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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 60

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (1:29 PM) —I thank honourable senators for their contributions to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Agreement Validation) Bill 2004. The bill seeks to amend the Workplace Relations Act to ensure the validity of agreements which were certified, approved or varied under the Workplace Relations Act prior to the decision of the High Court in the Electrolux case. In that case the High Court found that an agreement certified under the Workplace Relations Act must only contain matters which pertain to the relationship between the employer and employees.

The government welcomes the longterm certainty which the High Court's overwhelming decision, a 6-1 decision, has provided to agreement making. The Electrolux decision has most likely meant that agreements certified by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission which contain provisions which do not pertain to the employment relationship may now be invalid. The aim of the bill is to restore the validity of certified agreements and AWAs certified, approved or varied prior to the Electrolux decision.

The policy underlying the Workplace Relations Act is that agreements should only contain matters that relate to the employment relationship. If there is no restriction placed on what matters agreement could be reached on, agreement making would become seriously burdened by delay and complex negotiations. Most importantly, the sky could become the limit in relation to the matters that could be involved in these agreements. As a result, the government welcomes the High Court's finding in the Electrolux case that non-employment related matters cannot form part of a certified agreement.

The High Court's decision has also confirmed decades of jurisprudence in this area and the commission's application of section 170LI of the Workplace Relations Act. However, the result of the decision is that agreements certified by the commission which contain provisions which do not pertain to the employment relationship may now be invalid. Employers, employees and unions share a common concern that agreements reached prior to Electrolux may now be invalid and unenforceable. The bill proposes to restore the validity of those agreements. While the Electrolux decision is concerned with certified agreements and contains no direct reference to AWAs, the government believes that there is an equivalent need to ensure validity and, hence, certainty for the parties.

The provisions of the bill have been outlined in detail in the second reading speech. There has been a union campaign surrounding this, in particular by the Electrical Trades Union, ably represented in this chamber by Senator Marshall—and I note his contribution—and the CFMEU, ably represented in this place by Senator Wong. If I understood Senator Marshall's contribution correctly, he was saying that there is nothing wrong with unions taking advantage of the fact that the enterprise bargaining agreements are void and, therefore, pursuing new claims.

Senator ABETZ —Yes, Senator Marshall is confirming that. I wonder whether he thinks it would be appropriate, therefore, for employers to similarly say, `We can now pursue new claims and not pay the wage increases that had previously been agreed to.' I am sure the Electrical Trades Union and Senator Marshall would see that as an outrageous breach of the goodwill that may have been established between the parties.

If you want to run a successful industrial relations regime in this country, it has to be fair to both sides of the debate. That is what we as a government have done so well over the past 8½ years. The Labor Party come in here as the advocates for the trade union movement; that is their right. But we come into this place seeking to be an arbiter and the independent provider of laws for the benefit of trade unions, employers and, most importantly, individual workers. That is why we as a government take such a different approach to industrial relations.

Having listened to the comments of Senator Nettle, I would say that her contribution was—to coin a phrase—extreme, not green. I think if the Australian people were hearing a few more of these sorts of speeches they would realise that the Greens are in fact a reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. I thought the Trotskyites had fallen a long time ago, even before the Iron Curtain had fallen.

The Greens have resurrected themselves in this place with quite bizarre, emotive and extreme language. Supposedly this government has been crushing the trade union movement for the last 8½ years. I want to tell this place that, in the last 8½ years, we have had the lowest rate of industrial disputation since 1913, which was the first time that records were kept in this country. The Howard government has presided over the lowest rate ever of industrial disputation in this country. At the same time, we have presided over a $200 per fortnight increase in real wages for ordinary Australians. We have also, at the same time, presided over a 1.4 million increase in the number of people employed in Australia, where the unemployment rate is now at 5.3 per cent.

Of course, according to the Greens, that is a record of confrontation and a record of crushing the unions. Despite what the facts tell us, despite what workers on the streets will tell us, despite what the 3,000 timber workers at the Albert Hall in Launceston in Tasmania personally told the Prime Minister, the Greens will continue with their Trotskyite type mantra, which went out, as I said, even before the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

I want to compliment two senators. I have made some comments about Senators Marshall and Nettle. I compliment Senator Santoro, a former distinguished industrial relations minister in Queensland. Most would credit him with being the best ever Queensland industrial relations minister, and I thank him for his contribution. I also thank Senator Barnett for his contribution and the point that he made—and it was a very telling point—that the Labor Party still do not have their act together. As he pointed out, the member for Perth, in addressing the ACTU, 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.

You can see the contrast. The shadow minister for workplace relations said that, yet the other opposition spokespeople, Senator Wong and Senator Marshall, say the bill will be of no assistance in addressing the problems created by the Electrolux decision. So the problem is not the legislation; the problem is the 6-1 decision of the High Court, which has simply reinforced the jurisprudence that was long accepted as governing workplace relations.

Here we have the Labor Party rent asunder yet again by internal factions. I can understand that the Electrical Trades Union and the CFMEU have gone on a particular course. As the puppet masters they are able to determine the contributions of Senators Marshall and Wong in the committee report. But until the Labor Party sheds that approach to industrial relations and considers being a party ready for government by taking all aspects of the industrial relations equation into account you will find not only that people will continue to desert the Australian Labor Party at elections but also that people will continue to desert the trade union movement. The majority of workers these days are offended by some of the extreme approaches of people like Craig Johnston and others who think that the trade unions can be a law unto themselves.

Most people now believe that you need a sensible balance. We as a government have achieved that sensible balance and that is why I said before that we are able to point to a very good record in the area of industrial relations. The government has introduced the bill to provide certainty to those employers and employees who have entrusted their working agreements to the federal agreement making system. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.