Thursday, 18 March 2021
Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021; Second Reading
I rise to close the debate on the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill 2021. I would like to say thank you to those crossbenchers who constructively engaged with the government in order to come to a resolution today—a resolution that will not only provide greater certainty for those in casual employment and offer them a pathway to permanent employment but also provide greater certainty to all those small businesses across Australia. And I say to the Labor Party and the Greens: shame on you!
In 2020 Australia and the world faced a challenge like no other. COVID-19 caused a health crisis that triggered an economic crisis. It is a fact that, at the height of the pandemic, 1.3 million people lost their job or were stood down to zero hours. The Morrison government made it clear from day one that we were committed to backing the Australian people—
Senator Pratt interjecting—
Senator Pratt interjecting —
At the end of a sitting period, on very contentious issues, I am going to insist that, when I call senators by name, they be quiet for at least a period of time, as a courtesy to their colleagues, if not to me.
As I was saying, the Morrison government made it clear that we would back the Australian people, we would back the employers that give them a job on a daily basis. The Morrison government made it clear that we were committed to putting Australia on the road to economic recovery and prosperity. That is why we brought forward the package of what are modest changes to Labor's failed Fair Work Act.
What I say to the Australian people is this. You have shown tremendous resilience and spirit during these testing times, but, as we know, we are at a critical point in our recovery and, as we navigate ourselves out of the COVID-19 economic crisis, it is our ability to work together to solve complex problems, working in partnership, that is how we will move forward, create jobs and get Australians back to work. In that regard, I note today that the labour force figures for February have come out, and again we saw job creation in Australia. That is a good thing for the Australian people. That is because of the economic framework that the Morrison government has put in place. We also saw the unemployment rate drop by 0.5 per cent. That should not be underestimated. That is a sign that our economic policies are working.
Today as a government we recognise that we do not have the numbers in the Senate. In order to pass legislation, we must negotiate. Again, I thank those on the crossbench who have negotiated openly and constructively with the government. The government today will be proceeding with the passage of schedule 1 of these amendments to the Fair Work Act. Without a doubt, the passage of schedule 1 will provide greater certainty for casuals and greater certainty for small business. Casual workers will be given a greater opportunity to convert to permanent work. That is a good thing for them. I would have thought those on the other side, who always demonise casual work and say it should be permanent, would actually support this change—a clear pathway for casuals to move into a permanent form of work.
But perhaps the most crucial part of what I hope will pass the Senate today is that small and family businesses—and as the minister for small and family business I want to say to the small and family businesses across Australia: the Morrison government backs you every step of the way, and I thank those on the crossbench for joining with us to back small and family businesses every step of the way—if the bill passes, you will be saved from a potential liability of up to $39 billion thanks to the government's removal of the double-dipping loophole. That is a $39 billion potential liability that is faced by small and family businesses across Australia if schedule 1 of these amendments to the Fair Work Act does not pass today. In the event that schedule 1 passes, it will be a significant win for casual workers who perform regular patterns of work and deserve the benefits that flow from permanency—if that is what they wish. It is about providing choice.
But, as I've said, the significant part today is the protection of businesses from the double-dipping back pay claims arising from the Rossato case. This will protect jobs into the future, and that is a critical move as Australia's economy strongly moves out of the economic impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when the economy is recovering, at a time when businesses are hiring more employees—and, again, we look to the employment figures that were released today—yet again we thank the employers across the country. They are the job creators. We put in place the policy framework; they are creating jobs based on that policy framework. But at a time when it is still tough, Labor and the ACTU were willing to let small and family businesses across the country, which we rely on as the backbone of the economy, to be hit by up to $39 billion in a double-dipping wage bill. All that does is say to those businesses, 'You will be forced to close down.'
We will be introducing a clear definition of what it means to be a casual employee. That is because there is so much uncertainty—and there has been for so long now—around the definition. We will provide certainty to that definition. As I've said, we will also give eligible employees a new statutory pathway to permanent employment on a full-time or part-time basis, through a legislated universal casual entitlement. That is a very positive step—casual employment moving through to permanent employment. That is a good thing. And I have to say, last week I was contacted by the Australian Restructuring and Insolvency and Turnaround Association, as I know so many colleagues were. They wrote to me and said this: 'Without the provisions in the bill, we remain very concerned that the failure to address these issues'—the double-dipping issue—'will force a significant number of at-risk businesses into insolvency, especially in the current environment, and at the cost of a massive number of jobs that could otherwise be saved.'
What the government is pursuing today in schedule 1 are changes that will help save jobs. They are changes that will help save businesses. And they will provide, as has been called for for so long now, much-needed certainty. The government will also be moving to allow a new small-claims process, including the ability for the Fair Work Commission referral to be used to settle disputes about casual conversion rights. That is a good thing, and it allows for disputes to be settled efficiently and effectively as small-claims proceedings. Today is all about small business. Today is all about ensuring greater certainty for casual employees across Australia. Today the government will continue to deliver on its job-creating agenda. Again, the government has listened to small business. The government has listened to employees. The government has negotiated with the crossbench. Again, I would like to thank those crossbenchers, who today are putting small business and casual employees in Australia first. On that basis, I commend the bill to the Senate.