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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11845


Mr TURNOUR (12:05 PM) —I rise today to support the Fair Work Bill 2008—legislation that delivers fairness and flexibility, that will lead to increased productivity in the workplace and that sensibly balances the interests of Australian workers and businesses.

In the lead-up to the election last year, Labor crafted a new industrial relations policy titled Forward with Fairness, a policy firmly anchored in the Australian value of a fair go. This legislation interprets Australian values and enshrines them within the context of the modern Australian workplace relations system. The bill delivers a safety net of minimum conditions that cannot be stripped away; enterprise bargaining in good faith that will drive innovation and productivity, benefiting the Australian economy; protections from unfair dismissals for all employees; a right to representation in the workplace, including union representation; and a chance to better balance work and family life, particularly for low-paid workers.

This legislation delivers on Labor’s commitment to introduce fairness and flexibility into the Australian workplace, the commitment we made to the Australian people at the last election. It highlights the stark difference between the Rudd government and the Liberal-led opposition. We fundamentally believe in different things: Labor in a system centred on collective bargaining and the Liberals in a system centred on individual contracts.

Unlike the opposition, the Rudd government delivers on its promises. We do what we say we are going to do, in contrast to the opposition, who say one thing and do another. The Leader of the Opposition may say that Work Choices is dead, but you would not believe it listening to opposition speakers today. The opposition fought for and still be-lieve in an industrial relations system built on individual contracts—a dog-eat-dog, law of the jungle system where there is a race to the bottom on wages and conditions, a system anchored in the unrestrained market cap-it-alism that gave us the global financial crisis, a system where contracts are meted out, not negotiated and where there is only work and profits, not work and family. This is the in-dustrial relations system the Liberal Party bel-ieve in; it is in their bones. The Work Choices snake is not dead; it has just shed its name like a snake sheds its skin. It is still alive and well, slithering, hissing and ready to rise up and strike working families again if the Liberal opposition are elected to government.

I spent many days in the lead-up to the last election talking about Work Choices and workplace relations to people in their offices, workshops, shipyards and many other workplaces and obviously in their homes while out doorknocking. I remember a young truck driver I met while doorknocking at Edmonton, south of Cairns. He had signed an AWA. He was married with two kids, and although his hourly rate of pay had increased slightly he was worse off. When he worked longer hours he received no overtime or penalty rates, so his employer was now working him longer rather than putting on another driver. The end result was that he saw his family less. He was tired and angry and he did not know what to do.

There was the female migrant cleaner who had been given an AWA to sign by a government contractor. The AWA did away with all of her overtime, penalty rates and any control she may have had over her roster. The employer could call her in at short notice for a few hours work, roster her on split shifts and vary her hours enormously from week to week. She did not want to sign but did not want to lose her job. She did not know how she would manage her work and fam-ily responsibilities under this new system. There was no real clarity about what pay increases, if any, she would receive in the future, but in the end she needed a job and she signed the AWA. I spoke to many people in my electorate who were in similar sit-uations, and they came out in strength last year and voted for a new government—the Rudd Labor government. This was life as people knew it under the Liberal’s so-called Work Choices. You certainly could not choose family if you were a low-paid worker under Work Choices.

Similarly, small businesses were confused by the Work Choices laws. They do not have HR departments and work very closely with their employees. Work Choices gave them greater power over their employees but it meant that they were competing with other businesses not just on products and services but on wages and conditions too. Many found this very uncomfortable. The system effectively encouraged many businesses to cut wages and conditions—and they did. The processing of AWAs became chaotic following the introduction of the so-called fairness test. Many businesses found that they were underpaying their workers and were liable for thousands of dollars in back pay. Small business became weighed down in uncertainty and bureaucracy under Work Choices.

The Australian people rightly rejected Work Choices at the last election and, in the process, the Howard government. The Rudd government recognised this and, as one of our first acts of parliament this year, introduced the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Bill 2008, which began the process of phasing out the Howard government’s unfair workplace relations laws in favour of a fair and more flexible system. The Fair Work Bill further delivers on our commitment to establish a fairer, more flexible industrial relations system to drive productivity growth in the Australian economy.

At its heart is a new framework for collective bargaining at the enterprise level. We are returning the safety net to the Australian workplace and developing a new, modern award system. The Rudd government is committed to ensuring collective bargaining is again the cornerstone of the workplace relations system. Low-paid workers have not historically had access to the benefits of collective bargaining, but that will change under this bill. I heard the member for Charlton eloquently speak about this in a private setting. He is in the chamber now. I congratulate him, the former national secretary of the ACTU. He is a fantastic member of parliament. I know he has done a lot of work in this area. I agree with him: one of the great things about this legislation is providing low-paid workers—people like the cleaner and the truck driver I spoke about earlier—access to collective bargaining. The introduction of the Fair Work Bill will enable facilitated bargaining for these low-paid workers.

Fair Work Australia will play an important role in protecting the rights of many low-paid workers in the cleaning, childcare, retail and hospitality industries who have not been able to collectively bargain effectively in the past. Parties will be required to bargain in good faith. Good faith bargaining is about a willingness of parties to meet and discuss, to reach an accord on proposed new contract terms. It encourages parties to communicate openly and to focus their negotiations on key issues. Under Work Choices, there was no requirement to bargain in good faith. The employer quite simply could ignore their employees’ request to bargain, even when a majority of workers wanted a collective agreement.

This will change. When this bill is enacted, if a majority of employees wish to collectively bargain, their employer will be required to bargain with them. The Fair Work Bill sets out a bargaining framework that is premised on good faith bargaining. We know most workplaces already bargain in good faith, without any intervention. But in the event this does not happen, action will be taken. There are penalties for parties that do not bargain in good faith after being ordered to do so. The bill empowers Fair Work Australia to make orders to ensure compliance with the good faith bargaining requirements. Employees will also have the right to be represented by a union as part of this process, even if there is only one union member at the workplace. If you choose to join a union then you should be able to be represented by that union. Fair Work Australia is empowered to ensure that everyone bargains in good faith.

Fair Work Australia will oversee the Rudd government’s new industrial relations system; it will be our new industrial umpire. Fair Work Australia will be an independent, statutory body with a range of functions and powers, including facilitating collective bargaining, approving enterprise agreements, adjusting minimum wages and award conditions, dealing with unfair dismissal claims, dealing with industrial action and settling workplace disputes. Fair Work Australia will bring together seven existing agencies and integrate service delivery.

Work Choices created excessive red tape. This bill simplifies the system, creating a one-stop shop for all workplace relations issues. The benefits are obvious. Take small bus-inesses, for example. They do not have the time to spend numerous hours on staffing matters, on working through the many rules and regulations or on learning the ins and outs of workplace relations laws, and they cannot simply refer matters to their HR departments. This bill creates a simpler system, and Fair Work Australia will create a one-stop shop for employers, employees and unions.

The Fair Work Bill also returns unfair dismissal protections to all Australians. Under Work Choices, workers had no protection from unfair dismissal laws if the business em-ploying them employed fewer than 100 people. If the business was larger, people could still be dismissed for so-called operation-al reasons. The Fair Work Bill ensures that all employees have protections but recognises the special needs of small business. I have many small businesses in my electorate. Em-ployees will have to work for a small business for longer than 12 months to qualify for unfair dismissal protections. An employ-ee can still be dismissed, but the employer will need to follow the simple fair dismissal code. This affords workers protection from un-fair treatment and allows businesses to manage underperforming staff. The code makes it clear that an employer has the right to dismiss an employee without notice for ser-ious misconduct. The process for Fair Work Australia to deal with unfair dismissal will be streamlined and simplified. The Minister for Small Business, Independent Contrac-tors and the Service Economy has consulted widely on the fair dismissal code, and it has been well received by employer organisations.

There are many other features of this bill, but my time today is limited. The government has consulted widely on this legislation, and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Deputy Prime Minister is to be congratulated. Industry and union leaders have recognised this in their comments, which have generally been supportive. Heather Ridout, from the Australian Industry Group, said:

Look, it’s been a long process, it’s been a difficult, testing process, diametrically opposed positions between us and the unions on critical parts. The Government handled it professionally, listening to both sides, putting important protections, and kept a number of protections out of the Work Choices in the new bill.

Sharan Burrow, the ACTU President, said:

People voted out a system of individual contracts, Australians don’t want an environment in their workplaces where their rights are attacked. This legislation turns the tide on a decade of attacks on workers rights, it gives them back the fundamental decency that ought to exist in a work place to stand with and for each other, to bargain collectively, get a fair deal, and most employers, most employers, who never left a bargaining system who have respect for their workers, know these are a fair set of rights.

I know many members in the caucus also worked on this legislation with the minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and I want to congratulate them on their work and on the consultations they had with the broader caucus.

The Rudd government are striving to achieve a strong and productive economy. We believe we do not have to strip away wages and conditions to achieve effectiveness and efficiency in the workplace or in the Aust-ralian economy. John Howard’s legacy was a bureaucratic, complex, unfair industrial relations system. His legacy was Work Choices. But the Rudd government is committed to creating a fair and flexible employ-ment relations system. Cost of living pressures are already hurting many families and individuals. The global financial crisis is only increasing those pressures. In these troubled economic times, all Australians will benefit from certainty and from fair workplace relations laws. People want a fair go in the workplace. That is what this bill delivers.