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Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Page: 25222

Mr BEVIS (10:01 AM) —We still do not have a definition from the government, I note, but, on the question of how long it takes for these matters to proceed, the amendment to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Tallies and Picnic Days) Bill 2000 which the government is now supporting—the Senate amendment—says that this will happen over the course of the next 12 months. Unless the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business has information I do not have, my understanding is that the commission intends that this be done within the next three months, not 12 months. This matter will be dealt with by the commission long before the date set by this bill—long before it. There is no issue of time delay that this bill addresses. If the minister wants to address that, he should amend the bill to require the commission to do it within the next few weeks. Then he could at least argue that point. It would be a stupid thing to do, but he could at least argue that point. We have a stupid piece of legislation being supported by stupid arguments.

The fact is—and the minister has acknowledged it: he cannot do anything else; it is on the record—that the commission has already decided that these provisions in the meat industry are to be removed. When we were debating the mojo legislation in this parliament in 1999, it was just after that full bench decision. This issue was raised during the course of that debate. The minister at the time, Mr Reith, referred to that and attacked the Labor Party. Hansard of 29 September records him as saying:

Why would you—

that is, why would the Labor Party—

want to keep them in unless you are in favour of keeping them? Isn't that your position?

I interjected:

We might be in favour of letting the commission do its job.

The minister, Mr Reith, then said:

It has ... done its job ... it said, `Tallies are going' ...

And he was right. The commission has done its job. He was right in 1999; the commission did say it was going. This has nothing to do with good governance—nothing at all. What we are witnessing now is a desperate effort on the part of the new minister to get any legislation through the parliament. Frankly, it does not much matter as long as he can put a notch on the wall that will be one notch better than his predecessor got in this parliament, even if it happens to be a piece of legislation that is of no consequence and which has already been dealt with. We will go through this charade and they will use their numbers to put through a stupid law that is unnecessary. I guess the unnecessary part is not as big a problem as the stupid part, but it is stupid.

I was referring to the definitional problem a moment ago. It is a serious issue. The government wished the law to say—and thankfully, because of the amendments, it is at least restricted to the meat industry—that you can have incentive based payments other than tallies. The question remains: what constitutes an incentive based payment other than tallies? More importantly, what constitutes a tally? If you have an incentive scheme which includes in it some head count of beasts through the abattoir, is that a tally? No-one in this debate—in this parliament or, frankly, outside it in the union movement, in the employer ranks or in the commission—is arguing that the old tally system should be kept. No-one is arguing that. The minister's reference to the old tally system is a nice piece of history that is in his briefing notes but is totally irrelevant to the current circumstance.

This is not a debate about the old tally system. The commission said that system has gone, and it has. This is a debate about the sense of the parliament putting into law something that says you are not allowed in the meat industry to have anything called a tally, when the government cannot define what a tally is. The sensible course is to let the commission go about its work. The amendments at least reduce this folly to one industry. In its original form, you would have created havoc in any industry in any award. At least it is now confined to one industry. But why force that error onto an industry—why put them at that potential risk—when there is no reason? I want to hear—and there has been none of it in the debate yet—what the need is for this legislation. In none of his contributions has the minister said why we need to do this. We have heard about the history of the old system. The minister has actually acknowledged that the commission is getting rid of the system anyway. Nowhere have we heard why it needs to be done now, other than, he has said, to do it quickly. As I have already pointed out, the commission will have this completed in the next few months, long before the minister's law says they should do it. So what is the purpose and what is the agenda if not for him to notch up on his wall one little victory at the expense of good governance and good law? (Extension of time granted)

I am saddened that, through the course of the debate this morning, the minister has declined the opportunity of my invitation and requests to him that he actually explain a few of these key things in the parliament. If these matters do sadly end up being debated in courts down the track and there is an argument about what is and what is not a tally, they certainly will not get any guidance from looking at the minister's second reading speech or comments in this place. So that will be a feast for the lawyers and at the end of the day there will be a piece of bad law that will go to line the pockets of the legal fraternity and do nothing to help those who run abattoirs or those who work in them.

We opposed this bill when it was originally here. We have been successful in the Senate in removing most of the provisions from it. We are now left with something that in the case of the Democrats is in fact well intentioned and in the case of the government may well be well intentioned, but in both cases is wrongheaded. They are making a mistake and the real sadness of this is that this government is making the mistake for the most base of reasons. There is no important public policy in this, and we are going to create problems for workers and employers' problems that they did not ask this government to pursue. The fact is that the industry is looking forward to the commission's decision. The matter is well in hand. All we are doing is complicating it by putting this legislation through, and the minister should understand that. If he gets it through the parliament, he should hold up the signature of the Governor-General, not let it get royal assent and at least let commonsense prevail. Have a half-notch on the wall and have half a bit of commonsense, because that is what the situation requires. I think people have painted themselves into a corner from which they cannot retreat. That is unfortunate. This is not good law.

Let me make this clear in conclusion: this debate is not about the old system of tallies; we are not debating the retention of those and never have in this debate, going back to 1999. That has never been our position. As I made clear in 1999 to the former minister, our position has been that the commission should be allowed to do its work, and it seemed to us that it was doing a fine job of it. Now, as it is about to conclude that work, the government wants to ride roughshod over it and issue it with instructionsa peculiar stance for a government that says it wants workers and employees to negotiate their own conditions without the interference of third parties. In this debate the big third party that is intervening is sitting on the other side of the table from me. It is the government: it is intervening contrary to all their normal mantras and in the process is making a mess of it. We will oppose this bill and hope that the government has the good sense not to actually give it royal assent.

Question put:

That the amendments be agreed to.