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Thursday, 21 March 2002
Page: 1840

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (10:09 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The government's record in workplace relations reform is substantial. The Australian labour market has been transformed into an environment where cooperative enterprise based bargaining has become the primary determinant of wages and conditions of employment. This has in turn produced social and economic benefits—including increased productivity, higher living standards for workers, historically low dispute levels and around 950,000 jobs since the government was first elected in 1996. These positive results have strengthened the government's resolve to implement further useful reform.

This bill will provide a mechanism for resolving complexities which may arise due to the existence of multiple or inappropriate certified agreements following a transmission of business. At best, these complexities can lengthen the transmission process. At worst, they can deter the parties from undertaking it. In other words, they cost jobs.

The government has previously sought to amend the relevant provisions, most recently with the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transmission of Business) Bill 2001, which was introduced into the House of Representatives on 4 April 2001, but lapsed with the parliament.

The bill I introduce today has the same objective as the previous bills. However, the current bill includes measures specifically designed to ensure that all parties affected by a transmission are treated fairly and that all those who will work under the agreement if it transmits are able to have their views heard before an order is made.

Under the existing provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996, if a business transmits to an incoming employer, then a certified agreement covering it will also transmit so as to bind the incoming employer. As a result, a new employer and its employees may be bound by a certified agreement that is not suited to their circumstances—and which is not their negotiated agreement. Further, certified agreements that apply as a result of a transmission of business can override existing certified agreements in the new workplace and disrupt established work practices. There may also be practical difficulties in terminating or varying a transmitted agreement.

In order to remedy this situation, this bill will allow the commission to decide, on application and on a case by case basis, whether it should make an order that a certified agreement will not transmit to an incoming employer, or will only transmit to a specified extent or for a specified period.

The order may be sought before or after transmission. Only the outgoing employer may apply before transmission. However, employees who will work in the business if the transmission occurs, and specified employee organisations, are entitled to make submissions if an order is sought.

After transmission a different and wider category may apply including the incoming employer (but not the outgoing employer), employees who have come over from the old business to the new, existing employees of the new employer who have become subject to the agreement, and specified employee organisations. The same individuals and organisations are also entitled to make submissions once an application is on foot.

Providing the commission with a power of this nature is not a novel concept. The commission already has the power to order that awards do not bind a new employer upon transmission of business. The commission has used this power on a number of occasions.

Given the pivotal role certified agreements now have in the industrial relations system, the commission should have a similar discretionary power in relation to the transmission of certified agreements.

This bill is a sensible technical measure which will improve the operation of the workplace relations system. The amendments will continue to give workers and employers more opportunities to manage their relationships at their workplace and give the commission an important specific power to enable them to do so.

In introducing the bill the government is reactivating a legislative proposal in an area where the current act is technically deficient and requires remedial action. The government is determined to address this deficiency and will continue to assess the policy issues relating to transmission of business, ensuring that where necessary, further legislative initiatives are developed. I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Sidebottom) adjourned.