Monday, 23 March 2020
Questions without Notice
I thank the member for his question. I think probably the coarsest but most accurate summary I can give is that the challenges that we're facing are (1) around information and (2) around flexibility. Information is becoming absolutely critical, and the flows of information that will allow employers and employees to make the best decisions are becoming absolutely critical. The issue of flexibility, if we can get that right, could make a profound difference to the number of jobs that we can save through this, and it's a matter that we can work on on a bipartisan basis.
With respect to the information, as soon as we realised that this was going to cause enormous disruptions in the IR space, we dedicated a guidance page on the Fair Work Ombudsman website, which is interactive to the extent that it learns from itself. So information comes out about situations that were merely hypothetical weeks ago, and the advice is refined all the time in a general sense. That has had over half a million visits since we established it, which goes to show the level of information exchange and how critical it is. There's a direct advice line, 131394, with the Fair Work Ombudsman. That's had, very recently, a 250 per cent increase in the number of calls coming in. The information going out is, I think, of high standard and accurate, but we're improving it all the time. We also have, at the suggestion of one of the meetings that I had with employer and employee organisations, a dedicated consultation page on the Attorney-General's Department website about the types of situations that are arising that we might need to think about how we can fix in the near future.
I also note for the benefit of the House that we're going to allocate an additional $42 million to the Fair Work Ombudsman to continually improve and ramp up this information delivery system. I can say, I think, that that information is not going to merely be of the traditional type, on what is the status and lawfulness of a decision and how it relates to the law, but will extend—short of legal advice—to the sort of thing where we're answering questions like what we can do or what we should be doing in certain circumstances.
As to the issue of flexibility, I think it's fair to say that the Fair Work Act wasn't designed with this challenge in mind, but there are provisions in the Fair Work Act which would allow for a modification of award with respect to extraordinary circumstances. Those extraordinary circumstances are here. Business and unions are doing a great job at the moment about trying to reach agreement. I can give one example, an example that was put to me with respect to a modern award. If you could modify the time and attendance record-keeping obligations in a modern award, that could save jobs, because many of them aren't coping with the fact that we are now needing to have people work from home. Some very important meetings are occurring now between senior union leaders, who have been fantastic, and senior business leaders, who have been fantastic, to see if they can reach agreement around the types of things and specific awards that we might be able to modify through existing processes provided for in the act to save jobs. They are cooperating as they have never cooperated before. They're cooperating as if jobs depend on that cooperation, because they do. I look forward to further cooperation from members opposite.