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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 379

Mr HALE (2:05 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister explain to the House the importance of today’s release of an exposure draft of the National Employment Standards? Will the Prime Minister outline what other modest wage measures the government will support for parliamentarians in the year ahead?

Mr RUDD (Prime Minister) —I thank the honourable member for his question. This government was elected on a platform of helping working families under financial pressure. That goes to the core of changing the industrial relations system of this country, an industrial relations system which we inherited which was unfair. Part of unpicking that unfairness lies in today’s release of the exposure draft of the National Employment Standards. It is the government’s next step in honouring its commitment to build a fair and flexible industrial relations system. It follows the introduction of the government’s transition to Forward with Fairness bill into the House yesterday.

The government’s new workplace relations system will provide a decent safety net for fair minimum pay and conditions for all employees. The government believes in a consultative process and in laying out what it intends to do on the industrial relations blueprint it has for the future. It laid out its workplace relations policies well in advance of the last election in detail—unlike various governments which have preceded us. It has also continued to consult widely and does so through the agency of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations at present. Consistent with that spirit of consultation, the minister is laying out an exposure draft for comment on these important National Employment Standards.

The National Employment Standards establish a stronger safety net than existed in the past from the so-called Australian fair pay and conditions standard under Work Choices. For example, under the AFPC, no matter how many hours an employee was being forced to work, an employee could generally not seek relief for working excessive and unreasonable work hours until they had been employed for 12 months. The National Employment Standards make it clear that an employee cannot be asked to work unreasonable hours—period. Flexibility will be retained in modern awards to allow for averaging of hours when that is relevant for particular work arrangements, such as fly-in fly-out arrangements. Such arrangements will be relevant for determining whether the additional hours required are reasonable. That is just one example of how the government’s workplace relations system will deliver fair and minimum standards and sensible flexibility for business. We believe in a simpler set of arrangements for business and we believe that it is important to have appropriate responses from industry and from others once this exposure draft is tabled.

These National Employment Standards, which are important for all working families—though met with the derision of members of opposite, who seem not to have learned the lesson from the last election when it comes to industrial relations—provide as follows: (1) minimum weekly hours of 38 hours per week plus reasonable additional hours; (2) a right to request flexible working hours for parents of young children; (3) 12 months additional parental leave for families by granting each parent a separate entitlement of up to 12 months unpaid parental leave so that a baby has up to two years continual care from a parent on unpaid leave; (4) annual leave of four weeks per year of service; (5) personal carers leave of 10 days for each year of service; (6) community service leave to allow employees to request absence from work; (7) long service leave arrangements to be protected under a new nationally consistent approach; (8) reasonable notice of termination arrangements and a right to redundancy pay; (9) protection of public holidays; and (10) a right to basic workplace information. These are important reforms for working families right across the country, working families which had inflicted upon them an industrial relations system about which they were not consulted at the last election. They were not consulted one bit. It was imposed on them unilaterally by a government which has now paid the political price for it.

But I am asked further whether there are any other measures which the government would embrace and measures which would be supported by members of parliament here on the overall question of how we approach the inflation challenge this year, including wage restraint. In a modest exercise in wage restraint the government has decided to propose to the parliament a regulation which will have the effect of not increasing MPs’ salaries through until the middle of next year. Furthermore, the government proposes that, when this measure comes to a close in mid-2009, there be no clawback mechanism for any salary forgone between now and then. This is a modest measure. It does not of itself solve the nation’s economic challenges or problems. But it does, I believe, indicate to the public at large that the government—and I hope the parliament—is serious about the overall challenge of wage restraint. Therefore, we are not calling on working families to engage in some sort of freeze on their wage claims or wage outcomes. Working families are already under financial pressure. But we need to be able to face the Australian community in the eye and say that we in the privileged position of this place are doing one small bit when it comes to exercising some wage restraint on our part. I will conclude by saying this. Right across the country and the economy many people have responded to various claims for further CEO salary increases. Markets ultimately determine these things. But, in the difficult challenges we face ahead this year on the economy and inflation, I would hope that those in the most privileged positions in the corporate sector also reflect carefully on the need for CEO wage restraint in the year ahead.

Mr Hockey —Mr Speaker, I ask that you ask the Prime Minister to table the document from which was reading.

The SPEAKER —Order! Was the Prime Minister reading from a document? Is the document confidential?

Mr Hockey —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. Given the new standards that the Prime Minister has endeavoured to set in this place, was that not a ministerial statement rather than the answer to a question?

The SPEAKER —The question was well and truly in order, and the answer was relevant to the question.