Sharan Burrow: Senators should stand tall on IR

The new Senate has now finished its first sitting week and already has a reputation (fairly or unfairly) as an unpredictable house of review.

With the balance of power resting with the Greens, Family First Senator Steve Fielding and SA independent Senator Nick Xenophon, there are no guarantees that election promises can be delivered.

Aside from the budget measures that could be scuppered, Senators will have to face other tests of moral courage over the next few months as they consider new industrial relations laws and other measures that will undeniably shape the nation's future.

Voters made their decisions on the basis of two major issues - WorkChoices and climate change. Both these issues are central to a creating a stable future for the economy, the environment and for working Australians and their families.

The Liberal Coalition could also play a part in this nation building agenda but we are not holding our breath. How they vote on the new IR laws will define whether they are listening to the Australian people. Will they follow the will of the people and ditch the discredited WorkChoices or continue to do the bidding of employers who refuse to respect workers' rights?

On IR the Greens are on the record and indeed have been leading voices in support of collective bargaining rights and unfair dismissal protection for Australian workers.

In the numbers game that will characterise the Senate, the hopes and aspirations of Australians, their children and indeed their grandchildren may well rest on Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding.

With the introduction of the new federal IR laws later this year, we will finally see the restoration of rights at work that if passed will mitigate the power of the employer. The central question is; where will the Senators stand?

On industrial relations we hope they will understand and support the importance of designing a fairer system that is built around genuine collective bargaining rights for workers. The IR laws must also have a robust safety net of minimum legislative standards and industry awards with unfair dismissal protections for all workers and a strong role for an independent umpire.

We hope that when it comes to examining the detail of this legislation, Senators will be motivated by more than ideology and the confines of geography. The rights of working Australians enshrined in this system could well shape our workplaces, our family lives and the economy for decades to come. Senators who fail to see the significance of this risk losing not only the hearts and minds of their constituents, but the opportunity to make laws that ensure Australia regains its mantle as the land of the 'fair go'.

Union achievements from collective bargaining are a strong part of our nation's history. The benefits of our work for families and communities and indeed business are there for all to see.

Superannuation, hours of work, the annual holiday, maternity leave, skills opportunities and occupational health and safety laws are just some of the union achievements delivered by collective bargaining.

These entitlements have had a direct positive impact on individuals, families and the economy but continue to be under attack from employer interests. We know that workers would like to be able to bargain for energy efficiency or water saving measures at work, but many short sighted employers object to this.

Senators will face lobbying from powerful forces intent on shaking their positions on IR and other issues.

It will take some steel to avoid being persuaded by rhetoric about the unfettered power of businesses to hire and fire so they can make profit and grow their enterprises.

There will be loud knocks on the door from those whose ambitions are to deny rights at work and continue the unacceptable environment where profits are at a 30 year high relative to wages while working Australians face the struggle of paying every day housing, fuel and food bills.

When the legislation is presented to the upper house, some time later this year, Senators can make their mark.

They should remember the clear mandate from voters at last year's election to scrap WorkChoices and to restore the balance in our workplaces through collective bargaining.

They should also recognise that Australians want all workers to have protection from being sacked unfairly - whether they work on a small or large business.

I hope they grasp this opportunity and support fair and balanced IR laws when they are presented to Parliament in the coming weeks.

Even if the Coalition decides to hold on to its discredited legacy on industrial relations, our other Senators should stand tall and mark out a new cooperative path for Australian workplaces.

Originally appeared in ABC Opinion Online (01.09.08)