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Wednesday, 30 October 1996
Page: 4718

Senator SHERRY (Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(9.52 a.m.) —We are dealing with the first schedule of the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. The objectives contained in the schedule provide an opportunity to make a general comment on the principles underlying this bill, as well as to comment on the particular amendments which we will be moving during discussion of this schedule in the debate. The outline given to us yesterday by Senator Campbell on behalf of the government in respect of this section were extraordinarily superficial, for what are the objectives of an act? The objectives of any act are an important indication of the philosophy and the major themes that are identified in the act.

In dealing with a matter of this significance, I find the superficiality of the approach of the government extraordinary in respect of the changes that they are advancing, as well as justifying the various objectives that are outlined. Frankly, that does not come as a surprise, given this government's attitude to industrial relations, which is extraordinarily superficial generally. Their approach to industrial relations is marked by grandiose claims about the requirement for industrial relations reform in order to regenerate the economy.

Some two or three months ago, the grandiose claims included reduction in unemployment. They have dropped that line in recent months. They are now taking a much lower profile as a justification for reducing unemployment. I am sure they are doing this because they have looked at both the official estimate in the budget and the official projection for unemployment—which they refuse to release—which, I have no doubt, will show that unemployment is likely to remain high for some years and that the contribution that industrial relations reform makes in that area, at best, will be very minimal.

We have the superficiality of the government in dealing with the objectives clause. The grandiose claims they make—the jargon they use about the requirement for flexibility, releasing the chains and shackles of the industrial relations system, the surge in productivity, and the absolute guarantee that the Prime Minister gave that no worker would be worse off—are the sorts of superficiality that we contend are manifestly incorrect and untrue.

When looking at the objectives of the act, I want to comment on the agreed statement of the Australian Democrats and the Liberal government. It is a fairly extraordinary document. In my six years in the Senate, I cannot recall a time when the government moved amendments on behalf of the Australian Democrats, as they are in this objectives section and, indeed, will be doing right throughout the bill. There may be some strategic advantage for the government in moving the amendments first, but I am surprised that the Australian Democrats would accept and adopt that position.

The document itself, containing some 100 pages including 171 amendments and, obvi ously, some amendments to the objectives in schedule 1, is almost like a peace treaty in its breadth. It is a fairly extraordinary position that the Australian Democrats and the Liberal government have adopted in terms of the process. The unusual approach that has been adopted by the Democrats and the Liberals does not end with the objectives. We find that this agreement, as it relates to objectives and to all other schedules in the bill, is essentially an outcome that we could foresee, but it is a regrettable outcome because it confirms our worst fears about this industrial relations bill.

What has emerged will bring about some improvement of the government's initial proposal. I draw the attention of government senators, particularly backbenchers, to the policy that they took to the election. Look at what Minister Reith laid down when he first released the bill some two months ago and look at what has now been agreed between the Australian Democrats and the Liberal Party as a consequence of their deal which is reflected in this document.

From our perspective, the bill which was released two months ago with the objectives contained therein, was an atrocious and unfair bill. I and my colleagues spoke extensively in the second reading debate on behalf of the Labor opposition about the various aspects of the unfairness and the atrocious position which this government and to some extent the Australian Democrats have now adopted as a consequence of this document. We will deal with that in considerable detail in this committee stage.

What they have done by this agreed statement of position is turn an atrocious and unfair bill that we fundamentally oppose—and will still continue to fundamentally oppose, albeit we will be moving a significant number of amendments—into an unsatisfactory bill that still contains many areas that are unfair and unsatisfactory. This is certainly highlighted in the objectives of the bill.

As far as we are concerned, this deal—this agreed statement of position—between the government and the Australian Democrats will continue to leave Australian workers at a significant disadvantage. There will be less security for Australian workers concerning their wages and conditions. Australian workers will be less secure about their jobs. They will be exposed to an increase in individual contracts and their right to collectively bargain will be significantly undermined. As I said earlier, now not even the strongest advocates of this bill are saying that it will do anything to reduce unemployment by the end of this century.

Again, with respect to this agreed statement of position and deal between the Democrats and the Liberal government, I can recall some two months ago when we foreshadowed extensive amendments—some 300-odd amendments that we are pursuing in the committee stage—the shock and horror that the minister, Mr Reith, expressed about how dare we foreshadow such an extensive range of amendments. How dare we do that. They had a policy and they were determined to pursue it. They had legislation. Why should we as a Labor opposition put forward such a range of amendments.

Yet here today, and for the first time publicly released on Sunday—we had the opportunity to read them in some detail yesterday—we have 171 amendments from the government and the Australian Democrats vis-a-vis their deal. Contrast that with the statements from Minister Reith some months ago complaining about any foreshadowed range of amendments that Labor put forward. Yet we are given one day's notice of what was worked out between the Liberals and the Australian Democrats.

I turn to the objectives of the bill. We make it very clear in paragraph (a) that the act is to provide a framework for cooperative industrial relations, not just cooperative workplace relations, as is provided for in the government's objectives, and supported by the Australian Democrats. It is important to understand that industrial relations is not just about workplace relations and workplace negotiation. That is an important part of industrial relations. The objectives of the government purely focus on cooperative workplace relations when there should be an industry wide focus in addition to a workplace focus. This should be contained in the objectives of the bill, and it is not.

We also add a requirement in paragraph (a) to encourage the pursuit of better pay. How many times has the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, reminded us that industrial relations and their approach is all about better pay for every Australian worker? Why isn't it in this bill as part of the objectives? Better pay for everyone is the nirvana that the Prime Minister promised. Where is that in the objectives of this bill? All their rhetoric has been focused on this issue.

Senator Campbell interjecting—

Senator SHERRY —Senator Campbell, we are very happy to support a change to the objectives adopting the Prime Minister's objective. We cannot understand why you do not have as an objective promoting better pay for all Australian workers, as you promised in the lead-up to the election and as you have committed yourselves to since the election, and as all your rhetoric surrounding this bill proclaims.

In terms of a fair labour market, there is a change here. The government has as one of its amendments a reference to a fair labour market. We are pleased that they picked up this in the new amendments that have been circulated. We are pleased because this is one of our amendments. We are pleased to see that the Australian Democrats and the government have decided to adopt wording to the effect that there is a fair labour market.

Senator McGauran —We are fair.

Senator SHERRY —Senator, we would still like you to pick up the objective of better pay for all because that is what you have been proclaiming.

We heard significant comment today about the Prime Minister expressing his concern about better pay for executives. I wonder what his position will be in the sense of this bill when it is passed.

In paragraph (b) we insert a guarantee that no employee will be worse off as a result of the implementation of this bill. In particular, no trainee or apprentice will receive less take home pay than the relative entitlement under the applicable award. Again, the Prime Minister has made it very clear time and again, both before the election and after, that no-one will be worse off. This is vitally important, particularly in respect of trainees and apprentices, as we reflect in our change to the objectives in paragraph (b). These people are amongst the most vulnerable in the work force and this should be specifically enshrined in this bill. The Prime Minister proclaims this and Mr Reith proclaims it. What is wrong with ensuring in the objectives that no-one can be worse off as a result? I will be making some further remarks about the objectives later in this section of the debate.