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Monday, 5 March 2001
Page: 24995

Mr MURPHY (10:00 PM) —Tonight I rise to strongly oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Unfair Dismissals) Bill 1998 [No. 2]. Labor has consistently opposed this bill because it seeks to skew federal termination legislation in favour of employers and to deliver an upper cut to the employees. The bill is probably one of the best examples of the Liberal-National Party coalition's mantra; that is, favouritism towards elites and support for those who own property and the means to acquire capital over those who have only their labour to sell.

Once again, three years after this legislation was first introduced into the parliament, the coalition has dredged up the same old tired, unfair policies in an attempt to undermine the rights of Australian workers. No wonder the Australian electorate are becoming increasingly bitter about the Howard government. Their job security and prospects are once again flying out the window with the prospect that this disgraceful legislation may pass through this parliament.

Let me take a brief moment to examine exactly what `unfair dismissal' means. According to the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, third edition, `unfair' means not equitable or honest, or not impartial or according to the rules. According to the same volume, to `dismiss' is to discharge from employment or office, especially dishonourably. In summary, this means that an unfair dismissal is a discharge from employment which is not impartial or according to the rules. According to the definition of `unfair dismissal law', it is a situation where the employer's behaviour in ending an employment relationship can be characterised as `harsh, unjust or unreasonable'. It is important to mention the difference between unfair and unlawful dismissal.

Mr McArthur —What about the act?

Mr MURPHY —We will get to that. Unlawful dismissal is where an employee may not be dismissed for discriminatory reasons such as family responsibilities, sexual preference, age or union membership, or because they were involved in protected—lawful—industrial action such as negotiating a certified agreement.

The most recent history of unfair dismissal legislation in Australia stems from March 1994 under the visionary Keating Labor government, which brought down the Industrial Relations Reform Act 1993 and amended the Industrial Relations Act 1998 to allow workers under federal awards to have access to statutory and award based remedies which workers covered by state awards had had access to for many years. In 1996 when the present Howard coalition government came to power it described this legislation, according to the Bills Digest, as legislation that was `far too detailed, too prescriptive and too legalistic and hence a disincentive to work'.

What does this bill do? I will tell you. The bill seeks to amend the Howard government's own legislation, the Workplace Relations Act 1996, to exclude new employees, except for apprentices and trainees, of businesses—

Mr McArthur —That is right, except them.

Mr MURPHY —I am very pleased that the member for Corangamite is listening so intently. I enjoy debating the member for Corangamite. Perhaps he will learn something because, as a member of a government that is clearly insecure at the moment, he will have a better understanding of the concerns of many of the workers out there that we on this side of the House stand up for. Perhaps he can convey a message to the Prime Minister and the cabinet about the insecurity felt by the work force out there, because it is those people who will decide the election when it is held on 17 November or on 24 November or on 1 December, or whenever.

Mr McArthur —You will lose the seat. That will be the difference.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—The member for Corangamite will be silent, and the member for Lowe will ignore the interjections of the member for Corangamite and address his remarks through the chair.

Mr MURPHY —It is a bit hard to ignore the interjections. I cannot run away from those interjections. Bearing in mind that this is an election year the previous speaker, the member for Herbert, started off and made it quite plain that the Australian people will have a clear choice—I have made a note here—at the next election between the coalition government and the Beazley Labor opposition. I will come to that a bit later, if I get an opportunity, but I am sure the member for Corangamite's interjections are as good natured as they usually are.

As I was saying, this bill seeks to amend the Workplace Relations Act to exclude from federal unfair dismissal laws new employees of businesses with 15 or fewer employees and to establish a six-month qualifying period of employment for new employees who want to access the unfair dismissal laws. Not only this; casual employees are excluded from the count if they have been employed for less than 12 months, effectively meaning that the work force is due to increase casual employees in the workplace. Given that 27 per cent of the work force is already casually employed, this would allow employers to employ a high number of casuals to avoid termination obligations to employees.

In relation to that point, the member for Herbert raised this very issue about casual employees a moment ago. We on this side of the House have no problems if people want to work casually or they want to only work part time. We have no problem with that. Last Tuesday, at the Australia Institute, I attended an erudite address given by the shadow employment services minister, the member for Dickson, Cheryl Kernot. She raised a very valid point about the ABS statistics that reflect our levels of unemployment in Australia. It is a fact that, if you happen to be engaged in remunerative employment for more than one hour a week, the ABS determines that you are not unemployed. In Australia, we do not even ask those people who are working for only one hour or perhaps eight, 16 or 20 hours whether they would like to work a longer period of time. The member for Dickson's address to the Australia Institute was very well received. I think there should be some bipartisan support for it, because the true level of unemployment in Australia is significantly higher than what the statistics reflect.

Miss Jackie Kelly —Imagine what it was when it was 11 per cent.

Mr MURPHY —It has been higher. I accept that the member for Lindsay makes a valid point, but we cannot undo the past. We are looking at the situation at the moment and there are many people out there who are working only part time or a small number of hours and want to work for a longer period of time, yet we do not take that into account. So I think the member for Dickson has a very good point and we should be doing something about that. I hope that Mr Abbott gets a copy of her speech to the Australia Institute because I think that will help him in this very important issue.

The previous Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Peter Reith, declared that this bill was a necessity because it would create 50,000 jobs in small business, that it would ease the burden of unfair dismissal laws on small business and provide a fairer balance between the rights of employers and employees and deter trivial claims. I put to the House tonight that implementation of the Howard government's new tax system and increased red tape caused by the business activity statement have been far more expensive to small business and damaging to job creation in less than one year than any unfair dismissal law since 1994. The major problem faced by small businesses today is that they now have to spend too much time being unpaid tax collectors for the government. Recently, I was talking to the proprietors of a small petrol service station in my electorate and was advised that they have spent almost $30,000 to deal with the GST. That amount of money is made up of the revenue that they have had to spend on the software, the hardware and the training to act as tax collectors for the government. They pointed out to me that they had a clear recollection that it was going to cost them only about $7,000 according to the government's estimates.

Dr Martin —That's true. I was shadow minister for small business at the time; I remember the figures.

Mr MURPHY —The member for Cunningham is supporting me. That is what they said to me. They said that they could have possibly got away with it for $7,000 but that, if they had not introduced the appropriate software and hardware to their business, they would have found themselves consumed in paperwork which would have meant a loss of productivity and efficiency in their business and would not have been very cost effective. So they spent nearly $30,000. Another local business that I spoke to is a barbecue chicken operation. The people who run it told me that they have spent $20,000 to covert to the GST. They told a story similar to the one of the people running the petrol station. Those are just two examples; there are others. Quite plainly, small business has been belted across the head.

Some 93 per cent of businesses surveyed recently by Morgan and Banks said that they were much worse off and that their profitability had suffered as a result of the GST. How can more jobs be created when all this legislation achieves is to permit employers to sack their employees? The only evidence available which validates the government's claim that 50,000 jobs will be created if small businesses were exempt from unfair dismissal laws is a mere opinion of Mr Rob Abstain of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia. This is preposterous. Just one person's opinion has provided the basis of a policy statistic. What a joke!

Real evidence on employment attitudes of small business, as pointed out by Labor senators in their minority report into the Workplace Relations Amendment (Unfair Dismissals) Bill, exists in the Australian workplace industrial relations survey of 1995. This survey, which notably was done when Labor's unfair dismissal laws were in operation, found that only 0.9 per cent of respondents had not recruited employees due to unfair dismissal legislation—a paltry 0.9 per cent. In fact, 68 per cent of businesses had not employed new staff because they did not need any new employees. How the government could believe such a statistic could change to such an enormous extent is beyond me. Quite frankly, I think the government members who support this bill on the basis of job creation are out of their minds. In 1999, the Mercer-Melbourne Institute Quarterly Bulletin of Economic Trends said:

... further IR reform is unlikely to result in a significant reduction in unemployment.

This again supports Labor's belief that removing the unfair dismissal legislation will not have an effect on job creation; it will in fact lead to an increased cycle of unemployment for many people and a lack of job security for Australian workers. This is a disgrace. This legislation will effectively mean that, where work becomes available, there will be employment but that, as soon as the work runs out, the employee will have no job security and may be dismissed unfairly with no redress available. I remind the House of the words of the honourable member for La Trobe in this debate last Thursday. He said:

... as a result of the industrial relations changes that we made, we have seen increased productivity, increased real wages and increased employment.

The honourable member continued by saying:

More people have jobs, and that kicks the economy along a little better—they live better, they can do more things for their children, their education standards are likely to be improved, their living standards are improved and society moves on.

This is an interesting analysis of the benefits of unfair dismissal legislation and the industrial relations changes made by the Howard government, particularly in light of today's report on the ninemsn web site titled `ACTU survey another blow to federal government'. The story states:

Nearly 60 per cent of working Australians are having more trouble balancing demands of work and family, 42 per cent of workers are doing more unpaid overtime and 43 per cent of workers feel less secure in their job, the study found.

More damning is the fact that the study also found that `more than 70 per cent of those surveyed said the government had made life harder by cutting back on services such as health and education'.

This bill is an assault on workers' rights to access federal termination laws. My colleague and shadow minister for industrial relations, the Hon. Arch Bevis, is correct when he says that this bill will create two classes of employees—those who are employed by small business and who will not have access to unfair dismissal laws, and those who work for businesses with more than 15 employees and who can expect to be treated impartially and have access to federal unfair dismissal laws. I also have grave concerns that some shonky companies employing 16 or 17 employees may reduce staff numbers and employ only casuals so that they can fall under the umbrella of this legislation, thereby reducing jobs and job security for their employees, without fear of redress. The people most affected by these new laws are Commonwealth public sector workers, employees who work in Victoria—their state system was dismantled under the coalition—or who work in a federal territory, and some other workers who are employed under a federal award.

I make the point again that the laws the government is attempting to change are the government's own unfair dismissal laws. In 1996, the Howard government changed Labor's unfair dismissal laws to ensure that the onus was on the employee to prove that the dismissal was unfair, harsh or unjust treatment, rather than the employer having to disprove it. Hearings relating to unfair dismissals were changed so that they would be held in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission rather than in the Federal Court, leading to a reduction in costs. The changed unfair dismissal laws allow costs to be awarded against the employee if the claim is considered to be vexatious or frivolous. They allow the introduction of an application fee of $50 to create a disincentive for people to proceed with an unfair dismissal claim. The commission is now required to take into account the viability of the employer's business when deciding whether to award a remedy to the former employee. The process is no longer required to be procedurally fair. The government is once again attempting to fully remove the rights of workers.

I also have some concerns that this legislation may conflict with Australia's responsibility under the International Labour Organisation Convention on the Termination of Employment 1982, convention No. 158, which Australia ratified on 26 February 1993—almost exactly eight years ago. According to the Bills Digest, there may be some need to closely consider whether the exemption for small businesses employing under 15 staff is at odds with convention No. 158. As my colleague and shadow minister Arch Bevis touched on earlier in this debate, the chances of a conflict with the convention grow as the number of workers who are excluded increases. In terms of international policy obligations, this is of great concern. The issues I raise tonight are particularly serious. I call on all members of the House to reject the legislation. If the member for Herbert wants an election on this issue, let us bring it on. (Time expired)