Fair Work Amendment (Penalty Rates Exemption for Small Businesses) Bill 2015

It is a shame that the Greens continue to establish an approach which is often close-minded and inflexible. They usually speak in very strong ideologies, without the acceptance or consideration of new ideas or different viewpoints in this chamber. 

I find it particularly ironic that that is their stance, given that they often talk about wanting to embrace the modern economy and the modern world. Indeed—through you, Mr Deputy President—Senator McKim made a fine first contribution to this place just the other week and talked about how we now have a new sharing economy, with new abilities for each of us to be engaged in our economy, through apps like Uber, Airbnb, Freelancer—all of those elements. I might be corrected, but I do not think an Uber driver is getting penalty rates, I do not think somebody selling their home on Airbnb and works on a Sunday is getting penalty rates and I do not think somebody who is consulting and offering their services on Freelancer is getting penalty rates.

I find it quite ironic that on the one hand the Greens say we should adapt to the modern world and we should embrace new areas of innovation, but on the other hand they are the staunchest defenders of the conservative view—a view that I must say I do not necessarily disagree with—that Sundays should be a day of rest and contemplation. As I said, I do not necessarily disagree with that. Before I respond further on this bill, I want to correct what I view is an incorrect implication by Senator McKim that somehow this country is becoming more unequal. It is not. We are very fortunate in Australia that we have a progressive income tax system and a strong family tax benefit system. The evidence is clear that, over the past 10 or 15 years, including through the Howard government and the Rudd government, that, largely, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as Senator McKim described them has remained remarkably stable. That is not true in all other parts of the world—I accept that completely—but we should not seek to always draw parallels with the United States of America. We are a different country. We have different welfare systems and we have different laws to the United States of America, and well may that remain so, because we have a very strong country that should be defended.

This bill does not go in particular to those broad issues about inequality. It is a bill to provide greater flexibility for some businesses in how they negotiate penalty rates. I will say at the outset that I do not support this bill, and I will go through reasons why, but I am not going to reject it in the kind of ideological and close-minded approach that we just heard from Senator McKim. I want to credit my colleagues and senators for bringing forward this bill and bringing forward an approach which has clearly sought to deal with some issues that particularly face small businesses in our hospitality industries. There is no doubt that our current award based system is making it difficult for some small businesses to hire people on Sundays and to employ people on public holidays. If you go to the tourist areas of Queensland, to the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast—I am a senator for that region—you will often find cafes and restaurants closed on those days because, in their view, they cannot afford to pay their workers and justify opening. We need to find a balance. This debate should be about a balance. We should find a balance between wanting to ensure that we give people an opportunity to have a job, work on those days and earn an income for their family and being properly compensated for the fact that they are working on public holidays or Sundays. I agree with that, Senator McKim. I absolutely agree that they should be solemn days as much as possible.

I do want to say from the outset that the idea that Sunday should be a day of rest is not one that has always been the case through history, but it is one that has obviously been a long-held tradition in Western societies. The word 'Sunday' itself does not reflect through its etymology a day of rest. It obviously means 'a day for the sun'. It comes from pagan cultures which often had a cult of the sun and often worshipped the sun. Indeed, there was a day for all of the planets and the various names of the seven days of the week generally accord with different planets in the Roman planetary system. Sunday was another day that was dedicated to a heavenly object. It had a sacred place, but it was not necessarily a day of rest in the Roman world, at least not until Emperor Constantine. Those who are familiar with Roman history in this place would know that Emperor Constantine was the first openly Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. It was he who established the practice that Sunday should be a day of rest.

I think it is worthwhile quoting what Emperor Constantine said on 7 March 321 AD:

On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.

Even at the very first inception of the notion that Sunday should be a day of rest, there was a conception that some practices, some work, could still be performed given its nature and the common-sense view that you could not simply leave the farm for a day and have a day of rest when essential work needs to be done. Even Emperor Constantine recognised that.

While I am not in the corner down there that represents the Nationals, may I say that is just another reason why we should hold our famers in high regard in our community—they do not usually get a day of rest, and they certainly do not benefit from penalty rates at any time. They have to work when the sun is up, when the cows need milking, when the grain needs harvesting or when the sugar needs planting. At any time they have to work and they do not receive any of the protections and benefits of our award system. They do something that is more essential than almost any other work that we do, and that is to provide food.

This bill is not about the production of food; it is about the service of food in supermarkets and in cafes and restaurants—our hospitality industry. This bill is saying that those industries should be allowed to have different arrangements for penalty rates on Sundays. Again, there is some rationale for that—just like the grain must be planted on whatever day of the week is the best, providing someone with bacon and eggs for breakfast is often best done on a Sunday. Cafes and restaurants often have to, and do, open on a Sunday because it is the day of the week that the rest of us are lucky enough to have off and go to the shops, do our shopping or spend the Sunday morning reading the papers and having a cup of coffee. In that respect their activities are not dissimilar to those of farmers, and maybe some greater degree of flexibility is warranted.

As I said in my opening remarks, I cannot support this bill for a couple of reasons. First, in this case I share Senator McKim's conservatism that we should try, as much as possible, to keep Sunday a day of rest and reflection and particularly to have time with family. Public holidays as well play an important role in our society. They are often a time of coming together as a nation to do things that are not necessarily related to work and to reflect on how lucky we are to be Australian and how lucky we are to have had people go before us to protect this nation and make it what it is today. I do not disagree that there should be some recognition of that and some reward for those people who otherwise cannot have those days of reflection—be they nurses, doctors, firemen or, indeed, people who perhaps do less crucial work but nonetheless still very beneficial work in brewing a coffee or serving lunch. They deserve some reward for that.

The tradition of ensuring that this day remains a day of rest is one that is close to the heart of our parties that often fly the flag for these conservative values. I, as a National Party senator, quote Menzies cautiously, although I am not going to quote him actually. I remember reading a biography of Robert Menzies and I was very interested in his work practices. His biographer, AW Martin, wrote that in the 1920s:

He estimated that at this time his weekly hours of work would average not less than eighty. The Melbourne courts sat from 10.30am to one o'clock and from 2.15 to 4.15 in the afternoon. Menzies' habit was to work at his desk long into the night and to get up as late as court or conference obligations permitted.

He would also have a routine and the demands of his wife and children meant that they lived a 'very quiet life'. Almost always Menzies took Sunday off, to rest and spend time with his family. Though they sometimes went to church, they took no part in wider church activities. Sunday was a day for reading and occasional picnics and outings.

I long for those sorts of days—Sundays are the new Mondays for us in politics sometimes. It would be perhaps a better and more considerate community if we did take more time. I certainly should take more time to spend with my family and reflect on life, and pause. While there is a somewhat Christian origin for the day of rest on Sunday, actually all of us human beings yearn to have some time away and some time to reflect. If we are able to have that time every week it will usually make us better and more productive people.

I would like to speak further on this bill but I have only half a minute remaining. My final comment is that while I welcome the senator's consideration and creation of this idea, I do think it introduces a level of bureaucracy that is unneeded. We do have a Fair Work Commission process in place to decide penalty rates and weigh up these issues, there is a review of those. I think introducing a piece of legislation which deals specifically with only a couple of sectors and especially with few businesses is too much red tape and we should let the Fair Work Commission decide and balance these issues between days of rest and meaningful reward.

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