Monday, 13 November 2023
Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023; First Reading
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"the bill be considered immediately".
For the benefit of the House, I'll explain what is occurring. The minister has just moved that the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023 be made an order of the day for the next sitting. As a consequence, I've moved an amendment to this motion such that debate on this bill can proceed immediately. As Practice makes clear, the debate the House is now conducting is not, in and of itself, about the content of the bill that has just been read a first time. Rather, it's about the programming of debate and therefore about what this House judges to be most important to consider at any point in time. The purpose of the motion that I have moved would be to bring this bill on for debate in this House immediately.
Let me explain why the opposition has moved this motion. As those on this side of the chamber strongly believe, small businesses and, indeed, their employees are the very backbone of the Australian economy. This private senator's bill, which passed the Senate last week and has now been transmitted to this House, has the effect of ensuring that employees do not miss out on redundancy payments merely because their employer became a small business by reason of an insolvency.
This will support equitable outcomes for claimants under the Fair Entitlements Guarantee. That's to say this bill addresses an anomaly which causes some employees to miss out on a National Employment Standards entitlement to redundancy pay, which would otherwise have been payable at the end of their employment. This can occur when an employer downsizes, due to insolvency, to fewer than 15 staff, thereby becoming a small business employer and therefore exempt, in the law as it presently stands, from providing redundancy pay to employees under the National Employment Standards.
This private senator's bill, which the opposition is advocating ought to be considered by this chamber immediately, would not make any change to how the small-business redundancy exemption currently applies to viable small businesses, including those that have restructured from being a larger employer and are continuing to trade. It would only change how the small-business redundancy exemption applies to employers that are bankrupt or in liquidation.
It's important to note that all business groups support this change. This is now an opportunity for the chamber, including the government, the opposition and crossbenchers, to express their support for this important change. It is, I think, uncontroversial to say that small business plays a very important role in our economy. That is a view that's expressed across the chamber. I want to acknowledge, for example, that the recently arrived member for Aston recently had this to say about the need to support and protect employees of small businesses:
We understand very well the pressures faced by small businesses, and they will not be punished for honest mistakes … I will continue to fight for the small businesses in my electorate.
This is a matter, therefore, of considerable importance. That was the view of the Senate, which passed this bill last week. The government in the other place did not vote against this bill, which has now been transmitted to this House. Indeed the government did not even call for a division on this bill.
As I've outlined, the provisions in this bill would ensure that employees are compensated accordingly when a small business becomes insolvent. It goes some way toward fairly shielding employees. You would think that, in a cost-of-living crisis, this would be precisely the sort of measure that the government would be minded to move rapidly to support. We may well hear a range of arguments about why the procedural motion that the opposition is moving at this time ought not to be supported. I want to, therefore, make some points for the information of members.
It's entirely open to the House to determine how and when it considers business. The government's agenda is an input, but it's not determinative. The very fact that the House is even giving consideration to this is evidence of that proposition. There is nothing wrong, in procedural terms nor in principle, with this House choosing to move rapidly to deal with a matter which has been dealt with in the other place. That's a decision for this House to make on the merits of the bill. We may well hear that it is somehow problematic in process terms for this private senator's bill that's passed the Senate to now be debated and voted upon immediately by this House. We may also hear arguments that this creates procedural difficulties because there is an identical provision in the government's so-called closing loopholes legislation, which is making its way through the various parliamentary processes. The simple fact is that, if this bill were to pass this House, it would be an entirely routine matter for the government—at the consideration and detail stage of debate—to omit from its closing loopholes bill the provision which would have already taken legal effect under this bill, should it pass this House.
It may be argued that debating this and considering this right now is in some way distracting the attention of the House from matters which are of greater urgency. That argument would have a lot more credibility if it were not for the actions that this government took to minimise the amount of work being done by this House only a few weeks ago. The government cancelled a week of sittings on the basis that the Prime Minister had some international travel and the government was not keen for that to be interfered with. Any argument that might be made that this is in some way distracting or diverting the House from other urgent matters which need to be dealt with is not an argument which ought to be given very serious consideration.
I might make the point that when those opposite were in opposition, from time to time they offered procedural motions of exactly this kind, again argued on the basis that the substance of the bill that a minister had just sought to effectively kick into the long grass—which is, let's have no doubt, exactly what the Leader of the House has just sought to do—was a matter of priority and that the House should consider it. I'm not going to get into the merits of what was argued there, because it was clearly misconceived. What is very different here is the urgency of the matter which this bill, moved and passed by the Senate, would give effect to. It is a set of changes that deal with the circumstances of employees who are facing redundancy. It deals with the particular issue where, the employer having moved from being a larger business to being a small business by reason of having gone into insolvency, the employee, through no fault of their own, is therefore suddenly excluded from being able to access support that would otherwise be available.
It's clear that the government also considers this to be an important matter because the government itself has included such a provision in its broader so-called closing loopholes bill. But the fact is that this House now has an opportunity to consider, vote upon and pass this bill, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023, immediately. I think that most fair-minded Australians would, frankly, be mystified at the government's proposition about a bill embodying a provision which the government itself has brought forward and about which the government itself has necessarily said to the parliament and to the people of Australia, 'This is a sensible provision. This is a necessary provision.'
Here on the opposition side of the chamber we are simply providing the government and, indeed, the parliament with the opportunity to vote upon this provision immediately and to bring it into law very quickly. This is as opposed to the approach that the minister is putting to the House, which is that this matter should not be dealt with now but should be deferred indefinitely. This is an important matter; the government has been telling us for some months that it's an important matter. The opposition agrees that it's an important matter, businesses agree that it's an important matter and I understand unions agree that it's an important matter. The House has a chance to deal with it now, and that is the basis for the amendment that I've moved, so I commend the motion to the House.
I rise to speak in support of the amendment of the Manager of Opposition Business. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, after listening to us, might decide that what we're doing here is a measure of goodwill. We are here trying to help the government today, we are here agreeing with the government today and we are here to help the government this afternoon because, from what the Manager of Opposition Business has just explained, there is obviously a more complex piece of legislation, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023, that is being held up in the Senate. It's going to be so for many months. It won't be coming back to this chamber until next year.
But the Senate, in its wisdom, has decided to pass certain subsets of the closing loopholes legislation with which we on the opposition benches agree. As a goodwill gesture when this subset of the legislation went through, many ministers and many members opposite spoke very passionately about this part of it, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023. They also spoke about the urgency of it and that it was really important that it happen ASAP. It wasn't just that this had to go through; it had to happen with great urgency. So we are here to help this amendment go through today—not today, this afternoon.
Let's just remind the House of what this is about. This is about the fact that employees should not miss out on redundancy payments because their employer has gone bankrupt or become insolvent. Who could disagree with that? Is that the fault of the employee? No, it's not the fault of the employee. The government knows that. The opposition knows that. If this procedural motion goes through, we can make sure that those employees are looked after almost immediately.
The Manager of Opposition Business also mentioned that small business advocates and just about every advocacy group around the country supports this. We support it. The government supports it. This can happen today. So I'm very optimistically standing here today. I know the minister is very passionate about all parts of the legislation that he moved previously with the closing loopholes legislation, and I know he's as passionate about this part of it as he is about all other parts of it, so I think he's disappointed that the closing loopholes legislation won't be coming back from the Senate for quite some time. Given his passion for the issue, I understand his disappointment about that, but the good news is that we can do this right now. Maybe he hadn't thought about it, so I commend the Manager of Opposition Business for moving this procedural motion so that we can move on this today. I'm excited, the members of the opposition are excited and the government is excited, so I support and second this motion.
It's been fascinating to see how parliament works as a new member. I've been very impressed with what I've seen in the Senate recently with the omnibus bill. An omnibus bill is when you chuck everything in. Overall, it's a bad piece of legislation, in our view, but it has some good things in it. What the Senate has done, which I think is very sensible, is to take out the bits that we all agree on that are important and that are important to pass immediately and to do that so that we can get on with debating the stuff that we don't agree on. That's a very sensible thing to do.
As both the member for Bradfield and the member for Paige said, I've sat on these benches during the debate on industrial relations, and the urgency in which some of these things need to be passed has been expressed by all members who've spoken on the bill. We need to get it done. We need to make sure that these things are enacted in legislation so that workers are protected. In this case, it's redundancy payments for small businesses that might have become bankrupt or insolvent. Given that urgency was expressed when the senators, in their wisdom, took out those parts that we agreed on and said, 'Let's pass those to get them done urgently, and we'll debate the rest later,' I would have thought, as a new member of parliament, that that's one of the more sensible things I've seen the Senate do—and the Senate doesn't always seem like a sensible place from where I sit. But they've done that. It's constructive. It's proactive. It means that good pieces of legislation get pulled out of bad omnibus bills and that we can pass them. We can show the Australian people that we're not about politics, but we're about getting good pieces of legislation, which have bipartisan support, agreed to.
This is a test for the government. Is this about politics? Is this about either passing the whole bill or passing none of it? Are you prepared to do something for the Australian people? Are you prepared to work constructively with the opposition who have come into this place and said: 'Okay, guys, we're having an argument about this bill. That's the way parliament works. We understand. But there are some pieces that we agree on'—in this case, it's the small business redundancy exemption? Well done--it's a good piece of legislation in a bad bill. You can then show us that we haven't wasted our time with all of this goodwill by saying, 'Let's pass those good pieces in a bad bill today and get them into law,' and then the urgency that has been expressed by those opposite—in this case, in relation to small business redundancy—can have the effect for the Australian people and look after the workers that most of us, I think all of us, in this place are very keen to look after. Here's the test. Is it about politics? Is it take it or leave it? Is it all or nothing--a bit like some other legislation or referendum that has been put up this year? Is it that no nuance will be entered into? Or is it: okay, this is a good part of a bad bill; let's work together and pass it, get it into law, get those protections working for Australian workers, which is what we're interested in, and then we can have the debate on the other stuff further down the track? It's over to you, government. I wish you well in your deliberations. The Australian people would be really proud of this place if it pulled the bipartisan-agreed parts out, voted on them and got them into the statutes today.
I rise to support this motion so we can debate and pass this bill and the others excised from the 'closing the loopholes' bill by the Senate. I thank Senators Jacqui Lambie, Tammy Tyrrell and David Pocock for their hard work passing this and three other important pieces of legislation through the Senate, excising them from the omnibus 'closing the loopholes' bill so they can be addressed quickly.
This bill provides clearer rules around small-business insolvencies, and the bills to follow simplify compensation for first responders, expand the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency and improve protections for employees subjected to family and domestic violence. These four matters have broad consensus support from unions, business groups, political parties and workers, and essentially these measures are the government's own legislation, own drafting and own words. The government has deemed these issues important enough to include in an omnibus bill, so it would seem pure politicking if the government chooses to vote against passing these bills today.
The practice of combining uncontroversial reforms with controversial changes in order to create a wedge doesn't respect the need for parliament to debate changes on their merit. As an Independent, I think very carefully about every vote and I'm willing to explain my position to my constituents. When called to vote on an omnibus bill where I back some but not all changes, I have to either vote against parts that I want to support or vote for parts I don't want to support. By separating uncontroversial parts, such as this bill, I'm able to demonstrate my support for small business, for first responders and for workers who work with dangerous products without signing up to a whole lot of other changes with broad and unknown consequences.
The remainder of the 'closing the loopholes' bill needs to be considered further in accordance with parliamentary processes to ensure its consequences are fully understood. It seems like an appropriate decision to debate these parts today and defer the bulk of the 'closing the loopholes' bill until next year, when it can be properly debated. I urge the government and every member of the House to support this motion so we can pass these measures into law as soon as possible.
I support the opposition's premise that this should be debated now. I'm grateful that the Senate dealt with this last week and got what I'd say are the good parts of the government's bill debated and through. It seems to be a tendency of this government to mix up the good and the bad—to hide away, for instance, when we were dealing with the previous IR bill; that had more rights for union access and the possibility of bringing back the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. There were good bits wrapped up in that bill as well, and this is the same. I guess it's a way of trying to lever public support for things that may be quite unpalatable.
I don't know how the government is going to vote on this motion or whether we on this side of the chamber will be gagged. But it would be difficult to believe that the government would vote against its own legislation. I see the minister for industrial affairs over there smiling; I suspect that's where we're heading on this one. It would seem inconceivable that, on these four bills that are directly lifted from their omnibus bill, they would come into this chamber and say, 'No, we don't want to do that at all, because it is much more important to keep the sweet bits in the legislation for later on, when we might be dealing with the nasty bits.'
These four pieces of legislation stand in their own right. They are about workers' rights. I remember when the bill to put in 10 days leave a year for sufferers of domestic violence came through this place, and we supported that. I supported the legislation. I made the point at the time that I thought it unfair that employers would meet the cost of it and that it should have been a public expense or a broad expense rather than one on individual employers, because I thought it might lead to distortions in the market and decisions on who may or may not get a job. But, as to this legislation, which refers to issues around handling dangerous products or asbestos-like products—we know what those are; they are those beautiful kitchen tops that create dust when people cut them—if it's urgent to do, and I think it probably is urgent to do, or it is urgent to do, we should deal with it now. We don't want to see it put off to next year, the middle of next year or the year after, or maybe the next term of government. If it's important to deal with, and all the industry agrees that it is important to deal with, we should be dealing with it now.
Similarly, the bills that deal with the first responders—in another sphere, we say, 'We believe you.' Well, apparently, we don't believe first responders, that their stress is caused by the situation that they're put in. We, on this side of the House, agree with the government. So it should be pretty easy to do. We all agree. So let's pass this through the place now and get on with it, because it's quite clear that the rest of the legislation is going to be held up for a while. So let's do the good bits. Let's move on. That goes across all the four tranches here. We've got agreement—we've got agreement between the two major parties; we've got agreement with the crossbenchers. One would think it wouldn't be all that hard to get those bills through the House of Representatives. All we need is the agreement of the government.
STEVENS () (): I too rise to speak in favour of the motion moved by the Manager of Opposition Business, to bring on debate immediately on this great opportunity that the parliament has to make an important change, an important reform, by passing the bill which has come back to us from the Senate. If we do pass this motion, and if we do bring on debate immediately, then it's an opportunity for everyone in this chamber to support an important improvement, an enhancement, to the situation of working people in this country. If you're a member of the Labor Party, I would have thought you would welcome the opportunity, particularly if you'd served in this chamber, to vote in favour of legislation—and therefore to vote for this motion to do it immediately—that will create an enhanced entitlement to workers in Australia. That is, after all, what the Labor Party is purportedly all about. We have a situation where, here on the opposition benches, we, indeed, are encouraging a government that is of a party named 'the Labor Party' to take our opportunity by supporting this motion and bringing on debate immediately to do something for working people.
What's even more significant is that, if we pass this motion and bring on debate now, we will, indeed, be passing a piece of legislation—we can do it today—that the government has already indicated to be a reform that they support. They have it in another piece of legislation that is still in the Senate. I commend the point made by the Manager of Opposition Business when he anticipated potential arguments for not supporting this motion and not bringing on debate and the passage of this legislation, which has already passed through the Senate, on the basis that the provisions in this legislation are contained in a government bill in the Senate. I think the Senate is well aware of that. I think the Senate, when they passed this bill, did so on the basis that, maybe, the other bill that contains this entitlement enhancement for workers would not be coming back to our chamber any time soon.
I would venture why the Senate has seen fit to send us this bill. There are some other bills that will be communicated to us—I anticipate, after we, hopefully, deal with this bill and pass it through this parliament—that are in the same category. They involve issues that are the subject of unanimity in the Senate and this chamber. They are reforms that we can all support, as has been pointed out by other contributors in this debate—that is, the major stakeholders that have been consulted, whether that be on the employee side, the trade union movement side or the employer side. Business groups have welcomed these sorts of reforms. We, in the opposition, are very interested and eager to support some elements of these reforms, which are the ones that are being transmitted back to us from the Senate. By supporting the motion that's before us right now, we can pass this new entitlement to Australian workers immediately.
It's very important that this procedural motion is well understood by every member if this does need to go to a division. It probably won't need to, because the workers' party will of course support bringing on a vote to create an enhanced entitlement for Australian workers, and we, through our contributions on this side of the chamber, have indicated that we are very eager to bring on consideration of this bill so that we can support this bill.
I would anticipate that if you're in the Labor Party, if you're from a workers' party, you'll vote for workers' rights. Those who sometimes uncharitably cast aspersions on those of us on the coalition benches about our attitude towards supporting working people are saying that we are eager to support this entitlement for workers. We're so eager we want to bring on the opportunity immediately, which is what this motion calls for.
So I hope we don't need to divide, but, if we do, the very important point is that this question is to bring on an opportunity to immediately pass this through the parliament. This is a bill that's gone through the Senate. If we pass it unamended through the House of Representatives then we can immediately have the parliament create this enhanced entitlement for working Australians. If we divide on this, that means that anyone that votes against it does not want this chamber to take the opportunity to immediately do that. That will be the consequence of anyone not supporting this motion.
There have yet to be speakers against the motion. Hopefully it is the case that this parliament will welcome the opportunity to immediately address this important reform. It is one that the government say they want to legislate. They have it in a bill that's already been through this chamber and is now sitting in the Senate. The Senate has sent this specific legislative instrument back to us and said, 'When it comes to this particular principle around redundancy entitlements, let's get on with this. We may or may not be happy with some of the things in another bill that's already been through the House and is in the Senate.' That's a matter for the Senate and nothing to do with us. But I take the hint from the Senate that they're sending this bill to us so that we can get on with the opportunity of legislating this important change to improve entitlements for workers that would be impacted from redundancies under the small-business trigger—one that's got complete support.
So I urge the chamber to support this opportunity by voting for this motion to bring on debate. If there are members that don't like this reform then they shouldn't be frightened of having a debate and making those arguments in the chamber, which we can do forthwith. But we have an opportunity to vote to bring this forward. I urge the chamber to support that opportunity.
I, too, rise to support this important motion, because there are multiple things that we are seeing happening with this motion. We are seeing another step in the so-called party of the worker walking away from Australian workers. That's what they're doing today. They're making a choice. They had a simple choice today and they had a simple choice last week when the Senate passed this bill: would they support Australian workers or would they play politics with Australian workers? We're not sure what those opposite will do, but I think it's fairly safe to say they'll vote against this motion. That will be disappointing because we, on this side, have sat here for 18 months and heard quote after quote from those opposite about how they're the party of workers, they're here to fight for workers and they care about workers.
They have also spoken a lot about how important this bill is and how urgent it is. The Leader of the House himself said:
The people affected have had enough of being told, 'Can we have a delay?' They've had enough of being told, 'Can we just pretend the issue is about something else?' They've had enough of being told, 'Consultation hasn't been good enough,' even though there has been more consultation on this than on any workplace relations bill in years. People have had enough of those excuses …
He also said:
Members on the government benches are ready to have this debate. We're ready to have this argument. We're ready to close the loopholes.
They were direct quotes.
It appears that there was a little asterisk on 'close those loopholes'; there were only some that they were prepared to close straightaway and there were only some that were urgent. If you work in a small business in Australia, your loophole won't be closed but it could be brought forward and debated right now.
Let's understand, importantly, the environment that we're working in. I've been fortunate to work in and with small businesses throughout my career, and those workers are some of the most vulnerable in our country, because small businesses don't have the cash reserves that large multinationals have and that leaves them exposed. And when small businesses go bankrupt or become insolvent, it is the workers that pay that price.
So it's crucial that we do close this gap. That has bipartisan support. But the timing is crucial. As the Manager of Opposition Business said, the timing on supporting workers in small businesses is more important than ever, because we are undergoing a cost-of-living crisis and it is small businesses that are feeling the brunt of that. In fact, insolvencies and bankruptcies are up across the country.
So, while the government want to play politics with this motion and delay to suit their own agenda, the reality is: the delay will cost the Australian people, because businesses will become insolvent in the gap between when this could be passed and when we finally get a resolution on the omnibus bill. More businesses, every day and every week, are becoming insolvent as their costs go up and their sales go down. That's the reality of what we're dealing with, with this delay.
We can get caught up in the politics of an omnibus bill. It's a pretty standard tactic to put four things which are quite reasonable, and which everyone agrees on, together with controversial measures that need to be worked through. What the Senate has done, to its credit, and what Senators Lambie and Pocock have done, to their credit, is to seek to take the politics out of it and to separate this important initiative, to support those that work in small businesses.
It's a choice for this government. The rhetoric that they espouse about being the party of the workers and the importance of this legislation will be tested. The minister's own words will be tested. Are they going to continue to play politics, or are they going to work constructively with the opposition? We all sit here in question time and hear the Prime Minister and those opposite talk about how we're not constructive, we're not prepared to work with them and we say 'no' to everything. We're saying 'yes' today to four very important motions in this bill that this government could support. We will see what they say and what they do. Ultimately, they will be judged by their actions. Those opposite sit there and preach about being the party of workers. If they vote against this, we will see their hypocrisy and we will see a Labor Party that has lost its way and is no longer the party of the workers. They'll continue to use those words, but their actions today will define whether they actually are a party that's prepared to support workers in small businesses, if those small businesses become insolvent or bankrupt—as we're seeing happen more, in this economic cost-of-living crisis, with small business, unfortunately, bearing the brunt of the challenges. Time matters, and it's important that this legislation gets through, to support those workers.
In the last few days, the Prime Minister has used a particular phase in relation to China. He's often said, 'We should cooperate where we can, and we should disagree where we must.' I think this is a perfect opportunity, in this parliament, in this moment, to take those words into account and actually act on this.
I am a new member of parliament, and, when I ask people what they think of parliament, they think that this is game-playing. They think that we don't come together and focus on the needs of the Australian people. They think that we come here and focus on our own needs and on the political wins that we can have. I think that's why it is so important that we do debate and pass these bills.
This is important because it has a real impact on people's lives, and in very difficult economic times when businesses are starting to fail the protections for people that this particular bill affords are absolutely critical and should be brought in as soon as possible. I don't think anyone in this parliament disagrees that these are protections that are vital and, therefore, we should bring them in.
While politics normally plays these omnibus bills—we put every possible thing in to wedge the other side—I genuinely think that's not what the community asks of us. I think the community asks for us to be sensible, to work together where we can, and where we have to absolutely disagree to do that respectfully and make the strong case of why that is not appropriate.
Simply, I think that these changes are not controversial, that they would help people right now—that is why they are urgent—and otherwise the broader bill has an uncertain future. We're not going to be dealing with it in the other place until at least February, and there are already a number of bills that have reached that place and gone no further. I think the protections that this bill in particular would afford are really important and we should take action on them now.
I commend those in the other place, particularly Senator Lambie and Senator Pocock, for standing up and saying this is the sort of sensible reform that the government should pass and the parliament should pass today. Thank you.
Thank you to colleagues who have contributed to this debate on the amendment. I would like to single out the member for Wentworth. I, too, am a new member, and often people will stop us and say: 'Why do you fight all the time? Why do you disagree? Why do you just yell at each other?' You say, 'Whether it's in a committee or in motions like this, there are opportunities for us to show otherwise,' and this is an opportunity for the government to show otherwise.
We hear often, as a rhetorical device, that we don't want the Americanisation of Australian politics, or people will say, 'That's a Trumpian tactic that you're taking,' or use that as a pejorative. We see it again and again, and it's more often directed at this side of politics. If we're going to reflect on some of the things that are superior in our democracy compared to the United States' democracy, one is avoiding lumping things in omnibus bills. For anyone who's a student of the US Congress, quite often they will have acts that will have had more time spent on studying and writing the headline than they will for the content, many of which will go to thousands of pages. I urge anyone to look at the Inflation Reduction Act. It's a great title; we all think inflation should be reduced—in fact, some think it should be reduced more urgently than others. But, within that, there's an extraordinarily long list of other items that have nothing to do with the title. That's what the government has done here. They have lumped in some items that have broad support, that any reasonable person would agree need to be done, and then built in a legislative straw man.
We know that a strawman argument is a weak argument. It's an argument that seeks to misrepresent. It builds something up and says, 'Here are the things that reasonable people can agree on that are a part of this bill, and, therefore, in opposing this omnibus bill'—so you can single out the reasonable parts—'I'm going to tear you down for that.' I'm going to tear down the strawman argument.
Strawman arguments are tricks. They're dishonest. They seek to misrepresent what the actual debate is about. And it's not just a debating tool. I know the minister has a very distinguished record as a debater, and I admire his performances here, but, when we come to this place and we seek to practice our democracy, straw men should have no place in this building, in this room, because we should be as legislators able to focus on the specifics of the problem that we're trying to solve and actually address those, agree where we can and disagree where we don't. Again, this was well put by the member for Wentworth.
Credit to the Senate, as the Senate has sought to tear down your straw man. They've sought to pull it apart and say, 'Here are the reasonable bits that we can agree on.' You, the government, have said this is urgent, and the member for Casey quoted you. And again, with a great rhetorical flourish, the government came in here and pointed the finger at us and said, 'Are you really going to stand up and say that you disagree with these reasonable things?' No, we're not. We agree with you. We agree on the four parts which have been pulled apart from the straw man.
The one that has come up first is the small business redundancy exemption. This is really important, and it clearly is a loophole that needs to be addressed; we agree with the government. They said it was urgent and that it needs to be brought on. So the question is then put back on them: will you vote against this reasonable proposal? Will you vote against the very thing you said needs to be fixed and should be brought forward now?
We shouldn't have straw man arguments brought before this House. It is a feature of democracy in the United States, and I always think that Australian democracy is far better than any other on earth. So let's maintain the practice we have of having the description of the bill match the content of it and the problem we're trying to solve. This is certainly one of those opportunity.
I rise in support of this amendment to the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023. Several of the measures in this lengthy fair work legislation are uncontroversial—indeed, they're to be applauded. But I made it clear to the minister some weeks ago, and repeatedly since, that the uncontroversial elements of the bill should not have been included in what I would describe as portmanteau legislation.
All governments do it and, okay, I'm relatively new here; but I think it's disrespectful to the parliament and that it gets in the way of considered discussion of major policy initiatives and changes. None of us is elected by our communities to waive through really comprehensive changes to legislation without thought and scrutiny. I thank senators Pocock, Lambie and Tyrrell for their efforts to have the uncontroversial and, indeed, I believe, urgent elements of the bill debated separately in this place. This is the crossbench acting in the interests of the entire parliament, and the government should take up the invitation and debate these urgent measures in the House immediately. Those are: the proposal to make it easier for AFP officers, paramedics and firefighters to claim for PTSD; measures to protect victims of domestic violence from being discriminated against in the workplace; and—the aspect in this bill—to protect redundancy payments for workers who have been working for a larger business that has only technically become defined as a small business due to insolvency. And there are also the measures to bring silica in line with asbestos under the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. These are all measures that I believe require and deserve implementation without delay.
In this, I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Jacqui Lambie: if these elements were separated from the bill they could be resolved immediately and without being subject to what would be a lengthy and complex debate, and a Senate inquiry, which would result in an undoubtedly markedly different bill by the time it passed into law. In this, I would again say to the government that chucking everything, including the kitchen sink, into one piece of legislation is not good practice. It's a political wedge approach and a deliberate habit of the major parties which means either voting for a bill that is in some way flawed or against a bill that has its positives. Neither is a great way to do business.
The government argues that passing these bills before a Senate inquiry reports in February is not good process. There's some irony in that, given that the crossbench raised this exact point with regard to being placed in a position where we would have to debate and vote on a flawed omnibus bill before the inquiry reported. I am in favour of this amendment.
I rise to support this amendment brought by the Manager of Opposition Business. This amendment proposes that we in this House now debate the private senator's bill, the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023, which has come down today from the other place.
In general, the bill concerns the government's very large omnibus legislation dealing with fair work. The bill that is the subject of this amendment, however, has seen the Senate, very sensibly, extract four elements from the government's very lengthy omnibus legislation and propose that those four pieces be dealt with today. The omnibus legislation, as we know, provides a whole series of controversial measures that the government knew the opposition was never going to support, but wrapped into that are various measures we do support. I commend the motion brought by the Manager of Opposition Business because those four elements that the private senator's bill has sought to extract are four elements that we on this side support. We support this for workers' protection, and in particular we note that small business and the business community generally also supports these proposed amendments. They go to four separate issues: first of all, supporting first responders to cope with PTSD; secondly, changes specifically related to people who are suffering from silica diseases that have been caused in the workplace; thirdly, supporting those in the workplace who have been the victims of domestic violence—these are all very important measures we support.
In view of the comments that were made by the minister for industrial relations when this legislation was first brought before the House, I would imagine that those on the government side will also be supporting this motion. They have said over and over again how important it is that workers' rights are protected, and the private senator's bill will, if passed today—and it can be passed today—ensure those workers' rights are protected.
If we can just go back through a bit of the history of this matter: at the time of introducing the bill, the minister for industrial relations said the House needed to stop delaying because, apparently, we on this side were imperilling the safety of Australian workers. My question is this: will the government today apply that same test? Will it stop imperilling the safety of Australian workers and agree both with this motion and with the legislation? To not support this motion would in fact be a betrayal of Australian workers; that's on the government's and the minister's own test. And it would a betrayal of the very people those opposite claim to always support.
Procedurally, this motion is correct. It is entirely appropriate for the House to determine what matters it considers most important to debate and when to debate them. Given the messages from the Senate contain provisions which would inarguably enhance worker's safety, this is an opportunity to immediately pass these commonsense provisions. It doesn't matter there'll be an argument put that these provisions also exist in the government's omnibus Fair Work amendment bill; when the whole bill comes back before the House, those provisions can easily be omitted during the consideration in detail stage, if the government wishes.
The House must deal with what is currently before it; that is, the private senator's bill—a private senator's bill that we agree would help Australian workers. The government cannot claim that this motion somehow ambushes it and decreases its time to consider the private senator's bill. These bills aren't a surprise. There's already been a vote on them in the Senate, so the government has, in fact, formed a view on them. I congratulate both Senators Pocock and Lambie on doing the hard work to get these provisions through the Senate, and I note that the government did vote against the passage of those bills when they were in the other place.
I think it might be useful, when we consider what the government is proposing to do today, to look specifically at some of the rhetoric that was expressed when the omnibus legislation first came into this place. The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said:
Members on the government benches are ready to have this debate. We're ready to have this argument. We're ready to close the loopholes.
Well, we on this side of the House are today ready to have this debate.
The Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention said:
That is why I am so pleased to see that, in this proposal, first responders will have better support for mental ill health that has arisen due to their work.
Again, we are prepared to have that debate today, and we are prepared to support those measures today.
The member for Canberra said:
Those opposite will moan about unions and whine about processes but just remember what they're really worried about. They're really concerned about workers getting a fair go.
We are also concerned about workers getting a fair go, and we are here today to demonstrate our concern and to vote on that concern to ensure that workers do get a fair go.
The member for Corangamite said:
Safe and fair working conditions are one of the foundations of our Australian working life. These conditions give workers and their families a sense of security, hope for the future and the basis on which to build a productive and meaningful life.
I would assume, based on that sentiment, that the member for Corangamite will be voting in favour of the motion today.
The Assistant Minister for Social Services said of the closing loopholes legislation:
Very importantly, it makes it unlawful to discriminate against an employee that has been or continues to be subjected to family and domestic violence.
I would imagine that the Assistant Minister for Social Services will be, similarly, supporting this motion today.
To conclude, this is a sensible motion. It provides an opportunity for the government to demonstrate that it does truly support the safety of workers in Australia, by voting for this motion to bring the private senator's bill forward and for the sensible provisions of the government's omnibus fair work amendment bill to pass—and that could pass today.
I rise to support this motion because, if there is the opportunity for the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023 to be debated, voted on and supported, we could immediately be providing protections for workers with respect to small-business redundancy, so that large employers could not downsize to the small-business threshold of below 15 employees. Without doing that, we are not providing that protection, so really there is a sense of urgency.
This is about whether we want to do the right thing collectively with what is before us right now or whether we accept the government's position that the bill be in their name entirely, on the assumption that the legislation as a whole that's currently in the other place, is supported. Who knows? We actually could be in a position where that bill in the other place might not be supported and these protections might never be provided. That's what we have to think about at the moment—not about political game playing and who wins, but about exactly what is before us and the merit of what is before us. That is why I support this motion.
I think it is important for the government—and incumbent on them—to actually put the needs of these workers first, before their political game playing and before what they see as this whole situation not unfolding according to the political plans they perhaps had. So I'd like all of us in this chamber to consider supporting this motion. Let's debate this now. Let's put the people of Australia first, including the people who would be affected by this redundancy measure and the people who are already being affected by this redundancy measure. Let's think of them and put their protections before the politics of this place.
We can do better. I would urge the government to reconsider their position and to support this motion. Let's urgently debate this piece of legislation that has come down from the other place, because it is a matter of urgency. We have four bills before us today. Each of them include measures that are not contentious and are broadly supported right across the parliament. Let's do the right thing, let's do the commonsense thing and let's all come together for the people of Australia ahead of political pointscoring and political game playing.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I've been absent from the parliament for the last six weeks because I've been in the UN. I was relishing the opportunity to come and speak on this issue because it is something that is very near and dear to my heart. I thank the Manager of Opposition Business for bringing this very important amendment to this chamber.
I'll talk a little bit about the building industry in a moment, but before I do that I need to say that my heart sank when the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations just left the chamber. My heart sank because I was thinking, 'There are a lot of things I disagree with him on, but at least he's in here listening to the arguments.' He's back—excellent. I am very heartened by that. Minister, I hope you don't leave again, because I really want you to listen to this.
The building industry is the second-largest employer in the country. As some of my colleagues in this chamber will know, it is a sector that I have been involved with for 35 years. I started my working life as an apprentice carpenter. I then became a builder. I then went back to school and did a law degree and practised in construction law for 16 years. I have had 35 years in the building industry. It has been very good to me and it has been very good to many Australians, but the building industry is going through a very difficult time right now. If the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023 does not pass today, it will make life even more difficult for the hundreds of thousands of people who are working in the building industry.
It is in fact a very large part of the economy. It represents some 10.4 per cent of our GDP. Because I used to be on the tools myself I know that many people in the building industry around the country will be listening to parliament right now because they are good, decent citizens who want to take an active role in our democracy and really enjoy listening to parliament. They're going to be wondering what this is all about.
The government introduced the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Closing Loopholes) Bill 2023. It's an omnibus bill. There are a lot of things in it that we disagree with. The Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023 has come to this chamber from the Senate. To their credit, Senators David Pocock and Lambie have effectively hived out the less contentious issues. One of them is the small business redundancy exemption. We on this side of the House think it's really important—and I would have thought that those on the other side of the House think it's really important too, because it is their bill.
For those listening at home or at work, the bill we are dealing with today is a private senator's bill that ensures that employees do not miss out on redundancy payments merely because their employer became a small business as a result of bankruptcy or insolvency. I don't in any way seek to take away from the gravity or importance of this issue, but it reminds me of the building industry joke: 'How do you make a small fortune out of the building industry? You start with a big company.' That's the reality.
There are so many pressures on the building industry right now that building companies are closing down left, right and centre. There are many pressures being brought to bear by the cost of living that this government has brought on: trades are in short supply; materials are incredibly expensive; the price of steel, concrete and timber has gone through the roof; and, sadly, more than two construction businesses in this country are failing every week. That is having a significant impact, obviously, upon their employees. Some businesses are small, but others are very large, and the carnage being reaped upon construction sector workers across this country is very, very significant.
I would have thought that, for a party that prides itself on allegedly being the party for the workers, it would have come in here today and said: 'Fair go; no worries. These are relatively uncontentious provisions. They're from our bill. We'll support them.' To date, to be fair, we don't know how the government is going to deal with this. Do you know what? I have this sneaking suspicion that they're not going to support it. It would be a source of great shame not just for the minister but for all those members opposite who pride themselves allegedly on being the party for the workers--and, here we are, the crossbench and the opposition in the Senate support it, and we support the extraction of the less contentious issues. But I want to focus on the small business redundancy exemption. Hopefully, with a bit of luck, I'll have an opportunity to talk later today about the other three bills.
I appreciate that, Minister. If this bill passes today, it will provide assistance to everyday working Australians, not just in the construction sector but particularly in the construction sector where people are hurting badly. They're not just hurting because businesses are failing. They're hurting because electricity has gone through the roof. They're hurting because rent has gone through the roof. Everything is up. The reality is that businesses are regrettably, very sadly, falling over, and none so more than in the construction sector. So I call upon the minister to reach deep, deep into his soul and heart and try and convince his colleagues, none of whom have spoken on this today—not one has spoken on this today.
The minister can be very eloquent. Hopefully, I will get a chance to repeat his words to him very shortly. He can be very eloquent. I know that he can bring his colleagues around to support this bill because I know that in his heart of hearts, however hard it is to reach down there, he does believe in the importance of looking after workers and that this bill will provide assistance where, if it doesn't pass, it may not.
The reality is that we can do this today. My understanding is that, if we don't do this today, we're talking about next year at the earliest. What about all of those businesses that are failing between now and next year? What about all of those employees who could potentially miss out on redundancy payments? It makes absolutely no sense for the government to stand on—I don't know what they're standing on on this issue, to be quite honest—other than politics.
I call upon the minister, I call upon the prime minister and I call on every single member opposite: don't play politics with this issue. Remember the workers and remember your union members who will ultimately be impacted. They will suffer if you don't agree to this today. It's very simple. There's no contention here. You supported these provisions. You introduced these provisions. You should support them today to provide assistance to everyday working Australians today.
I am honoured today that I am able to speak on the Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Small Business Redundancy Exemption) Bill 2023. It means a lot to the people I represent within the great electorate of Braddon in the north-west, on the west coast and on King Island in Tasmania. In doing so, I also bring to the floor 18 to 20 years of experience as an agricultural contractor. I employed at one time up to 28 employees, some of whom were contractors themselves in their own right. The reason we did that was to allow them flexibility and the ability to operate within the legislation that existed. They could choose their own path forward. They could pick and choose which direction they wanted to take their own businesses. They could allow their families to have flexibility as far as lifestyle choices were concerned. They could take a week off and take the family camping, fishing or whatever great pursuit they wanted to do in the great state of Tasmania. It allowed them the flexibility.
The other thing it did was allow them flexibility around capital. When you're starting out in a contracting business, there are many overheads that need to be paid for. That all requires money, and normally it requires debt. It's a hell of a risk when a young person or a young couple start a business in the construction industry or in the agricultural sector. They have to take a path on which they have never trodden before. It's the unknown in a lot of cases. At least having flexibility, the ability to control one's own destiny, allows them the confidence that they need to, firstly, go about taking up that new pursuit. Secondly, once you start borrowing capital, again you are at the mercy of your own work ethic when it comes to paying that debt back. Debt for me as a small-business operator was like a noose around my neck. I could never really breathe easily until that debt was paid off. It's those contractors, it is those mum and dad businesses, that I'm talking about today. I do so, as I said, from experience.
When it comes to this amendment in this particular bill, as far as I'm concerned, it's a no-brainer. I recently visited the Master Builders Association in a place called Devonport on the north-west coast. They told me with great vengeance and furious anger how much disappointment they had about your bill, Minister. I'm sorry to bring that terrible news from Tasmania, but they are not fans. The pertinent point they had on this particular part of the legislation is that unscrupulous operators could manipulate the legislation in order to rip workers off.
Let me talk to you about that for a second. Let me talk to you about the wrong impression that some people, particularly on the other side, have in relation to employers, people who employ people. I can tell you from experience that most of the people that I represent fit into this category. They would give their right arm and their right leg for their employees. I know in my particular case I would treat them like my own children. I knew full well that, if I didn't, I wouldn't have a business. I knew that the money that I paid them each week would go a lot further if they were willing to do their utmost for me. It was a mutual arrangement. At Christmas time, I used to kill a cow and cut into all the cuts, and I would give that to the families. They would put those in their freezers and that would feed some of those families for most of the year. I didn't charge them for that. I could have bought them a gold watch or given them $1,000, but where would that have gone? Instead, I decided to do something that looked after their families.
I can remember lending my employees money to buy their first homes, and they could pay me back whenever they liked. I remember one particular fellow had trouble with his daughter, who had a peculiar illness that needed specialist work in Melbourne on the mainland. I paid for that. I just said to that young bloke, 'You can pay me back when you get a chance, tiger.' And he certainly did. He was with me until the time I sold that particular business. The point I'm making, and the reason I'm telling you these stories, is that 99.9 per cent of our employers out there care very deeply about their people. I want to make that very clear here today. This particular amendment goes to augmenting, supporting and reinforcing that so that unscrupulous operators, as I've said previously, don't have the opportunity to rip off their workers.
When it comes to the small-business capital that is the north-west coast of Tasmania—and, just on that, the way Tasmania works is that, geographically, it's shaped like a funnel. The money is earned up the top in places like Bass and Braddon, and then it trickles down south and ends up in Hobart. Who knows what they do with it down there! But, nevertheless, the north-west, the west coast and King Island are the engine room of our small-business economy. These aren't big businesses, they're small- to medium-sized businesses—mum-and-dad businesses. They're sole traders and partnerships; people who get in and have a go. The point I'm making about difficult parts of legislation, when something like an omnibus bill turns into legislation, is from my own particular case. Normally, it's my wife who would look after that, who would sort through that legislation and do all the paperwork while I was busy in the truck or the tractor, or doing something manual. However, when my wife has to do that then that's 50 per cent of the business taking it's eyes off the road; 50 per cent of the business stops being effective and now has to concentrate on copious amounts of litigious protocol just to go about the business and do the job.
The other thing that weighs on the hearts and minds of my small-business operators is the punitive arrangements if you make a mistake. Invariably, that's what happens in small business: mistakes happen. There may be a number filled in the wrong column or an error that's made. The mens rea—the criminal intent—isn't necessarily there. So we need to have provisions within this legislation and this compliance which allow for mistakes to happen. I would rather an outcome-driven philosophy where we tell people how they can do something rather than tell them what they can't do. This is exactly where we're coming from here with this particular amendment. It's exactly the premise and rationale we had when we put this up: that we look after our small-business operators—we give them confidence and we allow them the flexibility they need to go about their business.
Again, what those opposite need to understand—what everybody in this place needs to understand—is that business is tough. We can start talking about the cost of living, but it isn't just that; it's the cost of doing business as well. Everything small-business operators touch, everything they're involved in, has gone up exponentially when it comes to the cost of living and inflationary pressures. We can talk about the cost of energy or the cost of fuel, or we can talk about primary production costs that are passed down through the supply chain to the end user. Or we can talk about the isolated nature of Tasmania—the fact that it's an island some nautical miles south of the mainland, requiring extensive shipping costs in order to get freight there and to get product from the farms and primary production regions onto the mainland itself. It's an expensive place to do business.
The other thing that happens, particularly in my region, is that there aren't necessarily the support mechanisms for contractors and small-business owners. They can't simply go to a lobby group, a support mechanism or someone who looks after their particular industry because they don't have the scale and critical mass necessary to have that support measure. Often, they're by themselves and don't have that support. As far as I'm concerned, that's what my job is. I'm there to support them. I'm the bloke who they ring and who they trust. And they've rung me and told me—and they've looked in my eye and said—that they don't like this bill, particularly this part of this bill, and that this amendment will certainly go a long way to remedy that. It will support our workers and put the focus back onto the workers, where it really should be.
I rise to support the amendment by the Manager of Opposition Business. I see the minister opposite in the House. It's pleasing to see that the minister has stayed in for the duration of this debate, so I thank him for that.
I think this motion is a good test for the government. We have seen the crossbench and the coalition support the private senators' motion by Senators Pocock and Lambie in the Senate last week to split out the noncontentious components of an omnibus bill which has plenty in it that scares many in the business community. I think it's incumbent on us in this place, as I think the member for Warringah outlined in her contribution, to work together and identify those bits, in a very, very large and ominous piece of legislation, that have support in our community.
This particular portion of the bill, the small business redundancy exemption portion, is exactly the piece of legislation that we, right across this chamber, should agree on and support, given that those opposite, as other contributions to this debate have outlined, are supposedly the party for the worker. This particular piece of the omnibus bill seeks to prevent large businesses from using entering administration to avoid paying redundancy payments to their employees. I don't see any reason why the government would oppose this private senators' motion and not support it, given that their stated aim is to represent employees right across our great country.
On that basis, I support the amendment by the Manager of Opposition Business to bring this particular bill on for debate immediately, because we've heard those opposite, in various comments, outline numerous times how important it is that this legislation get through this parliament. Here is an opportunity for the parliament to work on a bipartisan basis to support a key piece of the legislation, to ensure that one of those loopholes that this bill is supposedly seeking to close is closed. The coalition stands here fully in support of achieving that objective.
As we look at the importance of this piece of the bill, we know that we have seen, as the member for Fisher has rightly pointed out, large businesses enter into administration in the building industry. I saw that with my father, who was a ceramic tiler, over many years. It's not the first time it's happened. It's not the contractors of these businesses who'll miss out—well, they will miss out by these businesses going into administration, but, importantly, this piece of legislation refers to the employees in those businesses who might miss out on their redundancy entitlements as a result of that business entering into administration.
It's not just in the building sector we see this; we see it across other parts of the economy as well. We see medium to large businesses, that are presently not classified as small businesses, enter into administration and fall below that threshold and then use those provisions to avoid paying their due entitlement. It's one of the bits of the legislation that closes a good loophole to close. I would ask the government, in the spirit of bipartisanship—and the manager of government business frequently says that we are the 'no-alition'. Well, we're being the 'yes-alition' in this case, supporting a piece of government legislation to get it through the House and protect the—