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Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 – Second Reading

27 August 2014

 

Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (09:05): Furthermore, employers also have rights, including a right to go about their business without unnecessary disruption or unfairly imposed costs. Right of entry under the current act is not fair to employers because it places unfair demands and unfair financial imposts on them. These are in the form of an obligation on employers to pay the cost of transport for union officials to remote work sites as well as the cost of their accommodation. This has created an employer funded, union-boss joy-ride scheme. There is much evidence that this abuse, and abuse it is, in the spirit, in the act and even in the word. When the CFMEU national president Joe McDonald ignored a request to leave an iron ore site in Western Australia because he did not have a right-of-entry permit, he replied, ‘I haven’t had one for seven years and that hasn’t [expletive] stopped me.’ Consider also the costs of transport and accommodation required for the excessive and disruptive right-of-entry visits to the Pluto project and the BHP Billiton plant. These are costs imposed on all businesses where unions demand right of entry. This hardly constitutes fairness.

Labor implemented the current right of entry after its election win in 2007. This, however, is utterly inconsistent with undertakings made by the then deputy opposition leader Julia Gillard, when she promised on multiple occasions prior to the 2007 election that there would be no changes to the union right-of-entry laws existing at the time. This is another broken promise. It is not fair and it is destructive of the common good of all. A weakened economy harms workers, families and communities. It harms the weakest and the most vulnerable. This is not consistent with coalition values. I trust the members opposite will recall the promises made by their former deputy leader, later leader and Prime Minister, and will remain true to their values of supporting the weakest and the most vulnerable.

The current Fair Work Act is not fair because unions currently have power of veto over greenfields agreements. Removing the obligation for them to negotiate in good faith and without delay, the union power of veto over greenfields agreements has allowed unions to refuse to reach any agreement until their demands for what can only be described as impractical, unrealistic and unsustainable wages and conditions are accepted. The current act does not ensure that vital new mining or construction projects are not unduly delayed and that investment is not threatened by protracted greenfields agreement negotiations. This is not fair to businesses, to investors and to shareholders. It is not fair to job seekers, who will not be given opportunities for employment if greenfields projects are delayed or stopped.

When looking at the union power of veto over greenfields agreements, the former Labor government’s Fair Work review noted, in somewhat understated language, that these practices potentially threaten future investment in major projects in Australia. They have already delayed major resource projects worth billions of dollars. This is bad for jobs and bad for the economy, and it is bad for our sovereign risk reputation. It is bad for the unemployed, for job seekers, for their families and for their communities. By not supporting the coalition’s amendments, which are based on the recommendations of Labor’s own review panel and, as already noted, on Labor’s promises, Labor will demonstrate an appalling inconsistency in its supposed support for those it claims most to represent. This bill will remove this union veto power over greenfields agreements and will lead to training and employment opportunities, fair and sustainable wages and conditions for employees, certainty to businesses and investors, and a stronger and more prosperous Australia.

The current Fair Work Act requires that an employee be better off overall under an individual flexibility arrangement, or IFA. The government’s proposed amendments to IFAs do not affect this requirement. In fact, this bill again responds to outstanding recommendations of the former Labor government’s Fair Work Review Panel. These were practical and sensible recommendations. Let me repeat: this bill responds to outstanding recommendations of the former Labor government’s Fair Work Review Panel. These were practical and sensible recommendations.

These recommendations, when implemented via this government’s bill, will make Australian workers better off overall, as the arrangements they reach will be based on their own needs as they, the workers themselves, have assessed them. The workers will have initiative and self-responsibility returned to them by this government, and employers and businesses will reap the benefits of a more satisfied employee. To not implement these recommendations is not fair to Australian workers. To not implement these recommendations is the antithesis of Labor’s stated values. To not implement these recommendations is to not support amendments that will improve individual and common good.

Under the current Fair Work Act, there is a ‘strike first, talk later’ loophole, whereby employees are allowed to strike before bargaining has even commenced. This is an unbalanced and inharmonious approach to enterprise bargaining. Strikes engaged in under such circumstances, where there has been no good-faith bargaining beforehand, are not fair. They are not fair to the business owners, investors and shareholders. As production or services are halted, the very viability of the business may be threatened, and owners and investors may lose their investment and their livelihoods. They are not fair to suppliers to the business and others in the production and distribution chain, as they also lose business and income, and the viability of their own businesses can be threatened. They are not fair to consumers of services or products, as they are deprived of these resources. And they are not fair to the workers involved, both inside and outside the affected business, as they lose income and may even lose their jobs.

Allow me to read the following quotation:

… industrial disputes are serious. They hurt workers, they hurt businesses, they can hurt families and communities, and they certainly hurt the economy.

… employees will not be able to strike … unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining.

These words were spoken by Kevin Rudd in 2007. This government’s proposed amendments will keep this promise made by Labor in 2007. Our amendments will ensure that protected industrial action can only be taken if bargaining for a proposed agreement has commenced.

I have outlined how the status quo with the Fair Work Act is unfair, how it is contrary to Labor’s previous promises and undertakings and claimed Labor values, how it is harmful to the employment opportunities and livelihoods of so many Australians, and how its inequities harm the economy and adversely reach into and leave their mark in every Australian home. The consequences of a failure to change this act via this government’s proposed amendments will be dark and dismal for the economy and, as a consequence, for Australia and every Australian.

However, there is hope, and that hope lies with this government. The amendments put forward by this government will ensure that unions can no longer frustrate enterprise bargaining through unrealistic and unsustainable claims, and unconscionable delays. The amendments will improve workplace productivity and flexibility by enhancing the scope for employees to make individual flexibility arrangements that meet their own genuine and expressed needs. They will deal with excessive right-of-entry visits demanded by combative and uncompromising union officials. They will close the ‘strike first, talk later’ loophole in good-faith bargaining that is so destructive of harmony, productivity and prosperity for all.

Labor have made the promises. We will hold them to their promises. This government will deliver on these promises.