Senator Eric Abetz

Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for Employment
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
Liberal Senator for Tasmania

Address to the Brisbane Club Workplace Relations Special Interest Group, Brisbane

It’s always good to come from the state closest to Antarctica to the state closest to the Equator. Our State Governments are poles are apart as well. In Tasmania we have a tired old Government, compromised by the Greens, who are more focused on advancing a destructive social agenda - no doubt to bring it into line with their economic agenda.

In contrast, in Queensland, you have a strong and effective Government prepared to make the tough decisions to repair the damage of gross Labor mismanagement and protect future generations from the wicked burden of debt.

Briefly, I’d like to pay tribute to three doyens of the workplace relations space who have recently been appointed to the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission, Gary Black, Daniel O’Connor and Minna Knight.

It’s also a nice change to see appointments to an industrial tribunal where being an ex-trade union boss is not a prerequisite like we’ve seen at Fair Work Australia.

Fair Work Act

The Coalition has identified the real and practical problems we currently face; the productivity problems, the flexibility problems and the militancy problems all of which are leaving workers and their employers worse off, as well as our economy which consequentially impacts everyone.

The Coalition has consulted widely and will continue to do so on the important issues and the practical solutions that we should consider in the lead up to the next election. A key part of our policy development has been to consider the submissions and substantiative detail in the multiplicity of reviews taking place this year. (Fair Work Act, Modern Awards, IFA’s, NES)

Despite the skewed terms of reference and “pedigree” of the Review Panel Members, issues that are now widely acknowledged, the Fair Work Act Review, recommended, courtesy of being mugged by stark reality, that:

 

  • Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman should actively encourage more productive workplaces through promotion of best practice model productivity clauses for modern awards and agreements;
  • Changes to the Individual Flexibility Agreements to make them more attractive to both employers and employees including an increase to the minimum term from 28 to 90 days.
  • Changes to the way Greenfields Agreements are reached and provisions for protracted negotiations.
  • Changes to the Good Faith Bargaining provisions of the Act to rectify problems identified in JJ Richards.
  • Changes to the Transfer of Business provisions should be made.
  • Time limits for lodging unfair dismissal applications and general protections claims should be amended to align to 21 days.

 

  • The ability for Fair Work Australia to make costs orders against a party that is unreasonably pursuing a proceeding needed enhancement.

These are all things to which the Coalition has been drawing attention to  for some time - and for which Labor and the union bosses have attacked us.

Now, when stated in a million dollar[5] Government review one hopes the Government will give these issues due consideration.

JJ Richards

The JJ Richards case was a very significant decision in that it showed that the Fair Work Act did not faithfully embody what Labor promised before the 2007 election.

Then Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd pledged, hand on heart, that the Fair Work Act would not allow the return of ‘strike first, talk later’[6]. Yet, this decision clearly shows that it does.

(One wonders if it was this breach of faith that gave Ms Gillard the confidence to pledge that “there will be no carbon tax under a government [she] leads” – right here in Brisbane as it happened during the 2010 election.)

The Federal Court’s judgement confirms that the argument advanced on behalf of JJ Richards was understandable and reasonable but for the specific wording in the Fair Work Act which entitles unions to obtain protected action ballots in circumstances where most reasonable people would argue they should not be allowed.

Labor are yet to tell us whether this was simply a drafting error or Labor deliberately misled the Australian people. It’s their pick but I’m putting my money on the latter explanation.

The Review’s recommendation 31 would make good on the election promise and as such is a step in the right direction.

However, this is just one small step towards fixing the growing militancy problem.

Barclay v. Bendigo Tafe

The High Court’s unanimous judgement in the Barclay v. Bendigo TAFE case found that union bosses shouldn’t be an untouchable class in the workplace.

This decision provides much needed comfort to the employers who have to put up with unacceptable behaviour from some union bosses often on a daily basis.

However, it is highly disappointing and emblematic that Labor intervened in the High Court on the side of the union boss, Mr Barclay, arguing that it actually was the intention of the Fair Work Act to make union bosses untouchable even if they did the wrong thing.

I said emblematic because Labor intervened in Barclay using our taxes to argue for the “poor cash strapped” unions against a taxpayer funded education institution but could not argue for its election commitment in JJ Richards. It seems the transition from union boss to Minister of the Crown is yet to be embraced by Minister Shorten.

I congratulate the Victorian Government on having the courage to intervene on behalf of Bendigo TAFE and for taking a stand against what was an obviously untenable situation.

Individual Flexibility Agreements

The former Minister, Chris Evans, finally identified after two years of denial that the 28-day period where either the employer or the employee could unilaterally cancel an IFA mitigated against their use.

In both of the Illustrative Examples provided in the Explanatory Memorandum in the Fair Work Act, you can see that the 28-day period is a disincentive.

For example, ‘Josh’, the membership consultant at a gymnasium who wants to leave early to coach his under 12’s footy team would, one assumes, want his IFA to be in effect for at least the footy season – including the finals.

The review panel’s recommendation that the 28 day period be extended to 90 days goes some way to providing certainty, albeit at glacial speed.

Some have suggested that IFA’s could last for up to 3 or 4 years – the same length as an Enterprise Agreement – given they are subject to Labor’s own Better Off Overall Test. This means that the IFA has to meet the same high-bar that Labor has set for all other EBA’s. If the employee is better off overall – using Labor’s own test - why shouldn’t employees be able to negotiate with employers an arrangement that fits in with their family or personal commitments that is of benefit to both parties?

I look forward to continuing feedback on this issue.

Queensland Government

I want to acknowledge the new LNP Government which has acted in the genuine interests of all Queenslanders, and not just sectional interests.

To the union bosses (a term which includes Mr Shorten) who say that Mr Newman has done this for fun: let me say “Get real and don’t be so ridiculous”.

Labor in Queensland left this state in dire financial circumstances. As a result hard decisions have been taken to make sure that we don’t have a repeat of what happened in Greece right here in Queensland. But that was Queensland’s trajectory. Queensland was in danger of contract the ‘Eurovirus’.

Those are the kinds of hard decisions that Queenslanders overwhelmingly elected Campbell Newman and his team to take and to deliver.

At a Federal level, just last week Mr Shorten stumbled with yet another half-baked thought bubble when he announced changes to the Transfer of Business provisions in the Fair Work Act to allegedly assist public sector workers who have lost their jobs in Queensland.

The reason I say half-baked is because he left out some key facts:

FACT: Queensland and NSW public sector employees are not covered by the Fair Work Act because successive State Labor Governments decided not to refer powers to the Commonwealth;

FACT: Labor’s Transfer of Business regime leaves workers and employers worse off – something that has been admitted and addressed in Labor’s own Fair Work Act Review.

FACT: Labor’s own modelling projects 4,200 full time jobs to be shed from the Federal Public Service with further modelling showing Federal Labor will cut more than 12,000 employees by the end of 2014-15.

And in Tasmania, the State Green/ALP Alliance is similarly shedding jobs.

In a pathetically transparent manner, Mr Shorten is saying Labor job cuts “good”, Coalition job cuts “bad”.

Here we have yet another example of Mr Shorten being unable to transition from former trade union boss to Minister of the Crown.

The Coalition will give proper consideration to the Bill when it makes its way to the Parliament. But on the face of it, this is just another self-serving announcement.

Queensland Children’s Hospital

Another area where the Queensland Government has shown real leadership is over the Queensland Children’s Hospital in South Brisbane. This dispute that is now in its 8th week is costing Abigroup $300,000 a day. I assume it was Mr Shorten’s busy schedule that prevented him from visiting last week.

This dispute is sending shockwaves not only through the Queensland economy, but throughout our country like the Myer Emporium dispute in Melbourne.

Bill Shorten’s refusal to condemn the actions of CFMEU union bosses who have halted work on the Queensland Children’s Hospital is a failure in his duty of upholding the national interest. His unwillingness to act speaks volumes.

The Queensland Government’s strong stand is reassuring and a stark juxtaposition to Federal Labor’s policy paralysis in this area.

Mr Shorten needs to decide what’s more important: favours for his trade union boss mates in exchange for political donations or stopping illegality to ensure a Children’s Hospital is finished on time to benefit young Queenslanders for generations to come. I think every parent might know the desired priority.

It is disgusting that the CFMEU bosses are deploying tactics including unlawful industrial action and rolling out so-called ‘scab-hunters’ to attack workers who defy CFMEU demands on the construction site of a Children’s Hospital…

…and if you want to know what the employees make of all this, you just have to read the open letter from Grocon Employees in Melbourne during that dispute:

“We have no argument with our employer, and do not support the blockades against our workplaces.

We have been unfairly singled out for abuse, threats and intimidation by the very organisation we pay our Union fees to, in an argument which is not of our doing.

We only ask that we be allowed the same basic rights our Union leadership enjoy, to be free to access our places of work without the lies, threats and abuse, and without fear of reprisals.”

And it’s not only the workers that are disgusted. A Victorian Supreme Court Judge has savaged the CFMEU for their contemptible behaviour in not turning up to court proceedings[1]. The workers see the threats, the courts see the contempt, the public see the ugliness but Mr Shorten and federal Labor struggle to find fault telling the employer to abide by a recommendation of Fair Work Australia but unable to tell the CFMEU to abide by a Court Order.

If elected, it would be one of the first acts of a Coalition Government to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission with all of its former powers.

Penalty Rates

As a state that rightly markets itself on its tourism sector, I know penalty rates are a topic of interest.

We have already made it very clear that, should we be elected, the determination of Modern Awards will stay with the independent tribunal – Fair Work Australia (or whatever it’s called by then).

We don’t believe that the Parliament should be in the business of legislating on each and every Modern Award – rather, that it should provide a safety net and then let the tribunal work out the details.

However, it is important that Fair Work Australia both in the current review and in future reviews takes a common-sense approach.

What we don’t want to see is young Australians in particular being priced out of the labour market. The recent changes to penalty rates have taken a significant toll on the viability of businesses and has seen an adverse impact on employment.

Let’s be clear, lest I be misrepresented, the Coalition has always believed in a fair day's pay for a fair day's work and that workers who are forced to work unsociable hours or long shifts should have that rewarded in their pay. We do believe in reward for effort.

At the same time we are very cognisant of the practical problems being experienced by small business and workers and we encourage Fair Work Australia to take a common sense approach.

But what baffles us is the ham-fisted approach taken by Mr Shorten in his intervention into the modern award review. No change is to be countenanced. Full stop. This is in direct contradiction to Tourism Minister Martin Ferguson’s plea to Fair Work Australia on penalty rates in relation to the tourism sector when he said:

I hope the bench of Fair Work Australia has given proper regard to the input of the tourism industry in this context. Because I understand that is the key issue to the industry at this point in time.

So penalty rates are the key issue and to be taken into account according to one Minister and these matters are to be completely disregarded according to another.

I think I understand why Mr Shorten wants us to announce our policy – so the Government can follow a consistent approach.

Given Mr Shorten has already lifted 3 of our policy announcements and the muddle he is now in, I can understand why he is making that call.

Labor has only ever announced their workplace policy during an election or a few months out from an election.

So Labor’s calls for immediate release by us is another example of Labor demanding “do as they say, not as they do”. Indeed, Labor still hasn’t announced its policy for the election which somewhat dilutes any moral authority they thought they might be bringing to their megaphone.

Conclusion

There are clear, identifiable issues that need to be addressed in a sensible “practical solutions for practical problems” sort of way.

That will be our approach acknowledging we have a three-way duty - to the worker, the employer and the Australian community as a whole.


[5] Answer to Question on Notice EW0051_13

[6] Address to the National Press Club, Mr Kevin Rudd MP, 17 April 2007

[1] Justice Anthony Cavanaugh 

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