The Hon. R. D. DYER: I ask the Special Minister of State, Minister for Industrial Relations, and Assistant Treasurer a question without notice. Is the Minister aware of the outcome of last week's Standing Committee of Attorneys-General meeting and the consideration given to referral of State powers to the Federal Government to regulate aspects of corporate regulation?
The Hon. J. J. DELLA BOSCA: As honourable members are aware, the New South Wales Government has introduced legislation to refer the corporations power to the Commonwealth. That position was supported by all State governments and resulted from prolonged negotiations aimed at resolving uncertainties created by recent High Court decisions in the constitutional power of the Commonwealth to regulate aspects of the national corporations power scheme. However, the Commonwealth rejected the States' initiatives to insert into legislation a provision that would specifically prevent the Commonwealth using the referral to undermine State industrial relations laws. The specific limitation proposed by the States in relation to industrial relations powers was necessary as a result of the release of the deferred discussion paper of the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business on a unitary system of industrial relations.
Since Federation industrial relations regulation has been a residual power of the States, with the exception of conciliation and arbitration for the prevention and settlement of industrial disputes extending beyond the limits of any one State. However, the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business has now decided that the best way to ensure safety net coverage for the majority of Australian workers, in particular for the lowly paid, is to provide a national unitary system of industrial relations using the constitutional corporations power. In light of his record, I remain very sceptical about the Minister's true agenda with these proposed reforms.
Through his program of award stripping, the Minister has already presided over the continuing erosion of the Federal award system, substantially reducing the extent to which it can provide fair and reasonable wages and conditions for those who continue to rely on awards. Further, there are obvious limits on the employers and employees that Federal legislation can regulate, given that the corporations power covers only businesses that are incorporated. That means that other business forms such as partnerships and sole traders would not be covered. It is clear that the corporations power can never provide a truly national, unitary system of industrial relations. Proposals by the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business contrasts sharply with the New South Wales industrial relations system, under which workers have the protection of a strong award system that is underpinned by a meaningful safety net.
The real agenda for the Howard Government is to replace strong and viable awards with minimal general conditions, and to force employees into individual agreements. That agenda fails to recognise the inherent imbalance in bargaining power that can exist between an employer and an employee. The New South Wales Government is committed to the maintenance of a strong State industrial relations system that reflects a fair, flexible and balanced approach between the needs of employees and employers. That commitment was demonstrated in Melbourne last Friday at the Workplace Relations Ministers' Council, where I raised the significant concerns of the New South Wales Government and firmly rejected the Federal Government's proposal.