Updates on the workplace debate in the Senate

The Second Reading vote on the Workplace Relations (Work Choices) Bill was brought on at 12 noon. The vote passed by 36-34, with all Government Senators in favour, and all Labor, Democrat, Green and Family First Senators voting against.

The debate now moves on to what is known as the Committee Stage, where amendments can be moved and debated. As mentioned here, there is a total of 471 amendments on 155 pages. The 98 pages of 337 government amendments were not provided to the Senate until 11.20am, only 45 minutes before we were forced to start considering them.

Senator Andrew Murray is attempting attempted to get the debate deferred until next week so the Senate Committee can reconvene to consider these amendments. It would only take a single Government Senator to agree with this for it to happen, but I assume he will be he was unsuccessful.

Debate on the amendments will stop for Question Time at 2pm, and then recommence at 3.45pm. After adjourning tonight at 11pm, it will resume tomorrow and be forced to a final Third reading vote at 6pm on Friday.

Because the Bill will be amended in some form, it will need to go back to the House of Representatives, so the final vote to turn this all into law will happen there on Monday afternoon.

Some snippets from the debate so far:

(*) At 1pm, the Government Minister handling the debate, Senator Abetz, informed the Senate that the supplementary Explanatory Memorandum to go with the government’s 337 amendments would “be available about dinnertime tonight”.

(*) Some details of an exchange on whether or not the new Fair Pay Commission will actually be required to be fair:

Senator WONG (ALP, South Australia) (1.21 pm)—I want to ask this first: why is it that there is no reference to fairness in the wage setting parameters of the Australian Fair Pay Commission? Can the government really expect the Australia people to believe that this is about fair pay, despite calling the commission the Australian Fair Pay Commission, when it is not including fairness in the parameters to which this body has regard when it sets the working conditions and wages of Australians?

Senator ABETZ (Tasmania—Special Minister of State) (1.21 pm)—You can have fairness without actually saying it. We have called the commission the Australian Fair Pay Commission because that is in fact what we want it to do. What we would assert is that fairness is implicit in each of the legislative parameters for the AFPC. It is fair to make further inroads into unemployment; it is fair to promote employment and competitiveness across the economy; it is fair that a safety net for the low paid is maintained; it is fair to ensure that juniors, apprentices, trainees and workers with disabilities are competitive in the labour market. Inherent within everything that we are doing is making the workplace a fairer and a more flexible place where people can come to agreements between themselves without having the dead hand of a third party that may well be disengaged from those workers determining their future.

Senator MURRAY (Democrat, Western Australia) (1.23 pm)—On the same point, am I to understand that the minister is therefore saying that the issue of fairness in the Fair Pay Commission’s decisions is justiciable?

Senator ABETZ (Tasmania—Special Minister of State) (1.23 pm)—As I understand it, the answer is no.

(*) a couple of comments on the fact that you may now be required to work on Christmas Day without penalty rates or other compensation:

Senator FIELDING (Victoria—Family First ) (8.55 pm)—I am not convinced that it is right for the starting point for some new people moving into the work force to potentially be having a contract that says they will be working on public holidays as a condition of employment. I think that things like Anzac Day and Christmas Day were never meant to be treated in such a way—certainly not in Australia. I understand the dilemma in that it potentially causes some hindrances to smaller businesses, but I think that, realistically, Anzac Day, Christmas Day and some of those public holidays are sacrosanct, as the Prime Minister said, and I am concerned that this bill undermines that. Most employers will do the right thing, but you only need one to start and all of a sudden it puts pressures on the others, particularly when it comes being competitive and if labour costs are very important to them. I tend to think that the bill is sending the wrong signal to Australian families. Public holidays are family days and, therefore, I am putting forward that there should be another day off for those people. They will get paid on the day and they can take another day off to spend with their families on those particular days.

Senator MURRAY (Democrats, Western Australia) (9.04 pm)—I have appreciated the contribution so far because it has begun to unwrap and expose the issues to their fullest extent. The shadow minister is quite right—the proposition consistently put by members of the government that you can already trade away public holiday benefits has never been accompanied by the qualification that it must be subject to just compensation. The great virtue of the 1993 act and the 1996 act was that they enshrined the very process of compensation through the no disadvantage test, and through common law agreements, statutory individual agreements and collective agreements being connected directly back to award conditions. That is the great virtue of the present system.
One of the reasons I have been so happy that the public holidays matter has been widely debated is that it has exposed a great Australian concern that the pendulum has swung too far…. The virtue of Senator Fielding’s amendment is that he has made it very simple. If you are going to work on a public holiday and you are not going to get paid double time, you can take a day’s leave instead some other time. That is a really simple proposition. You would think that is pretty fair and that they are likely to accept it. The government will not accept it because, in their legislation, there is no guarantee of just compensation. For me, the great benefit of this debate is drawing the line between those who are saying and those who are not saying that Australians are right in starting to resist the 24/7 mentality and the endless emphasis on the corporation and in coming back to the view that we have to start emphasising society, the family, the days off and the days that are valuable. Where have we got to with this? We have got to this position: Senator Fielding has moved his amendment…..and the government will reject it. The government will be saying that we are going to leave it entirely in the hands of employers to be fair in this matter, and that is not good enough. Not all employers are fair. You acknowledge it continually in your answers. Everyone has heard it 1,000 times. There are wonderful employers, but we know there are some bad eggs. This amendment protects people from the bad eggs.

The amendent regarding public holidays was voted on at 10.45pm and lost 33-34, as all government Senators voted against. (I’m not sure why the vote difference was 1 instead of 2, which is what it should be when all cross benchers vote – I presume there was a glitch in the pairing arrangements)

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  1. Andrew, as a random citizen who’s only visited the Senate for school excursion, I only wonder how can you stand this kind of disgusting anti-democratic maneuver without throwing things at people?

  2. If this is democracy at work then I predict that democracy is doomed to come to a dismal end. I would suggest that rather than operating as a democracy, Australia is currently under a benign dictatorship, run primarily to benefit the interests of big business and international traders. Goodbye “Lucky Country”, hello … (substitute any of your favourite 3rd world countries), with no insult intended to any other country.

  3. Why the hurry?

    The situation is absurd. People make submissions, and it seems to me they are not read. People sign petitions, and they are ignored.

    For this legislation, we are not even given the courtesy of a full, detailed explanation for the proposed change. Let us not forget the blatant lying, and misuse of public money that went into promoting party political propaganda.

    If this is not arrogance, I do not know what is. Furthermore, it is arrogance combined with class war.

    What part of this process is democratic?

  4. wmmbb:

    The democratic part is that the majority of Australians prefer a government that ignores the sort of people who make submissions and sign partitions. The authoritarian tendencies of our friends the aspirational Australians are quite alarming at times, but certainly do not go without democratic representation.

    This government are doing exactly what their electorate would have them do. The problem is in the suburbs, not the parliment, and has been steadily building for years. And it’ll go on until Howard quits or a recession hits us. Depressing, eh?

  5. I disagree with you Dan, I do not think it is the fault of the majority of Australians. I believe that we have a democratic culture, of which we might be proud. Of course, any sweeping generalization of this nature is never true for minorities, which unless they are swing voters in marginal seats, as you suggest, would not matter.

    The issue here is that Howard can control the votes of his party in both houses in a way that no previous Liberal Prime Minister has been able to do. At least by memory, there were always dissident Liberal senators, and this seems no longer to be true.

    Subject to correction, I attribute this fact to top of the line voting for Senate elections, which by this theory makes Liberal, as much as Labor senators dependent on party pre-slection.

  6. The IR legislation is a perfect example where Australia stops being a democratic society and becomes a capitalist society. Unfortunately, unlike the U.S. we can’t petition a vote of no confidence in out locally elected member of parliment for a by-election. Universal sufferage is going to become a grim reality for a majority of Australians under the current government until at least the next election.

    Since gaining control of the Senate, we have seen a rash of draconian legislation being pushed through but is this a case of getting the worst of it out the way first or is it testing the waters for worse to come? The later doesnt bear thinking about.

  7. re paul you are spot on
    Universal sufferage is going to become a grim reality for a majority of Australians under the current government until at least the next election.
    lets just hope that interest rates dont move 1% or we are really in trouble .
    australians lost democracy when they gave the govt the senate.

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