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WORKPLACE RELATIONS AMENDMENT (SIMPLIFYING AGREEMENT-MAKING) BILL 2002: Second Reading

Mr CADMAN (Mitchell) (9.06 a.m.) —In the years 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000, the number of working days lost per 1,000 employees was 75, 72, 87 and 60 days respectively—an average of 73.5 days per 1,000 employees. In each of the 10 years prior to the commencement of the Workplace Relations Act, the average number of working days lost per 1,000 employees was 174 days.

There has been a massive change in the ethos of industrial relations in Australia since this government came to office. People are more productive and they are happier. Their lives are not interrupted by lost time and down time created by militant unionism and union leaders—for things like annual meetings of the union, establishing a precedent in a particular area, or creating havoc in order to gain advantage for themselves and their members. It is obvious that the change has been beneficial for Australian workers.

I am delighted that Australian families are now better off by 100 days in the workplace each year per 1,000 employees. That is a significant change and a benefit to Australian men and women and their families, and it has been brought about by a change in outlook by the federal government. The federal government has recognised that it is not a matter for external people, whether they are employer groups or employee groups, to interfere in the relationship between an employee and the person for whom they are working. It is a matter for that workplace alone and for those who want to unite to achieve a common goal—continuation of business activity because that means employment and profits, which benefit both employers and employees. Expanding opportunities and increasing profitability are common goals because they mean better wages and conditions, higher returns to the company and benefits to families. Expanding business and expanding opportunities, whether it is in the Australian environment or through exports, will mean that people grow and achieve positions of responsibility with a business, hence gaining greater stability and greater returns.

This government should be congratulated for the achievements it has made in the Australian workplace; and it has been done without protest—except by the Australian Labor Party in the Senate, which is the only group that has really protested against these changes. There has been no marching in the streets. I have not seen demonstrators opposing the government's changes. The only demonstrations have been the irate ones here in this chamber and in the Senate. There is nothing objectionable about what the government has done. The changes are reasonable and people across the nation have been vastly better off over the past six or seven years than they were for the previous 10 years.

Today, in discussing the Workplace Relations Amendment (Simplifying Agreement-making) Bill 2002, we are debating additional factors in the Workplace Relations Act that will continue to build upon the achievements already in place. There has been a marked change in focus in the workplace. In recent years, there has been a move away from reliance on third parties to settle relationships, conditions of employment and remuneration. One must acknowledge that, under federal awards, allowable matters continue. The basis of fairness in the workplace is part of the law. That cannot be changed. Nobody wants to change that. Australian workers expect things like sick leave and holiday leave; they are the basics of employment. There is also the factor of a minimum wage below which people cannot fall, so that slave labour under these changed relationships is not contemplated. Exploitation cannot exist, because it is against the Australian law.

The benefits of increased wages and salaries and increased employment are there for every Australian, and yet the Australian Labor Party wants to claim that things are terrible. There are fewer disputes, people are getting more money, and there are more people at work. What can be terrible about that? I think it is a marvellous achievement and a marvellous change for this nation, and it is recognised internationally. The Workplace Relations Act aims to ensure that:

... the primary responsibility for determining matters affecting the relationship between employers and employees rests with the employer and the employee at the workplace ...

There are a range of collective agreements that can be entered into, and the decentralised process, which gets away from the courts, the unions and the large employer groups—the so-called industrial relations club—can take a number of forms. The simplest form of agreement is the one-on-one: the Australian workplace agreement between an individual and their boss. I understand that there have been more than 400,000 AWAs, Australian workplace agreements, lodged since their introduction, and they cover approximately 11 per cent of employees in the federal system. So there is a huge number of people involved.

The purpose of AWAs is to allow sympathetic finetuning of an employee's worth to their boss, in such a way that the employee is happy and the boss is happy. I think that the practice of putting these things in writing goes back in Australian tradition. Having been both an employer and an employee, I know that when we have got a clearer understanding of what expectations are, everybody is happier. It is obvious that people are happier: they are signing on to Australian workplace agreements. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found in May of 2000 that an estimated 22.7 per cent of all employees were covered by formal agreements under the federal system. [start page 24419]

That brings me to the second type of collective agreement, which can be the workplace in totality—the total factory; the total office—agreeing with the boss as to what their payments and conditions should be. That is a more formal collective agreement between the people in the workplace and the boss himself or herself. It is a simplified process. No longer are there days and weeks lost arguing cases in the court. The only people who do not like this process are a few of the lawyers and of course the unions themselves—because their employment depends on being able to trump up some sort of argument to get into a court to justify their existence. Employer groups have also existed by saying, `Mr Employer, you need the protection of an employer group to be able to stand between you and those terrible unions.' The unions are not terrible; they are just made up of people—and employer groups are the same. But, if you cut down the barricades of difference in the structure that have been put in place and the fabricated reliance on these groups, you can have a simplified process where the worker and the boss get together for mutual benefit.

The one thing that the Workplace Relations Act guarantees is freedom of association. The choice should not, and should never be, that of the union or the employer association. It must never go back to that situation. The proof of the value of such an approach is the massive change in lost days per thousand employees—diminishing from 174 days per thousand lost in the 10 years prior to this government coming to office to an average of 73.5 currently. Those figures speak for themselves: it is a massive and important change.

The proposals before the House are simple. This bill seeks to further simplify the procedures for making collective agreements and to provide more flexibility in that process, and seeks to encourage working agreements that better suit the needs of employers and employees. It appears that the Australian Labor Party are opposed to both flexibility and choice. They want some sort of approach where people remote from the workplace have a `one size fits all' that is argued before the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission or the industrial courts that we now have. That is the stuff they love. The Labor Party voted against our proposals—but there were no protests out there and things are working better.

The will be no changes to the key safeguards—that is, the allowable matters will not be changed. The focus of this bill is to ensure a more efficient process of making and approving AWAs and certifying agreements. The government's amendments will provide that extended agreements may have a nominal life of between three and five years and set out the criteria to be applied by the Industrial Relations Commission when certifying extended agreements. That is a sensible thing. If people are getting on, why not extend the agreement? Why do you have to go through the whole process of renegotiation? If people are happy, why not just extend it for up to five years?

One of the other changes proposed will be to ensure the integrity of the no disadvantage rule. This is a pivotal matter that is partly responsible for the success of the change in industrial relations. There will be no disadvantage to any employee moving into Australian workplace agreements. That basic rule has maintained by the government and in the workplace and is testable before the courts.

Mr Brendan O'Connor —Unfortunately, it does not work in practice.

Mr CADMAN —Anyone in the Australian Labor Party who says that it is not factual is not dealing with facts themselves because it can be contested at any time before the court. The no disadvantage rule has been applied. These processes that we are debating today will safeguard and ensure the integrity and importance of the no disadvantage test, and that will be provided in the extension of all rules.

The ALP have said that they want to abolish the Australian workplace agreements and the Office of the Employment Advocate, which is there to assist and support people wishing to understand exactly what is taking place in the workplace and to understand what has changed in their agreements. They have a right to go to the workplace advocate. The Australian Labor Party think that the removal of that office and the removal of Australian workplace agreements will be beneficial to employees. That is certainly not the case.

The changes proposed in this bill will make the agreements more easily available. The changes should reduce delays and the formalities in making agreements and getting them certified and prevent unwarranted interference by third parties in agreement making. People, for their own purposes, elbowing their way onto the table to have their say in an agreement should be put to one side. They have no place there. Unless employees or the parties want them there, that is the way it will happen. They will have no automatic rights to come to the table. They will be barred from coming to the table unless there is a request. The legislation will also remove barriers to the effective exercise of agreement making choices. [start page 24420]

The bill allows organisations bound to a certified agreement made directly with employees the opportunity to make submissions regarding extension, variation or termination of the agreement, but the bill removes the right to veto any such proposal. So submissions regarding any extensions can be put forward but there is no right of veto by any external organisation.

The legislation will explicitly allow the approval, variation, extension or termination of a certified agreement without a hearing. And that is the point I was making—that people are happier if they know that there is going to be stability in the workplace. If they are happy with the way things are going, they are going to be allowed to extend it. Hearings will only be required if an employer or employee has requested one and the commission is satisfied that there is a reasonable ground for that request.

The AWA process and existing filing and approval requirements will be consolidated into a one-step approach. Currently, this process involves the Employment Advocate approving AWAs, with a provision for referral to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission where there is doubt about whether it passes the no disadvantage test. Currently, AWAs cannot be put into effect immediately after the parties have reached agreement. What is going to happen is that, after they have reached agreement, the AWA will go into place and then if there are any problems with it the advocate and the court will sort it out. That means there will be no delay or uncertainly. So the bill will make AWAs take effect from the day of signing unless the parties specify otherwise. It is no good painting a picture that this is riding over the top of employee rights. It is not the case. They have the right, as have the employers, to go to the advocate and the court. It means it is a streamlined process. It means that things will continue without halt or change, it will prevent uncertainty and people will know precisely where they are going.

This bill will also allow employees to sign AWAs at any time after receiving from the Employment Advocate an information statement and an explanation of the effect of the AWA. As additional protection, an employee party to an AWA will be able to withdraw consent to the AWA within a cooling-off period, which will be five days from the date of signing for new employees and 14 days for existing employees. What more protection could you want? This is sensible stuff. This is building on what has been established. And look at the result for Australians—more jobs and far better salaries. Instead of salaries going backwards, as they did under the ALP, people's salaries have increased significantly in real terms over the period and there is less downtime. The disputes have diminished by two-thirds or more.

Also under this legislation, an employer is required to satisfy the Employment Advocate that the employer did not act unfairly or unreasonably in failing to offer AWAs in the same terms to comparable employees. That is reasonable in terms of comparative wage justice. I remember years ago the forklift drivers in the ACI factory in Sydney having a competition, and one guy there was the world champion. He was brilliant. He could load and unload trucks in about eight minutes. Another bloke, who had only come onto the job six months previously and was not particularly interested in being a forklift driver, was extremely slow and took three or four times that length of time to load and unload trucks. But, by comparative wage justice, they were both paid the same amount. There was no incentive for the employee with the skill and capacity to do better. This breaks that process and allows people doing the same job to be paid different amounts if one happens to do a better job, to be more skilled, to be more knowledgeable, to be more clever or to be more suited for that type of employment. This individualises the whole process. The bill will provide flexibility, it will give employees and employers a better go, it will allow a quick change over and extension of agreements, and it will prevent the uncertainty that is created when an agreement is up for renegotiation. I support the bill. (Time expired)

Author: Hon Alan Cadman MP
Source: House Hansard - 12th February 2004
Release Date: 18 Feb 2004

 
 




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