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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12402


Mr GIBBONS (5:13 PM) —Nowhere is the difference between this government and its predecessor starker than in our respective policies on workplace relations. The workplace relations doctrine of the Howard government was firmly rooted in blind faith in the free market—a doctrine in which greed is not just accepted but also admired, a doctrine in which working people are just economic commodities to be hired and fired at will and a doctrine in which concern and compassion for individuals and families is completely absent. It was this doctrine that inflicted the Howard government’s extreme Work Choices laws on the Australian people.

On this side of the House we also believe that there is a central place in our economy for the free market. The free market certainly creates wealth and improves living standards. But the free market also has limitations. There are such things as market failure and, as we have seen demonstrated around the world over the past few months, the world’s financial markets can fail. As a result of the type of light regulation advocated by those opposite, the leaders of the world’s financial institutions have, to put it bluntly, stuffed up. They are incapable of regulating themselves and they are incapable of curbing their own excesses. They are, quite frankly, incapable of managing their own businesses.

And we must not forget that these bankers brought all this upon themselves. The world’s financial markets were not hit by a natural disaster or by an unforeseen event or even by an act of God. These markets failed because in some of the world’s largest financial institutions people with enormous salary packages made bad business decisions, and now these institutions have had to be bailed out by governments all around the world. They have had to be bailed out using trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. To all intents and purposes, they have had to be bailed out by ordinary working men and women who earn much more modest salaries. And it is not just incompetent bankers with their hands out. We have seen the leaders of some of America’s largest manufacturing companies flying to Washington in their private jets to put their hands out for more taxpayer money. Again, the dire financial situation in which the US car makers find themselves in is almost entirely their own fault. Bad business decisions are again at the root of their problems, and now they expect taxpayers to foot the bill for the consequences of those decisions.

Okay, we have to be practical about all of this. Modern capitalist economies cannot allow important financial institutions to collapse, and they probably cannot allow major manufacturers to go to the wall either. On a global scale, the market cannot be allowed to operate freely because the economic and social consequences for millions of working people are too horrendous to contemplate. But if governments and the ordinary working people of the world are going to underwrite systematic failures of the free market then there is a price to be paid. I am not just talking about the cost of guaranteeing deposits or the cost of repaying money borrowed from the taxpayers. Part of the cost to be paid is in the form of a fair and equitable workplace relations system that strikes the right balance between employers and employees, a system that provides fundamental protection to individuals and families from the excesses of the free market. It is completely unjustifiable for the financial security of working men and women to be in the hands of a few overpaid, jet-setting millionaires who cannot manage their businesses prudently.

On this side of the House, we believe in a fair go for all. Indeed, the labour movement in this country was responsible for the very concept of a fair go. It was the labour movement that etched the fair go into the Australian psyche. It was the labour movement that fought for the concept of a living wage. It was the labour movement that fought for the eight-hour working day. A fair go is the labour movement’s legacy to this nation. The labour movement was founded to protect workers from the excesses of free-market capitalism and we find ourselves doing it again here today. One year ago voters comprehensively rejected the extreme workplace relations policies of the coalition, policies that the Howard government introduced without a mandate and which stripped away basic working conditions from hardworking Australians. They then had the nerve to misuse tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money telling working Australians how much better off they would be under Work Choices. It is a disgraceful record of contempt for working Australians, of which those opposite should be thoroughly ashamed.

The Fair Work Bill 2008 sets out the workplace relations system that will replace Work Choices from the beginning of 2010. It fulfils Labor’s election commitment to the Australian people. It embraces the Australian value of the fair go and is based on a belief that economic prosperity and a decent standard of living for all can go hand in hand. It introduces new national employment standards, new unfair dismissal laws and new rules governing good faith bargaining. It supports and extends the productivity based enterprise bargaining that was one of the greatest achievements of the former Keating government. The bill dismantles the organisations created by the Howard government under Work Choices such as the Workplace Authority, the Workplace Ombudsman and the Fair Pay Commission. And it will replace the Australian Industrial Relations Commission with a new industrial tribunal called Fair Work Australia.

The bill is a result of extensive consultation with peak union and employer organisations and it achieves a fair balance between employers and employees. There are two features of the bill that I would like to highlight and of which I am particularly proud. These are the strong and simple safety net and the special assistance for the lower paid. Work Choices provided only five very basic minimum entitlements for employees: annual leave, personal or carers leave, parental leave, the maximum ordinary hours of work, and basic rates of pay and casual loadings. Other vital award conditions, including redundancy payments and penalty rates, could be removed or modified by a workplace agreement without compensation. The number and types of matters that could be provided in awards were restricted and some were completely prohibited. And as far as negotiating these conditions was concerned, Work Choices made the fallacious assumption that there is equal bargaining power between employer and employee.

Under this government’s new workplace relations system, all employees will have the benefit of clear, comprehensive and enforceable minimum protections that cannot be stripped away. The first part of the new safety net will be the National Employment Standards, which provide for: a maximum number of hours of work each week, the right to request flexible and family-friendly working arrangements, parental leave and related entitlements, annual leave, personal and carers leave, and compassionate leave for community service activities. It also provides for long service leave, public holidays, notice of termination and redundancy pay, and the provision of a fair work information statement which will set out the rights and entitlements of employees and how they can obtain advice and assistance. These 10 standards will apply to all employees whether they are covered by an award or not, and there will be a national minimum wage for employees not covered by an award. These essential standards will start to restore the certainty and security that was torn away from so many working Australians under Work Choices.

The second part of Labor’s new safety net is the creation of modern awards by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. These awards will be industry or occupation based and will simplify the thousands of awards that exist now. They complement the new National Employment Standards and can include 10 more minimum conditions of employment geared to the particular needs of the industry or occupation concerned. These additional conditions include: minimum wages, types of employment, arrangements for when work is performed, overtime and penalty rates, annualised wage or salary arrangements, allowances, leave related matters, superannuation, and procedures for consultation, representation and dispute settlement. These modern awards will cover all employees who earn less than $100,000 a year and whose work has historically been covered by awards, while employees with a basic salary of more than $100,000 will be free to agree terms with their employers to supplement the National Employment Standards.

The low-paid, such as those in industries like child care, community work and cleaning services, were treated particularly harshly under Work Choices. There were no provisions to help them beyond the five minimum entitlements and an annual minimum wage review. Enterprise bargaining has been a central feature of workplace relations since the early 1990s and there is now significant evidence that enterprise bargaining benefits employees, employers and the economy. Labor wants to encourage low-paid employees and their employers into enterprise bargaining and this bill provides for a special multi-employer low-paid bargaining stream. Many employees in low-paid sectors lack the skills and bargaining power to negotiate improved wages and conditions and some employers may lack the time, skills and resources to bargain collectively with their employees.

The bill provides for a bargaining representative, or an organisation of employees, to apply to Fair Work Australia for entry into the low-paid stream to bargain with a specified list of employers. Fair Work Australia will then be obliged to play a hands-on role to get the parties bargaining, and to facilitate agreements by various means. It may convene and chair conferences, help to identify productivity improvements to underpin an agreement and steer employers and employees through the bargaining process. Individual employers will be able to seek exemption from this process if they think they should not be included.

The bill provides for the possibility of a workplace determination in the low-paid stream by agreement or if there is no reasonable prospect of an agreement being reached between the parties. However, Fair Work Australia would not be able to order bargaining participants to make concessions or to require the inclusion of particular content in an agreement. And, when making a determination, Fair Work Australia will have to consider how productivity in the business might be improved and the need to maintain the competitiveness of the employer.

The introduction of this bill is another step in the death march of Work Choices, a death that last week appeared to be finally accepted by the Leader of the Opposition as being the will of the Australian people. But there are some out there who still do not accept what voters said at the last election. The ideologues in peak business organisations are instructing their political wing, otherwise known as the Liberal Party, to continue the fight through the Senate. Of course, the party of business, the party of the well-off, is more than willing to do its master’s bidding, despite its leader declaring Work Choices is dead.

In response to them, I return to the point I made at the beginning of this speech: a workplace that treats employees with respect and fairness and protects them from the excesses of the free market is part of the price the private sector has to pay. It is part of its social licence to operate. It is part of the price it has to pay for its own management failures. It is part of the price it has to pay because it expects taxpayers to bail it out when markets fail. This bill restores fairness and balance to Australian workplaces. It represents the will of the working men and women of this country and I commend it to the House.