Mr. Peter Slipper
Federal Member for Fisher, Federal Government.
Q. Where in the legislation is the guarantee that the AVERAGE AUSTRALIAN worker will not be worse off?
A. Firstly, the Australian Government believes that outcomes are best determined at the workplace level by the people who know the enterprise best – that is, by employers and employees themselves. This means that in general, the legislation does not try to mandate outcomes for the more than 10.4 million employees in Australia. Rather, it focuses on providing decent and fair minimum standards to protect people at work.
So for the first time in federal legislation, workers now benefit from guaranteed minimum wages and key conditions of employment. The guarantee of minimum entitlements includes paid annual and sick leave as well as maximum hours of work. Additionally, all employees in the federal system are protected against unlawful termination and have strong freedom of association rights (the right to join or not join a trade union).
You might be interested to know that many of the types of entitlements which employees enjoyed before the March 2006 reforms continue to apply today. Awards continue to play an important role in the system. For example, where awards provide more generous entitlements than those in the new legislated minimum standards, those award provisions continue to apply. Also, when any of the important protected award conditions such as penalty rates and overtime allowances are modified or removed by a workplace agreement, the workplace agreement will generally be subject to the Fairness Test.
Finally, I think that the legislation should be judged according to its impact on the economy and workers. An impressive 387 500 jobs have been created since the introduction of the workplace reforms in March 2006. There are more people participating in the labour force than ever before with the participation rate at a record high of 65 per cent. The unemployment rate is now at its equal lowest level in over 32 years and real wages have increased by 2.4 per cent since March 2006 and by 20.8 per cent since the Howard Government came into office in 1996.
Q. Why is it that these new laws are so important to the Australian Economy that your side of government is so determined to get the matter passed into law?
A. Laws reforming the workplace relations system are important because Australia needs a flexible labour market to maximise economic growth and employment opportunities and to maintain and improve our living standards in an increasingly globalised economy. Flexibility is also needed to promote labour force participation at a time when the workforce is ageing and many Australians, who are otherwise able to work, are instead relying on welfare.
Indeed, the figures that I mentioned above show that the reforms are indeed helping to achieve what the Government set out to do, which is to ensure that the labour market provides decent opportunities for all Australians to participate.
Q. Where did the push come from to have these laws passed into law?
A. The “push” for workplace relations reform dates back to the 1980s when the Australian economy first began to experience international competitive pressures. Increasingly, all major parties in the Australian Parliament saw the need to shift the focus in the system away from traditional centralised industrial relations arrangements moving towards enterprise bargaining focused on the competitive and productive needs of individual companies.
The first round of reform based on enterprise bargaining was introduced by the Keating Labor Government in 1993. The second round of reform took the form of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 which introduced by the Howard Government and was passed with the support of the Australian Democrats. The third round of reforms came in 2006 when the Howard Government was returned to office with a renewed mandate to create the most flexible and dynamic workplace relations system possible. Indeed, as I outlined above, the most recent round of significant reforms continue the tradition of reforming the labour market in response to larger domestic and global macroeconomic changes. What makes these reforms significant is that they have provided Australian businesses and employees with a national framework to make their own decisions in an increasingly fast-paced economic environment and which provide the flexibility to create better, more innovative workplaces than ever before.
Q. In real terms how can the government guarantee that no worker will be sacked for matters such as "not wanting to sign an agreement" or "not wanting to work extended hours ie sell away holidays" when the employer requires?
A. It is unlawful to dismiss an employee on a number of grounds including refusing to negotiate, make, sign, extend, vary or terminate an Australian Workplace Agreement (AWA). It is also unlawful to dismiss an employee because of their family responsibilities which could be a reason for not wanting to work extended hours.
Additionally, it is unlawful for employers to pressure or force employees to cash out their annual leave, and it is also unlawful to make employment conditional on cashing out of annual leave.
There are strong protections for employees suffering duress in the bargaining process. Existing employees cannot be forced into signing an AWA, and an employer is not allowed to apply duress to force an employee to sign an AWA. However, a new employee may be offered employment on the basis of accepting an AWA. That is not a new development. Employers have always been able to offer jobs to people under whatever industrial instrument – whether AWAs, collective agreements, awards or common law contracts – they believe best suits their individual circumstances.
The Workplace Ombudsman will investigate any attempt to apply duress to an employee signing a workplace agreement and can prosecute any breach of Workplace Relations Act 1996 with regard to coercion.
In addition, the Workplace Ombudsman has a new function to investigate possible breaches of the Fairness Test and, importantly, the prohibition on employers from dismissing employees because a workplace agreement fails the Fairness Test.
Q. In the event that companies make extra profits from this legislation how can the government ensure that the prices of everyday products do not continue to rise as they have in the last couple of years.
A. The workplace relations system has an important role to play in relation to prices. Decentralised bargaining ensures that wage increases are limited to those areas of the economy that are more productive and therefore can afford them. This helps to contain inflationary pressures in the economy and means that wage increases are not passed on to the Australian consumers on the whole in the form of higher prices.
Q. How can the government reconcile the amount of money spent in advertisements pushing this legislation prior to even being introduced into parliament?
A. The Australian Government has made a commitment to provide accurate information to all Australians covered by the workplace relations system. It is the Government's responsibility to make sure that people know how the workplace relations laws work, including what protections are in place for workers.
As the Fairness Test came into effect on 7 May 2007 advertising was essential to ensure employees and employers were aware of the changes and where to go for more information. On Saturday 19 May 2007, Minister Hockey announced a straight-forward advertising campaign to tell people how the workplace relations laws affect them and where they can go if they need more information.
The Australian Government has a duty to provide the Australian public with clear and correct information regarding government policies. Advertising in the national media is the best and most effective way to ensure all Australians are aware of their rights and responsibilities under the workplace relations system.
Q. After all the spent money and changes to the IR scene what guarantees are there that should a change of government be made at the next elections that these laws will not be reversed.
A. There is unfortunately no guarantee that any law will not be reversed if there is a change of Government at the next federal election. What any other future government decides to do with the powers vested upon them is entirely a matter for them.
However, I can speak for this Government. You might be aware that John Howard and Joe Hockey have made it clear that the Government has no plans to introduce further major workplace relations reforms. You might also be aware of the Prime Minister’s statements at the Australian Industry Group’s Annual National Dinner recently where he said that if the Coalition is returned to power, then he believes that the workplace relations reforms will not be dismantled.
Q. Is there any power in these new IR powers that would limit the amounts of remuneration for "Top" executives of corporations in line with lower ranked employees?
Finally, the issue of senior executive remuneration is primarily one for the shareholders and boards of the companies concerned. However, you might be interested to know that data on trends in executive remuneration in Australia, from the Mercer Quarterly Salary Review, indicate that very large payments to senior executives are limited to large high profile companies and are not representative of overall trends in senior management salaries.
Mr. Peter Slipper
Federal Member for Fisher
Location: The Dolphin Centre
118 Aerodrome Road
Maroochydore BC Qld 4558
Phone 07 5443 3555.
Fax: (07) 5443 7270.
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