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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12615

Mr SHORTEN (MaribyrnongMinister for Financial Services and Superannuation and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) (19:11): We can advise the House that the government will be opposing the opposition amendments. Taking the member for Farrer's encouragement to be brief, we will try to do that. The reason we are opposing the amendments is that we had a policy on workers' entitlements before the last election, and we are implementing them. We do not believe that we should adhere to opposition amendments which were not flagged at the last election and are not part, as far as we can tell, of any appreciable opposition policy. It is policy on the run, which we have learnt about today.

Our proposition is that, subject to eligibility requirements, employees will be eligible for unpaid entitlements, including wages, redundancy pay, payment in lieu of notice, annual leave and long service leave. Under our bill, redundancy pay is capped at a maximum of four weeks per year of service, but this is not setting a new community standard. What this is doing is saying: 'If you already have a pre-existing industrial instrument which says that you are eligible for four weeks each year in the case of redundancy, we think that if a company becomes insolvent, you should not be short-changed.' This is not saying that everyone in Australia has a new standard, and it is fallacious to link the minimum standard of redundancy in the Fair Work Act, which is a minimum, and start saying that that is therefore the community standard.

The other reason we stand so strongly in favour of the four-week proposition is that, if these matters had been negotiated between employees and employers, we believe that the people most likely to benefit from this proposition are longstanding employees. Under the opposition's proposal, once you have basically done four years in a company, you get nothing more. What the opposition will be doing with their amendments is enshrining a short-term view of people's loyalty, saying that, at four years, that's it. If you have worked as a machinist in an automotive components company for 20 years, they are saying, 'You might as well have only worked there for four years, because that is all we are giving you.'

The other reason to oppose the opposition amendments, in essence, is this: workers do not rank first ahead of banks, so what this means in the corporations law system in terms of priority of entitlement when companies go broke is that, on one hand, if the opposition was saying they did not want any impost upon the taxpayer, then they would be moving a proposition to say workers should rank ahead of banks' secured interests, which they are not doing. What they want is the best of both worlds. They still want the banks to rank ahead of the workers— that is their choice; it is in their DNA—but what they are also saying is, 'We are going to short-change long-serving workers anyway.' You can't have it both ways. You can't deny the workers the right to have priority and still deny them the opportunity to get some recognition for their service under industrial instruments that they had already entered into. That is why we will oppose these amendments.

We certainly hope also that, in the event that the opposition is unsuccessful in getting its amendments up, it will still vote to protect workers' entitlements; after all, what we are by and large doing is implementing in statute an administrative scheme whose antecedents were formed in the Howard years. So what we see with these amendments is a short-changing of long-term loyal staff—no interest in ranking workers ahead of the banks' fixed secured interests. What we also see is a repudiation, in fact, of one of the few safety nets that the opposition put in place for workers when they were in government, imperfect though it was. So we would strongly urge the opposition not to vote against statutory protection for workers' entitlements in the event that their amendments are defeated.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The question is that the amendments be agreed to. There being more than one voice calling for a division, in accordance with standing order 133 the division is deferred until after 8 pm.

Debate adjourned.