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Tuesday, 8 October 1996
Page: 3694

Senator CRANE(7.50 p.m.) —I address a number of aspects with regard to the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. I must particularly thank Senator Jacinta Collins; I do not think my name has ever been mentioned so many times in a speech before. If ever I have been put on the map, it is right now. Far from feeling embarrassed about the report that we brought down, I feel very proud of the fact that we actually represented the other side of the story that was presented in the majority report in terms of this matter, which otherwise would have gone missing—it would not have been there for people to address. We did not try to interpret that particular story that was given to us; we put it down as the people said it. I believe that one of the key points of the Senate's inquiry system is that we accurately reflect what the witnesses who come before us say.

I also wish to make an observation; I am rather interested in it myself as an individual. Could I actually make you change the program? I thought we had a discussion where we agreed between ourselves to a number of considerations to fit all members of the Economics References Committee.

Senator Jacinta Collins —Why didn't you go to North Queensland?

Senator CRANE —I missed out on two days of that hearing—Townsville and Cairns—but I was in Brisbane.

Senator Jacinta Collins —But you made us change the program.

Senator CRANE —I did not make you change the program. That is an absolute nonsense. At no stage did I endeavour to denigrate my fellow senators in this particular inquiry. I am interested in Senator Collins's reference to `the solid attempts of Senator Crane to solicit people'. What a nonsense!

Senator Jacinta Collins —You said you faxstreamed.

Senator CRANE —I faxstreamed people and told them that the inquiry was on, but I never said to come and put things in. I faxstream on a whole range of issues. There is nothing new about it. That is what faxstreaming is about. That is why we are here, and they are the facilities we have. Included on my faxstream are a number of unions, which you might find rather interesting. It includes those that I have been involved in all my life, like the farmers federations and organisations around Australia.

I start my contribution by quoting what Paul Keating said in 1993. It is very interest ing. There is no doubt that what the previous Prime Minister had in mind is precisely what we are doing now. It is precisely what we have brought before this parliament. He said that Australia needed a model of industrial relations `which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards provided by arbitral tribunals'. He also said:

. . . compulsorily arbitrated awards and arbitrated wage increases would be there only as a safety net.

Aren't the words familiar? He said:

The safety net would not be intended to prescribe the actual conditions of work of most employees, but only to catch those unable to make workplace agreements with employers.

Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards with fewer clauses.

For most employees and most businesses, wages and conditions would be determined by agreements worked out by the employer, the employees and their union.

The only difference in our particular position—

Senator Jacinta Collins —Over time!

Senator CRANE —You can jump up and down and yell all you like. One thing that I did agree on—one of the things; there were a couple of others where I agreed with the previous Prime Minister, such as the deregulation of the financial system. The reality is that in this particular case the former Prime Minister had it right. But he was overridden by people like Senator Jacinta Collins and others around the place. As I have said before, when Laurie Brereton trundled off to the ACTU conference, he was sent back here very smartly. That held back industrial relations reform in this country for some three years.

A number of aspects have been raised, and I am going to deal with them as quickly as I can. One is our mandate. The previous speaker read out a number of things. If she had carefully read the policy, she would find that they are all there.

Senator Jacinta Collins —We did and the secretariat did, too.

Senator CRANE —I suggest that you go away and read it. If you like, I will give you a hand. I can understand English. I can make it simpler for you.

Senator Jacinta Collins —I don't want your help.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McKiernan) —Order! Perhaps if you addressed your remarks through the chair, Senator Crane, there would be fewer interjections. I just ask you again, Senator Collins, to desist.

Senator CRANE —I shall, Mr Acting Deputy President. The first mandate, which was absolutely crystal clear and has been for many years, relates to our position on industrial relations. It was for the simplification of awards, the development of more freedom in the workplace and the right of negotiation between employers and employees.

In putting these particular propositions before you, I make what should be an obvious statement to everyone—obviously, to people on the other side of the chamber it is not. Employers and employees are not enemies in the workplace. The number of times that we heard that there was some battle going on out there disturbed me.

Another thing that disturbed me very much—I am sure you would be interested in this, Mr Acting Deputy President—was that during the hearings they went back 15 years to dredge up examples of what they claimed happened in the workplace. None of that has anything to do with either the previous Brereton legislation or the legislation before that, which, if I remember correctly, Senator Cook brought into this place in about 1991. We had a series of these examples which were given for no other reason than to mislead and deceive about where Australia is at today with its industrial relations policy.

It is spelt out very clearly in this bill that the award system will underpin every form of working relationship. They are all in this bill, whether it be certified agreements, workplace agreements, casual work, piecework—the lot. I will not read them out in detail here, but I suggest to people who are listening to this debate or to anybody who wishes to inform themselves that they refer to page 25, which deals with awards; pages 75, 154 and 155, which deal with the minimum conditions which apply to workplace agreements and certified agreements; and to page 160, which deals with casual workers, part-time workers, et cetera. The legislation spells out very clearly and precisely how everything will be underpinned by the relevant award.

The next point that I wish to come to is very important and has been a very clear policy position on this side of the chamber for a long time. It is also part of one of the international conventions to which we are a signatory. It is freedom of association: voluntary unionism, the right to belong or not to belong. This legislation will bring to an end the closed shop mentality, which has been one of the things that have bedevilled many workplaces in this country, particularly in some of our major capital cities, over the last 10, 15, 20 years. I make the point, in dealing with this particular aspect, that certified agreements will continue, underpinned, as I have said already, by the award conditions which exist in this legislation.

My next point deals with the bringing back of sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act. This is about protecting innocent parties, who should not have to suffer.

One of the real weaknesses of the Brereton legislation was the removal of sections 45D and 45E. As we found in the Weipa dispute, it allowed innocent people to be victimised. Their jobs were hurt, the profits of the companies were hurt and the economic performance of Australia was hurt. There should not be a situation, in my view and in the view of those of us on this side of the chamber, where innocent parties suffer because of disputes between other people.

The next point I raise is the unfair dismissal law. If there is one thing that has been an impediment to employment, it is that. That is the worst feature—even worse than the removal of 45D and 45E—of the Brereton legislation of 1993. Last week in Perth I was told that the going rate in reference to the prescriptive court processes which exist to dismiss someone is $5,000 per job. Employers, particularly in the mining industry, found that it was far quicker, easier, cheaper and less disruptive to pay someone $5,000 and let them go on their way.

I want to spend a little time on workplace agreements. It is unbelievable that it has taken until 1996 for a piece of legislation that will actually allow employers and employees to negotiate their own agreements, their own position in the workplace, and allow them the freedom of choice to do that without the mandatory intervention of a third party. But if either party wants to get somebody to negotiate for them or represent them, they may do so. It can be the union of their choice. It can be the local doctor. It can be a local dignitary. For the employer it can be the employer association, or some individual. It can be the accountant.

That is an important aspect. It will lead to much more flexibility, underpinned, as I have already said—on page 155 of the bill—by a range of matters which cannot be ignored. They are very important for the security of people in the workplace. I will touch on these while we are here, and emphasise some points. Employees will be entitled to:

.   wages over a period no less than the wages that would have been earned over the period under the award-

I underline `under the award.' What we heard about people being forced to work for less than the award is just not true. Then:

.   no less than 4 weeks of recreational leave with pay each year-

.   no less than 12 days of personal/carer's leave with pay each year if the employer is sick, is caring for a family or household member or is absent because of the death of such a member-

.   no less than 52 weeks of parental leave or adoption leave

Take note of that. The bill then deals with long service leave, equal pay for equal work, et cetera.

One of the things in the medium and longer term that will lead to a much happier workplace, a much more productive workplace, which will address some major concerns which exist in many families around this country and with many individuals, is that this bill will address the problem of unemployment. The more freedom, the more flexibility you have, the more profitability you have, the greater you can lift your productivity, the greater the opportunity there is for employment.

This legislation, over the medium and longer term, will have some chance of addressing the disastrous unemployment situation that this country has experienced for the last decade or so—a situation which none of us in this place, or anywhere else, should be proud of.

Schedule 1 deals with the principal object of the proposed Workplace Relations Act. It contains some very important aspects. I heard an earlier speaker making some reference to the object of the act. There are a number of aspects which I believe will improve the environment in the workplace. I cannot read them all out, but I shall touch on some briefly. The bill states that the act will provide a framework for cooperative workplace relations by:

(b) ensuring that the primary responsibility for determining matters affecting the relationship between employers and employees rests with the employer and employees at the workplace or enterprise level; and

. . . . . . . . .

(i) for wages and conditions of employment to be determined as far as possible by the agreement of the employers and employees at the workplace or enterprise level, upon a foundation of minimum standards; and

(ii) to ensure that there is an effective award safety net of fair minimum wages and conditions of employment;

. . . . . . . . .

. . . supports fair and effective agreement-making and ensures that they abide by awards and agreements applying to them;

Then, and I think this is very important in terms of the object of the act:

(i) assisting employees to balance their work and family responsibilities effectively through the development of mutually beneficial work practices with employers;

I have only touched on a few aspects of this legislation, but I commend them to people because I believe they are a fair progression of what is required in a modern workplace in a country such as Australia, which is becoming more and more skilled in its workplace. It requires in that skill more and more flexi bility and less of the draconian attitude which has existed, unfortunately, in the past.

I would like to touch on the role of the Employment Advocate, which is a new concept in industrial relations in this country. The Employment Advocate will be responsible for representing employers or employees. The commission will have a much more focused role than it has had in the past in terms of setting minimum standards and looking at a range of matters, which we have not time here to address.

Finally, in the time I have available, I want to mention the conclusion of government senators in the report. Having listened to all the evidence presented orally at public hearings and read all the submissions, contrary to what has been said on the other side of the chamber, we recognised and accepted that there is anxiety in the community over the proposed changes in this bill.

At the outset we must state that much of this anxiety is because neither the union movement nor opposition Labor senators were prepared to accurately present the facts of the bill in their arguments. I have already touched on the misrepresentation and the misleading information that was continually presented to the committee. That is why in the report of the government senators we have spent so much of our time pointing out that the anxieties of this bill are fictional not factual.

A classic example of this are the claims that have been made that those on AWAs on casual rates or piece rates, et cetera, will not be underpinned by the rates of pay in the awards—and I have spent some time addressing this issue. Their rates of pay will be underpinned by what is in the awards which have been established by what our opponents call their own umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

However, we do not believe that those reservations and anxieties are anywhere near as strong as those expressed to the Senate committee which examined the 1993 legislation in then Minister Brereton's Industrial Relations Reform Bill 1993. I would commend to people the reading of the submissions that were presented to us at that particular time. Many of the concerns came to fruition, unfortunately, in what actually transpired.

In the report of the government senators, we have endeavoured to put the other side of the story. Against the opposition's majority report, it is indeed a powerful story. And so it goes on.

I conclude my remarks tonight by stating that the reforms in this bill are modest, as many of the witnesses told us. I think it is worth quoting Mr Winley from the BCA—and you would hardly call either Mr Winley or the BCA an outrageous cowboy organisation. Mr Winley said, `It's about decentralisation, not deregulation.' By that, he means that significant protection will still exist to protect people in the workplace as far as their positions are concerned but that this legislation will open it up to more flexibility allowing people, as I have already mentioned, to deal with their own particular requirements in their own ways, subject to those minimum standards.

The final comment I would make is that, far from being embarrassed, the government senators who have contributed to that report are completely satisfied with what they have brought down. We believe that this particular piece of legislation will advance the cause of Australia's economic development, tackling unemployment and dealing with the economic situation we have in a very strong and positive way.