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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22794

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (8:27 PM) —I rise to make some comments on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Protection for Victorian Workers) Bill 2002 and perhaps also respond to some of the comments, however confusing, made by the member for Dunkley. I will start on the member for Dunkley's definition of AWAs, because he does need a lesson on what are Australian workplace agreements. He expressed the view that an Australian workplace agreement is in fact an agreement between an employer and an individual employee that would, if agreed upon, have to be not disadvantageous compared to the actual conditions of that employee.

If he actually knew anything about the Workplace Relations Act, of which I imagine he would know little or nothing, he would know that the definition of the no disadvantage test comparing the AWAs does not compare the AWA with actual rates or conditions of employment that are enjoyed by an individual employee but indeed compares it against the award. Anyone who has been an observer of industrial relations in this country in the last seven years would know that very few employees, whether they are unionised or not, are actually enjoying award conditions. Most of the actual rates, whether it is by virtue of being pursuant to an enterprise agreement or to common law contracts, are in fact above the minimum rates of an award. And why are they above the minimum rates of an award? Because this government is about wrecking the federal award system.

But we should not be churlish this evening. It is the case that, as the member for Rankin said, there might have been one occasion or possibly two in this term of the parliament on which I could rise and support in the main a bill introduced by the government. And I am very happy to be able to do that, because out of the 13 bills that have been introduced, and I think the member for Rankin referred to it, we could support in the main only the bill that went to making it allowable to provide leave for emergency workers to fight fires or floods—God forbid that we would allow them to do that! But the government conceded on that point, and of course we agreed with that bill. We also agree with the principles of this bill. I also make reference to the amendments moved by the shadow minister, because it is in fact the case that, whilst this bill is being agreed to by the Labor Party, this is a long time coming. This has been a very long time coming for those 400,000 Victorian workers who have been effectively award free as a result of not the Bracks government but the Kennett government.

Let us remember what we are talking about. There were 400,000 vulnerable workers. Let us remember in historical terms the reasons why they were left vulnerable. In 1993 the Kennett government abolished the state system and threw the majority of the workers of Victoria who were employed under it off that system. What that meant was that if they left their jobs, once that legislation went through the two houses of the parliament of Victoria, they could not then go back onto any system unless unions or groups of workers found a way for the federal jurisdiction to cover them. I can recall the many low-paid workers in that state who had to find their way onto the federal award system, generally with the help of industrial organisations—yes, unions—just to protect the ordinary conditions of employment that they had enjoyed the day before the legislation was introduced and passed by the Kennett government.

Let us remember that the basis for this bill is to fix a problem that was perpetrated by the previous Victorian government—the Kennett government. As we know, that government was ideologically predisposed to hurting working people and working families, as is this government in most circumstances. So it is unusual but pleasing for me to be able to rise and support an industrial relations bill introduced by this government. I have been able to do that for two out of 13 bills. I am happy that I can do that, because it means that there must be some benefits, however qualified, being afforded to Australian workers. In this case it is 400,000 Victorian workers. So I am happy to rise on that point.

I can remember talking to child-care workers in 1996. They are some of the lowest paid professionals in the work force in this country, in which people undertake one of the most important tasks that could ever be afforded to anybody—that is, looking after our children, looking after the future of this country. I remember that they were concerned that, notwithstanding the fact that they were in one of the lowest paid occupations in Victoria, the Kennett government was after their conditions of employment. It was then determined that the majority of Victorian workers were able to get federal award coverage. I can recall some pretty extraordinary efforts by the then senior deputy president of the Industrial Relations Commission, Deputy President Riordan, and many other commissioners, to ensure that those workers would not be worse off, despite the Kennett government's ideological hatred of those people. I can recall those child-care workers being quite concerned about the loss of their conditions of employment and the loss of their career path. Their incremental increases, however small, were to be removed if they did not get federal award coverage.

I can remember being involved in negotiating the outcome with the peak local government body to ensure that the state award that was abolished only weeks or months before was incorporated into what was then the Victorian Local Authorities Award, which covered most of the local government workers in Victoria. I can recall very vividly the effect that the Victorian government had upon those people and their families and the concern those people had, knowing that if they were to move from one child-care centre to the next they would lose their rates. They were vulnerable because they were going to be award free.

So let us not forget, notwithstanding the convoluted nonsense coming from the member for Dunkley, the concerns that those individuals had about that government. Let us also not forget the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated against that government. It was successful in another election, but the fact is that Kennett not so much walked off the political stage as fell off it in 1999. It was a big surprise. Many of those workers were in rural Victoria, as I recall. Whether they were in rural Victoria or metropolitan Melbourne, to treat with contempt the people who are the most important element of a productive society—the working people of the nation—was unforgivable. They did not forgive Jeff and they did not forget. Now he is consigned to history.

Let us remember that that is the basis upon which we are discussing this bill tonight. We are fixing a problem created by a Liberal coalition government. I am happy to say that, at least in the main, for once the Howard government has managed to get it right in some areas in this bill. But I think that is something that we should not forget. Nor should we forget what this government allowed to apply to working people for four years. In effect, it allowed one flat hourly rate of pay for hours of work, no overtime that could be placed under an agreement, no weekend or shift rates and no pay at all for work after the first 38 hours worked. It provided only the most basic of conditions: four weeks annual leave, five days sick leave, notice for termination of employment and 12 months unpaid parental leave.

In effect it stripped the conditions of employment bare. Indeed, the schedule that was placed into the Workplace Relations Act 1996 gave the bare minimum. The member for Dunkley likes to use Christmas as a metaphor. They were acting as Scrooge that night, when they decided to give the bare minimum to those workers. That is the reality. So I suppose we had a situation where, up until today, up until the introduction of this bill into the House, this government pretty much treated those workers in the same way that the Kennett government treated them: with disdain, with contempt and with no sympathy whatsoever. That should never be forgotten.

What we have to do now is talk to the government about some other changes they might want to bring about in their legislation. I have been wondering why this bill was introduced today. I thought that perhaps it was because of the upper house majority that was created as a result of the election of the Bracks government for its second term. The federal government know that the Bracks government could introduce legislation to allow Victorian workers to be covered by a state award system, and that may be the pre-eminent reason why the new minister for workplace relations allowed this.

I also think it might be because this minister would like to distinguish himself from his predecessor because, as we know, when Minister Abbott, the previous minister for workplace relations, was in this role, he had no regard whatsoever for working people in Australia. So we have to ensure that now that the new minister has shown himself to be perhaps of a different character to the one who preceded him—and let us hope he is—he will actually look at some of the outrageous bills that have been introduced into this House which at their heart have attacked working people and working Australian families. That is what they have been about.

The member for Flinders will have an opportunity to say a few words before the adjournment tonight and, indeed, once this bill is brought back on, I will also hopefully speak more fully about this government's efforts to introduce the bill that would provide for disputes not to be found between employers and unions if there are fewer than 20 employees. Whilst on the one hand the new minister for workplace relations wants to get a reasonably good headline and distinguish himself from his predecessor—that anti-worker attack dog—and also his predecessor's predecessor, dare I say it, the fact is he could go a long way if he looked at some of those other bills that have been through this place and have been rejected in the Senate.

I call upon the minister, seeing he seems to be in a rather good mood because he has put up what I would have to say is one of the most generous things this government have done this term—in fact, it is probably the only thing they have done that you could almost describe as generous—to look at the bill with respect to preventing industrial disputes to be found and realise how unfair that is. It is unfair not only to those employees who might be in small businesses who deserve to have a minimum base, a minimum award set of conditions—

Mr Hockey —Why don't you do something about unfair dismissals if you really care about them?

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —I have the minister for tourism—and I am not sure what other titles he holds—and a few others making some comments. This minister for tourism used to say that Barney Cooney was the only Labor member in small business. Let me tell you that I had a BAS statement only last year.

Mr Hockey —No!

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —It is true. I am involved in the tourist industry in Hepburn.

Mr Hockey —How?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. D.G.H. Adams)—Order!

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —I actually think it is a critical industry. If this minister wants us to talk about tourism, what we would like to see is what he is going to do. This is the interesting thing. The minister says we should help out the small businesses in tourism. Sure, we should do that. What about the Ansett workers? How is this government going to look after Ansett workers? It is not.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! I ask the minister at the table to restrain himself.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —In the end, the government is not interested in looking after those people.

Mr Zahra —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: I feel compelled, reluctantly, to ask you to bring the minister at the table to some semblance of order at least to protect the dignity of the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Burke.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —We can get distracted, and I suppose that may be the minister's intention, but I think the fundamental issue is this: we have watched 13 bills be introduced into this House and this is one that we may agree upon because, as I said, the new minister wants to distinguish himself from his predecessor. And who would really want to be compared favourably or unfavourably with the former minister for workplace relations?

Ms Gillard —Or the former minister for tourism.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —Indeed. As we know, the former minister for workplace relations had no regard for working people, and nor did his predecessor, so I suppose there is a common thread. The Kennett government had only hate in their hearts when it came to Victorian workers. Indeed, Minister Abbott and Minister Reith were the same. Maybe this new minister is saying: `I don't think this is a good thing. My predecessor jumped out of this portfolio.' I have to say that Minister Abbott is not doing too well in his current portfolio either, but the fact is that he had to get out because he realised that, in time, people find that it is not Australian to constantly go after working Australian families. But I will not be entirely churlish tonight.

Honourable members—Ha, ha!

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —Well, I had to make some comments because it is a contextual debate, but I am happy to embrace the goodwill of the minister—

Mr Hockey —Thank you.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —this new minister who has turned over a new leaf—and I am not referring to the minister at the table. The minister has made the right decision here in supporting this—and indeed the member for Rankin said as much. It may be because the Labor Party now has the majority in the upper house in Victoria. It may be because he wants to separate himself from Tony Abbott's behaviour. It may be because of more things than we know. It may be because of his heartfelt views about working people. I do not know. But I applaud his efforts in being a little different from the way in which this government has operated this term. I think he should now turn his mind to those 11 or 12 other bills that really are, at their heart, anti-worker and anti-Australian families. That is what this government has to turn its mind to and then we could really reach more agreements. I think that, if there were really an effort not to go after working people, we could find a way to cut through the disagreements we have.

I know a concern was raised about whether this bill would in fact cover all workers. Indeed, I know that there were concerns about outworkers being covered. I think that if there are any unintended deficiencies in the application of the bill then they have to be considered. I know that there are some concerns and I seriously ask the minister to have regard to them. If it is argued that there may indeed be some deficiencies in the application of the legislation should it be passed, he should look at that. I imagine that, given his efforts on this matter if on nothing else, perhaps he will do that.

In conclusion, I think we have to remember in the end why this bill is here. Notwithstanding the efforts by the new minister to make himself a little different from the attack dog, we have to remember that this is to fix a problem that was caused by the Kennett government when they tossed hundreds of thousands of workers off the award system. In the end Kennett lost his job, so I suppose there was a bit of revenge; it was the Victorian workers' revenge against the former Premier. Indeed, he is now consigned to history and, as we now know, the Victorian Labor government, as it should, enjoys a majority in both houses of parliament. That is a good thing. Before too long I think we will find that the Labor Party will have a majority in this chamber and I am sure that Australian workers will sleep better at night when the minister is gone—he might be a shadow minister or a backbencher—and Labor is returned to its rightful place in government. (Time expired)