Oct 16, 2017

Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2017 – Second Reading

Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler) (18:07): I rise to oppose this legislation, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2017. It was American novelist Norman Mailer who said:

Obsession is the single most wasteful human activity, because with an obsession you keep coming back and back and back to the same question and never get an answer.

That’s exactly what sits at the heart of this legislation—the coalition’s obsession with undermining trade unions at any cost, a distraction for a government that has lost its way, a government obsessed with obliterating collective bargaining, with eroding human dignity and hurting working families by subjecting workplaces to the law of the jungle.

This bill is presented in the guise of improving productivity and cracking down on illegality. But the bottom line, now and throughout Australia’s history, is that the conservative forces just don’t like unions. They just don’t respect the fact that working people, due to the nature of the workplace and the power imbalance that is inherent in production, join together to bargain with employers. Their antipathy for unions is so extreme, though, that it blinds them to just a bit of common sense, and it blinds them to community standards. Even at a time when we have declining real wages and declining living standards, which have been recognised by the Reserve Bank of Australia and by the business community as a handbrake on economic growth, we have a government that is determined to drive those wages and conditions down further. This is the sort of ideology that brought Work Choices to the parliament of Australia on the first occasion on which those opposite had the numbers in both houses. And, with that Work Choices legislation, they destroyed themselves. It should give them pause. They should think back to how clever they thought they were when that Work Choices legislation, with its Orwellian name, passed the House of Representatives and the Senate. It led to their demise as a government. It led to division in Australian workplaces and in the Australian community. In the same way, they’re waging a war against penalty rates. They seem completely oblivious to the fact that so many families in their electorates rely upon penalty rates to pay their mortgages, to pay school fees for their kids, to put food on the kitchen table and to pay for the essentials of life. They don’t get it.

This legislation is just another example of their obsessive attacks on the trade union movement and its very existence. It purports to impose upon registered organisations and their officials the same level of accountability that applies to company directors. But it doesn’t do that. It goes much further than that. It even goes beyond the recommendations of the Heydon royal commission, it goes beyond the government’s undertakings in the last election campaign and it contravenes the International Labour Organization’s convention 87—the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention of 1948. But they just can’t help themselves.

Our nation faces a range of serious challenges that require government attention. Many of them could be the subject of cross-party consensus in the national interest, not the least of which delivering on infrastructure that builds jobs and creates economic growth. We could be using our time usefully working together on such matters. But what we have over and over again from this government are attacks on working people, attacks aimed at undermining the trade union movement, attacks which are ideological and attacks which are against the fair go that Australians hold dear.

In general terms, this bill seeks to increase accountability measures for registered organisations and their office holders, including making it easier to deregister them. It also imposes a new public interest test on proposed union mergers. I’ve got no problem at all with people who break the law or act inappropriately being prosecuted, as they should be. But my overriding concern is that deregistering trade unions because of inappropriate behaviour by a single official attacks union members who have nothing to do with that bad behaviour. The fact is that it is a punitive approach. It’s short-sighted. It’s the equivalent of deregistering a company because one of its directors broke the law rather than simply prosecuting the director. Take the various corporate scandals that have occurred, not the least of which were in the banking sector recently. No-one’s proposing that those companies be declared illegal and wound up because of the fact that some of our major financial institutions have been financing activities that are completely illegal. Wrongdoing by one official does not justify the denial of industrial representation for an entire workforce.

In his second reading speech, the Minister representing the Minister for Employment went to great lengths to assert that these changes would bring the administration of trade unions, employer organisations and their officers into line with the laws concerning the administration of companies. But, as you go through the provisions, it is clear that it’s just not true. The bill allows for disqualification of an officer of a registered organisation to be brought by the commissioner, the minister or what is defined as ‘a person with sufficient interest’. There are no safeguards there to prevent vexatious claims. There’s no description of how a person qualifies to have sufficient interest. Once a ground is made out for the disqualification of an officer under this provision, the onus of proof is placed upon the officer to establish why disqualification would be unjust. But the equivalent provision under the Corporations Act places no such onus of proof upon company directors facing disqualification. The bill provides no maximum period of disqualification, leaving the matter to the discretion of the court. It also creates penalties for the offence of a disqualified person continuing to influence a registered organisation. But the penalty provided here is double that provided in the Corporations Act.

Similarly, this bill’s regime for cancelling the registration of a union is far broader than the Corporations Act’s equivalent provisions relating to the winding up of a company. A company, for instance, could repeatedly be found to have put at risk the lives of its workers or to have repeatedly not paid proper wages, but it would not face a wind-up order. By contrast, this bill says a union can be deregistered if some of its members take unprotected industrial action.

The new provisions relating to union amalgamation are way out of whack with the law relating to company mergers. Under the current Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009, it is a simple matter for unions to amalgamate if members vote for amalgamation under a ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. That’s a commonsense provision. It’s democracy in action. It’s workers being organised on the basis of the views of those workers themselves. That is why those provisions are currently there. No argument has been put by those opposite about why this change is necessary. This bill is deliberately aimed at making it harder for unions to amalgamate. It’s clearly aimed at the CFMEU, the MUA and the TCFUA. That’s what this is aimed at. It’s special legislation that’s an attempt to abuse political power and to impose the will of the coalition parties on how unions, specifically, should choose to organise themselves.

It’s an extraordinary proposition if we were going to go down this road. It creates a public interest test that the minister claims is the equivalent of the competition test that applies to company mergers, including whether the unions concerned have a record of complying with the law. The test also takes into account the impact an amalgamation would have on employers, employees and the industry concerned. It goes a lot further than the competition test for company mergers. Indeed, companies could have an extensive record of breaches of the law, including the underpaying of wages. That doesn’t prevent that company from merging with another company. It should be dealt with on the basis of any breach of the law, just as any breach of the law by unions should be dealt with. When there’s a breach of the law the response should be the same whether it’s unions, employer organisations or companies.

We shouldn’t have the attitude of those opposite, which is to come into this chamber and attempt to engage, essentially, in industrial relations by legislation in order to fulfil the obsession that those opposite have with undermining unions. We on this side of the House want an industrial relations system that punishes wrongdoing, whether by employees, trade unions or employers. You never hear those opposite talk about what’s happened with the underpayment of the wages of 7-Eleven workers. You never hear those opposite stand up and talk about industrial accidents and how many people lose their lives on building sites and in the construction sector, the mining sector and other sectors. You never hear those opposite talk about the pressure that transport workers are put under. Indeed, this government came in and undermined the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, a mechanism established after long consultation—with support from major employers—and aimed at producing safe rates, after a parliamentary inquiry that was bipartisan and unanimous in its recommendations. It took years to work through to get a system whereby people weren’t pressured into driving practices that weren’t safe in order to secure their employment, that it wasn’t either/or, and that you had a system whereby throughout the supply chain you had safe practices. It was a measure that had an impact on truck drivers, but also had an impact on all of us who share the roads with truck drivers—a road safety measure that hasn’t been replaced with any measures at all by this government.

We’ve seen again in the transport sector the next tranche of legislation, aimed at removing Australian seafarers from work around our coasts on ships that have the Australian flag on the back of them, paying Australian wages and conditions, and having them replaced by foreign workers being paid foreign wages and working under foreign work conditions. It is extraordinary that the government has been prepared to go down this road. That is why this legislation should be rejected. This is a government that is producing legislation that’s all about its ideology. It’s not about jobs. It’s not about national economic growth. It’s not about the national interest. It’s not about the interests of working families. It’s just about its obsession with the trade union movement. In doing that, it undermines itself, as it did with Work Choices. That’s one of the reasons this government is being rejected by the Australian people.