levels of customer satisfaction.

When you take an approach of direct employee engagement everyone wins, and that is how it should be. I believe all workplaces in Australia would share my view. However, as I observed earlier, sometimes this has not been the case. Moving away from engaging employees towards engagement via third parties detracts from the benefits the former approach brings. In this context one has to question the intention of Labor’s recent changes to the Australian workplace system. Sadly, these changes facilitate, encourage and sometimes even mandate the involvement of third parties in a workplace.

We acknowledge that Labor’s new laws are in their infant stages. However, the signs so far are not looking good. Broadly speaking, we are beginning to see an upward trend in levels of industrial action, so this will be a key test for Labor’s laws. Will they facilitate the reasonable and beneficial approach of employee engagement or will they take Australian workplaces backwards to the dark old days of strikes and disputes?

These are early days for Labor’s new laws and some say there is much to be said for giving them the benefit of the doubt. But I believe workplaces are entitled to be concerned about where the new laws are taking them. It looks as if the new laws are, so far, failing to facilitate the reasonable and beneficial approach of employee engagement and by default taking Australian workplaces backwards. I do struggle to see how this goes towards the government’s stated aim of creating a balanced, flexible and productive workplace system.

I remain hopeful, however, that, whatever the future holds, Telstra and its workforce are able to achieve a resolution to its current circumstances. I also remain hopeful that the agreement giving rise to this bill is something that becomes the norm rather than the exception. It is with this in mind that the opposition supports the passage of this bill. It reflects an agreement achieved in a manner that we believe should be encouraged throughout Australian workplaces, an aim that I hope will not be hindered by Labor’s new workplace laws.