Release type: Speech


Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013—Summing-up speech, House of Representatives


The Hon Bill Shorten MP
Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation

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When I introduced the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013 into the House of Representatives, I made the point that the Labor Government fundamentally believes that the prosperity of Australia relies largely upon the creation of production value in Australian workplaces. This Labor Government encourages productive, collaborative, innovative, profitable, safe and cooperative workplaces. This Bill and the amendments the Government has put forward reflect these priorities.

Productivity should never be about cutting wages or entitlements. We do not support a workplace relations system that allows important protections be undermined through a 'race to the bottom' brand of flexibility. We understand that the drivers of productivity improvement at the enterprise level are stimulated by innovation and creativity. We understand that engagement at all levels of the enterprise needs to occur not just during bargaining for an agreement or contract once every three or four years but on a day-to-day basis. Engaged employees are productive employees.

Increased productivity in enterprise cannot be achieved if you disenfranchise your employees. If your highly trained employee needs to leave because they have caring responsibilities, or if a worker with a strong track record cannot return to work on a particular day because they need to balance their family arrangements, this is important. On this side of the House we understand that, for the modern family, balancing work and family time can no longer simply be described by the 1960s paradigm of 9 am to 5 pm.

This Bill implements several of the recommendations of the independent Fair Work review panel, and it is the result of extensive consultation with both employer and employee stakeholders during the review and since the review report was published last year. It reflects recommendation 1 of the independent Fair Work review to include in the functions of the Fair Work Commission that it should promote cooperative and productive workplace relations.

It includes new family friendly arrangements such as further flexibility in relation to unpaid parental leave and the right of pregnant women to transfer to a safe job. It provides an expanded right to request flexible working arrangements, including for working parents, workers with caring responsibilities, workers who are of mature age or have a disability, and those suffering from family violence. It provides greater clarity about what reasonable business grounds are for employers considering and responding to such requests.

Our Bill makes it clear that this Labor Government believes in the value and utility of penalty rates by reflecting the Government's position that work at hours which are not family friendly is fairly remunerated. This is done by amending the modern awards objective to ensure that the Fair Work Commission, in carrying out its role, must take into account the need to provide additional remuneration for employees working outside normal hours, such as employees working overtime or on weekends.

This Bill includes new consultative arrangements to recognise that employees have family responsibilities outside work that can be adversely affected when changes to employees' rosters and regular working hours are proposed. Furthermore, this Bill provides for reforms to the right of entry regime in response to the independent Fair Work review panel recommendations, with amendments to better balance the ability of registered organisations to represent their members professionally with the need for employers to go about their business productively.

I regret this, but I often say that the Liberal Party—the Conservatives—cannot be trusted on workplace relations. It is a fact. It is a matter of record. There is ample evidence to support this assertion. There were employees who were ripped off under the last conservative government. There were employees who were sacked for no reason with no compensation under the previous conservative government. There were employers who were promised simpler workplace relations laws and better economic outcomes under the conservatives. All of these businesses and employees were betrayed.

I acknowledge the position of the members for Lyne and New England in seeking through their skills to achieve consensus on workplace relations matters. That has been my approach as well. For as long as I have been advocating for workers in workplaces, I have been trying to find harmonious cooperation between employees and employers.

It has certainly been my approach since becoming the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. We have reviewed legislation and provided the opportunity for all to have their say. We have consulted on policy and we have also provided information to committees reviewing the Government's legislation. As a result we have introduced and passed legislation through this Parliament that has had, and will have, a profound and positive effect on Australian workers and employers.

I wish to recognise and commend the member for New England's comments reported in the media on Wednesday. He said:

This pre-election environment is not conducive to reasonable discussion on industrial relations. People on both sides have retreated to their entrenched viewpoints, with the result that the debate in the House does not have a lot of relevance to the actual content of the legislation.

This, I think, is further evidence that the conservatives on workplace relations are not all they seem to be. There has been misinformation peddled about this Bill and there doesn't need to be. There has been needless fear whipped up about this Bill when there doesn't need to be. This has continued after the opposition spokesperson has been briefed on the Bill by my very professional department—and I should at this point acknowledge their very hard work in preparing this legislation. The Opposition has continued to peddle misinformation about provisions on right of entry that have been introduced into the Parliament not last week but in March of this year.

Despite all of this, the Opposition was writing to the Independent members of Parliament making up stories and fairy tales about helicopter joy-rides, about employers paying for union officials to invade their lunch rooms. The letter actually has a heading called 'The joy-ride scheme'. All of these things are simply untrue. The conservatives know it. Their desire to attack freedom of association and to have unions be able to represent their members knows no bounds. Their only industrial relations policy is to have a royal commission into trade unions. All they wish to do is silence dissent in the community. They will say and do anything.

We have seen this before: when they told employees that their award conditions would be protected by law, or that Work Choices was 'dead, buried and cremated'. I think a better title for their workplace relations policy would have been 'Never let the facts get in the way of a good story'. 'Never let facts get in the way of a good story' should be the description of the conservatives. They are desperately trying to be a small target on industrial relations. They certainly have extremists in their ranks, but the pragmatic—keep a small target before the election, don't tell the voters what's going on, hope they vote for us and don't know what we are actually going to do—faction would appear to be winning in terms of some aspects of their industrial relations policy.

But we have been here before. Before the 2004 election the then Government never revealed Work Choices. They never put it before the people. They simply promoted their existing policies. The rest is history. They got into power and the power went to their heads. They used their numbers in the Senate to pass laws which were just simply bad for people—and there is not a lot of repentance on behalf of the Opposition. Indeed, if you look at the republication of the Leader of the Opposition's book Battlelines, there is a chapter in its called 'Unfinished business'. And would you believe that in the chapter entitled 'Unfinished Business' it talks about Work Choices not being all that bad.

This is a reflection of what has been done before and it is an omen of things to come: broken promises, untruths and outcomes that disadvantage Australian workers. The proposed right of entry changes are sensible and reasonable and they deserve support of the Parliament.

This Labor Government will always stand up for the right of employees to be represented by a union if they so choose and to be represented by their union in the workplace. Those opposite resort to vilifying an entire movement by the actions of a few. It is a shameful and deceitful approach. I have been here in this Parliament for any number of years and I have never heard the Opposition have a good word to say about trade unions. They fail to recognise the trade union movement's advocacy for employees who have lost pay and conditions through Work Choices—for the workers at Ford. Indeed, they fail to acknowledge the work of the trade unions standing up for the victims of asbestos, asbestosis and mesothelioma.

We recognise on this side that in a free and democratic society there is a role for a democratic, independent trade union movement. We recognise the role that trade unions have played in our industrial and social history in the past and also the present. We on this side recognise that in a functioning democracy you do need to have a strong and vibrant trade union movement. Employees do need a voice. They need it in the Parliament, they need in the community and they need it at work. With the best will in the world, sometimes bad things happen to good people and this can happen at work. Work is where we make our living. It is important that people have the right to be able to be represented when they have issues and concerns about their conditions.

The Government will also shortly introduce technical and clarifying amendments, including amendments to clarify the operation of the bullying provisions in respect of members of the ADF, the AFP and our security agencies. Clarifying amendments will explain the powers that the Fair Work Commission currently exercise in conferences.

This does not extend the powers of the commission; it simply clarifies the existing powers. It provides for the transitional arrangements for registered organisations' disclosure and reporting obligations for a limited transitional period, and to clarify the provisions relating to the disclosure of remuneration and reimbursement to avoid unintended consequences with the amendments passed by the Parliament in the last year.

We wish also with these amendments to allow the Fair Work Commission to deal by consent with unlawful dismissal claims and general protection claims relating to dismissal to avoid the complexity and expense of the parties going to court. The commission can only exercise these powers by the consent of both parties. Following discussions with the Fair Work Commission and the Opposition, we also recognise that we should confirm that the commencement of the Fair Work Commission's bullying jurisdiction would be on 1 January 2014.

This Bill reflects the Government's commitment to improving the lives of Australian workers. We are committed to supporting business flexibility and profitability. We support productivity. I would note that, under Labor, in the last seven quarters labour productivity has increased on each occasion over seven quarters. I am pleased also to report that the average of lost time industrial action under Labor has been one-third of that under the Liberals—and, in the construction sector, an even lower rate.

This Bill reflects the Government's priorities. We believe in modest, balanced and pragmatic enhancements to the Fair Work Act to encourage productive, collaborative and clever workplaces. The Bill reflects the Government's priorities to make our workplaces safer, more cooperative and more productive. We provide certainty to employers in key areas whilst ensuring workers, especially those with family and caring responsibilities, effectively participate in the workforce.