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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 41

Senator BARNETT (12:04 PM) —I speak in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Agreement Validation) Bill 2004. As chairman of the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee that held an inquiry into this bill just recently, I want to commend and congratulate Kevin Andrews for his swift action to bring this bill forward and into the parliament for passing, because it will validate existing agreements and it will also provide assurance and, I believe, peace of mind to the employers, the employees and the organisations that made those agreements in good faith.

This bill validates matters in certified agreements and AWAs that pertain to the employment relationship. Contrary to Labor's proposal, if the bill were to validate those matters that do not pertain to the employment relationship it would go against the intent of the Workplace Relations Act; it would go against the long-held principle about what may be included in industrial instruments. The High Court ruling was consistent with many years of legal precedent requiring industrial instruments made under the federal workplace relations laws to contain only matters pertaining to the employment relationship. This has not just been something that has happened since 1996 when the government introduced that particular bill, but it has been happening for a century in this country, where the boundaries of the Australian government's workplace relations framework have been set with reference to matters that pertain to the employment relationship. So the High Court's interpretation of this part of the act is consistent with High Court and other long-established legal precedents that apply to awards. It confirms the government's original, continuing and current legislative intentions. The bill validates those agreements which were certified, approved and varied under the Workplace Relations Act prior to the High Court Electrolux decision. It also avoids the confusion and potential turmoil if nothing was done.

The unions that appeared before our inquiry—and indeed the Labor members of that inquiry, and I will come to them in a minute—proposed to have the bill amended to validate all clauses in all agreements certified by the commission prior to Electrolux. My view is that that would turn on its head our industrial relations system as we know it. It would be retrospective legislation and cause uncertainty and chaos across the country in the business community. I asked these questions of the department, and the amendment that is being proposed by the Labor Party is in fact retrospective legislation of the worst kind. The government members on this committee rejected that proposal on the grounds that it would be retrospective validation of an unknown number of Industrial Relations Commission decisions which were always contrary to the intentions of the act. That is totally unacceptable.

I want to highlight not only the government's position but also Senator Marshall's, Senator Wong's and Labor's position in this inquiry and in their report, because it is different from Stephen Smith's comments of just a few days ago, where he said:

... it is imperative that the uncertainty caused by the Electrolux decision be resolved before Parliament rises this year. The “do nothing” approach is not a viable option.

That is what he said. Senators in the minority report—Senator Marshall and Senator Wong—have said that in their view there is no reason for the urgency. At 2.29 on page 23, it says:

Opposition senators are not convinced that legislation in response to the High Court's decision is required as a matter of urgency.

Not only that; the minority senators in this report have a whole slab in their section on why they believe the bill is flawed. A matter of days later Stephen Smith, their relevant shadow minister, said that we need to deal with this and get it sorted out and passed prior to Christmas. Here we have a political party with two heads. On the one hand they are saying one thing and on the other they are doing something else totally to the contrary. They are duplicitous. Senators Marshall and Wong are actually puppets of the ETU and the CFMEU. The CFMEU appeared before our committee and the ETU's views were put to our committee and they opposed the bill. Senators Marshall and Wong have made it very clear that they want to kowtow to and support their union masters—the ETU and the CFMEU.

Senator Ian Macdonald —I don't think they would disagree with you even.

Senator BARNETT —Of course they will not disagree with me, Senator Macdonald, but Stephen Smith disagrees with them. This is a party with two heads. The senators have obviously been rolled and their views have been overtaken. There is a lot more that I could say. Clearly the Labor Party are split on this issue and they have been duplicitous. I would urge the Senate to pass this bill as a matter of urgency.