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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17574

Mr BEVIS (9:59 AM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Protection for Emergency Management Volunteers) Bill 2003 is both welcome and overdue. It is another example of the government playing catch-up. It is another example of Labor leading and the Liberals following. It is another example of Liberal tardiness. Thousands of workers in Australia are left exposed because of this government's ideological obsession in pursuit of stripping from workers their previous entitlements and rights and ensuring that the Industrial Relations Commission was stripped of its powers to rectify those anomalies.

This bill very much follows the position set out in Labor's private member's bill of October last year. Had the government accepted Labor's bill last year, the firefighters involved in last summer's terrible fires throughout Australia, particularly the disastrous fires here in the ACT, would have known that they had federal legislation to protect their employment. The government refused to act last year when Labor put this bill, as a private member's bill, before the parliament. We find now, the best part of a year later, the government picking up Labor's proposal and belatedly but thankfully understanding the importance of protecting the employment status of our volunteer firefighters.

Last year when Labor introduced its private member's bill, the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, said:

With the summer bushfire season approaching, we know that we will be facing possibly one of our most difficult fire seasons ever. With the dry and dusty conditions across much of the east coast, our emergency volunteers are waiting, ready for the worst that nature can do. Our brave volunteer firefighters will once again be out in force saving lives and properties. They of course deserve our admiration but, just as importantly, they deserve our support.

He was right to say those things last year. He was also quite prophetic in his assessment of the bushfire season that was about to commence over the summer we have just had. Yet this government sat on its hands because of its usual political objections to improving the entitlements of ordinary Australian workers, and it sat on its hands because of its usual approach to things from this side of the parliament, irrespective of their merit. At least the minister was good enough in his second reading speech to, in political speak, acknowledge as much. He said:

... this bill deserves to be marked because it is one of those bills that has come forward into the parliament as a result of some initiatives and statements from members opposite, as well as from some of the instincts and impulses of members on this side of the House.

He did not have to worry about the impulses and instincts—whatever they are—of Liberal Party and National Party members. There was a bill in the parliament last October that Labor sponsored to provide this protection. John Howard, Tony Abbott and the government refused to allow its passage through the parliament, leaving firefighters exposed during a fire season in which they should not have been exposed.

This is not the first occasion on which a problem of this sort has arisen. We are here today supporting this bill because of the way in which this government, since it came to office, has stripped from the Industrial Relations Commission its powers to deal with these issues. This bill is here because this government prevents our industrial relations umpire from making these decisions. This bill is here because this government deliberately decided to remove from awards provisions precisely like this. In its legislation under Minister Reith, this government reduced the matters that an industrial award could cover. Prior to that, awards did in fact cover matters of this sort. I cite one example: the Rural Water Industry Award 1994. It had a provision that said under the heading `Emergency services leave':

(a) Employees who are registered members of a volunteer organisation who wish to respond to a declared emergency situation may be released from their normal duties without loss of salary to participate in firefighting, flood relief or other emergency activity. Provided that:

(1) release for volunteer activity is subject to no undue inconvenience being caused to the administrative unit;

(2) satisfactory evidence is provided of an employee's bona fide involvement in the emergency activity.

(b) Leave granted under this clause shall be included as service for the purpose of recreation, sick leave and long service leave.

That is a sensible provision adopted by employers and employees in many cases and approved by the industrial umpire. This government not only forced through the parliament a law that prevented the industrial umpire from inserting those provisions in future awards; it passed a law that required all such provisions to be struck from every federal award on the books. This government left naked those volunteer workers around Australia who give their time to protect the community. It did it deliberately and it did it against the fierce opposition of the Labor Party at the time. Liberal Party and National Party members who voted for that knew exactly what they were doing, and they went ahead and took away those sorts of protections to which I have just referred.

We will be visiting this matter again because, whilst this bill deals with problems associated with some emergency management, I suspect there will be other classes of people involved whom we will have to revisit—as we did some time ago in relation to Defence Force personnel, a matter that I will touch on shortly. Why, as a parliament, do we have to do that? Because in their 1996 Workplace Relations Act the government inserted a new provision on allowable matters. They restricted allowable matters to these provisions: annual leave and leave loadings; long service leave; and personal and carers leave, including sick leave, family leave, bereavement leave, compassionate leave, cultural leave and other like forms of leave. They stripped away the entitlements that workers had to protection.

It should be noted in this debate that the government—Liberal Party and National Party members—are not content with having taken those rights away; they have in the past introduced bills into this parliament to further restrict what can be an allowable matter in an award. They have not yet learnt their lesson from the mistakes of the 1996 act. The government actually want to go further and take out of awards more items that have previously been inserted, thus further reducing the number of allowable matters. Thankfully, this parliament—Labor, Democrat and Independent senators—have previously blocked those bills. But be under no illusions: Liberal Party and National Party members—this government, this minister and his predecessors—are committed to further reductions in those items that can be covered as allowable matters in industrial awards and in those matters upon which the Australian Industrial Relations Commission can make decisions.

It is because of those actions of Liberal politicians that we are now required to pass laws to give back to workers protections they previously had, and these people certainly deserve that protection. We are talking here, particularly with regard to the fire disasters, about people who put their lives in harm's way to protect other people and other people's property, often in very difficult and stressful circumstances, and do it exceedingly well. For that, as Simon Crean said, they deserve our thanks and support. It is a pity that it has taken this government the best part of a year to catch up with Labor's proposal to provide that support.

I mentioned that this is not the first occasion that we have had to play this catch-up game where the Liberal Party seek to put right something that they got wrong years after Labor sought to correct the problem. The other example I referred to was the provision with respect to armed services personnel. It is worth touching on, because it too is a volunteer service critically important to our national wellbeing that has fallen foul of the same process. In 1998 I raised this matter in the parliament and I moved amendments to government legislation that would have protected workers in their employment when they undertake service as reservists in our Army, Air Force and Navy reserves. This government rejected those proposals. It took three years for the government to bring in their own legislation, in 2001, to provide that protection which I, as shadow minister at the time in 1998, sought to provide to all of those workers. Indeed, when the 1996 bill was being dealt with, this issue was drawn to the attention of the parliament, and Liberal Party and National Party members consciously removed the right of workers to have a clause in awards that protected them when they were on service as reserve soldiers or reserve personnel in the Army, Air Force or Navy. It is a hard proposition for anyone in the community to understand and, in the light of current security issues, quite frightening, yet this government took three years to catch up with Labor's proposals in that area. If there is some small mercy in the events before us today, it is that the government have managed to catch up with us one year after they should have done it rather than three years after they should have done it. That is cold comfort but will hopefully provide some support to workers in the bushfire season that we expect at the end of this year.

I am concerned with one aspect of the bill as I read it. The bill refers to protection of a person's employment: that is, it makes it unlawful for someone to be dismissed. The explanatory memorandum to the bill points out that the bill amends the act to protect emergency management volunteers from unlawful dismissal in certain circumstances. It says that the reasons, set out in the relevant subsection at the moment, include temporary absences from work due to illness or injury, race, colour, sexual preference et cetera—which members would be familiar with. The bill proposes to include a new ground to make it unlawful to dismiss an emergency management volunteer who is temporarily absent from the workplace on voluntary emergency management duty. To attract this protection, the absence must be reasonable in all the circumstances. No-one would have any argument with that in this debate, I am sure. Where it falls short is that it does not preclude other discrimination against that worker. It does not, for example—like the award clause I read before—provide that the service of that employee on emergency volunteer service work be included as service for the purpose of recreation leave, sick leave and long service leave, nor does it prevent a person being discriminated against in their career and in future career paths.

I raise this as a very live prospect. I dealt with this matter in respect of armed service personnel. I am aware of people who as reservists have confronted major problems in their civilian employment, where they have quite openly and plainly been told by their superiors that they will not be promoted in their civilian employment unless they reorder their priorities and stop spending time with the Army Reserve. It is not hard to imagine a similar conversation being had with a member of a rural fire board who is required to undertake regular monthly training so that they can do their task safely, both for themselves and for the community they serve. There is nothing I see in this bill to protect workers from having their promotion threatened as a result of volunteer activity. If I am wrong on that, I would encourage the minister in his reply to these matters to set out clearly where that protection exists in this bill. Equally, I can see nothing in this bill that would ensure that a person undertaking work as a community volunteer would have that service recognised for the purposes of their recreation leave, sick leave, long service leave or other usual entitlements. That is, to all intents and purposes, it is treated as if it were service in the employ of the company—although, of course, it would be without pay.

I would ask government members and the minister's advisers to look at that issue and I would ask the minister in his reply to explain to the parliament where those protections lie in this bill. If, as I suspect, they do not exist in this bill I encourage the minister to once again play catch-up, to once again take Labor's suggestion, which I am now offering, and introduce legislation to fix that problem. People who undertake this voluntary service deserve to know not just that they cannot be sacked but that their career prospects are not going to be disadvantaged. It seems to me not unreasonable that if they are undertaking work in a serious emergency where they may be engaged for a few weeks in the year—it is not going to be a common experience, but we know it happens—then they should not find, when their annual leave comes around, that they have been docked time. They should not find, when they subsequently become sick, that their sick leave account has been reduced because they were out trying to protect the community—to protect all of us.

I have a close friend who is involved in a rural fire service just outside Brisbane. He is regularly involved in training and in maintenance of equipment. He is very proud of the work he and his colleagues do, and rightly so. He raised with me last year this issue—that they have no protection in their employment and there is no recompense. That is a genuine concern people on the ground have. That point was raised with me in advance of Labor's private member's bill in October last year. This is not the parliament acting ahead of the game; this is us responding to a genuine concern that ordinary workers in the community have.

I raise a further point, which I appreciate is a much more complex issue: the situation of volunteers who are self-employed people. We recognise the problem of self-employed folk who enlist as reservists in the armed forces, and there is a scheme to provide them with some financial support. I think we as a parliament need to look at providing some recognition of those self-employed people—whether they be farmers, electricians or plumbers—who stop their work for a week to go and fight fires or to help those in flood-ravaged areas of our country. They also deserve some recognition in this. This is, I think, a much more complex issue, and it probably involves some financial commitment that would have to be factored into a global budget position. But I encourage both sides of the parliament to look at that problem, because we in this country undervalue the work of our volunteers. We praise them and laud them after an emergency in which they have performed their work but, I have to say, in between those emergencies they tend to go unnoticed, unrecognised and, sadly, under-resourced.

In passing this bill, we do not just have an obligation to provide protection for volunteers' employment; I think this parliament is also being provided with an opportunity to give some serious consideration more broadly to the important role our volunteers play in emergency services. If they were not undertaking those duties as volunteers, the community would have to pay an enormous cost to provide the same level of skill, or it would face disasters of substantially greater proportions that would of themselves bring very high costs. These people provide a valuable service to our community, from one corner of Australia to the other. This bill is right to provide employees in that situation with protection from losing their jobs. On my reading of it, it fails dismally in providing the further protections I think it needs to provide to ensure that their other conditions of employment are not also jeopardised. I await the minister's response in reply to that, and I look forward to an opportunity to debate further the question of assisting self-employed workers, who I think deserve our recognition.

I welcome the government's belated acceptance of Labor's private member's bill of October last year. I am impressed that this time—unlike with the Defence reserves—it has not taken them three years; they have managed to come around and understand the importance of this within 12 months. But I would urge the government to revisit the fundamental cause of this—the reason we have this bill at all—which is that the government have stripped from the industrial umpire the power to make these decisions and have taken away from workers the sorts of entitlements they previously had in industrial awards. That is where the remedy should be. This parliament should be changing the industrial relations legislation in this country to put that fairness back into the system. Only when that is done will we have properly resolved this issue and allowed the people at the workface—the employers and the employees in individual enterprises, with the approval of the industrial umpire—to put in appropriate provisions, rather than going through this circus of legislation after legislation, delayed as it is, to try and fix these on a one-off basis.