Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (19:06): It will come as no surprise to you that we on this side oppose this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. To my friend the member for Boothby, who's just delivered her speech so eloquently: I think it's quite evident that unions got involved in election processes. Unions got involved in democracy—what a charge that is! In terms of the issues about the education, she maybe should have listed the Catholic Education Office as well, who had a very clear position on the policies of both parties in terms of the funding of education. But, leaving that aside, it does show that after this election—and, credit to those opposite, we were beaten; I understand that—they have so rapidly returned to type.
They talked a lot during the election campaign, as the member for Solomon will recall, about hardworking Australians as if it just flows off the tongue for them. They talked about, almost, the Howard battlers, to use the vernacular. But I'll tell you what they didn't talk about: they didn't talk about what they're going to do to address wage stagnation. They didn't talk about how they're going to address wage theft. And, as far as I can recall from articles in my local papers during the course of the election campaign, they never mentioned unsafe working conditions or unsafe working environments. These are things that just didn't seem to make it onto the political agenda.
This is about unions. It's clearly about that. And nobody on this side is in any way going to defend improper actions. That's just not the case. The other thing about trade unions—and I think you've got to appreciate this too—is that they don't exist because somewhere in the Constitution it says, 'Thou shalt have unions.' Unions exist to fill a need in society. If there were no need, they probably wouldn't exist at all. So, in other words, if the government were doing something about addressing unfair and unsafe work practices or to effect a proper determination of wages so that workers didn't have to band together, there probably wouldn't be involvement from trade unions. Trade unions started to fulfil a need. There's no doubt that we on this side of politics were spawned by the trade union movement. Our party was developed to be the political voice of working people in this country.
For those of us who have been around here for a little while will recall Work Choices. Whilst that may not be the current policy over there, Work Choices was a pretty big thing back in 2007. It was a thing, quite frankly, that repulsed the Australian people. When those on the other side had a majority in the House and the Senate, they decided to show their true colours when it came to Work Choices. They made it legal for the first time in our history for people to enter into agreements where they were paid below award rates. It wasn't those people necessarily who were directly being attacked, who revolted over that—although I am sure they had a view once they saw their wages being cut. In my electorate, it was the mums and dads and the grandparents who had a view about that—many of whom had already retired. This was about a generation coming up who were not going to have the benefit of proper wages and conditions in this country.
It should not be lost in the memories of those opposite that this is what happens when you attack those that have an impact on setting proper wages and conditions. I know those opposite are taking some advantage at the moment of the John Setka affair. The Leader of the Opposition has made his position pretty clear about Mr Setka. But this does not define the Australian trade union movement. The government spent $45 million not all that long ago on a royal commission into trade unions. Not much came out of it quite frankly. They thought they were going to get to hoist people on petards all over the place. It just didn't occur. It was $45 million to press a political point. It was an effort by the then Prime Minister to attack the Leader of the Opposition, and he was prepared to use public money to do that.
This piece of legislation is designed to do a number of things. Schedule 1 of the bill is to allow the minister, or anyone else with a sufficient interest in a matter—and that could include employers or employer groups, even a rival union leadership contender or a business lobby, amongst others—to apply to deregister an organisation, to disqualify a person from holding office, to exclude certain members or impose administrative schemes on them. You could actually put someone into administration, for instance. They also want to have a fit-and-proper-person test. Well, we don't have one of those in parliament; that might have ruled a few people out over time.
This would disqualify people from elected union positions simply by posing a test determined by unelected people in a court. One of the things that bind both sides of parliament is our belief in democratic processes. Sure, elections are robust, and I understand the member for Boothby's complaint about the democratic recourse that some organisations, including unions, might participate in, but we in this country are the beneficiaries of a solid democratic system. We want the same system to be maintained within our trade unions. We think the members of unions should be able to elect the people that they think are best suited, best able, to actually deliver them what they want. If it is better wages and conditions, so be it.
When I think about this particular address, I remember hearing a couple of years ago a speech by the member for Kennedy, Bob Katter. I know it's sometimes a little bit hard to listen to the member for Kennedy for too long; sometimes you've got to read him in the Hansard! What he was speaking about in this place—this was during the course of the Work Choices discussion, so this is going back a little while. He reminded this House that if anyone here thought that the wages and conditions that we enjoy in this country were not the product of an effective trade union movement, they were kidding themselves. That came from someone—let's face it; the member for Kennedy has a pretty conservative pedigree about him—who has voted with the government more times than he's ever thought about voting with the opposition. The member for Kennedy made a pretty significant point. Whether he had in mind what happened with the shearers or whether it translates to any other form of work in this country, he did say that we would not enjoy the working conditions that we have without the established and effective trade union movement.
There's currently a dispute taking place in New South Wales. It's a dispute being led by the Health Services Union. I know this one a little bit more intimately than others simply because my younger brother is the general secretary of that organisation. He's not threatening a strike for wages. It's arguable whether he is calling out public hospitals for their conditions. I'll tell you what he is doing: he is threatening industrial action because of the level of assaults, stabbings and abuse, and, indeed, a shooting, that has taken place in public hospitals in New South Wales. His actions are being supported not only by members of his organisation—low-paid hospital workers, cleaners and caterers, et cetera—but by nurses and doctors as well. This is a matter of protecting patients and their visitors. I wouldn't have thought 2GB was a prominent radio station that broadcast many things in the interests of the trade union movement or Labor generally. I listened to Ray Hadley's program. Ordinarily he doesn't support industrial disputation, but he did on this occasion because here is a union standing up for the interests of a community.
Now, what's the case for my brother? The industrial commission will probably order him to withdraw his industrial dispute tomorrow. Do we allow these things to keep going? The bureaucrats in New South Wales have certainly made it very clear that they're not of the mind of bending in this. I would have thought that this is a genuine dispute that should be brought to a head for the safety of the community. Can I give a shout-out to my younger brother, Gerard—all power to him and his organisation. If you can make solid change for the better in a community, I think that's a good thing. That is a union showing some leadership. That is doing what governments should be doing.
Industrial relations is an issue, I understand, of supply and demand. I understand the enterprise of labour can be depressed. But it is being artificially driven down at the moment, on the basis that we have seen a succession of laws passed by successive Liberal governments affecting the unions' ability to negotiate. We have seen the power of the Industrial Relations Commission whittled away. If you take away those dynamics in industrial relations or weaken their bargaining positions, in terms of organisations, what are you really encouraging? It really is almost begging the law of the jungle out there. When people actually rise to the occasion and take the bait, then you think, 'Oh, well, it's time to actually get tough on unions.' I would have thought that we had the wherewithal to develop and maintain good industrial relations systems that look after and benefit workers—systems which secure workers in proper organisations with officers democratically elected in elections run by the Electoral Commission and responsive to the needs of their members.
I think this legislation shows that the government is dropping the ball on that because they want to make a target out of one organisation, the CFMMEU. They want to use the position of its secretary, John Setka, and they want to drive this to be the catalyst for getting into the whole trade union movement in this country.
I did want to say a number of things, which I don't have time to now. But I note that Michele O'Neil, the President of the ACTU, has made a number of statements about this legislation. She is certainly saying that this will harm ordinary people and also that it runs against the impact of international law as to freedom of association. I know you can discount Michele O'Neil because she's the President of the ACTU. Could I just say that, having known this woman for some time, I know that she has only recently become President of the ACTU; most of her working life was devoted to looking after people in the textile and footwear industries. She was looking after women who were working in sweatshops across the land. This is a person who actually really does know what you've got to do to look after people, to make a difference in their lives. So I wouldn't discount her out of hand. I think she's a very decent woman and someone who should be listened to.