The RSL And Services Clubs National Conference Tweed Heads 22 July 2008INTRODUCTIONThank you for that welcome.I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Bundjalung people.And to thank the RSL for the invitation to speak at the RSL Service Clubs National Conference here in beautiful Tweed Heads.It’s always terrific to be associated with Australia’s service clubs. They provide great enjoyment and entertainment for millions of Australians and jobs for many thousands.Not only is every Australian welcome to join, all Australians can afford to join.And of course, they’re run by and for their members to the benefit of past and present servicemen and women and their dependents – and the whole community.This makes service clubs democratic places in every sense of the word – and an important part of Australia’s culture and social fabric.PROVIDING ECONOMIC CERTAINTY AND PROTECTING WORKING AND LOW-INCOME FAMILIESLike all parts of the hospitality industry, our clubs are highly dependent on discretionary family income – especially the incomes of working families.And this means you’re sensitive to the general fluctuations of the economy.This is something we, the Australian Government, are very aware of, especially in the current economic environment.That’s why our economic policies are geared to continuing Australia’s stable economic growth and why maintaining the living standards of working families is paramount in everything we do.Protecting working families is the key to ensuring both that we have an equitable economy and that businesses like yours can maintain their turnover and employment.To achieve this, the federal budget this year contained a $55 billion Working Families Support Package – with tax relief, help with education costs, a Child Care Tax Rebate, help for homebuyers and renters and other forms of assistance.As a result, a typical young family will be $51.54 per week better as a result of the Budget initiatives that kicked in on 1 July.And it’s why we’re maintaining a strong safety net and implementing innovative Social Inclusion policies.As you know through your own community assistance efforts, many low-income Australians need extra help.For pensioners and those unable to work, we’re maintaining the value of welfare payments and other financial assistance. And for those whose disadvantage has deeper causes, our aim is always to give them the education, skills and other capacities they need to reconnect with the mainstream economy. Like you, we’re into community building as well as helping deserving individuals.WORKPLACE RELATIONS REFORM AND PROSPERITYOf course, whilst clubs are great social and community assets, you are also businesses. Therefore you need certainty not only about the economy and the welfare of their customers, but about important business matters like workplace relations.Our workplace relations reforms have been designed to give you this certainty and to promote Australia’s most important economic objective – of lifting national productivity.Labour productivity has been the key to raising living standards in Australia for the last 40 years. It enables businesses to stay competitive domestically and globally and to generate more wealth for employers and employees alike. It is the key to building long-term prosperity. But recently productivity has stalled.Workplace reform is essential to getting it going again.As you know, we went to the last election with a clear intention of replacing Work Choices, including AWAs. And we’ve delivered on that promise.In the Government’s view, we simply have to move beyond the destructive conflict-based model of workplace relations that was Work Choices and instead build a productive new workplace relations system based on promoting consultation and cooperation at the enterprise level.Our intention has never been to tilt the balance unfairly in the opposite direction to Work Choices. It is to put the workplace relations pendulum where it should be – the middle.Australia’s service clubs are all about recognising that quintessential Australian concept of a ‘fair go’ – our workplace relations reforms are built on exactly the same concept.And that’s what we’ve done and what we’re doing.TRANSITION AND MODERNISATIONAnd we’re doing it in a sensible and measured way.On March 2008 the Workplace Relations Amendment – Transition to Forward with Fairness Act commenced operation.The Transition Act guarantees the sensible transition arrangements we committed to before the election, namely:
- Businesses that entered into workplace arrangements in good faith would not be penalised as a result of the new workplace relations system;
- There is a stability in undertaking significant changes to the system; and
- Everyone will have sufficient time to adjust to the changes that will be eventually introduced.
- Preventing the making of any new Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs).
- Providing that Individual Transitional Employment Agreements (ITEAs) are available for those employers who employed a worker on an AWA as at 1 December 2007 to ensure a smooth transition to the new system in which there will be no provision for statutory individual agreements of any kind.
- Establishing a genuine no disadvantage test for workplace agreements to provide better protection for employees.
The Act has also enabled the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to start the process of modernising industrial awards.The modernisation of awards is a key Government objective – and a reform I know many of you – as employers and as an organisation - are keenly monitoring.As you will be aware, the AIRC has identified hospitality as a priority industry for the purposes of the award modernisation process. Public consultations are scheduled before the AIRC for this industry in the second week of August.The Government believes firmly that award modernisation will create a strong and simple safety net to accommodate the flexibility that businesses and their employees both need and expect in the 21st Century.THE NEW WORKPLACE RELATIONS SYSTEMThe new workplace relations system will be fully operational by 1 January 2010.To bring this about, a substantial workplace relations reform Bill will be introduced into Parliament later this year.In the very broadest terms, the new workplace relations arrangements will be a simple, balanced system that allows employers to get on with business and employees to get on with their jobs.Its component parts are straightforward.1. The first is a fair and simple safety net comprising National Employment Standards and modern awards.In the new system, all employees will have the benefit of strong and enforceable protections which can’t be stripped away.Both employees and employers will have the benefit of a safety net that is simple and flexible – easy-to-understand and easy-to-apply.The 10 legislated National Employment Standards announced in June will protect important conditions like hours of work, public holidays and redundancy entitlements as well as annual, personal, parental and long service leave.Importantly these National Employment Standards usher in a new era of family friendly flexibility giving mums and dads the right to sequence their unpaid parental leave so that they can have a parent at home for the first two years of their child’s life. Mums and dads will also have the ability to request a return to flexible and part time work to better balance work and family life. The Rudd Labor Government will also provide $12 million to assist small businesses develop innovative new ways to balance work and family life.Employees who earn $100,000 or less will also be protected by modern simple awards that will contain up to ten other minimum conditions such as overtime and penalty rates of pay.When a collective agreement is made under the Government’s new workplace relations system, it will only be approved by the independent umpire, Fair Work Australia, if it meets or exceeds the National Employment Standards and leaves the employees under the agreement "better off overall" when compared with an applicable modern award.Individual common law arrangements will continue to be available. However, these arrangements may only build on the safety net rather than undermine it.2. The second is collective, enterprise-level bargaining underpinned by good faith bargaining obligations.Employers and employees will be free to bargain collectively, in good faith, without excessive rules and regulations which tilt the balance in favour of one side or the other.Employees will be represented in collective bargaining if they so choose, but they will also be able to represent themselves and reach agreement directly with their employer, if that’s what they prefer.It will be prohibited for anyone to pressure an employee about that choice.3. The third is ensuring that everyone in the workplace is treated fairly and decently and that, when things go wrong, matters can be dealt with quickly and effectively. This will include a simpler unfair dismissal system which balances the rights of employees to be protected from unfair dismissal, with the need for employers, including small business, to manage their workforce, and to ensure a faster, less costly and less complex process for all.The system will also protect employees from unlawful dismissal on grounds such as family responsibilities, pregnancy and disability.There will be strong protections for freedom of association. It will be unlawful to dismiss a person for belonging to a union or for participating in collective bargaining, just as it will be unlawful to discriminate against them for not belonging to a union.4. The fourth is an independent umpire – Fair Work Australia – to oversee the system and maintain the safety net.Our new umpire will be a ‘one stop shop’, to provide practical information, advice and assistance to deal with workplace issues and to ensure compliance with workplace laws. For example, Fair Work Australia would be able to provide employers and employees with assistance and advice as to how they can collectively bargain.Fair Work Australia will also have particular responsibility for encouraging the adoption of family-friendly work practices.And all appointments to Fair Work Australia will be made through a transparent selection process.5. The fifth and final component of the new workplace relations system is strong compliance measures to ensure all participants comply with their obligations under the law and to ensure stability of operations at the workplace. If they don’t, they will face stiff penalties.Under the new system, industrial action will only be protected when taken during good faith bargaining for a collective agreement and only once it has been approved by a mandatory secret ballot. Unprotected industrial action will be dealt with swiftly and effectively. And secondary boycotts will continue to be regulated by the Trade Practices Act. BUILDING TRUST THROUGH CONSULTATIONOur aim is to show the way to a more consultative workplace relations system by practising what we preach. The development of the new workplace relations legislation is being based on genuine consultation with all stakeholders.We’ve established an extensive consultation mechanism that includes all the major workplace relations players, from the largest corporations, to small businesses, to unions and the unemployed. We have representatives of the Australian Hotels Association on our Business Advisory Group, representatives of Accommodation and Restaurants Association and COSBOA on our Small Business Working Group.The Government has made it very clear that we are prepared to:
- Meet with as many people as it takes; and
- Work as hard as we need to;
…in order to achieve our workplace relations goals.It’s what we did to get the award modernisation process underway and to develop the 10 National Employment Standards, which I released last month.There is more consultation to take place before we can settle our new workplace relations system.But one thing you can be sure of is that the changes will be sensible and will be considered in the light of feedback we receive.Most importantly, our changes will reflect the values of the Australian people.CONCLUSIONI want to conclude with this point.As we strive to create a stronger national economy – and especially to ensure the gains from the resources boom continue well into the future – we need a comprehensive approach to modernise our economy and utilise the skills of every Australian. The Government has a massive investment plan to do just this.But:
- No matter how much we invest in human capital …
- No matter what new infrastructure we create …
- Or what regulatory reforms we guide through the Council of Australian Governments …
… if we as a nation fail to get workplaces operating at maximum efficiency, we will fail to maximise national productivity and reach our full economic potential.The workplace relations system we are ushering in, in consultation with bodies like yours, will help us achieve this important economic goal.It’s a massive opportunity for Australia and one to which we must rise if we are to continue to increase national prosperity and provide all Australians with the high living standards they deserve in the coming decades.Thank you.