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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7264

Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Employment and Minister for Women) (12:58): I rise to close debate on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. In doing so, I thank all senators who have contributed to the debate.

The measured reforms in this bill will help bring back some balance to the workplace relations system. The bill represents longstanding government policy, and each of its measures was clearly outlined in the coalition's election policy. These important measures include improving the process for the negotiation of greenfields agreements by allowing the independent umpire, the Fair Work Commission, to act as a relief valve in bargaining for greenfields agreements; maintaining the value of unclaimed wages recovered for underpaid workers by the Commonwealth; providing for discussions between employers and employees where an employee requests an extension to maternity leave; and closing the strike-first talk-later loophole in the bargaining rules—a loophole which Labor's own 2012 review of the Fair Work Act identified and recommended be closed, but which Labor failed to implement.

The government has engaged constructively with the crossbenchers in relation to this bill, and I thank Senator Abetz for his work in this regard. As a result of that engagement, there is in principle agreement to a number of measures in the bill to progress today. I understand amendments will be moved at the committee stage that would enable some measures in the bill to be passed by the Senate today. The government is, of course, committed to and looks forward to continuing to engage constructively, in particular with the crossbenchers, on those matters that are not passed by the Senate today to demonstrate the need and fairness of the remaining measures and how they will restore balance to the system.

If I could now address some inaccuracies that have arisen in the debate on this bill. A number of false claims have been made about our reforms to greenfields agreements. For the sake of clarity, I want to make it clear that these are brand new projects that do not yet have employees. The former government's own Fair Work review panel found that bargaining practices associated with greenfields agreements were unacceptable and put at risk investment in important, new projects. The current Productivity Commission inquiry has made similar findings in its interim report.

The bill will ensure that greenfields bargaining does not delay or jeopardise these vital new projects by removing the capacity for unions to veto this agreement. The bill does this by providing the option for employers to notify a negotiation time frame. Where agreement with the union cannot be reached within the optional negotiation time frame, the employer will be able to take the agreement to the Fair Work Commission—the independent umpire—for approval. To ensure that future employees are protected, agreements made under this new optional process must meet all existing approval requirements under the Fair Work Act and, in addition, provide pay and conditions that are consistent with prevailing pay and conditions within the relevant industry for equivalent work.

Contrary to some claims, employers will continue to have to bargain with the union, or unions, able to represent the majority of future employees in line with existing requirements under the Fair Work Act. In addition, the bill ensures that genuine negotiations occur by introducing an enforceable requirement for both sides to bargain with each other in good faith. The changes we are making to greenfields agreements provide strong employee protections while ensuring that new projects, which are essential to employment growth and Australia's ongoing economic prosperity, can go ahead without undue delay.

The bill also amends Fair Work Act to provide that protected industrial action cannot be taken before bargaining has commenced. This is not an onerous requirement, it simply means that negotiations with the employer for a new enterprise agreement must have started before employees can take industrial action. This change was itself recommended by the previous government's Fair Work Act review and, again, is a draft recommendation of the current Productivity Commission inquiry.

This is nothing more and nothing less than a common sense reform that will help to ensure that costly industrial action is not taken prematurely. The Fair Work Amendment Bill responds to evidence of problems with the Fair Work Act. Many of these problems have themselves been identified by the opposition's—the then Labor government's—Fair Work review and are now being highlighted again by the Productivity Commission inquiry. By removing a range of impediments to productivity and growth these reforms will help to build a more stable, fair and prosperous future for Australian workers, businesses and the economy. The bill faithfully implements reforms taken to the Australian people in our 2013 election commitments—nothing more and nothing less—and I commend the bill to the Senate.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the bill be now read a second time.