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Thursday, 20 June 1996
Page: 1991

Senator PATTERSON(6.23 p.m.) —Today we are debating the motion moved by Senator Jacinta Collins, which states:

That the Senate—

(a)   notes the overwhelming Australian and overseas evidence that the majority of Australian workers will be disadvantaged by the Government's proposals to reform Australia's industrial relations system; and

(b)   condemns the Government for continually failing to acknowledge women's concerns in particular, whilst defending the `rock solid' guarantee of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) that no worker will be worse off.

This is not an area in which I have participated in the Senate before. I want to start my speech by putting into context why I most probably feel so strongly about these reforms. Some time ago, former Senator Richardson asked me—and I do not suppose we are supposed to reveal conversations held outside in the corridor—`How did the New South Wales Right ever miss you when you were at university? Why didn't we get you?' I did not have time to fully explain to former Senator Richardson why the New South Wales Right never got me.

They never got me because I was politicised as an 11-year-old when my mother, who was a single mother at the time, had to work full time. She came home one night in tears. She was crying because she worked in a hotel and did not want to join a union. The union had said that they would black ban the hotel if she did not join. She was put between a rock and a hard place: she was either not going to have a job, with a child she had to rear on her own, or she was going to have to join the union. That is not social justice.

How can Senator Mackay come in here and talk about social justice when my mother was forced to join a union because her employer, the hotel she was working at, was not going to be supplied with grog unless she joined the union? There were a lot of women who worked with my mother who were not going to join the union. The employer finally paid their union fees so she could get the beer, grog, cigarettes and everything else delivered to her hotel because she was going to be black banned.

That was the major issue that politicised me. I decided from then on I would never ever be forced to join a union. I would go to the wall, I would go to gaol, I would do anything not to join a union. I could not see what benefit my mother was getting. She was working for an employer who was incredibly compassionate. In fact, she was working for a long distant relative by marriage of Senator Parer who was one of the most compassionate employers. None of her workers wanted to join a union yet they were forced to do so.

A bit further down the track, when I was at Monash University, the problems for women in particular when they are forced to join a union were reinforced for me. I happened to be deputy warden of a halls of residence at a time when there was a cleaners strike. The general staff of the university went on strike over some issue. We had students who were unable to get food because we could not get food delivered. There were all sorts of things. There were lots of inconveniences.

The thing that concerned me most was when the woman who used to clean my apartment came to me in tears and said, `I hope you didn't see me picketing outside the university.' I said that I had not seen her. She said, `I didn't want to picket. I chose to go at 5 a.m. because I was rung up and told that if I did not picket my kids would not find their way home from school.'

Where is the social justice in that, Senator Mackay? Where is the social justice in a woman being threatened to picket? We can stand here and talk about employers who are unfair, who have done things that are not appropriate—and we all know that that occurs—but I have just given examples, and I am sure other colleagues can give example after example, where unions have not played the game properly either. There would be examples where they have not behaved appropriately, where they have abused their privileges, where they have abused their membership.

We can find fault on both sides. We are prepared to stand up here and agree that there are employers who have not always done the right thing, but I do not hear the other side getting up and saying that unions have not always done the right thing. Not one speaker on the other side has said that. It is as though the unions are always right, always do the right thing, always do things for the social justice system.

I see someone on the other side shaking his head. He most probably has examples of where they have not actually performed their duty but in fact done a disservice to their members. That is one of the positions I am coming from. That issue most probably continued to cement my politicisation towards the Liberal side of politics because I could not see women, in particular, being served very well by unions in either of those instances.

The other side is saying the world will fall in because of this workplace relations bill. That is not the case. There are protections, there are safeguards in place which mean we will have a more productive society. I have family who run small businesses and who now will not employ people because of the unfair dismissal law—and do not raise your eyebrows! They prefer not to increase production because it is too hard to get rid of somebody.

Only the other day I was talking to an organisation in Melbourne which wrote to me because somebody had engraved their name and various other bits and bobs all over the furniture in its building. It has cost that organisation something like $80,000 in legal fees to finally dismiss this person, who continued to engrave all over the office furniture, doors and all sorts of other pieces around its office.

You can raise your eyebrows about that but lots of people would be better off if employers were in a position to employ them. They are not employing them now. Business after business comes to us and says that they are not putting people on. The pharmacist down the road from me said, `I am not going to put anybody on because if they are hopeless I can't get rid of them.' So really they are saying that they will not create jobs.

Who have the unions been protecting? They have not protected the three quarters of a million people who are presently unemployed. I have not heard one speaker from the other side talk about all the people who are unemployed because unions have the sorts of policies that they have and because of the sorts of industrial relations rules that exist. Not one person on the other side has talked about rights and social justice for the unemployed—not one. Many are unemployed because of the current union inability to accept that the unfair dismissal laws in particular discourage employers from employing people.

Under this bill workers will be better off, despite what the Labor Party says. They will be recognised and respected. They will not be disadvantaged in the way Senator Jacinta Collins asserts in her notice of motion. The bill respects and values the fact that the Australian work force is diverse. It will open up the industrial relations system to workers who traditionally have been neglected by the system, and that includes women.

One of the primary ways this will be done is by focusing on individual employers and employees rather than on traditional industrial relations institutions. Currently, unions can enter into an agreement with an employer and have it certified by the commission without even getting the support of the employees who will be affected. The commission should look into the agreement and make sure that workers are not disadvantaged but, in practice, the commission just takes the union's word that they are not.

What is implemented is what is best for the union rather than what is best for the worker. In many cases what is implemented is what is best for male unionists without taking into account what is best for the female members of a union. The coalition wants to reverse that situation. We want deals negotiated that will not leave workers worse off, and we want deals negotiated without the unions unnecessarily influencing the outcome.

I want to go through some of the things that various speakers have said. Senator Jacinta Collins talked about the exploitation of outworkers under a deregulated labour market. Labor has been in power for 13 years. Some of you might say that this issue is about federal and state awards, but it was not a Labor member of the Senate who decided to initiate a Senate inquiry into outworkers. If Labor members were so concerned about this matter, why didn't they initiate such an inquiry? For Senator Collins to talk about the exploitation of outworkers when Labor has been in power for 13 years reflects more on Senator Collins than on the legislation.

Senator Margetts said that you cannot judge an industrial relations system by the behaviour of a good employer. I think you could argue that you cannot judge an industrial relations system by what a good union does either. As I have pointed out before, there are situations in which unions do not always work in the best interests of individual members. Unions have not worked effectively to protect the rights of workers. I will talk about that more in a moment when I talk about part- time work and what has happened in that area.

Senator Childs said that the legislation was social Darwinism—the strong prosper and the weak suffer—and was going back to dinosaurs. He talked about people working in factories whose first language was not English and how disadvantaged they would be. I can only think that he is talking about one of two possible situations, the first of which is where there is a non-union certified agreement, the terms of which will have been approved by the commission.

The second is where there is an Australian workplace agreement. This agreement will not have been vetted by the commission—I admit that—but the worker, if they so choose, can be a member of a union and have a union person negotiate on their behalf. If the worker is not satisfied or if there be some breach of the Australian workplace agreement, they have access to the employment advocate. This will be a specialist advisory body that will give advice and pay legal fees if the employer does not meet minimum standards.

The bill enables the employment advocate's advice and assistance function to be contracted out in accordance with suitable funding and accountability arrangements. One option which has been given close consideration is partially contracting out some functions of the advocate to non-government community organisations. Workers who have been traditionally marginalised, such as women from non-English speaking backgrounds, may feel more comfortable seeking help from community based organisations. They will have access to both those sorts of organisations and an employment advocate to deal with their concerns.

When Senator Mackay was speaking it appeared as though the only right workers had was to go to the equal opportunities or human rights commission and wait two years. When she was talking about Christine, Roberta, Mr and Mrs Smith and the other few inhabitants of Tasmania that she knows by name, Senator Mackay made no mention of the fact that if they had an Australian workplace agreement they had the right to go to an employment advocate. Labor avoids telling all the story. They like to run around spreading myths, stirring up anxiety and peddling untruths in order to take away from the debate on the issues.

For instance, they do not say how unions could assist in this exercise. No doubt there are some unions and some unionists who will participate. They will have to because the union movement is now haemorrhaging. Obviously, people do not feel that the unions are representing them because membership is dropping. Campaigns are running here and there to increase union membership.

Why are people leaving the unions? Because they do not think the unions are doing the right job by them. Hopefully the unions will lift their game and, under the new regime, represent those who choose to join a union. And it will be by choice. That is the important thing. There will be the choice to join a union or not to join a union. Hopefully, the union will, in fact, participate in what we believe will be a much more effective workplace and environment, both for workers and employers.

Senator Jacinta Collins went on about the motion disadvantaging women. The current system has disadvantaged women enormously. What has happened is employers are not prepared to put on people on full-time awards. The unions have not encouraged permanent part-time work, and what that has done is force people into casual employment where they do not have the benefits of sick leave and other protections. They have been forced into casual work.

Who are those people who have been forced into casual work? Mainly women. But the unions do not worry about that. As long as its union membership is protected, it does not worry about the people who have been forced out into casual work—people who cannot get permanent part-time work or permanent full-time work. As long as its union members' jobs are protected—especially those who are in the organisational section of the union—it does not worry about social justice for, in particular, those women who have been forced into part-time work.

Even though the unions have resisted part-time work, there has been a large growth in part-time work over the last few years. Part-time employment has increased from 6.5 per cent of employees in August 1988 to 8.8 per cent in August 1995, and casual part-time employment has increased from 12.8 per cent to 17 per cent of employees over the same period. What people are saying is that they want part-time employment. Many of them would prefer permanent part-time employment so that they can have access to sick leave and the other benefits, but, of course, as I said, very few of the unions have been advocates for that and have pushed for that.

The industrial relations system in this country has traditionally favoured the interests of full-time adult males. It is a result of the position that unions and the previous government played in the system and, as I said, the fact that the majority of unions have been dominated by full-time adult males.

Under the workplace relations bill, compulsory unionism will be outlawed, which will result in agreements only being certified by the commission if they have the support of the majority of the work force. This will mean that unions will do what the workers want rather than telling workers what they want. The unions will be the workers' agents, as they should be.

I look forward to participating further in the debate as the legislation comes forward. I look forward to seeing more and more articles like the one that appeared yesterday. Senator Ferguson talked about an article by Des Fooks in the Canberra Times on Wednesday. He wrote at length about the importance of the industrial relations bill and the impact it will have on training and training for young people. In particular, again, this will affect women who want to increase their training or particular women who want to re-enter the work force. As he said, the bill makes sense for trainees. It will, in fact, be a positive for women. There will be more and more people coming out telling about the advantages, not only for women but for workers in particular.

The reforms in the bill are a response to the community's needs and demands that action can be taken to create more jobs, train young people, recognise the value of women workers and achieve a higher standard of living for workers and their families. The crucial point for all workers, particularly women workers, is that all work agreements cannot lead to employees being paid less than they would get under the award. In other words, workers will be better off under the new system.

In conclusion, the workplace relations bill is a bill for all Australian workers and one which will see them better off and in control of their own destiny. It is a bill about freedom of choice, and I emphasise that. I started my comments on that note and I end on the note that it is about freedom of choice, better working conditions and recognition of the value of each individual worker.