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Wednesday, 30 October 1996
Page: 4745

Senator CHRIS EVANS(12.39 p.m.) —I join with my colleagues in making a contribution in the committee stage of the debate on the very important Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill. I want to make some remarks about the objects of the bill and the amendments proposed by both Labor and the Greens. I think debating the objects of the bill allows us to have a wide debate about the purpose of the bill, which I think is important in terms of setting the scene for the more detailed debate that will occur as we move through the bill.

I want to start by saying that it is with a sense of futility that I rise today. I usually limit my contributions in the Senate to occasions when I think it is important to make a contribution in the hope of making some difference to the outcome, to public debate in Australia or to some wider purpose rather than just to get my speaking time up, as some senators have been wont to do over the years.

However, given that the deal that has apparently been struck between the Democrats and the government in relation to this bill seems to preclude any impact from the debate changing that deal, we are in a very difficult position. As I understand the Democrats' position from their public comments I have read, there is very little likelihood of them being able to accommodate any arguments put to them in this debate because they have signed off on a written deal with the government and the government will hold them to that deal in the sense of not allowing them to stray from the deal even if arguments put to them would convince them that further amendment is necessary.

Senator Campbell —This wasn't the case during the native title debate.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senator Campbell makes a good point about the native title debate because that debate was very different in the sense that a number of amendments put by him, Senator Ellison and others were accepted by the government as we went through what was a very difficult and complex piece of legislation.

One feature of the native title legislation was the fact that amendments and the final outcome of the bill were not known until people sat down and worked out what the amendments that we had passed meant. It is quite a contrast.

Senator Campbell —We did not move any amendments to native title; not one.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —You certainly debated them. My purpose is to say that I hope that that is not the case, that the Democrats will listen to the debate and that their position is more flexible. Clearly, if they are locked in with the government, then there is a sense of futility about the debate. We will attempt to persuade them. We will continue to have the debate because I think it is important for it to be on the public record and for the Australian community to understand the principles at stake.

It is tempting to start a contribution by doing what a lot of journalists in this country have done, which is to look at the government bill and then look at the amendments to be moved by the Democrats and the government, analyse their impact and say this is what this debate is about—the difference between the original bill and the new deal offered by the Democrat and government amendments. That is not the real game at all.

The real analysis has to be a comparison of the existing Industrial Relations Act with the bill as it would be amended by the amendments proposed by the government and the Democrats. That is the real contrast. That is where the real game is. That is where you can analyse what changes are proposed for industrial relations in this country. I think people were a little swayed by the publicity and the sort of spin put on the announcement the other day of Cheryl Kernot and Peter Reith, dancing in ball gowns or what have you, and we got a bit distracted from that analysis. That is what we have got to do.

The new objects stress the role of the employee in industrial relations, they stress the role of the individual workplace and they talk a lot about flexible markets, et cetera. They are quite a change from our traditional industrial relations approach and represent quite a radical change in direction in terms of the major piece of industrial relations legislation in this country. As I say, the stress is on individual employees negotiating their conditions and it takes away a lot of the structure and the tradition of industrial relations practice in this country.

The Democrats have added words like `fair' to the objects. That looks great. It is like adding `motherhood'—I am surprised we did not add that in. If you look at the original act and then the proposed bill as amended, you see what the real debate is about—that is, they are giving primacy to individual negotiations. They are trying to remove from the system the role of unions and employer representative bodies and they are trying to give primacy to individual negotiations.

The key provision in my view is the existing paragraph (e) of the objects of the Industrial Relations Act 1988, which says:

encouraging the organisation of representative bodies of employers and employees and their registration under this Act . . .

That is the latest expression of 92 years of encouragement of the role of employee and employer bodies in the industrial relations system in this country. Ever since the original Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, we have encouraged the role of employer and employee bodies within our industrial relations system.

We have regulated them, but we have given them positive encouragement and set out their roles and responsibilities and ensured that they play a key role in ensuring fairness and the proper resolution of industrial disputes in this country. This bill does not do that. For the first time in Australia's history, employer and employee representative bodies will not be encouraged. They will be regulated, but they will not be encouraged. In my view, that is the key difference in this bill.

The CHAIRMAN —Order! It being 12.45 p.m., the consideration is interrupted.

Progress reported.