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Friday, 19 November 1993
Page: 3239

Senator REID (9.17 a.m.) —The Industrial Relations and other Legislation Amendment Bill encompasses amendments to eight acts: the Defence Act 1903; the Industrial Relations Act 1988; the Maternity Leave (Commonwealth Employees) Act 1973; the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991; the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973; the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988, to which we will be moving an amendment in the committee stage; the Sex Discrimination Act 1988; and the Tradesmen's Rights Regulation Act 1946.

  Six of these acts relate to amendments that ought not to be before the parliament or taking up our time at present. These amendments arise from careless or faulty drafting instructions from the Minister for Industrial Relations (Mr Brereton) in relation to each of these bills. They do not relate, of course, to errors in the drafting itself; they are clearly errors in the instructions given by the minister in the first place. Correcting bills that were pushed through in such a hurry in the first place that they were not correct is the sort of thing that seems to take up a great deal of our time these days.

  The bill is to provide a legislative base to formalise partial cost recovery measures undertaken for some time by the Department of Industrial Relations and also to allow another government agency to make regulations—further eroding the powers of the parliament in favour of the bureaucracy, with the excuse that this is necessary to achieve national uniformity of occupational health and safety legislation. One might well ask: what has happened to states rights in this area?

  The financial impact of this bill is stated to be an approximate $180,000 revenue gain from partial cost recovery of fees under the Tradesmen's Rights Regulation Act. However, as the measures in the bill will only formalise practices which have been in operation within the Department of Industrial Relations for some time, the accuracy of the claim of $180,000 additional revenue is seriously doubted. I will be interested if the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Faulkner), when replying, could give us some explanation that is credible as to why that figure should be regarded as accurate.

  That this bill should be coming in at a time when we are extremely busy illustrates that the management of the program has generally been very poor, when we look at the things that are important—really important—to be dealt with before this year ends. It could have been done earlier in the program or it could be left until February of next year. We are not opposing the bill, but, as I mentioned, we will be moving an amendment to part 7. I wish to refer to some of the issues in the sections of the bill.

  In part 2, the bill makes gender neutral changes to the Defence Act 1903, and the chairman becomes a president. Part 3 amends the Industrial Relations Act 1988 to enable the Australian Industrial Registry to integrate with state industrial registries where agreement to do so is reached. The inference in the second reading speech is that the federal registry will be dominant. This is clearly expressed in the proposed section 63(1B)(a) which reads `acting as the registry for the State industrial body'.

  To avoid duplication on a register, organisations with more than one branch on the same register will be able to amalgamate, provided their rules are the same or are made to be the same. In such cases it is feasible that one branch could be operating under a state award and the other under a federal award. The fact that the federal award will become the dominant award after amalgamation is not spelt out.

  One might well ask: what is the hidden agenda in this amendment? Is it, in fact, another attempt to allow unions operating under state awards to transfer to federal awards? There is reason to think that this is the case. I refer to an article in the West Australian of 18 November 1993 which begins by saying:

At least six big unions are pushing ahead with plans to shift thousands of WA workers from State to Federal awards in a bid to escape the State Government's new industrial relations laws.

We have good reason to think that this amendment is part of that process. The second reading speech refers to an agreement between the federal and South Australian governments in this direction. It is obvious that this agreement was entered into by the current South Australian government in the full knowledge that it will be surely defeated in the forthcoming election and that it wanted to lock the incoming government into an agreement which would not even be contemplated by the new Liberal government, in much the same way as the Keating government ratified the ILO Termination of Employment Convention of 1982 well after the March 1993 election had been called.

  Part 4 deals with the Maternity Leave (Commonwealth Employees) Act 1973 and performs what one might call a number of housekeeping tasks relating to maternity leave for staff of the parliamentary departments, and the powers of the Presiding Officers and senior officers of the five departments of the parliament.

  Part 5 relates to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991. It effects a number of changes to the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act to effectively expand its scope to include the defence forces through an extremely broad definition of `premises', which will include any place, enclosed or built on or not, situated underground or under water; aircraft, vehicles or vessels; structures, either fixed or movable, whether on land, on the bed of or floating on any waters; or part of any premises.

  This is a new definition and why it is necessary is not clear from the documentation put before us, especially as members of the defence forces already have access to very comprehensive free health services and special veterans' entitlements. The fact that they are to be included causes some concern, as does the hidden agenda. What an indictment it is of this government that, with just about every piece of legislation that comes into the parliament, we are entitled to look for the hidden agenda, because, more often than not, it turns out to be the case that there is one. Nothing is ever what it appears to be on the surface.

  Is this amendment designed to treat the defence forces on the same basis as other employees in the public sector by firstly encompassing them in alternative arrangements and then later withdrawing their special superior benefits? Benefits, which, in my view, are well and truly deserved and totally appropriate to the armed services. I think we are entitled to ask for an explanation of what this really means and what the purpose of it is.

  Section 23 of the principal act dealing with limits on the operations of the act requires Commonwealth departments, agencies and enterprises to be responsible for occupational health and safety of employees or contractors. This is to be expanded to include `other persons at or near a workplace'. This expanded clause causes some concern not only because of the vague nature of `or near', but also because public liability insurance cover costs may be forced through the roof as it encourages `other persons' not to exercise due care when entering onto or being near the defined premises, wherever that might be.

  Clause 33(b) of the bill will allow the National Occupational Health and Safety Council to determine codes of practice and to have those codes enshrined by regulation, subject to ministerial approval. Any regulation made under this provision will also apply to the same extent as I outlined when I talked about section 23 of the principal act; that is, to Commonwealth departments, agencies and enterprises, their employees or contractors, and other persons at or near a workplace. Again, the vague nature of this provision causes concern and I hope that the minister will more clearly define the extent to which the section applies when he replies to this debate.

  Part 6 deals with the Remuneration Tribunal Act 1973 and makes gender neutral changes to the act. The chairman becomes president. A new section is to be inserted to allow the Remuneration Tribunal to make discriminatory determinations on matters arising out of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984.

  Part 7 deals with the Safety Rehabilitation and Compensation Act 1988. I will be circulating in the chamber a number of amendments to be moved by the opposition in the committee of the whole to clause 52. Part 7 corrects a number of drafting errors, and introduces a number of new sections dealing with recovery of overpayments to employees who retire at a time when they are in receipt of Comcare benefits. The proposed new sections would allow Comcare to recover overpayments from their client's superannuation fund without any reference to the client. It is an outrageous provision. Any senator who has had any constituents involved in dealings with Comcare and this area must oppose this provision.

  Legal provisions allowing any person or body access to any individual superannuation fund cannot be sanctioned by the coalition. We believe that people who accumulate savings to provide for themselves in their retirement should not have access to those funds prior to retirement unless very special circumstances exist. Certainly, a person or body should not be able to garnishee such funds without any reference to the person who would ultimately become the beneficiary of them.

  Amendments proposed by this bill would allow Comcare to tell superannuation fund managers that it is owed moneys because it has made overpayments—I stress that—to a particular person and that requires payment from the person's accumulated savings without any attempt to recover the overpayment from the client, and without any attempt to even ascertain whether it is reasonable to collect the overpayment from the client. It is the mistake of Comcare that we are talking about.  It is adopting an easy option. It is adopting an unfair option. It is outrageous. It does not allow for disputes of quantum to be resolved before recovery is effected. It is contrary to normal business practice; it is contrary to natural justice.

  To rectify this and to ensure that reasonable attempts are made to collect overpayments, and to allow quantum disputes to be resolved, on behalf of the coalition I shall be moving the amendments I have referred to, as has been suggested by Senator Watson, who, as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation, has far more experience in this field than I have. I have certainly had considerable personal experience dealing with Comcare and I totally support the position that Senator Watson has put with regard to this.

  Part 8 deals with the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. It introduces a number of new sections authorising other changes made at part 6 of this bill relating to discrimination and remuneration matters, including who may lodge appeals and how they can be dealt with. The clauses in this part of the bill will also allow representative, or class actions, as they have commonly become known, to be dealt with by the Remuneration Tribunal in much the same manner as was provided for in the Sex Discrimination and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1992.

  In his speech on the second reading debate of that bill on 8 December, Senator Hill expressed serious concerns about the direction in which the government was heading in that instance. Those same reservations are held about this bill, about the unnecessary duplication of avenues which already exist to resolve disputes. These sentiments in no way lessen the coalition's long-held commitment to equality of opportunity based on merit and equal reward for effort without discrimination on the grounds of gender, belief, association or race.

  The last section, part 9, deals with the Tradesman's Rights Regulation Act 1946 and gives legislative authority to practices that have been used in the Department of Industrial Relations for some time without legislative authority to do so. These new clauses will allow regulations to be made prescribing collection fees to cover part costs incurred by the department in the administration of the act, including processing applications for trade certificates and arrangements for tests for a number of public and private bodies.

  The coalition supports the user pays principle and, on that basis, finds no objections to the proposals. However, the financial impact statement in the explanatory memorandum did not clearly spell out whether the $180,000 that is expected to be raised from this measure is additional revenue or expected revenue from longstanding procedures.