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Wednesday, 30 October 1996
Page: 4729


Senator FORSHAW(10.56 a.m.) —The workplace relations bill was born out of an ideological obsession by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) and the coalition parties to devalue the award system of this country, to destroy the role of the trade union movement in this country and to reduce the wages of ordinary workers in this country. Notwithstanding all of the rhetorical flourish of the Prime Minister's policy launch, launched when he was Leader of the Opposition, prior to the election, notwithstanding the high sounding rhetoric of some of the objects of the bill and notwithstanding the recently announced agreement—or secret deal, as Senator Bishop so accurately describes it—one can still see that this bill will damage, maybe irreparably, the position of hundreds of thousands of Australian workers.

I particularly refer to those workers in low paid jobs who rely upon the industrial awards system of this country for protection. Let us remember that we are here today dealing with legislation of the parliament, legislation which the Prime Minister claims is one of the hallmark, central pieces of his government's program.

I have always understood that legislation is about protecting and maintaining the interests and welfare of Australian citizens. That is what the former Conciliation and Arbitration Act and the Industrial Relations Act have been about. Certainly, they are not cast in stone. It is appropriate from time to time for governments and the participants—employers, employees, unions, employer organisations—to look at updating or revising the provisions of that act as circumstances warrant. Indeed, the history of industrial relations in this country is that that has been the process.

Certainly, that was the process engaged in by the former government when it brought in the Industrial Relations Act. It is an act which sought to establish a new development in industrial relations in this country, that is, more emphasis on enterprise bargaining. It is an act which sought to also recognise the increasing complexities of the labour market and international impacts upon it. But at all times it recognised that a fundamental system needed to be retained, that is, a system of industrial awards regulated through the processes of conciliation and arbitration by an independent umpire, namely, the Industrial Relations Commission.

This bill heads in an entirely opposite direction. That is evident when you look at the objects of the act, because what is so stark is what has been removed from the objects of the current act. What is also so stark is the inconsistency—I would suggest hypocrisy—of the coalition government's position with respect to their electoral promises and the legislation now before the Senate. That continues to exist and has not been remedied by the agreement between the government and the Democrats. I have to say to the Democrats that they have walked away from some of their own election promises and pronouncements on this issue. I will come back to that in a minute.

The coalition's industrial relations policy was headed Better pay for better work. The Prime Minister went to great lengths to assure the Australian work force that no worker would be worse off as a result of his zeal to reform—in his words—the labour market. Why is it then that, if one of the twin objectives of this legislation is the achievement of better pay, there is no mention whatsoever in the objects of the act of that fundamental commitment? According to the Prime Minister, two things are supposed to flow from this legislation: firstly, improved employment and, secondly, better pay.

We will see in a couple of years, if not sooner, whether those results were achieved. It is our belief, based upon years of experience, that that will not occur. You would think that, if you were being honest with the Australian people and you were going to stick to your commitments, the one object that would be staring out at you from page 1 of this legislation would be an object to promote better pay. You would also expect an object to be in this act which said that no person, as a result of this legislation, should suffer any diminution in their wages and working conditions and other entitlements. But that is precisely what is going to happen as a result of this legislation. When we get to discuss some of the more specific aspects of the legislation, such as those dealing with allowable matters, you will see very clearly how workers will suffer.

A lot of people place great store upon the objects of legislation. Indeed, it is correct that one should look to the objects of the legislation: firstly, to see what is actually supposed to be achieved by the legislation and, secondly, to see whether it can be an aid in resolving issues relating to a lack of clarification or uncertainty in the legislation.

I can recall what happened in the Senate inquiry proceedings. On a number of occasions when it was pointed out by witnesses that various protections which existed in the current act had been removed, Senator Crane and other members of the coalition said, `Oh, but it's in the objects of the act.' Any industrial relations practitioner with a minimum of experience will tell you that, in the absence of specific provision in the legislation, the objects of the act—no matter how grand—may, nevertheless, deliver nothing. In the absence of specific provisions in legislation, for instance, dealing with matters outside of the 18 allowable matters under section 89A, the objects of the act are not going to enable either the Industrial Relations Commission or the participants in the industrial relations negotiations to fill in the gaps.

Of course, that is what the government wants. What they want to do through this act is force people out of the award system. They say that it is designed to encourage people to utilise enterprise bargaining. The very provisions of section 89A coupled with sections 44 and 45, which prescribes by legislation that awards cannot contain provisions other than those listed, is completely contrary to the so-called object, which is to encourage conciliation—it was as a last resort, but I notice that it is proposed to be amended—and arbitration.

Prior to this bill, the current act placed great emphasis on conciliation and arbitration. We now also have in the act the parallel system of enterprise bargaining. The two have worked very well together, as the recent report of the Industrial Relations Commission indicated. But in this bill conciliation and arbitration has been reduced to a mere by-line, notwithstanding that the constitutional power for this bill is derived from section 51(xxxv)—that is, the power of the Commonwealth to make laws dealing with the conciliation and arbitration of interstate industrial disputes.

Under this bill, the role of the commission is reduced to virtually a rubber stamp. I am not surprised about that because we have also seen that the other sections of the bill, such as those dealing with the Employment Advocate, were going to be rubber stamp processes too. Nobody was going to have any opportunity to scrutinise whether or not the tests of fairness and of equity had been met.

No doubt we are going to have a lot more opportunity throughout the day to look specifically at some of these objects. But let me just point to a couple of the problems that I see. Firstly, as I have indicated, there is no object which relates in any way to the maintenance and protection of current wages and working conditions of employees. Secondly, this bill removes from the act the existing provision which encourages the registration of democratic organisations of employers and employees. Nothing has been done to restore that position in the deal that has been made between the government and the Democrats.

Might I also say in relation to that deal that I find it hypocritical to the highest degree that legislation which is supposed to be about encouraging employers and employees to negotiate and reach agreement will ultimately, it appears, get through this Senate because of a backroom deal—an agreement where the very participants have had little opportunity or no opportunity to be involved. (Time expired)