FAIR WORK (COMMONWEALTH POWERS) AMENDMENT BILL 2018
Mr PEARSON (Essendon) – I am delighted to join the debate and make a contribution on the Fair Work (Commonwealth Powers) Amendment Bill 2018. The reason why this bill is before the house is that it seeks to ensure that there is a level of consistency amongst public sector workers within the state of Victoria. Acting Speaker Spence, you and I are both of an age and of a vintage where we would remember that there were state-based awards for a lengthy period of time, and we do recall when these matters were referred on to the commonwealth with the election of the Howard government back in 1996. The arguments at that time were to try to have a more centralised and nationally consistent approach. There were plenty of opportunities for the former Kennett government to hand those powers over to the commonwealth prior to 1996, but they chose to do so following the election of the Howard government. What has occurred since that initial referral has been the passage of the Fair Work Act 2009.
We have gone from an environment, going back to the 1970s and 1980s, of centralised wage fixing with award wages for industries to allowing workplace agreements. The argument for that change in policy has been to look at finding ways in which an industrial instrument can be created and tailored to the needs of an individual workplace, ensuring that that individual workplace can have certain trade-offs and benefits that are particular for that individual workplace. That has been the position that has been held by both sides of politics now for decades. There has been an appreciation and understanding that empowering individual workplaces and ensuring that an industrial agreement can be agreed upon, often with union representation, can lead to a set of circumstances where you have got a satisfactory industrial relations environment.
The High Court back in 2015 expanded the scope of the commonwealth to include a whole range of other issues. As I understand it, public sector entities, known as constitutional corporations, have always had certain rights that can be ascribed to them. But as a consequence of a High Court finding in 2015 you could have a set of circumstances where a public sector employee in a constitutional corporation can bargain for and advocate for and receive certain benefits which would not be attributable to other public sector workers who are in non-constitutional corporations. This bill tidies up that anomaly.
I listened to the contribution by the member for Ovens Valley. He talked about the costs associated with the implementation of such a bill as one of the opposition’s reasons for opposing it. My response to the member for Ovens Valley is very simple. Where you have got a consistent industrial relations framework across the Victorian public sector it leads to a far more efficient development and delivery of an industrial relations instrument because it enables public sector industrial relations practitioners, who will invariably traverse the public sector, to know that regardless of which instrumentality they are working in—whether it is a central agency, a department, a statutory authority or some other form of body—there are some base rules that they can operate under. I would have thought that if you have got that level of consistency and coherence from an industrial relations perspective across the public sector entity, then it leads to a more efficient delivery of industrial relations policy. You will certainly find that you are able to more clearly articulate what is in scope and out of scope.
It is curious that when you have got a bill like this that is brought before the house, which is looking at trying to improve the efficiency of the industrial relations environment in this state, it is opposed by those opposite. I note in the previous Parliament the former member for Box Hill made a similar impassioned speech in relation to proposed changes to the Fair Work Act. I do find it curious that those opposite would do that, because if you follow their logic to its conclusion, invariably what they are talking about is something they do not believe in. They do not believe in the re-establishment of the industrial relations commission; they do not believe in centralised wage-fixing at all. So it is curious that they would now come to this place having a very different view of the world. Providing that level of consistency I think is really important. I think it is also important that the interests of the public sector workers are treated equally. It is important that regardless of whether you are working in one agency or another, there is the ability for your representatives to advocate on your behalf for a set of workplace conditions and entitlements. With any negotiation it is incumbent upon the parties to reach that agreement.
It might be that for whatever reason that agreement is not reached on particular points, but you do not want to start the negotiation with a set of circumstances where one bargaining party cannot advocate a series of items or a series of issues because the law forbids it, because then you are effectively creating two classes of public sector workers. You are creating the class of public sector worker that would fit within the constitutional corporation where everything is on the table, where basically the representatives can advocate for anything they want—they might not get it, but they have got far more freedom to negotiate on their behalf—as opposed to those public sector workers who cannot commence a negotiation with all the entitlements at their disposal to argue the case. I think that is what is really important here. It is about making sure that we have got a level of consistency.
The other point I would make is that the public sector in Victoria represents around 25 per cent of gross state product in the economy. One of the challenges we have had as a society and a community has been the level of wage stagnation that has existed primarily in the private sector, and that is regrettable. There is an argument that if you have only got 25 per cent of gross state product, how much of an impact can public sector wage growth have upon raising the private sector or waking it up from its slumber to make sure it pays its workers more effectively, and there is a question mark as to its effectiveness. But one thing I do know is that we need to try to find a way of ensuring that there is a greater level of certainty and security for public sector workers, that they have got the ability to look forward to the future with a degree of confidence about their remuneration and their conditions and that the public sector is seen as a desirable place to work. What you will find over the course of time if this wage stagnation in the private sector continues to occur is more people seeking to work in the public sector as a desirable employer, as an employer of choice, for these reasons.
But we have got to make sure that public sector workers feel valued and that there is no discrimination between the public sector workers working for a constitutional corporation as opposed to those who do not. This bill does just that. In enables this to occur. It enables the representatives of those workers to be able to argue in good faith, having at their disposal all the various industrial instruments and all the negotiations they want, and not be forced to negotiate with one hand tied behind their backs. It is also about making sure that from a public sector administration and management perspective there is a level of coherence and consistency across the board and that one rule applies for public sector workers. That is what this bill does. Acting Speaker, if you are interested in efficient public sector management, as I know you are, as I am and as I know the minister at the table is, then you need to try to find ways in which you can have a level of coherence and consistency across the board, and that is what this bill does. I take great pride in standing in this place and supporting a bill of this scope and reach because it is the right thing to do and the fair thing to do. It is about making sure the public sector workers are treated fairly and appropriately, that they have a very good foundation and that their representatives have the ability to argue fairly and effectively on behalf of their members to ensure they have the very best opportunity to get a fair and reasonable industrial instrument that covers not just remuneration but also conditions. On that note I commend the bill to the house.