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Monday, 28 November 2005
Page: 83

Senator TROETH (5:40 PM) —This Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Bill 2005 is the culmination of some 20 years of workplace reform. This government took office in 1996 and since then the primary focus of the reform agenda has been the establishment of a genuine safety net of minimum wages and conditions with actual employment conditions being negotiated at the workplace level through agreements between employers and employees. In that time, we have seen real wages increase by 14.9 per cent, we have seen the lowest levels of unemployment in 30 years—now running at 5.1 per cent—as well as rising productivity and national economic growth.

There are still fundamental problems, however, with the current system that we must now address with the Work Choices bill. The current framework includes the wasteful duplication of state and Commonwealth arrangements, with six state systems. To give you an idea of the cost of the smallest one, the Tasmanian system runs at something like $2 million a year. We need a national system. There is an unnecessarily high regulatory burden with ad hoc and patchy coverage from the current Commonwealth award system. We have 130 different pieces of employment related legislation and we have over 4,000 different awards. In fact, the International Monetary Fund commented on this on 24 August 2005 and advised Australia to, in basic terms, get its act together and get on with some further reforms. That is exactly what we are doing.

The amendments in the Work Choices bill will enable the establishment of a unified national system that will cover over 85 per cent of the work force. The new system, based on the corporation’s power, will now give the Commonwealth the power to directly legislate for the setting by the Australian Fair Pay Commission of minimum and award wages and the conditions of employment of all employees of constitutional corporations through the Australian fair pay and conditions standard. We must have a cohesive framework through which we can run a uniform national system.

Secondly, there is the issue of employment growth. As I have said, we have remarkably improved the level of unemployment in this country, but the fact remains that opportunities are there for greater levels of employment and the one way to achieve this is to provide greater flexibility in the workplace relations system. We must also look to the future and our place in the world. Australia is doing well, but we must maintain the momentum and we need to make changes. The combined effect of one national system, and the ability for flexibility by both employers and employees, will give employers the confidence they need to expand their business and employ more workers. This will have a multiplying effect on the whole economy.

Another reason for these changes is to simplify agreement making. At present, agreements are often only reached after a complex, legalistic and adversarial process. This bill will replace that process with a lodgment only process which is designed to encourage the growth in agreement making and which will, in turn, increase productivity. There are some major reforms in this bill. As I have said, there will be a national system, the establishment of the Australian Fair Pay Commission, measures which will lead to enhanced compliance with the act, the enshrinement in law of minimum conditions of employment and wages—the Australian fair pay and conditions standard—which will apply to all employees.

We will improve the regulation of industrial action while protecting the right to take lawful industrial action. We will retain the system of awards—unlike what some scaremongering has suggested—and that will be simplified to ensure that they provide minimum safety net entitlements. There will be proper transmission of business arrangements. Certain award conditions such as public holidays, rest breaks—including meal breaks—incentive based payments and bonuses, annual leave loadings, allowances, penalty rates and shift overtime loadings are protected in the agreement process so that those conditions can only be modified or removed by specific provisions in an agreement. We will preserve specific award conditions such as long service leave, superannuation, jury service and notice of termination for all current and new award reliant employees. There will be model dispute resolutions and comprehensive transitional arrangements for those entering the federal system.

There is one aspect of the legislation that I would like to comment on particularly, and that is in relation to the claim by Senator Wong in her speech this morning that workplace reform harms women and families. This simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Since the reforms of 1993 and 1996, there has been record female employment, record low female unemployment and record high female employment participation. There have been record levels of employment for Australian mothers. There have been higher wages for working women, particularly through individual bargaining and entry into Australian workplace agreements. And there has been a narrowing gap between the pay of men and women—and Australia’s gender pay gap is the narrowest ever following workplace relations reforms.

In a report by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations in 2002-03 on agreement making —and these figures could only have improved since—over 70 per cent of all AWAs at that stage contained at least one family friendly provision or family friendly work arrangement and, of those agreements, more than half had three or more family friendly provisions. With regard to female earnings, in 2002 female average total weekly earnings were $554. Under registered collective agreements, average total weekly earnings were $600.40. However, under AWAs average total weekly earnings for females were $889.20. Female employees on Australian workplace agreements earned, on average, 89 per cent of the male AWA employee hourly rate of pay—far better pay equity than the 2002 gender pay disparity of 77 per cent for the work force as a whole. AWAs applying to women are also more likely to include flexible working and family friendly provisions.

In the brief time remaining to me, I will deal with what I would call ‘myths and legends’. This is basically the scaremongering, hate campaign that has been waged by the Labor Party, amongst others, regarding what this legislation will do to people. This ranges from views provided by Mr Kim Beazley in the House of Representatives Hansard on 2 November 2005, where he argued that the enactment of the bill would increase the divorce rate. A Victorian state Labor MP, Mr Bob Smith MLA, said in the Victorian parliament on 4 October 2005 that the bill would provoke circumstances in which women and children could be murdered on picket lines, similar to in America. The Transport Workers Union claimed, in a radio interview on 4BC Brisbane’s 11 am news on Monday, 7 November 2005, that the bill would increase the road toll. The New South Wales industrial relations minister, Mr Della Bosca, who appeared before the committee in its hearings last week, claimed in evidence to the committee that the bill contained elements of fascism. He replied to a question, ‘Yes, Senator. It is very close to fascism.’

This is a simplistic, cliche ridden and fearmongering response to this legislation and it simply does not recognise how the demographics of this country have changed. There is an increasing number of two-parent families that do take the work-life balance seriously and construct their working lives around conditions and hours so that they can have a stable, secure family life, and this legislation will only aid them. We also need a more skilled and better qualified work force. Evidence to our inquiry last week from the Housing Industry Association and the master builders said that we need a better training system for apprentices and that the new legislation will give us this. This is not a short-term fix. These are changes, but the changes will be over a period of years rather than months. As Chair of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee, as a Victorian senator and as a citizen, I support this bill and I commend it to the Senate.