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Tuesday, 8 October 1996
Page: 3708

Senator FORSHAW(8.59 p.m.) —The Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 is a draconian piece of legislation. This government has said that it regards this legislation as the hallmark of its period of government since its election in March this year. If this is its showpiece, then the people and the workers of Australia have much to be worried about, because this legislation attacks the very core of a system of regulation of wages and working conditions and the settlement of industrial disputes that has underpinned our great democratic society for almost 100 years.

I would like to congratulate Senator Kerry O'Brien on his first speech today because it was truly a great speech. In his speech, Senator O'Brien—quite appropriately, given the bill that we are now debating—reminded us of the importance of free, independent trade unionism to democratic societies. Free and independent trade unions have always been an integral part of Australian society. They are fundamental to the maintenance of any peaceful society which holds itself out to provide equity and protection for all people. That is, of course, what we have enjoyed in Australia for so long and it is the envy of many nations and many millions of people around the world. It is one of the things that sets our country apart from the situation that faces workers and people in many other nations.

It has been my great fortune to have recently visited Poland as part of a delegation representing this parliament. I would like to remind honourable senators opposite, and members of the government in the other chamber, that democracy has only recently come to Poland and to other countries in central and eastern Europe. It did not come because of any great move towards the market, it did not come because of the supposed benefits of capitalism and it did not come because of the cult of individualism, something that members of this government are obsessed with. It came because of the courageous actions of workers in the Solidarity movement, individual workers banding together in a collective to fight for their freedom and democratic rights. It was a trade union movement that started that process off. I ask people to think about that when, out of some blind ideological obsession with the market, they stand up in this parliament and attack so viciously the Australian trade union movement.

Why does the government really want this legislation? Faced with a situation where the economy is improving, where fundamental structural reform and change have been achieved in recent years, where we have one of the highest standards of living in the world and where we have had the lowest levels of industrial disputation in living memory, this government sets out to undermine, to pull to pieces, the system of industrial award regulation and industrial bargaining that underpins that achievement.

It is my belief that this government wants this legislation because it is obsessed with trade unions and with the idea that the market and individualism are to be preferred to the benefits of the collective approach and to the freedoms and democratic institutions that we have had with the Industrial Relations Commission, the trade union movement and organisations of employers for many years.

The government says that its legislation is designed to promote employment and reduce unemployment. But there is simply no evidence that this type of legislation will achieve these objectives. It cannot point to any example other than New Zealand to support its case—and, of course, we know what is happening to the social fabric in New Zealand. But there are many other countries in the world, such as those in the Scandinavian region, that have long had systems of industrial regulation and have also enjoyed low unemployment and low inflation. So on that test there is little, if any, evidence to suggest that such a fundamental restructuring—or, I should say, destruction—of our award system will produce any improvement in employment.

Those opposite then go on to say that they want to get rid of the unfair dismissal laws. We heard Senator Crane talk about this this evening and we have heard a constant chant from government representatives that the unfair dismissal laws are the greatest impediment to employment in this country. What a lot of absolute nonsense! This is nothing more than rhetoric. This is a government that believes that the right to sack a worker is more important than the obligation to treat employees fairly. You never hear a member of the government make a speech about the rights of employees. You never hear them make a speech about how we can improve protection for employees. When they were in opposition, you never heard members of this government say that maybe a national wage increase should be supported, because they did not support them. They opposed every single national wage increase until the last two.

You have never heard senators like Senator Panizza, a senator involved in the rural sector, stand up anywhere and say that the Industrial Relations Commission should grant superannuation to pastoral workers in this country. Senator Panizza knows that his Treasurer (Mr Costello) represented the National Farmers Federation in the Industrial Relations Commission. On behalf of their interests, and essentially on behalf of all the interests represented by the Liberal-National parties here, he opposed the extension of superannuation to the lowest paid workers in this country. They lost.

Now what do they do? In this legislation they, by legislative decree, remove superannuation as an award entitlement. That is just one example. As I have said, you have never heard the representatives of the government stand up and talk about protection or advancing employees' rights or entitlements.

Senator Panizza —Have you ever said anything good about employers?

Senator FORSHAW —You only ever hear them stand up and complain about how difficult it is to sack an employee. This is a government that bases its whole approach to industrial relations on removing or reducing provisions.

If you go through the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill in detail, you find all the way through it provisions which delete entitlements from awards, which remove the entitlements or provisions which relate to registered organisations in terms of the ability they have to ensure adherence to awards. You also find provisions which provide employers with a greater capacity to move employees from federal awards onto lesser standards under state jurisdiction. My fellow senators dealt with some of those issues in specific detail earlier.

I turn to one section of the act—section 89A—which deals with the scope of industrial disputes. This section has been widely discussed as being that provision in the act which reduces the number of matters that can be contained in an industrial award to 18—the so-called allowable matters. For many years, until this legislation, industrial disputes and industrial matters have been defined over time by the High Court and by industrial tribunals of this country.

A whole body of industrial law has built up the precedents to determine what can constitute an industrial dispute, what are industrial matters under the act and what can be regulated by awards for the federal commission. That process has meant that certainty was created in employment relations. If employees and employers could not agree, they could utilise the provisions of the commission to have their industrial disputes settled. Of course, if they were able to agree, they could call upon the commission to regulate their working conditions through consent awards.

That certainty is now to be destroyed. It will not only destroy the certainty of industrial relations but also take away by legislative force many award provisions that employees are now entitled to under awards of the commission. Awards of the commission have the status of laws of this country. Section 89A(2) says that the commission, in dealing with industrial disputes, must confine itself to only 18 allowable matters. We know that there are quite a number of award matters that are not contained in section 89A(2). I would just like to refer to one example because time does not permit me to elaborate on this at this stage but, no doubt, in the committee stage I will.

Some years ago I was a trade union official. I, like Senator Childs and Senator Jacinta Collins, am quite proud to stand up here and say that I have served the trade union movement before. We regard it as something of honour, not as something to be derided, as the government senators seek to do.

Some years ago, we were negotiating some health and safety provisions in the award for the offshore oil drilling rig workers. Working on an offshore oil drilling rig is a very dangerous occupation. Employees are at sea for two continuous weeks, living and working on oil rig platforms whether it be in Bass Strait, the Timor Sea or off the North West Shelf of Australia. Because it is a very dangerous occupation, we were able to negotiate and have inserted into the award a provision whereby the employer would provide, over and above all other entitlements, an insurance policy for the employees. That insurance policy would provide cover for up to an additional $80,000 for any worker who may be unfortunately injured during their employment. As I said, it is a very dangerous industry, one where accidents and injuries are not uncommon.

That provision was particularly important because rig working contractors would come and go in Australia depending on when the contracts were available. It was important to ensure consistency across the industry. We introduced that provision. Under the provisions of this legislation that sort of clause providing that type of entitlement for those employees both now and in the future cannot exist. It does not come within any of the section 89A allowable matters.

Not only do we have that situation where it cannot exist but what happens under this legislation, by virtue of the provisions of sections 44 and 45, if the employer and the employees or the union do not agree to that clause being removed from the award within 18 months of the operation of this act? It will be automatically removed. What sort of disgraceful legislation is this that will take away from people, whether it be in the area of insurance provision or in the rural sector, as Senator Panizza knows, as does Senator Crane, who spoke earlier and is no longer here? There are quite a range of provisions which relate to the specific unique nature of that industry which will simply disappear from awards because of the operation of section 45 and section 89 of this act.

Nowhere in your policy document—Better pay for better work—do we find any statement or reference to the fact that this act would strip back awards by legislation. What we read and what we hear about is a process of simplification and a process of encouraging flexibility. That is a noble objective and that is what was and is happening under the current act through the proper processes of the Industrial Relations Commission. This government's description of simplification and flexibility is to take awards and enact legislation which takes clauses out of those awards if they are not contained within the 18 allowable matters. There are lots of examples other than the one I have given as to the impact of this act.

This is not a process of just simplifying awards. This is a process of destroying award regulation in this country. Notwithstanding the so-called solemn promises that the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) has given about no worker being worse off or no worker losing any take-home pay, there is no doubt that that is what will happen. Those of us who have had the experience of working in the industrial relations system for many years know that that is what will happen and people on the other side know it.

Senator Panizza —How much experience have you had as an employer?

Senator FORSHAW —Senator Panizza injects. He knows that even in the rural sector, which is one of the most difficult areas for ensuring observance of awards, there have been many instances where current award provisions are not complied with now. Indeed, one of the consultants engaged by the government, Mr Paul Houlihan—that well-known member of the H.R. Nicholls Society, along with Peter Costello and all the other people who are ideologically guiding this legislation—has made it his career to go around saying that he knows where awards are currently not observed. If that is the situation, as it unfortunately exists in some instances, it is logical to assume—because logic dictates it and history dictates it—that once you remove the protections that exist in awards, as this legislation does, it will lead you very quickly to a position where employees will be worse off and will lose take-home pay.