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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11837

Ms ANNETTE ELLIS (11:33 AM) —It is a pleasure to rise today to speak on the Fair Work Bill 2008. As has been said by other speakers in this debate, a little over 100 years ago Sir Justice Higgins, in response to his concern about the living standards of Australian workers, brought down the Harvester judgment, which established the first wage-fixing system in Australia. He set the minimum wage for unskilled labourers at £2 2s per week, based on the cost of living of the average worker for food, shelter and clothing. This judgment became the basis of our industrial relations system and set the standard over the next 90 years of decent living conditions and social equity for Australian workers and encompassed the Australian ideal of a fair go. The concept of a fair and decent industrial relations system came to an end when the former government introduced Work Choices.

I have to reflect briefly on a couple of comments made by the previous speaker, the honourable member for Warringah. He talked about freedom and fairness. I cannot think of anything less free or fair than the case of a 16-year-old student in my electorate. Her family came to me at the height of Work Choices and told me that she had no option but to give up her weekend job that was paid by the hour because the employer had decided to pay her less and less. She basically became employment fodder for that employer. It was under the auspices of Work Choices that he was legally able to do that. She had no freedom for good employment and she had no fairness in the way she was being paid and treated as an employee in that workplace. She was not Robinson Crusoe; a lot of people, particularly young people and women, were treated very badly under Work Choices. There was no freedom or fairness at all.

The other observation is that the previous speaker dislikes this legislation to the point that he has now linked his government with the Hawke-Keating government as some form of restitution. I may have to have a bit of time to come to grips with exactly what he may be suddenly conceiving as philosophies of the one mind. I cannot think that they are philosophies of the one mind.

The workplace rights that Australians had before Work Choices were swept away and replaced with a system that provided no safety net, no rights in the workplace and no guaranteed access to conditions such as overtime and penalty rates. They were all up for grabs. It established a system whereby employees were left with no protection and no bargaining power. It was a case of: ‘Here’s your individual contract. Sign it. If you don’t like it, that’s tough. Off you go. Maybe you will find a job somewhere else.’ Those are not what I would call free and fair employment conditions. Not only was Work Choices unfair to Australian workers; it was also 1,500 pages in length and very complex and difficult to understand. This created difficulties in the implementation of those laws for the many employers who were attempting to understand those laws.

A little over a year ago the Australian people, not the unions, sent a very clear message to the then coalition federal government. They were tired of the mean-spiritedness of the government, not least of all in the area of industrial relations, and they overwhelmingly voted against Work Choices. The Fair Work Bill 2008 will reintroduce fairness into the workplace. The legislation will be easier to understand in terms of structure, organisation and expression. It will reduce the compliance burden on business by avoiding microregulation and overly prescriptive provisions and by conferring broad functions and appropriate discretion on Fair Work Australia.

The bill was formulated through a thorough and exhaustive consultative process with many stakeholders, including employer and employee groups and state and territory governments. The laws are balanced. No one group got everything they wanted—that has to be said. The government’s aim was to restore balance to the system, and this bill will go a long way to achieving that objective. It is a fair and comprehensive system of employment conditions that cannot be stripped away. It is made up of National Employment Standards that will apply to all employees and cannot be overridden.

There are 10 National Employment Standards. The maximum weekly hours of work will be 38 hours per week for full-time employees, with additional provisions for maximum hours for part-time employees. Flexible working arrangements will allow parents or those responsible for the care of a child under school age to request a change in working arrangements to assist with the care of a child. An employee will only be able to refuse this request on reasonable grounds. Parental leave and related entitlements will provide for maternity, paternity and adoption leave. As the patron of the Adoptive Parents Association of the ACT, I know of many constituents in my electorate who will be particularly pleased with this news. It will provide to both parents a right to separate periods of up to 12 months of unpaid parental leave. Additionally, one parent will have the right to request a further 12 months leave, and it will only be able to be refused on reasonable business grounds.

The annual leave provision will guarantee four weeks annual leave to all full-time employees and an equivalent pro rata amount to part-time workers. The major change in this area will be the accrual method and the concept of ‘service’ for calculating entitlement. Annual leave will be accrued on ordinary hours of work, but there may be other provisions such as allowing an employee to take twice the annual leave required by the National Employment Standards at half the rate of pay.

With respect to personal carers leave and compassionate leave, the amount of paid carers leave that can be used will no longer be capped at 10 days per year. This provision will also replace complex rules regarding the accrual of leave with a simple rule that consolidates notice and evidence rules for taking leave. As chair of a committee in this place that is currently conducting an inquiry into carers, I know that employment issues are a common theme within that inquiry. I am sure that many carers will look at these provisions with great interest.

Although it is currently lawful to terminate an employee’s employment for absence due to a voluntary emergency management activity, there is no entitlement to community service leave in the current act. The National Employment Standards will enable employees to take unpaid leave to undertake an eligible community service activity such as jury service or voluntary service management. The National Employment Standards contain provisions for employers to make up payments for a period of up to 10 days at the base rate of pay for employees undertaking jury service, for example.

Long service leave is currently provided for by state and territory legislation. However, the federal government is working with the states and territories to develop nationally consistent long service leave entitlements—and won’t that be welcome!

The National Employment Standards will provide for a base rate of pay for ordinary hours for an employee who is absent on a public holiday. An employer may make a reasonable request for someone to work, but the employee may refuse on reasonable grounds.

The provision dealing with notice of termination and redundancy pay will provide for written notice in these areas. It provides a new entitlement to redundancy pay. However, this does not apply to small business. From 1 January 2010 employers will be required to give a copy of the Fair Work Australia information statement to all new employees.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act 2008, the transition act, will bring 10 matters into effect as a result of modern awards. They are: minimum wages and classifications, types of employment, arrangements for when work is performed, overtime rates, penalty rates, annualised wage or salary arrangements, allowances, leave related matters, superannuation and procedures for consultation, representation and dispute settlement.

This bill also brings into effect many positive changes in other areas, including: the transfer of a workplace agreement following the sale of a business; the introduction of good faith bargaining; the widening of content in workplace agreements; an assurance that the agreement passes the ‘better off over all’ test to ensure that workers are never disadvantaged by the terms of a new agreement; the right of entry to a workplace by a union wishing to represent its members, with strict conditions and guidelines attached that affect both employers and employees; freedom of association; unfair dismissal laws that protect employees without putting undue operational constraints on business; and protected industrial action, again with strict conditions governing the action.

Finally, this bill will bring into being Fair Work Australia, which will streamline the current industrial relations system by replacing six different organisations: the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the Australian Industrial Registry, the Australian Fair Pay Commission, the Workplace Authority, the Workplace Ombudsman and the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Its functions will be varied and wide. They include dispute resolution, minimum wage setting, ensuring good faith bargaining, facilitation of multiemployer bargaining for the low paid and approval of agreements.

This legislation is comprehensive and, I believe, strikes the correct balance. In the Sydney Morning Herald last week, Dr Rae Cooper, Senior Lecturer in Economics and Business at the University of Sydney, wrote:


the legislation—

has some promise. It sets out expanded national minimum standards and a new, regular process for setting minimum wages. It recasts the collective bargaining system, giving unions new rights, compelling employers to bargain “in good faith” and provides for a strong role for the industrial umpire to help the parties to resolve their differences.

Notably, the legislation recognises the special needs of low-paid workers, including by giving them easier access to arbitration.

Dr Cooper went on to say:

The Rudd Government’s emphatic election victory last year ... has given it the confidence to remake a new industrial relations system.

Will the people opposite object to this bill? Yes. Why? Because there is a vast philosophical difference in this country between those on this side of the House and the people on the other side of the House, who still believe that Work Choices is manna from heaven that they need to applaud. We do not believe that. We are not going to allow people to suffer any longer. The people that I have referred to—that young woman and many others in our electorates—really suffered under Work Choices. It was really tough. Members opposite, including the previous speaker, keep saying, ‘The unions, the unions, the unions!’ The fear of the unions, this bogeyman of Australian society, is still somehow in their minds. The reality is that the Australian people voted us in with a mandate to do what we are now doing—and we are doing it with pride and we are doing it knowing that it is going to amend a decade of disastrous industrial law in this country. I commend the bill to the House.