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Wednesday, 3 December 2008
Page: 12417

Ms HALL (6:15 PM) —I would like to associate myself with the comments made by the previous speaker. I think that his contribution to the debate was an excellent contribution, as all the contributions on this side of the parliament have been. The Fair Work Bill 2008 signals a new era in workplace relations, an era that is typified by fairness and decency. I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and everybody else who has been involved in the development of this legislation.

There has been widespread consultation with industries and unions on this legislation. As result of that, we have before us the legislation that we are debating here in the parliament. I would like to contrast that approach with the approach to the previous legislation. There was no consultation—or, should I say, there was one-sided consultation. The previous government consulted with business but totally disregarded the workers. People in Australia could have been forgiven for believing that the purpose of the Work Choices legislation was not to create a fair, vibrant, productive workplace but rather to cause exploitation and disadvantage.

I have been involved with many election campaigns over the years. During the last election the Australian people voted en masse against the Work Choices legislation. I had elderly people coming up to me and saying: ‘I’m voting for Labor because I’m voting against the Work Choices legislation. I’m voting that way because I’m voting for my children and my grandchildren.’ Those voices were widespread and rose up within the community. Australian people recognise decency and fairness, and they understood that the Work Choices legislation was very un-Australian.

This legislation was so unpopular that the government bought a large amount of paraphernalia—little giveaways to give to people—to try and sell their Work Choices legislation. When I opened my drawer before speaking tonight, I found that I had one piece of paraphernalia, one of the wonderful Work Choices pens produced en masse to try and convince Australian people that Work Choices was legislation that they should embrace. The pens did not work. The Australian people were too smart. They knew that workplace relations was about a lot more than getting a free pen.

Members on the other side of this parliament are still slaves to Work Choices, and there is great division and indecision amongst them. I will talk a little bit more about that later in my contribution, but now I would like to turn to the legislation for a moment. It builds on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Transition to Forward with Fairness) Act, which was enacted in March and which ended the making of AWAs. It introduced a genuine no-disadvantage test for agreements and commenced award modernisation. This bill provides a balanced framework of workplace rights and obligations which is fair to both employers and workers. It is not one-sided legislation; it is legislation that has its roots in fairness. It avoids overregulation, with broad functions and appropriate discretion conferred on Fair Work Australia, and reduces the compliance burden on business. It is not based on conciliation and arbitration powers but rather on corporation powers. This covers all employees of employers who are not trading as a corporation. It provides not awards that are the product of arbitration or interstate industrial disputes but common rules for industries or occupations. There will be nationally consistent workplace relations laws for the private sector. Unions will not have to apply to vary every award each year for national wage cases and endlessly serve ambit logs of claims on new business. It is much more efficient and will lead to a stronger economy and greater productivity.

The key features of this legislation include a fair and comprehensive safety net of employment conditions that cannot be stripped away, comprising National Employment Standards and national awards that deliver necessary flexibility without allowing an unscrupulous few to exploit their workforce. In other words, workers must be better off than they were before and they cannot fall below the minimum wage at any time. I, like many members of this House, had a number of constituents come and visit me before the last election. They had signed AWAs, had their conditions stripped away and lost money. This legislation ensures that I will not have any more 18-year-olds coming into my office in a situation where they have absolutely no say in what is happening and have realised that they are receiving a pittance. Now we have legislation that will ensure their protection within the workplace.

The National Employment Standards, which will apply to all employees, look at maximum weekly hours of work, requests for flexible working arrangements, parental leave and related entitlements, annual leave, personal carer leave, compassionate leave, community service leave, long service leave, public holidays, notice of termination and redundancy pay and fair work information statements—all things that every employee should be able to expect. This is in sharp contrast to the Howard government’s Work Choices legislation. The new framework for enterprise bargaining is one of collective bargaining rights and responsibilities focusing on collective bargaining at the enterprise level to promote and improve productivity. That is the key to achieving low inflation, low unemployment and rising standards of living, not one-sided Work Choices legislation—as I have already described to the House. The framework allows collective enterprise-level bargaining obligations. The problem with Work Choices was that it promoted an adversarial, bad-faith, ‘take it or leave it’ culture.

Once workers have agreed to an enterprise agreement, it must be lodged with Fair Work Australia for approval to commence operation. Before it comes into force, it must be determined that the agreement is genuine, that the group of employees covered by the agreement was fairly chosen, that the agreement passes the ‘better off overall’ test, that the agreement contains a nominal expiry date and dispute settlement clause, that the agreement does not contain terms that contravene the NES and that it does not contain unlawful content—all very important facts. Unfair dismissal rights—which balance the need for employers, including small business, to manage their workforce while protecting employees from unfair dismissal—are available to the vast majority of workers. The legislation enhances protections from discrimination and allows for freedom of association for all workers and their rights to representation, information and consultation at work. That is a long way from the previous legislation, which was all about ensuring that workers did not have those rights.

The rights of entry are preserved in this legislation. If unions hold a meeting with members and potential members, it should be in a suitable venue and they must have a permit. Unions have to observe conduct standards, and notice is required before entering. The role of Fair Work Australia will be to oversee the system, maintain the safety net and be an independent umpire. Individual claims under awards and the NES that cannot be resolved by the Fair Work Australia process can be dealt with through a low-cost, informal process in the fair work division of the courts. The new, flexible powers are available to the courts to remedy any contravention of the act. There are extensive consultation mechanisms included in all workplace relations, from the largest corporation to the smallest business and covering unions and the unemployed.

The government is determined to learn from the lessons of the past and deliver a workplace relations system that gains broad acceptance and support through consultation, consultation that was not undertaken by the previous government when it introduced Work Choices, which was all about doing over unions and not about creating a fair workplace. It was not about creating conditions and wages that were in the interest of workers and it was not about creating balance.

Quite a comparison can be made between this fair work legislation and Work Choices legislation. As a reminder to members of the House, Work Choices allowed agreements to slash the safety net. It was all about AWAs. It left awards to wither on the vine. It gave no effective rights to bargain collectively, slashed unfair dismissal rights, marginalised unions and rendered the independent industrial umpire powerless. Work Choices was about micromanagement of the employment relationship and did not create a truly national system.

Members of the opposition are still the disciples of Work Choices. The Leader of the Opposition declared Work Choices was the single most important economic reform of our time. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition has resisted changes to the Work Choices legislation but has reluctantly fallen into line. The former Leader of the Opposition is still a disciple of the Work Choices legislation. There are members in the opposition who have stated that they will not support the fair work legislation. The member for Fisher is still quite undecided about his position in relation to the Work Choices legislation and we all know how the member for Mayo was one of the architects of the Work Choices legislation. The member for Hume has said that he will not vote for the new legislation.

I put to the House that we have before us a fine piece of legislation that has been developed in consultation with all the parties it will affect. It is legislation that has the support of all the members on this side of the House, which is in stark contrast to members on the other side, who cannot quite decide their position. I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and all those who have been involved in the development of the legislation.

Debate (on motion by Dr Kelly) adjourned.