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

October 16, 2017

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (15:59): I also rise to speak in the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2017 debate. As you no doubt appreciate, Labor will be voting against this bill, because this bill is a continuation of the anti-worker, and anti those who support workers, legislation. Labor will hold this government to account. We will not let the government get away with their savage attacks on workers and those who have the interests of workers as their core business. Trade unions have been a part of this country for many, many years. Trade unions are significant in organising our workplaces. I have even heard Bob Katter, the Independent member for Kennedy, give a dissertation on this in this place. I can't remember what the debate was about, but he said, 'If anyone here thinks that the conditions that we enjoy in the workplace are not a derivative of the actions of the Austrian trade union movement, they have rocks in their head.' There might be very few occasions on which I agree with the member for Kennedy, but on that point I think he is right.

It appears that little has changed since this government have come to power. Bear in mind that they should have learnt under the former Howard government from WorkChoices. WorkChoices is a very interesting piece of legislation which made legal, for the first time in this country, to pay workers below the award rate of pay. They weren't doing that to help workers; they were doing that with the view, 'This will generate more jobs and growth in the economy.' How? It was by paying workers less. That is the role that they took—allowing individual contracts to be made that could reduce workers' take-home pay and reduce workers' ability to demand and ensure proper conditions of work.

I feel somewhat personally affected by this debate. I put it on this basis: I have three children. One is a high school teacher. Then of my two sons one is a carpenter-builder and the other is an electrician. I know the difficulties they can have on their worksites. I know how dangerous it can be in the construction industry. As a matter of fact, my older son, Nicholas, a sparky, returned home from Western Australia one time from a fly-in, fly-out operation after the person he was working with was crushed to death. It is somewhat ironic. I was talking to him only a couple of days ago when he was on another job in New South Wales. He said a formworker fell through the formwork and is currently in a coma. These things are happening now. Through the trade union movement there is an extra set of eyes being focused on workplace conditions and ensuring the safety of workers. I would have thought that was a good thing, not something to be discouraged and not something that this government would put all its energy into trying to thwart the role of the Australian trade union movement.

As I say, I think we could all be somewhat personalising this. I'm not sure those opposite have kids working in the construction industry, but for those of us who have kids working out there we want the best for them. We want to make sure that they go to work and come home safely. Any organisation that can assist in that regard is, I think, a good thing. As I say, I would have thought they would have learnt from the Howard government's experience that, if you attack workers and working conditions, we on this side of the House will certainly arc up. We will stand up for workers every time.

In saying that, we will always support appropriate measures and appropriate regulations that ensure that there aren't criminal acts taking place in workplaces. During question time and during the last speech, we heard allegations made of criminality on a building site. I don't know where those opposite would go if they saw crime, but I personally would go to the police. The government want to set up a new form of regulation such that you can bypass the police and go and do something else. If crimes are being committed, that is what we have our police force for. That is what law enforcement is about. But, no, they don't want to do that. They want to set up this ideological attack on the Australian trade union movement, weakening workers' rights by weakening those organisations that stand up and support them. This is not about regulatory change to get some benefit in the industry; it is purely and simply an issue of ideology.

The bill comes at a time when the government has passed a raft of legislation aimed at undermining working conditions for Australians. You will recall the legislation passed in this very place, not long ago, cutting penalty rates for Sunday work. The government has been able to turn a blind eye to the fact that we now have the lowest wage growth in living memory—record low wage growth compared to gross domestic product. Every credible economist is saying that one of the key aspects of the Australian economy at the moment is the fact that we have record low wage growth. It is hardly surprising when this government does everything to undermine enterprise bargaining and to undermine those who can drive enterprise bargaining, including trade unions. It also comes at a time when we have stubbornly high unemployment and over 1.1 million Australians underemployed—Australians who want more work and can't get it.

This bill is just another example of the government's anti-union, anti-worker agenda. But I have heard them say good things about trade unions in the past. You might recall that the minister used to call Kathy Jackson, who used to be one of the leading lights in the Health Services Union, a hero for the cause. She was 'a lion of the trade union movement'. Well, Kathy Jackson had adverse findings made against her in the trade union royal commission and is now under prosecution by Victoria Police for her role in the trade union movement. Her partner, Mr Michael Lawler, who was a deputy president of the Industrial Relations Commission, showed us on an ABC TV program how to illegally tape phone conversations. He made no bones of the fact that he was taping other judges, and he did this courtesy of an ABC Four Corners report. By the way, Mr Lawler was appointed to the Industrial Relations Commission by none other than the member for Warringah. He was hand-picked. He went there, a conservative barrister put on to do I'm not sure what. He shows us various things in terms of the Health Services Union; but he also comes out and shows us how to illegally record telephone conversations of fellow judges. These are the people that they thought were heroes of the trade union movement, standing up for workers.

Tomorrow the new leadership of the Health Services Union is meeting here in Parliament House. I would invite any of those opposite to come out and talk to them. The organisation is now growing because they have refocused their energies on supporting low-paid workers—the cleaners, the orderlies in hospitals, people working in aged care, people working in palliative care. They're out there doing something constructive. They're supporting low-paid workers and they have an organisation that's growing; but not a peep out of those opposite now. Nothing like what they used to do, talking about Kathy Jackson and extolling the virtues of the way she ran the trade union movement. They haven't said anything about the fact that she's now before the Victorian courts under prosecution by Victoria Police either.

In terms of this legislation, I think the Australian Council of Trade Unions got it right when they said succinctly that the measures in this bill:

… allow excessive political, corporate and regulatory interference in the democratic functioning and control of industrial organisations, with no true objective other than political gain.

I think that's right. The concern was also shared by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which raised serious issues about the bill's compatibility with the International Labour Organization's treaties, particularly the core convention 87, which enshrines freedom of association.

This bill is an overarching attack on trade unions, having no mandate but going beyond the recommendations of the Heydon royal commission—the same royal commission that adversely reported on Kathy Jackson. But that was some 18 months ago, and now this government brings this forward, mainly because it needs to take the spotlight off other inadequacies that it's been confronted with, particularly in relation to power prices in this country. The government claims that the bill will place registered organisations and corporations on the same footing. That sounds good until you go and have a good look at it. It's a false premise. Corporations and unions are not the same. They're not in the same business. They don't operate the same way. It is a completely false premise.

Before I move to schedule 1 of this bill, I will just put in perspective the rights of delegates for a trade union, who are elected to their positions and can be unelected by their very members. If you are a director of a company, you can take out indemnity insurance to protect yourself against making adverse decisions that might cause loss to a company; however, if you're on a committee of management of a trade union then that's just not possible. Schedule 1 of this bill expands the basis on which an officer of a registered organisation, in this case a union, may be disqualified. The formulation in the bill has the parochial effect of setting the onus on the defendant to prove why it would be unjust for the court to disqualify a person once a specific ground has been made out. So, if we make an allegation against an officer of a union, it falls on that officer to prove or run the argument—the onus is on him or her—as to why they should not be disqualified. This is certainly different from the current regime in the Corporations Act. If an allegation is made against a company director, the onus of making out the claim is on the person making the allegation. And it certainly goes a lot further than the recommendations set out by the Heydon royal commission.

Furthermore, an application for disqualification of an officer is extended in this bill not only to the Registered Organisations Commissioner but also to the minister or a person with sufficient interest. I just wonder: could a person with sufficient interest be a boss on a particular site who's negotiating with the union and wants to get the upper hand and so makes the allegation against the union official? It may be claimed that that person has sufficient interest to set aside a person—a union official—and have an influence over enterprise bargaining negotiations taking place regarding a particular industry or a particular site. From what I read in schedule 1, it provides no safeguards against frivolous or vexatious claims. Again, as I said, this goes beyond the recommendations of the trade union royal commission. But certainly in this case I think it is a blatant disregard of convention 87 of the International Labour Organization.

I did want to go on to talk a little about section 2, because it talks about the cancellation of registration of organisations themselves, but I will do that on another day. I think at this stage we should focus on why the government has brought this legislation forward at this stage. What is the purpose of it? The purpose can only be read as to weaken the bargaining strength of the Australian trade union movement.