House debates

Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Workplace Relations Regulations


9:02 am

Photo of Stephen SmithStephen Smith (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Industry, Infrastructure and Industrial Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Workplace Relations Regulations 2006, as contained in Select Legislative Instrument 2006 No 52. and made under the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and the Workplace Relations Amendment (Work Choices) Act 2005 , be disallowed.

I have moved that these regulations be disallowed because the source of authority for these regulations is the font of public policy evil. That is the government’s extreme, unfair industrial relations changes reflected by the Work Choices legislation, which this parliament adopted against our opposition at the end of 2005. As we have made consistently clear, on coming to office Labor will tear up that legislation and we will also tear up the regulations made under that legislation.

This is not the first occasion that I have sought to have the House consider these regulations. On 29 March I moved that standing orders be suspended so that the House could consider these matters. I moved that the matter be debated forthwith so that the House could:

respond to the widespread community concern about the government’s industrial relations changes by debating and voting to disallow regulations to the legislation;
record the House’s contempt for the Government’s extreme changes, particularly the removal of unfair dismissal rights which sees Australian employees at risk of being sacked, sacked unfairly for no reason or any reason;
record the House’s contempt for the Government’s attack on the wages, conditions and entitlements of Australian employees without benefit to Australia’s economic future; and
show by tearing up the regulations the House’s intention to tear up the Government’s unfair, unAustralian legislation.

All of those sentiments remain true today. Even before we go to some of the content of the regulations, which I will do in due course, the essential element of these regulations is that they have as the source of their authority the government’s extreme and unfair legislation. This House should tear up that legislation and, as a consequence, tear up these regulations.

There is an important starting point in this debate. The government now says that these changes are so essential to our way of life, so essential to our economy and so essential to our workplace arrangements. There is only one problem: we heard nothing about these measures at all in the run-up to the last election. I have a very distinct recollection of the last election being fought on the economy; we heard nothing about these measures. On the contrary, at the launch of the Liberal Party’s industrial relations policy in Brisbane, the Prime Minister was asked whether he was proposing to pursue what he described as a single national system. He said no. He was also asked whether he was proposing to pursue a reduction in allowable matters and he said no. So not only was there no mention of these measures but the Prime Minister on two issues affirmed the contrary. We heard nothing about these measures in the run-up to the last election, but we will hear plenty about them in the run-up to the next.

Why should this House tear up this legislation and these regulations? There are three essential points in my view. Firstly, these regulations and this legislation are a massive attack on the living standards of Australians. Secondly, they are a massive attack on our way of life and on characteristics, values and virtues that we as a nation have built up over 100 years. Thirdly, they are a massive attack on the capacity of the trade union movement to take part in the modern social and economic affairs of Australian society.

Let me deal with each of these in turn. Why are these regulations and this legislation a massive attack on living standards? They are a massive attack on living standards in two areas—firstly, in attacking the minimum wage and, secondly, in attacking entitlements and conditions. We know that, if over its 10 years in office the government’s submissions to the Industrial Relations Commission had been agreed to, the minimum wage would currently be $50 a week or $2,600 a year worse off. That is the sum total of the government’s submissions to the Industrial Relations Commission. We also know, for example, that if the submissions from ACCI ‘the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’ had been agreed to by the Industrial Relations Commission the minimum wage would currently be $95 a week or $4,940 a year worse off. That reflects the government’s objective. The government’s objective in the changes it has made to the minimum wage is to reduce the minimum wage in real terms. That is what it wants to do—reduce the minimum wage in real terms. It wants to shift part of the economy from the wages section of the economy to the profit section of the economy, to shift part of a total factor income section of the economy from wages to profits.

The government wants to attack the living standards of Australian workers and working families, firstly, through an attack upon the minimum wage and, secondly, through an attack upon conditions and entitlements, by doing precisely what the Prime Minister said he would not do—that is, by reducing the number of allowable matters and removing the no disadvantage test, by reducing conditions and entitlements to the government’s so-called five minimum standards and by leaving swinging and to be torn away without any compensation things like overtime, penalty rates and leave loadings. These are things that many Australians depend upon to make ends meet and to pay their mortgages.

So far as the minimum wage is concerned, it is not just me or Labor that is asserting that objective. The President of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, Justice Giudice, has said the government’s legislation leaves open the prospect of a fall in the minimum wage in real terms. The chairman of the ‘low pay commission’, Professor Harper, has reflected that attitude as well. I was interested to hear the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who is at the table, complaining the other day about the fact that some of the state commissions are now hearing minimum wage cases at the state level. He asserted that what the New South Wales commission is doing is somehow not fair—as if the government were somehow worried about fairness when it comes to the minimum wage. What do we know about the changes the government has made to the legislative requirements that are now on the low pay commission? The government has removed the requirement in the old act that the minimum wage be fair and that it have reference to prevailing economic standards and inflation. No longer does the minimum wage have to be fair and no longer are we to be concerned about whether the value of the minimum wage is reduced in real terms. That is the primary attack on living standards.

But the attack is also met with an attack on job security by the government’s removal of unfair dismissal rights and pushing people onto individual contracts, AWAs, without any of the underpinnings of the previously existing no disadvantage test and allowable matters. What do we know about the government’s changes to unfair dismissal? We know the government proposes that, if you are employed by a company with 100 or fewer employees, you have no unfair dismissal rights at all. You can be sacked for any reason or no reason. You can be sacked unfairly for no reason or any reason and not have a remedy. We also know—because we have seen it come into effect with the Cowra abattoir—the so-called operational reasons: if you are a company with more than 100 employees, you can determine for operational reasons that a person has to go, and that person loses his or her unfair dismissal rights. So the unfair dismissal rights of nearly four million Australian employees go out the window. For the remaining Australian employees it depends upon an interpretation of the very widely drafted ‘operational requirements’ provisions. That is the attack upon wages, conditions and living standards.

What about the attack on our way of life? We have always prided ourselves on being a society which is interested in safety nets, which is interested in minimum standards and which is interested in making sure that, whilst people have opportunity, there is a certain basement or floor beneath which people will not be allowed to fall. We have reflected that in the history of our industrial relations and workplace legislation by having sensible minimum standards, sensible safety nets and the operation of a strong and independent umpire. What do we see the government doing across the board with these measures? Gutting the effectiveness of the independent umpire—the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The government could not get its view up before the commission on the minimum wage. So not being able to get through the front door what it could not persuade the commission of, it now goes through the back door. It trumps up the low pay commission to do that job, depriving the independent umpire of its wage-setting—and, effectively, its dispute-settling—powers and arrangements.

Secondly, by reducing the minimum standards, taking away the no disadvantage test and taking away the allowable matters, the government is removing from protection the things that people have come to rely upon—penalty rates, overtime, leave loading and the like. There is only one consequence when you take away the umpire, remove minimum standards and take away the safety net: Australia will end up with the equivalent of America’s ‘working poor’. People will not be able to make ends meet with the wages they get through employment. They will be dependent, as many American employees are, on what they find in the tipping bowl at the end of each day. The great social and economic danger is that we will end up with an American-style working poor and our way of life will change. We will change from a society that is interested in community standards, safety nets and making sure people do not fall through the cracks into a dog-eat-dog society.

The third area where you find the basis of the public policy evil of these measures is the attack upon the trade union movement. There is a fundamental difference between Labor’s attitude to the trade union movement and the attitude of the government. The government’s starting point, the government’s political and philosophical policy position, is that there is no role for the trade union movement in the social and economic affairs of modern Australian society. That is not our view; we reject that view. I need only give two examples. I recall the Sunday morning in October last year on which the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the Prime Minister called together all the business organisations and industry representatives for a briefing on what might be contained in the government’s Work Choices legislation. There was not one person in that room who had lifted a finger to help the asbestosis and mesothelioma victims of James Hardie. When the asbestosis and mesothelioma victims of James Hardie needed some assistance, who came to their assistance? The organised trade union movement, through the ACTU and its constituent unions. The second example, Beaconsfield, is a shining example of how trade union activity can assure a sensible approach to occupational health and safety. Despite these two examples, the government takes the view that there is no role for the union movement to play in the social and economic affairs of Australian society. We reject that.

The regulations in particular have a range of measures which seek to exclude what to date has been known as common and respected union activity. When you move to the regulations, there are a couple of points that are worthy of making. Firstly is the reference in the regulations to the so-called prohibited content. Prohibited content is where it is not open to an individual or a union to suggest in either an individual agreement or a collective agreement that certain matters can be subject to that agreement. One matter is unfair dismissal. If an employer and an employee decide that an employee ought to have some appropriate unfair dismissal rights, the government rules that out—that is prohibited content.

In accordance with the legislation, if you seek to include in an agreement prohibited content, an individual can be up for a fine of $6,600 and a union can be up for a fine of $33,000. So even if an individual employer and an individual employee determine that it is appropriate for an employee to have unfair dismissal rights, that is prohibited content so far as an agreement is concerned. We on this side always thought that the government’s attitude was that people should be free to make choices, that people should be able to agree about whatever they want to agree about; but, under this legislation and these regulations, people can only agree to what the minister regards as being politically or philosophically correct.

The second area of interest in the prohibited content is the prohibition of any agreement referring to trade union training. This has been the subject of conversation with the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who is seated at the table, during question time this week and in earlier weeks. There is one issue that the minister refuses to seize in any way whatsoever and that he walks a million miles away from: he refuses to acknowledge that prohibited content in his regulation includes the granting of leave for trade union training, including occupational health and safety training. That is the issue the minister walks a million miles away from. When you actually look at the regulations, what do you find? You find this extraordinary effort by the government, by the Prime Minister and the minister to ensure that nothing can be contained in an agreement unless they think it is politically or philosophically kosher, and that is best reflected by the unfair dismissal arrangements and the training issue that I have referred to being made prohibited content.

The other point that needs to be made about the regulations and the legislation is its extraordinary complexity, evident in the volumes of legislation I have here. I have only bothered to bring down with me the act as amended and the regulations. I have not even bothered to bring down the volumes of explanatory memoranda for the legislation or the supplementary explanatory material for the regulations. Is this a single, simple system? It is massive complexity. And how much time did the government give its so-called friends in business, particularly small business, and industry to try and come to grips with this?

The government proclaimed the legislation effective for 27 March. The regulations were published on the website in the dark of night on the weekend of 18 and 19 March. That was a week. Thanks very much! So we have here miles and miles of complex legislation—a jurisdictional and regulatory dog’s breakfast. It is not just me who is saying that. We remember the No. 3 man in the government—the Minister for Finance and Administration, Senator Minchin—going off to his soul mates at the HR Nicholls Society, the society that the Treasurer and Acting Prime Minister drew up the documentation for and was one of the founding members of. When Senator Minchin turned up to the HR Nicholls Society, he said two things: ‘We apologise for not going as far as we would want to, but we do have to take note of community concerns. But rest assured, be reliably assured, that when we win the next election we will have a third wave.’ The government, not having gone to the last election telling the Australian community that it had this in mind—on the contrary, saying precisely the opposite—now has the secret plan that, should it get elected at the next election, we will have the third wave and truly satisfy the government’s friends at the HR Nicholls Society.

I was interested to hear a representative of the HR Nicholls Society make a point on the issue of complexity and regulatory burden. Far from taking the view that the government’s legislation and regulations were somehow an attempt at deregulation, he said that it was massive regulation and described it as a ‘Soviet style command control state’. He did so not just because of the reason that I have outlined but also because of the extraordinary reporting provisions and requirements that the minister has inserted into the legislation and regulations concerning the Office of the Employment Advocate and the Industrial Relations Commission.

So what do we have in this legislation and regulation? And why should the House disallow these regulations and set the scene for the tearing up of this legislation? It should do so because there is a massive attack on the living standards of Australian working families, a massive attack on the living standards of Australian employees, a massive attack on the characteristics and values and virtues that Australians have held dear for over 100 years and a massive attack on the legitimate activities of the trade union movement to play a role in the modern social and economic affairs of Australian society. It is not as if it were even done competently. It is a jurisdictional and regulatory dog’s breakfast. It is massively complex and places onerous burden on business, particularly small business. We have seen since the legislation came into effect on 27 March any number of examples of how these measures are working to massively disadvantage Australian families. If it is not unfair dismissals, it is shoving people onto AWAs of inferior standards. And for what—to achieve any so-called economic effect?

One interesting point about the budget was that the Prime Minister, at the time the legislation went through the House, made the assertion that the mere adoption of these proposals would see employment growth in our economy. What do we find in the Treasurer and Acting Prime Minister’s budget papers? We find in the out years an indication that employment growth will fall. So there is no economic benefit. It is a massive attack on living standards, it is a massive attack on the Australian way of life and it is a massive attack on the trade union movement. As a consequence, this House should disallow these regulations and, in due course, under a Labor government, rip up this legislation.

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motioned seconded?

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

9:22 am

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

If anybody listening to the debate this morning on the motion to disallow the Workplace Relations Regulations had been out of Australia or somewhere isolated in the world for the last 10 years they would have thought that they had come back in 1996 because the rhetoric being used today once again by the Labor Party was exactly the rhetoric that we heard 10 years ago when the workplace relations legislation was introduced and passed by this parliament. I remind the House that the member for Perth, who moved this motion, and his seconder, the Leader of the Opposition, used precisely the same rhetoric in 1996 and 1997 about the Workplace Relations Act. They told us that the sky was going to fall in in 1996 and 1997. They told us then that the living standards of Australians would be driven down as a consequence of the changes made to workplace relations in Australia. They told us that all sorts of adverse impacts would result for the men and women, the families and children of Australia as a consequence of these changes.

In the last 10 years, partly because of those economic reforms and partly because of the good management of this government over that decade, we have seen just the contrary occur. We have seen the creation of almost two million jobs for Australians over the past decade. We have seen wages increase in this country by something like 16 per cent in real terms over the last 10 years. I contrast that with what happened to wages for 13 years under the previous Labor government in Australia when real wages increased by about 1.2 per cent. Indeed, part of that time during the 1980s, real wages in Australia went backwards as a result of the accord between the ACTU and the then Labor government.

Whatever piece of economic data one likes to take—or, collectively, the economic data that is published—it corresponds to the anecdotal evidence and the experiences of ordinary Australians and that is that the last decade has seen rising prosperity for the men and women of this country. Part of the reason for that is the preparedness of this government to undertake economic reform so that we can build for the future rather than, as we hear once again this morning from the member for Perth, simply looking at the past.

In a sense, this debate is a proxy for the differences between the government and the Labor Party. It is a proxy in the sense that the government is prepared to engage in continuous reform in this country so that prosperity can continue in the future, versus an opposition whose rhetoric is about ripping up and rolling back and taking us backward.

Ripping up these laws is ripping up, including the Work Choices laws, the workplace relations laws of 1996. What the opposition would like to do is undo the change that has been brought about in this country over the last decade or so and take us back to the 1980s and beyond. But the reality is—and I believe the people of Australia know this—that the preparedness of a government to undertake continuing reform has been one of the hallmarks of ensuring that this country continues to prosper.

The rhetoric, of course, has not really changed from the opposition. The phrase today is ‘rip up’. It reminds me of that other phrase which was used a few years ago by the Leader of the Opposition—‘roll back’. It is a similar sort of thing—‘We’re going to roll it all back, we’re going to rip it up, we’re going to look backwards to the past,’ rather than looking to the future and how we can ensure that the prosperity of this country continues.

The member for Perth commented about living standards. What has happened to living standards in Australia over the last 10 years? Those living standards have substantially increased for Australians. I do not think anybody in this country denies the increased living standards that ordinary Australians have experienced over the last 10 years, yet we still have this head-in-the-sand attitude from the opposition towards moving to the future. The member for Perth talked about the way of life and the capacity of the trade union movement as something which may be closer to the objectives of the Labor Party with regard to its opposition to this legislation. He talked about the minimum wage. He said that there is some unfairness about having an Australian Fair Pay Commission set the minimum wage—not only the minimum wage, I should point out, but all the classification wages in Australia in the future—as somehow suggesting that trying to give people the opportunity of a job and also maintaining a safety net is not about fairness for ordinary Australians.

Whilst a national unemployment rate of five per cent is a far cry from the double digit figures that we saw under the Labor Party when, I remind the House, the Leader of the Opposition was the minister responsible for employment in this country, the reality is that there are still some hundreds of thousands of Australians without a job. Policies that give more of our fellow men and women in Australia the opportunity to have a job are surely policies based on fairness in this sense.

We have also heard about the unfair dismissal laws but nothing about the rorting and the abuse of those laws in the past. What about the situation where an employee is caught red-handed thieving from their employer and an industrial tribunal orders reinstatement or compensation? What about the situation of an employee engaged in gross sexual harassment of another employee in the workplace, where an industrial tribunal orders reinstatement? What about the range of other abuses of the unfair dismissal laws, but we hear not a word from the opposition about those? The reality is, as I have gone around Australia over the last few weeks since the introduction of the Work Choices legislation, that small and medium sized business operators have told me how they have employed another worker or two because they no longer fear what would happen with the unfair dismissal laws. In every state of Australia I have had small and medium sized business operators come to me and volunteer information that they have employed somebody else because of the removal of the fear about what would happen under an unfair dismissal regime. But, obviously, we hear nothing about that from the opposition.

The member for Perth was getting to the core of his real objection to the Work Choices legislation when he said that it was an attack on the trade union movement in Australia. After all, it is the trade union movement in Australia that not only funds but controls the Australian Labor Party. What is it? Since 1996 $50 million has been donated by unions in Australia to the Australian Labor Party. Look at the backgrounds of the members who sit opposite, and overwhelmingly they are from the union movement. Overwhelmingly they represent that single occupation in life in Australia—that is, officials of trade unions.

But the reality is that trade unions continue to operate under this legislation. The right of entry of trade union officials is protected under this legislation. The right of trade unions to represent workers is protected under this legislation. The reality is that collective agreements, since 27 March when Work Choices came into operation, have continued to be negotiated by trade unions in Australia and are being lodged and renewed under this system. In addition to that, trade union officials can act as bargaining agents where people are seeking to enter into an individual contract. Again, the role of the trade unions is protected in this legislation. The right to take protected industrial action, which can be motivated by a union, is not only protected under legislation but has actually been used by trade unions under this legislation.

This overblown rhetoric that somehow Work Choices is destroying the role of trade unions in Australia and the place that they have had in this country for a century is simply nonsense. It does not stack up when you look at the facts. This is the problem with the argument the opposition continues to mount against this legislation. The problem essentially is that it does not stack up when the facts are taken into account. If you just want overblown rhetoric about ripping up legislation and ripping up regulations, that is fine. But, in the end, rhetoric is not going to do anything for the advancement of the economy in this country. The member for Perth talked about its complexity. As my friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, who is at the table, pointed out, the complexity we have in Australia is a situation where there are something like 4,000 separate awards operating. Somebody calculated that there is an industrial award for every 27 employees in this country. That is the complexity which has built up over time in this country.

We are saying that we should have one single national system of industrial relations. We cannot achieve that overnight because of constraints in the Constitution. But what we have been able to do, by using the corporations power in the Constitution, is effectively bring 80 to 85 per cent of employees in this country into a single industrial relations system. If the other states beyond Victoria, which handed over its powers some years ago, were to follow the course of Victoria then we would finally achieve one national system of industrial relations in this country. The Labor Party is defending an industrial relations system that was established in the early part of the last century—when Australia operated as separate colonial economies largely removed from one another—an industrial relations system established over a century ago to address the industrial problems of the 1890s in Australia. That is the attitude of the Labor Party: there is a sentimental attachment to the conditions and the economy of this country at the time of Federation rather than a preparedness to look forward to the way in which we grow our economy into the future.

As I said before, this debate is a proxy for the different attitudes of the parties in Australia as to our economic performance. Do we want to grow this economy into the future by continuing to take significant economic reforms that will best place us to grow into the future or do we simply say we are going to rip things up, roll them back and take Australia back to the 1970s and the 1980s? That is essentially what this debate is about, when we go beyond the subject matter we are looking at today—namely, the industrial relations regulations. That is the argument being advanced by the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Perth in the comments they have made today, will make today and no doubt will make into the future. The criticisms basically go to the fear of the union bosses that their privileged place in the sun will be removed. They are concerned with that rather than with what is good for Australian families and Australian workers.

We have seen a major economic increase. Our current prosperity is even the subject of comment in overseas newspapers. In recent weeks an English newspaper reported that Australia is:

... rolling into its 16th year of uninterrupted growth ...

and that it manages to combine:

... the vigour of American capitalism with the humanity of European welfare, yet suffering the drawbacks of neither. And it manages this while keeping a consistent budget surplus.

That is what this is about. It is about how we continue to grow Australia into the future at a time when we face significant challenges. One challenge is the demographic change this country is moving through—that is, the ageing of the population and the fact that, as a consequence of that, a massive reduction in the growth of the workforce in this country is starting to occur. The Productivity Commission said in a report a year or so ago that we have to ensure we grow our productivity and increase the number of people participating in the workforce in Australia if we want to sustain the economic growth that we have enjoyed in this country in the past. That is the reality behind this. We know, for example, that greater flexibility in the workplace correlates with higher productivity. Those industries, those businesses and those sectors of the economy that have embraced the flexibility of the workplace relations legislation tend to have the highest productivity of businesses in Australia. Consequently, they pay the best wages and provide the best conditions to the employees. Conversely, those locked into the rigidities of the old award system tend to have little or no productivity and there is a corresponding outcome for the workers in that area.

This essentially is about whether we go forward or backwards. This government is committed to going forward, to making careful, significant reforms such as these so that the conditions that Australian workers have today are more likely to continue into the future and the prosperity that this country is enjoying today is more likely to continue into the future. The alternative is the backward-looking rhetoric that we have heard from the member for Perth and no doubt are about to hear from the Leader of the Opposition. The motion should be defeated.

9:37 am

Photo of Kim BeazleyKim Beazley (Brand, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

We have just heard 15 minutes of pure humbug about the propositions that we are deliberating on in this place, the regulations that are associated with the Workplace Relations Act. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations talks a lot about going forwards or going backwards. These regulations and the act on which they are based, via a Soviet process of bureaucratisation in terms of centralising power in the hands of the minister, take us back to a 19th century master-servant relationship. We have here a curious mix in these regulations of Soviet-style, line-by-line regulation of the relationships between employers and their employees, with an ultimate, Soviet works minister, power of intervention on the part of the minister to strike out anything that he finds offensive in any agreement, collective or individual, reached anywhere in this country, basically to enforce the precept which underpins this legislation—that we need to get back to the 19th century master-servant relationship.

It is true that, until very recently, in this community we enjoyed a substantial increase in productivity in our workplaces. That productivity has gone off the boil in the last two years. But that surge in productivity coincided with the implementation of the changes to the industrial relations legislation made by the Labor Party in 1994. The enormous expansion that you have seen in the ability of workers, through enterprise agreements, to earn substantial payments above the awards that once existed and to introduce flexibility into the practices under those awards were entirely a product of the negotiated arrangements between the then government, business and the union movement on what we ought to do to improve the productivity in our workplaces by enhancing the capacity of our industrial relations systems to reflect the needs of every workplace. The product of that has been substantial improvement in the living standards of many Australians and, until recently, substantial improvement in productivity.

The minister talked about the remarks made by Mr Smith and me on a number of occasions on the legislation that has been brought down. He identified those remarks with remarks that we made at the time the government had its first go, the first wave of their changes to industrial relations legislation in this country. I remind the minister that there were 230 successful amendments to that legislation. The legislation, when it passed through the parliament, bore no resemblance to the act put into this place by the minister at the time, which was appropriately characterised, by me and others, as attacking the basic living standards, conditions and rights of the ordinary Australian. So there is no point in his defending himself on this occasion by reference to our words then.

The government of the day was not permitted to do what it wanted to do—to recreate 19th century conditions in the Australian workforce. At the time, the act that it was attempting to put in place bore absolutely no resemblance to one aspect of what the government is intending to do here: to assign to the minister of the day such exceptional interventionist powers in every agreement, collectively or individually arrived at by workers and their employers. That was his particular innovation. He took the unfair aspects of the original, unamended, legislation of the first wave, and added to it a level of Soviet bureaucratisation which surprised and took aback those on this side of the House, who had never anticipated that we would have to debate Soviet-style legislation in this country.

The simple point is that ordinary hardworking Australians expect to be rewarded when they work hard. They expect to be able to negotiate hours that sustain decent family life—that they can advance their families, advance their interests and participate as constructive members of the community. They expect to have job security. They expect to know that they can go to their workplace and that, if their employer or supervisor suggests something to them that is untoward, they can express an objection to that without fear of being sacked. They expect to be able to go into their workplace and not be harassed by their employer or supervisor, improperly or in any other way, and they expect that, if they are so harassed, they can raise a complaint and not find that it becomes a pretext, or that some other pretext is used, to sack them. They expect to emerge from the workplace rewarded for effort, with security for their families, and secure in their dignity in this most important aspect of their lives.

The two most important aspects of anyone’s life are their family life and their workplace life. That is where they spend most of their lives; that is where they put all their energy and creativity. And they do not expect, in either place, to live with intimidation, indignity and deprivation. That is what ordinary Australians, middle Australians, expect, and that is what this government intends, in its regulatory arrangements here, to deny.

The member for Perth made a whole lot of relevant points about the extraordinary complexity of this legislation. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs shouted across the table to me, ‘But what about the 4,000 awards?’ I replied, ‘So you actually are going to knock off every award in this country?’ He very quickly came back and said, ‘No, no; it would be merely the simplification of those awards.’ So what we are going to have is this legislation, plus 4,000 awards that we are going to fight over. That, apparently, is their view of what a simplified system would be.

What we actually have here, as was pointed out by Mr Smith, is a massive bureaucratisation of the workplace process. As with the so-called reform of the tax act through the GST, we now have an act instead of regulations that we can take around this country, and, as we denounce them before we rip them up, we can use them as a soapbox from which we can speak. Even the shortest members of the opposition will be capable of being seen when they stand upon these regulations and this act in order to denounce them.

I want to go into what has been the practical effect of the new arrangements so far. The intention here is absolutely clear. The intention of this government is to make it easy to rip away penalty rates, which are the principal mechanism by which employees in this country are rewarded for their decision to work overtime, on difficult shifts or in holidays. The intention is to use these regulations to rip away all those payments.

Everybody who knows anything about family life in this country, particularly in areas where people are heavily mortgaged, knows that the way in which ordinary Australian families organise their financial affairs to withstand the consequences of high mortgage payments is for one or both spouses to work a great deal of time at penalty rates. That is simply the case for most Australian families, at least for a substantial period of their lives. You could not cut to the heart of family life and family stability more quickly and more atrociously than to produce a set of regulations that produced the conditions these ones do.

Let us not kid ourselves here. The new arrangements have had an immediate impact. This act is impacting on ordinary working life in this country much faster than I anticipated it would. When we were debating the original legislation in this chamber, I used the analogy of an infestation of termites. From what we have seen so far, I have to say that they are a very hungry bunch of termites indeed. They are chomping away very solidly.

We have the example of 100 victims of Work Choices—garbage collectors employed by local councils on the New South Wales Central Coast. They stand to lose up to $340 a week after their jobs were put out to tender in a form that meant that if they took those jobs back they would effectively lose their penalty rates. We saw another impact in the negotiations currently occurring with child-care workers in New South Wales. They have been offered contracts that slash between $138 and $313 from their wages and reduce or remove sick pay entitlements, rest breaks, annual leave loadings and overtime payments.

In a school in recent times we saw another way in which the regulations permit these matters to be dealt with in a negotiation. The employees in all positions at that school—the teachers and all the other workers at the school—had it pointed out to them that their jobs are now up for grabs. They can reapply for those jobs, but they will have to reapply on the basis of a very substantial reduction in their earning capacities and other rights.

There is the situation of the Cowra abattoir workers—sacked one day and offered their jobs back the next, all with slashed pay packets and reduced conditions. The minister panicked when he saw what the employers had done at Cowra and ensured that there was intervention. He proudly boasted of that. But what was the one question he could not answer at the press conference he conducted subsequently, when the journalists were wise enough to say, ‘Okay, the employers have backed off for the moment, but was what they did legal? Was what they did legal under the laws that you have put in place?’ The minister could not answer that question—not because he did not know the answer to it but because he knew that the answer would embarrass him grossly. He knew that he would have to say: ‘Well, what they did was not opportune, but it was legal. They embarrassed us by acting too fast, not by acting illegally.’ We have had that case.

We have had another case in Ballarat where 39 local workers were sacked while their company continued to rely on employing Chinese workers. We are seeing more and more examples of this around the country now. People are brought into this country on temporary working visas. These are not long-term skilled migrants who are part of the process of building this nation, enhancing our long-term wealth and improving the character of our community by bringing into it new and interesting ideas and cultures. They are not that section of skilled workers. These are people brought into this country explicitly and specifically to undermine the working conditions of Australians. When an employer decides—on the basis of what they are permitted to do under these massively complex regulations—to mount an attack on the living standards of modestly well-paid Australian workers, there is somebody else there to do the work. They have to be put out on the grass by the employer while they go through the process of negotiating their conditions down.

On other occasions in this place we have had occasion to mention practices such as bringing in foreign youngsters to replace our young Australians as apprentices—all of these things to do with the provision of temporary work visas. Every aspect of these regulations and all aspects of that act—we are simply going to rip them up. They are malevolent and evil in their intent, absolutely unnecessary in the workforce that we have and un-Australian. These have not been Australian practices at any time since the 19th century. There is no saving any aspect of them.

We will put a fair system in place in this country, a system with the flexibilities that will ensure that people are able to bargain in good faith and produce the decent sorts of outcomes that we have been capable of producing in this country and that we continue to be capable of producing in this country. (Time expired)

9:52 am

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

One reason we are here this morning debating this disallowance motion is that the Leader of the Opposition’s leadership is under pressure. He has Combet and Shorten looking over his shoulder. Another reason we are debating this motion today is that the member for Perth is under pressure. The member for Perth has every member of the backbench and the union movement looking at him and saying, ‘You’re not muscling up.’ Combet told the ALP, ‘Muscle up, get your act together or we’ll review our support.’ And what support is that? It is $50 million worth of support.

Make no mistake: the ALP is under pressure. The Leader of the Opposition is under pressure and the member for Perth is under pressure. They have the hide to come into this chamber and say that our Work Choices legislation is extreme legislation. I will tell you what is extreme: the language that is creeping into the member for Brand’s speeches these days. That is what is extreme. It is interesting that an article in today’s Australian talks about the growing tendency for members of the ALP to use xenophobic type language. It is not about skilled migration from other countries; it is: ‘Let’s talk about India, let’s talk about Chinese migrants and divert people’s attention.’ That is extreme.

Opposition Members:

Opposition members interjecting

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The fact that members on the other side are interjecting in such a loud way when I at least had the courtesy to listen to them—

Photo of Julia IrwinJulia Irwin (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. It is quite obvious that the member opposite is not interested in the workers of Australia. He is not talking to—

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Fowler will come straight to her point of order.

Photo of Julia IrwinJulia Irwin (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The point of order is on relevance, Mr Speaker.

Photo of David HawkerDavid Hawker (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Fowler will resume her seat. I will rule on the point of order. The member for Deakin has only just begun his speech and he is in order. I call the honourable member for Deakin.

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In fact, skilled migration was not introduced by me into the debate on this motion; it was introduced by the member for Brand. Extreme language was not introduced by me; it was introduced by those on the other side. The motive behind this disallowance motion is very much what I am talking about. The motivation is that they need to muscle up.

This motion represents nothing more than a final attempt to delay the implementation of the Work Choices act. It is simply a last-ditch effort by the opposition when they know that the Work Choices legislation is being embraced by the Australian community. The ALP’s last-ditch effort is just a sham. The member for Perth is under pressure. He claims that this legislation is an attack on unions, that we on this side believe that unions will have no role as a result of this legislation. It is an exaggerated position and one which would be great for the union movement to hear. It is wrong. The unions’ role, as evidenced at Beaconsfield—and I take my hat off to the AWU—will continue to exist and is very appropriate. There is nothing in this Work Choices legislation that will prevent that role from taking place. In fact, I would say to the union movement that they will have greater opportunities to show their relevance in the industrial relations setting because of this legislation.

Photo of Dick AdamsDick Adams (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What about penalty rates?

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Lyons knows better.

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The regulations are claimed to be extraordinarily complex. That, too, is a fraudulent argument. Those on the other side know that the great bulk of the Work Choices legislation and the regulations are very much transition arrangements which need to take place over the next three to five years. The regulations are largely machinery or transitional in nature and are necessary for the effective operation of the Workplace Relations Act. Disallowing these regulations will do nothing to assist employers and employees, and it is absolutely irresponsible of those on the other side to move this motion.

The regulations subject to the disallowance motion fall broadly into two categories. They are machinery regulations made under the Workplace Relations Act—and the Labor Party knows that—and are necessary for the effective ongoing operation of the act. They are also transitional regulations. Despite the hysterical ranting of the Labor Party and the union movement, there is nothing new or earth-shattering in these regulations.

I will go through some of the content of the regulations. They prescribe the relationship between state and territory laws and the Workplace Relations Act. They provide detail on when a workplace agreement provides a more favourable outcome for an employee than the Australian fair pay conditions and when a preserved award term relating to annual, personal or parental leave is more generous than the standard. They clarify the circumstances in which medical certificates are valid. They set out prohibited content for the purposes of workplace agreements. They provide for a trade union membership deduction from an employee’s wages, something which those on the other side should be in agreement with. They confer a right or remedy in relation to unfair dismissal, and they set out procedures for secret ballots on protected industrial action, which has actually been in force since a few days ago. They provide for retention and inspection of employee records and establish a system on infringement notices. They deal with the handling of matters which were part heard in state and federal jurisdictions and with matters before state tribunals. These are some of the things that the regulations cover. And these are the regulations that the ALP are moving to disallow through this motion and, of course, they will fail.

The Labor Party and union campaign is a ridiculous campaign. We have heard from Labor and the unions, and particularly from the Leader of the Opposition, that these measures allow the minister to interfere in every aspect of people’s lives. That is wrong. Currently, under section 43 and 44 of the old Workplace Relations Act, the minister can intervene in proceedings before the Industrial Relations Commission. That responsibility and that right is there now. So there is nothing new there. This power of intervention is replicated in sections 102 and 103 of the act.

But those opposite have not looked at the act; they have not looked at these sections. They are simply mouthing the rhetoric that Combet, Burrow and other members of the union movement have asked them to utter. They can go back to their offices today; they can send an email back to Sussex Street and Lygon Street and say, ‘Hey, we moved a motion today. It got defeated but, listen, we’ve done our bit—so lay off.’ Of course, their language will continue to become more extreme and more xenophobic as the days go on. It is a shame to see the Leader of the Opposition resorting to those sorts of tactics.

The other thing about the union and Labor campaign is that the requirement for the Industrial Relations Commission to provide detailed information to the minister on a range of matters is not new. It broadly reflects section 48A of the previous act and schedule 12 of the previous regulations, which set out detailed reporting requirements for the Industrial Relations Commission. The new regulations provide that the commission and the Office of the Employment Advocate can provide certain information to the minister that is essential, and those elements are replicated from the old system into the new system.

The campaign by the union movement and the ALP has been characterised by untruths, misleading claims and scare tactics. The opponents of the government changes have slandered and maligned employers, labelling them as reactionary scrooges. This self-indulgent rhetoric of the union movement and the Labor Party ignores the reality of the modern workplace, where employers and employees are not pitted against each other in a battle of supremacy but simply want to ensure that individual skills are fully and fairly utilised. They do not like it, but they are proposing to take us back to pre-Keating days, and they say they will rip up the legislation and the regulations. If they take us back to pre-Keating days, let me remind those on the other side of what Mr Keating said in 1993:

Let me describe the model of industrial relations we are working towards. It is a model which places primary emphasis on bargaining at the workplace level within a framework of minimum standards provided by arbitral tribunals.

…            …            …

Over time the safety net would inevitably become simpler. We would have fewer awards, with fewer clauses.

…            …            …

We need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons to awards to being full substitutes for awards.

That is what Paul Keating, the then Prime Minister, said. And what the members on the other side are trying to do now is to take us to before even those days. The statement by Keating that ‘we need to find a way of extending the coverage of agreements from being add-ons to awards to being full substitutes’ is precisely where we are today with this third stage of reforms. We are simply freeing up the marketplace. We are providing the opportunity for individuals and their employers to have greater flexibility and to come to arrangements which suit and fit the needs of both parties.

The Labor Party supported the old system because it gave power to the unions, and the unions, of course, are the ones that provide financial support to the Labor Party. We heard from the minister about the $50 million contribution since 1996. That is a lot of money.

Photo of Dick AdamsDick Adams (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Talk about productivity.

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Talk about productivity? Sure, talk about productivity, member for Lyons, because what we have at the moment in this country is productivity improvements, and these industrial relations changes we are introducing will further extend the productivity gains we have made over the last 10 years. We will have economic prosperity for this nation. We have seen real wages growth of 16 per cent and employment growth of over 1½ million people, and that will continue. We have a shortage of workers out there in the marketplace, and the union movement and the Labor Party simply want to get in the way of those productivity gains and the economic prosperity that we have already seen.

This parliament has already given significant consideration to the Work Choices reform. It has passed this important legislation. It gives Australia a workplace relations system designed for the 21st century, a system which looks to the future, not to the past. The legislation was debated in this House, and over 23 hours of debate took place. The other place debated Work Choices for more than 32 hours, and now we have this stunt. Contrary to what the critics suggest, Work Choices will not usher in a system that exposes employees to exploitation. Rather, Work Choices puts in place a clear set of minimum wages and conditions and a less confusing and bureaucratic process for agreement making at the workplace.

The government has enshrined in law minimum conditions of employment and has ensured that pre-reform award wages and basic working conditions, including the right to be represented by a union, are protected by law. Under Work Choices there are comprehensive transitional arrangements to assist employers and employees in the move to the new system, and these regulations set out a lot of those transitional arrangements. The government wants to give more Australians the chance at a job and to drive down our unemployment rate even further.

Photo of Bernie RipollBernie Ripoll (Oxley, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Industry, Infrastructure and Industrial Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

And drive down the wages.

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We are determined to put economic reality back at the centre of workplace regulations—it is where we should have been all along—to give more Australians the opportunity to participate in the Australian workplace. Those on the other side say that we will be driving down wages. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown that workers on AWAs in fact earn 13 per cent more than workers on certified agreements and 100 per cent more than workers on awards.

Photo of Jennie GeorgeJennie George (Throsby, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

Ms George interjecting

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The intervention from the other side is laughable, when we have people on AWAs earning 30 per cent more than those on certified agreements. This motion is a sham. Put simply, it is a reaction to pressure from the union movement. We have had a $50-million tail wagging the dog. As we know, whenever our little pet dog strays from home, it must be brought back, disciplined and reminded of where home and the food bowl are. We need to make sure that our dog is trained not to stray from home again. We have here a $50-million tail wagging the dog. That is the only reason we have this motion before us today—and it should be rejected.

10:07 am

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker—

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the question be now put.

Question put.

Original question put:

That the motion (Mr Stephen Smith’s) be agreed to.

(Quorum formed)