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Tuesday, 7 December 1993
Page: 4049

Senator McMULLAN (Minister for the Arts and Administrative Services) (8.25 p.m.) —During this debate there has been a lot of hyperbole but we have just heard it lifted to an art form. It was an argument so overstated and overblown as to be almost a parody of itself.

  The Industrial Relations Reform Bill 1993 is an important bill that warrants an important debate. I welcome the fact that there has been such an extensive debate; in both houses of parliament there have been more than 50 speakers. That is an indication of the interest in the bill, of the substance of the bill and of the significant differences about the issues raised by the bill.

  From the government's point of view, this is a bill which makes a very important contribution to labour market reform in Australia. Notwithstanding the strength of difference of views about how such reform should be pursued, I think there is an agreed concern that we need to lift competitiveness and efficiency in Australia. What we need to focus on in considering this bill—and what the public needs to focus on in making its decisions about the merits of the arguments put forward, as the public concentrated on the issues in contention with regard to this bill during the course of the election—is the different approaches to achieve the reform that we all agree is required.

  During the course of the election, in the development of this bill, in the bill and in the debate about the bill, the government has consistently said that there are twin themes: flexibility and fairness. We hear a lot said about flexibility. I do not want to underestimate its significance but sometimes in the debate people have been mute about fairness; that is, about being fair to those who are, in many instances, the weaker party in the contract negotiations in the industrial relations arena.

  Because the government is very concerned about fairness, we made it an important issue in the election. We reiterated it in the debate leading up to this bill. It is in the bill on the basis of very strong worker protection with a secure and relevant award safety net. These are not only important in social terms, in terms of the rights of the individuals who are affected; they are also vital to the success of labour market reform. When there is a secure safety net, the possibility exists for constructive workplace flexibility and for negotiations without fear of a major loss of conditions and entitlements, because the underpinning exists. So a basis exists for mutually confident negotiations that can lead to workplace flexibility and dynamic productivity growth.

  Throughout the decade the government has had a commitment to a cooperative approach to industrial relations, to recognising the importance of protecting and advancing the interests of working men and women in Australia, but it has done so in a cooperative, agreed fashion. As part of that process the bill before us has been developed on the basis of an extensive consultation process. There has been a lot of talk, including in the most recent contribution, about there not being significant consultation, and I will detail that in just a moment. But the first thing to remember about the consultative approach in a democracy is that the government's basic approach to industrial relations reform was well established and known before the last election. It was an important issue in the last election and the people made their choice on that, amongst other factors.

  Since the election the proposed legislation has been subject to an intensive consultative process. Let me give a few figures. Since April the Minister for Industrial Relations (Mr Brereton) has had 36 face-to-face meetings with employer organisations and individual business leaders; he has had 28 meetings with trade unions; he has delivered 14 major speeches outlining progress with the bill's development; he has had two meetings of the tripartite National Labour Consultative Council; he has convened two meetings of Labor ministers, that is, with his state and territory colleagues; and he has had numerous meetings with interest groups. In the course of that consultation, the minister has visited all states, most of them on two or more occasions. As honourable senators would know, but perhaps not anybody else, the legislation has also been the subject of two Senate committee inquiries.

  As I said in my opening remarks, in the House of Representatives and the Senate combined we have had more than 50 speakers on the bill. There has been very widespread consultation and opportunity to participate in and contribute to the debate. Notwithstanding the widespread consultation, there is no agreement, and that is not surprising. No legislative package could ever hope to satisfy all the competing groups with an interest in industrial relations. It may well be that this is a bill—from the government's point of view, it is, but it is a matter for debate—that is broadly in the interests of employers, employees, the society as a whole and the economy as a whole. But it does not meet everybody's expectations; no bill ever will. So it is not surprising that we do not have consensus, notwithstanding the broad base of consultation.

  There are some important matters laid down in this legislation. They are matters that need to be recognised, acknowledged and given due weight in consideration of the bill itself and any amendments to it. I will not deal with the amendments in this speech because that is for the committee stage of the debate.

  I will outline the key principles underlying the bill. It is important to remember that the government's proposals put the onus on the industrial parties to take responsibility for their own industrial relations. It is another step away from the traditional approach in the early part of this century which assumed that there was, through an arbitral process, the capacity to resolve all problems through a centralised system. The proposals give greater access to formal enterprise bargaining through, on the one hand, certified agreements and, on the other hand, enterprise flexibility agreements. The scope for innovation through these mechanisms is already being shown through certified agreements under the existing legislation which are generating an impressive range of productivity measures. These will now be supplemented by enterprise flexibility agreements.

   There has been concern that in some way the safeguards built into the process will deter employers from using these processes. But the safeguards protecting workers' wages and conditions do not seem to me, to the government or to the majority of Australians to be onerous. They are protections that will not cause any problem where any employer reaches an enterprise flexibility agreement which is fair. Nobody in those circumstances should face any difficulty in having agreements approved. Rather than impeding flexibility, the protections will ensure that negotiations can focus on sustainable productivity improvements and not the mere consideration of one-off cuts to wages and conditions and the inevitable conflict that arises from attempts so to do.

  It is important to reiterate the underlying reasons why trade unions responsible to the relevant award and members at the workplace have a right to be involved in the negotiation of agreements. It seems only fair in the circumstance when they are parties to the matter which is under discussion and when members of the organisation are at that workplace. It is very unusual to argue that a party to a matter under consideration should not have rights to participate in the reconsideration of that award or agreement.

  If unions do not have any members, then their right is limited to being heard before the Industrial Relations Commission during the approval process to argue whether the agreement meets the legislative requirements. But in those circumstances there is no union veto. It is for the Industrial Relations Commission to determine and apply the no disadvantage test. But the government regards the no disadvantage test as a very important principle. It does allow for agreed reductions if these are judged not to be against the public interest—for example, as part of a strategy for dealing with a short-term crisis and revival.

  The government has unashamedly—in fact, quite proudly—underpinned its industrial relations reform with firm worker protections. It has done so in recognition of the sorts of concerns that have been raised, amongst others, by senators from the Greens, the Australian Democrats and members of the government.

  The key safeguards provided in the bill are about the effective award safety net, the no disadvantage test, the framework for fair and effective bargaining and protection for workers against discrimination. The bill's protective provisions will be complemented by other government measures, including an annual survey to monitor developments with enterprise bargaining and particularly its impact on disadvantaged groups. The design and analysis of this survey will be developed in conjunction with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner. The government will also meet its commitment to establish work in women's centres to advise women on enterprise bargaining and other work-related pay and conditions matters. Overall the government considers that the proposals strike the right balance between enhancing flexibility and ensuring an adequate safety net of employee protection.

  The Democrats have raised with the government the issue of special carers' leave for workers to look after sick dependants. The government will be giving consideration to future legislation to extend the minimum entitlements provisions, giving effect to ILO convention 156 on workers with family responsibilities, to provide for such leave. This would be pursued subject to the outcome of a test case conducted before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission on application from the ACTU seeking the setting of an appropriate standard. Adopting this approach, rather than legislating now for the leave, is seen as the preferable way to go, given the absence of existing community standards on this matter and the accepted role of the commission in setting such standards.

  Although this is a very important bill, I do not want to unduly delay consideration of it. In conclusion, the bill before the Senate is a balanced package. It does not pursue narrow, ideologically inspired, quick fix deregulationist approaches. Rather it is looking, with a sense of reality, towards a constructive way forward—not something prescribed in a first-year economic textbook or a theoretical model, but a practical, on the ground way of achieving what have the potential to be important reforms if the Senate passes them in the form sought by the government. It provides ample opportunities for flexibility and cooperative approaches to lift competitiveness and productivity. It also ensures that the interests of workers are protected. Its combination of flexibility and fairness is the only way to achieve the sustainable improvements that Australia needs.

  There is a lot more that can be said, but we have already had 50 speeches in the two houses in consideration of this bill. Therefore, I will not seek in any way to reiterate all the arguments put for the bills or rebut all those against them. I think it is a question of going over the major themes and putting down some issues that have not been put on behalf of the government that needed to be put on the record. I commend the bills to the Senate.

  Question put:

  That the bills be now read a second time