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Thursday, 31 October 1996
Page: 4860

Senator SHERRY (Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(11.17 a.m.) —Senator Campbell has already alluded to the fact that the debate was wide ranging. It is appropriate on the objects clause of the bill to have a wide ranging philosophical debate because the objects, as has been mentioned previously, are critical to providing a signpost showing the direction and the underlying philosophy of the amendments that we are dealing with in respect of the bill before us.

Before I make any more comments, I would like to indicate that we have one further amendment to schedule 1. I will provide copies of this amendment to senators at this point and I will make a few comments about why we are moving this further amendment a little later. I will be doing it briefly.

I do acknowledge Senator Campbell's concern about the rate of progress but I would point out that the rate of progress on this bill will vary according to the schedules. For example, in schedule 2, I would anticipate much more rapid progress. Schedule 1 is the underlying philosophy, which identifies the objectives of the bill, and it is an area where I think it was obvious that there was going to be some time spent.

Just to briefly make some comments about a number of the amendments that we have moved to schedule 1, in respect of the amendment to subclause (c), Senator Cook concluded on this area in his contribution yesterday afternoon. The Labor members who participated in this debate certainly reflected on that change very well yesterday. The same applies with respect to our amendment to subclause (d).

With respect to our amendment to subclause (f), where we state that the bill must provide a framework for fair and effective bargaining, not just agreement making, as is provided for in this bill, we highlighted, again through the contributions made by my colleagues yesterday, that the fairness provided in the bargaining process is very important. It is not just fairness in terms of the ultimate making of the agreement but fairness in that bargaining process. Again, Labor senators yesterday highlighted the inequity in bargaining power between an individual worker and an individual employer.

One aspect that I will touch on here is this issue of fairness as it relates to new employees. When an agreement has been reached and registered, where is the fairness for a new employee who starts work? The government would certainly argue that they have a choice of accepting the agreement that has been negotiated, but, in reality, how fair is it to a new employee in that situation? The agreement has been negotiated. They have had no input into it. We are critical of that process anyway. The new employee comes along. They inevitably have to accept the outcome of that bargaining process that has already occurred. We will make more comment about that later on in the specific provisions of the bill before us.

With respect to subclause (g), we accept that the act should ensure freedom of association, but we add that the act must nevertheless maintain the rights of employees to organise and bargain collectively. I think the words of the Democrat amendment are `and are able to operate effectively'. They are the new words that are proposed in the joint government-Democrat deal document that we were provided with on Monday. Certainly the words `and are able to operate effectively' are added, but contrast this with the specific provisions in the bill—45D and E. Will employee organisations, unions, be able to operate effectively within the confines of the proposed changes to 45D and E? The Democrats' amendment really only goes some way to addressing our concerns in that area.

Freedom of association provisions should not be placing any obstacle on the right of employees—this is recognised in international law—to organise and bargain collectively. When we get into the provisions of the act in some detail, we will have some specific examples of that.

To subclause (h) we add a requirement for the act to encourage and facilitate the development and registration of organisations. This is very important, not just for trade unions but also for employer organisations. It is vital, if we are to maintain the cooperative spirit in our industrial relations system.

When we look at international systems, we see that cooperative spirit is very important. We are talking about cooperative spirit not just at the workplace level. As my colleagues have pointed out, unfortunately at times there is not a great deal of cooperation at any number of workplaces. Certainly that can be a minority of workplaces, but we have laws that operate where this cooperative working spirit does not exist.

I am sceptical about the degree to which Australian culture will change, particularly quickly, in terms of cooperative spirit. There is, no doubt, significant cooperative spirit at the moment, but I think the day when we are going to see this great outburst of back slapping and self-congratulation between employees and employers is a long way away.

Often the leadership of the employee organisations, contrary to the belief the government would enunciate, does have to provide some guidance to employees on particular issues. I can recall having to face up to a pretty hostile meeting of brewery workers to attempt to convince them that they should give away their `beeros', the free distribution of alcohol in breweries. I did not get a very pleasant reception when I was supporting that proposal from the employers. I had to point out the accident rate in the two breweries in Tasmania. There were quite horrific consequences from some people drinking alcohol before work, at morning tea, at lunchtime, at afternoon tea and after work. That was not a particularly popular position. I just raise that as an example of where employee organisations have to provide leadership and as an example of the importance of employee organisations in our industrial process.

I can say the same for employer organisations. Many is the occasion in my experience when, regrettably, irresponsible employers have breached agreements with respect to treatment of their employees. We have responsible employer organisations—various chambers of commerce. That is not on all occasions, I have to say. Often I disagree with them. But employer organisations would often have to counsel their constituent members about behaviour and treatment of employees. The continuance of the objective of ensuring and facilitating the development and registration of organisations is very important.

In respect of subclause (i), some comments were made by colleagues, as well as in respect of subclause (l) relating to ILO conventions and meeting international obligations. Again, those points were covered very well in the debate that occurred yesterday.

In concluding my remarks at this stage, I have a few brief comments about the amendment we have circulated this morning. The amendment to schedule 1, objectives, relates to item 1 on page 4. It is a new subclause (f)(a). It states:

"encouraging the right of employees to bargain collectively and"

We call this the Senator Murray amendment. We really would like him to consider this particular amendment because, in reflecting on the deal between the government and the Democrats, we were somewhat perturbed and concerned. Senator Murray did a great job at the Senate Economics References Committee, particularly as a new senator, in listening to submissions, along with his colleagues on that committee. Senator Murray did an excellent job in identifying the particular problems that employees face in bargaining collectively. The preamble to the recommendation of the Australian Democrats on page 330 states in part:

The Majority report highlights some of the most important omissions from the proposed objects of the Act.

Senator Murray was spot on on behalf of the Australian Democrats. It goes on:

The Democrats share the concern of the Majority report that the proposed objects give insufficient attention to the need to promote fairness in the labour market—

The recommendation from Senator Murray on behalf of the Australian Democrats reads:

It is recommended that the objects clause in the bill be broadly supported, but that it be further amended to take into account the concerns expressed in the majority report, to ensure that employees maintain the protection of an up to date award system and access to the independent umpire in the AIRC, that the bill encourages collective bargaining as a means of evening up the otherwise dominant bargaining position of employers, and that the processes and procedures of the AIRC be kept as user friendly, practical and non-legalistic as possible.

I re-emphasise the two critical lines: `that the bill encourages collective bargaining as a means of evening up the otherwise dominant bargaining position of employers'. We have reflected as a Labor opposition on this very important point that Senator Murray made. We have taken the words from Senator Murray in his report—an excellent comment, Senator Murray—and we have encapsulated it in the amendment that we have circulated this morning.

It is unfortunate that your comments on the right of employees to bargain collectively has not been taken up adequately in your deal with the government in this respect. We are calling on you to support the amendment that has been circulated this morning, along with our other amendments. We accept you are locked into a deal with the government in respect of other matters in this schedule.

It is an excellent amendment, Senator Murray. I would like to offer you a Labor-Democrat deal at this stage on this particular provision. We were really inspired on reading the report on your approach to the rights of employees to bargain collectively. It should be in the objectives of the act in the words that you have outlined in this report.