The Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022 aims to do two important things: increase wages and address gender inequality. I support these two goals. I support the important provisions of the bill that aim to increase wages, such as changes to the supported low-paid bargaining stream and simplification of the better off overall test. I also support the provisions that target gender inequality in the workplace, such as adding gender equity as an object of the Fair Work Act, the abolishment of pay secrecy clauses that would increase transparency, and the establishment of expert panels.
I understand that there are problems in our employment system that we need to fix. I understand the government’s intention to get wages moving. I applaud it. The issues of wage stagnation are complex. This bill is complex. The bill it’s amending is complex. It is worthy of detailed and diligent scrutiny. The job of a conscientious legislator is to do that scrutiny, to understand what questions need to be asked to safeguard for unintended consequences. In my mind, the speed at which the government has progressed this bill does not do justice to the very serious intent of the problem this legislation is seeking to solve.
If I am to support this bill I need to return to my electorate and justify my support. I need to explain to my constituents how this bill will impact them. As the bill currently stands, I cannot do this. I’m concerned about the bill’s changes to the multi-employer stream. I note the safeguards in the bill that aim to mitigate the possibility of businesses being forced into agreements that are not good for their business model. But there is genuine concern about this. What I cannot tell my constituents right now with absolute confidence is that they have nothing to fear—and dear God, I hate the fearmongering. I am concerned that these new measures will have unintended consequences for small businesses and ultimately for workers. I’m thinking about the small and medium-size hospitality and manufacturing businesses in Wodonga, Wangaratta, Mansfield and Benalla. These businesses are grappling with the challenges of operating post-COVID-19 lockdowns, border closures, rising energy costs, floods, and years of getting no skilled migration into their workforce.
The proposed single-interest test stream is so complex that it may take months for businesses like these to navigate it, and still we might not see the much-needed wages increase. But I want to be clear here: I do not oppose the rights of employees to unionise and bargain with their employers for better wages and better conditions. I’ve been a member of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation for 43 years—I’d argue maybe longer than any other person in the House have I been a member of that union. Through my many years working as a nurse and a midwife I personally experienced how hard it can be to fight for fair pay and conditions. I lived through the 1980s nurses strikes.
In the two weeks since the introduction of this bill I have consulted with the government, with peak bodies representing both employees and employers and with business groups as best I could in my electorate. Many, including COSBOA, have told me they simply do not yet understand how this bill will impact their stakeholders. The Senate committee that was hastily put together to examine this bill has not even reported back, and we’re expected to vote on this bill. This government has shown that it can consult on bills well. It’s done so with the Climate Change Bill and the National Anti-Corruption Commission Bill. Members of this House have shown that they can work with the government in return to assist in delivering on much-needed reform. When it comes to the National Anti-Corruption Commission I can say we have moved heaven and earth to assist the government to get that work done.
There are many reasons I would like to vote in favour of this bill, but I cannot at this time. I don’t know if the government is done with its amendments, and I genuinely hope it works constructively with the Senate and that it may come back to this place in a form that I could support. While that debate is happening, I will do all I can to engage in good faith with the people most affected by it. If this bill passes in its entirety, it will still take months, potentially longer, for Australians to see an improvement in wages. If it is going to take that long, then why are we proceeding with such haste, when a couple more weeks to properly consider and consult on this bill will cause no material impairment? I want wages to increase, particularly for women; I want more people working; and I want our businesses to succeed, but for me this isn’t the way to proceed on that.