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Thursday, 22 August 1996
Page: 2884

Senator JACINTA COLLINS(10.00 a.m.) —I present the report of the Economic References Committee on the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996, together with submissions and transcript of evidence, and move:

That the report be printed.

In moving this motion, I wish to advise the Senate that, due to the size of the report, the initial print run of this report will not be completed until lunchtime today. A second print run will be completed late Friday afternoon. I therefore seek the cooperation and patience of the many interested parties who have contributed to the inquiry in not placing undue stress on the staff who are involved in the printing process and assure everyone that copies will be distributed as soon as they are printed. I should also note that I think for the first time the report will be available through the Internet.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senator JACINTA COLLINS —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

On 23 May this year, the Senate referred to the Senate Economics References Committee, for inquiry and report, the matter of the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. The committee was given just three months to hold public hearings and draft a report on the legislation. The length and complexity of this report reflects the enormity and importance of the subject of industrial relations in Australia. The committee received more than 1,400 submissions, over 1,000 of which were from individuals who expressed concern about the legislation.

The committee held 18 public hearings in all capital cities and some regional centres over a period of just 21 working days. This is believed to be the most concentrated public inquiry phase ever undertaken by a Senate committee. Given the concentrated process, I think it is appropriate now, rather than when I may later run out of time, that I acknowledge the outstanding efforts of the staff of the secretariat. In particular, I would like to mention Rob Diamond, the secretary of the Economics References Committee secretariat, research officers Pippa Carron, Geoff Dawson, Merrilyn Pyle and Maurice Chalmers, executive assistant Diane Strong, and seconded departmental officer Leah Edwards. Also, given the taxing nature of the public hearings, I think it is important to acknowledge the work that occurred in the Senate print room and the Hansard and SAVO contribution in ensuring that we met the report-back date today. Overall, the contribution of all involved in the process has been outstanding.

It is with mixed feelings of pleasure and disquiet that I now table the report. Aside from reaching the end of such a concentrated and demanding process, I take pleasure that the process and the outcome has well been worth while. This has obviously been an extremely controversial subject matter. But my determination to manage the process by consensus has been successful, with the overwhelming support of all of my colleagues on the committee.

Despite the fact that it was accepted from the outset that government members of the committee would diverge on the conclusions and the recommendations arising from the inquiry, I believe, and committee members other than those of just the opposition have concurred, that the process of this inquiry was balanced and that the overall presentation of the evidence in the report is also balanced. Minister Reith has, however, sought to undermine this inquiry by suggesting that the inquiry lacked some credibility regarding the selection of witnesses. It is a credit to the media that they did not run with this story, which has no basis in fact.

Unfortunately, the media did run with the story that coalition sources claimed that I had deliberately designed the hearing schedule to facilitate my desire for a long weekend in Cairns with my husband and son. I wish I had had the time. I am pleased to note that coalition senators on the committee dissociated themselves from this story, which was an obvious attempt to deflect attention from the main issues at hand—to play the man, or the woman, rather than the issues. So much for women in parliament and so much for assisting workers with family responsibilities!

What leads to my disquiet is that the government feels the need to resort to this type of conduct. But what also leads to my disquiet is the widespread community concern put before this committee. What leads to my disquiet is that the government is not listening.

This bill represents a radical reshaping of Australia's industrial relations law. It encourages—and the majority of the committee would say it forces—a move away from a reliance on award conditions towards enterprise bargaining and individual bargaining. While there have previously been moves towards a more enterprise focus in industrial relations, this bill represents a major step towards a deregulated labour market—and the implications of this are profound. Thus, it is not surprising that this inquiry attracted quite a lot of interest.

Pages 4 to 7 of the report summarise the responses received by this inquiry to the bill. But I would like to highlight, in directing senators to those pages, that responses came not only from a large number of unions and some employer organisations but also from a large number of community groups, churches, religious organisations, youth, women's organisations, organisations representing the ethnic community and the disabled—all, or the vast majority, of which raised significant concerns with this bill.

This is a complex bill containing a large number of proposed changes, the full effect of which can be appreciated only by looking at how they interact with each other. For example, award conditions will be limited to 18 allowable matters, and conditions on other matters will lapse. That means that award employees will not be able to maintain their status quo by doing nothing; they will not be comfortable and secure. They will be forced to negotiate to try to win back their present conditions, outside the 18 allowable matters, into an agreement.

The evidence showed that in many fields conditions outside the 18 allowable matters are very important to workers. It is not just a matter of hot water, as Minister Reith has referred to dismissively. At the same time, the existing no disadvantage test in negotiating agreements is to be repealed. That opens the way for employers to force employees, where possible, into agreements with conditions less than their previous award.

Worse, under section 152, employees might come under pressure to accept state agreements with minimum wages and conditions worse than the award's minimum condition for federal agreements. Exploitative employers will be able to shop around for the jurisdiction that offers the lowest common denominator and, worse, good employers will be forced to compete.

Meanwhile, the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission as independent umpire will be reduced. The commission will have no power to arbitrate on disputes outside the 18 allowable matters which may well lead to an increase in industrial disputation. Similarly, with the Employment Advocate there will be no vetting, no public scrutiny, limited union access and no independent umpire. Many submissions from expert commentators said it was absolutely essential to have an independent check of Australian workplace agreements to prevent illegal exploitation.

These are just some examples. The important thing is that the effects of the bill must be seen as a whole. The majority of the committee has no doubt that the overall effect of this bill will be to worsen the lot of many workers in our society—workers who, for one reason or another, are in a limited bargaining position for negotiating agreements.

This bill makes a mockery of John Howard's rock-solid guarantee that no worker would be worse off. People in less skilled labour intensive jobs are more likely to be in a poor bargaining position and they will be worse off. Women, young people and people without good English are also in a limited bargaining position and they will be worse off. Part-time employees are more likely to be in a poor bargaining position and they will be worse off.

According to the committee's evidence, this is exactly what has happened in New Zealand since deregulation in 1991. According to the committee's evidence, this is exactly what has happened in Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania since deregulation during the 1990s. The same result will be likely under this bill.

As I have said earlier, the bill is a complex document and the majority of the committee has many detailed concerns, which I do not have the time to mention now. They are dealt with in the report, alongside a balanced presentation of the overall evidence given before the committee. But let me focus on just one matter of personal bias.

The government claims that this bill is friendly to part-time employees and employees with family responsibilities. The government is proud that it has in the object section special reference to these matters. Employers generally support the government's claims. In fact, page 133 presents their arguments perhaps all too well. I note at the bottom of page 133 that it does not clearly delineate what is obviously an employer assertion from what is more point to the fact outlined in 5.17.

The majority of the committee cannot agree that this bill will assist part-time workers or workers with family responsibilities. We do not see anything concrete in the detailed provisions of the bill that supports this worthy object. (Time expired)