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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2335


Mr JOHN COBB (11:59 AM) — The coalition's 2001 workplace relations election policy was about choice and reward. They are two words that I believe are the key to progress right around the country. That is why I speak in support of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill 2002. It is about choice. What the National Party and this government are about is the ability of people to choose where they work and to choose to come to an agreement with their employer. It is about choice. It is about choice right around Australia, whether you choose to work for yourself or whether you choose to work for somebody else. The minute you interfere with that choice you put in jeopardy the reasons we are in this chamber and the reasons we are all proud to be in this country and a part of it.

The bill seeks to address the union movement's attempts to circumnavigate the prohibition of compulsory union fees by imposing service fees. While unions probably find it hard to make the fees compulsory, they are certainly coercing workers to join. This is undemocratic and, without doubt, harks back to the old days of standover intimidation. I came to this place, like all of us here, to try to make this country even better than it is today.

Members this morning have spoken about the reasons for the union movement's shrinking. The plain fact is that, if an organisation represents people well enough, they will be very pleased to join it. Prior to coming to this House, I was President of the New South Wales Farmers Association, which represented about 50 per cent of the serious farmers in the state. Those farmers joined the association of their own free will. The association never attempted to coerce a member—in fact, I would not have been a part of it if it had. We dealt with issues that revolved around a free world market and not, as unions do, in a regulated domestic labour market. It was a much harder job, with a much higher membership. That says quite a lot of things. People are not joining the union movement, because they are very unhappy with it. They do not like being stood over, they do not like being tricked and they do not like having to pay a service fee or a union fee unless they voluntarily choose to do so.

A similar organisation is the Country Women's Association. Obviously I am not a member, but many country women are. It operates in a very similar vein to the New South Wales Farmers Association and probably has as large a membership. These organisations do not coerce anyone. Both charge far less than the union movements do for the average person to be a member, and they have far greater success in attracting that membership. If you represent your people and do a good job, you will without doubt reap the rewards of increased membership. Can you imagine the outrage if the government tried to legislate that everybody in their electorates had to be members of their party? It is not much different.

It has become standard practice for the trade unions to demand a service fee without consent when they collectively bargain and, as I understand it, do not seek the views of the workers involved. This fee is quite often set above the union fee; in other words, the unions are saying, `It is actually cheaper for you to join the movement than to pay the service fee.' That is the act of an organisation that knows it cannot attract members. Membership is about choice. What possible reasons could there be for either chamber to vote against this amendment to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill other than for financial greed and because the union movement cannot attract members? Not long after the election, the Labor Party talked about the need to become less union oriented. The best way to do that would be to pass this bill in both chambers.

Surely we have gone beyond the time when everything was done by intimidation— `If you are not with us you are against us.' The fundamental right of an employee to choose whether or not he wants to be represented by a union is paramount, in the same way that the introduction of compulsory secret ballots amongst employees to get an absolutely true vote as to whether strike action should happen is true democracy. This bill seeks to underline that fact by taking away intimidation and coercion.

The ACTU formally supports unions pursuing compulsory fees in collective agreements, which attempts to give their demands a legal status or a legal aura where obviously they cannot have it. This bill should not be necessary. It is something that the opposition and the unions should be ashamed of. By including such provisions in collective agreements, unions are able to use the cover of a majority employee vote to coerce non-union members who may have voted against the agreement to pay the fee or to join the union, and thereby deny the right to freedom of association.

I think it was mentioned earlier that the Premier of New South Wales is against unions being able to collect this type of fee and is against compulsory unionism. It is wonderful to hear Bob Carr make a statement like that. I wish he would respect farmers' rights in the same way because he is certainly not concerned about what it costs them when dealing with them in what I call his `environmental righteous manner'. We have also heard that the Western Australian Labor government seeks to disassociate itself from this type of action.

This bill has been introduced to address all those certified agreements that contain bargaining fee service clauses. As I said earlier, one of the great problems is that they are setting the bargaining fee higher than union membership fees and therefore making it cheaper for people to join a union than pay the fee. The bill will not prevent contractual arrangements between a union and a nonmember. That is free choice and I support free choice absolutely.

It has been said in debating these sorts of bills that, when we try to provide free choice—when we try to keep Australia open to those people who wish to make an arrangement between themselves and their employer without being coerced into adding other aspects to it—they have no hope of passing through the Senate because the Labor Party will not support them. If the Labor Party wants to fix up its problems, it will have to look very hard at whether intimidation in the union way is the way for Australia because in recent times Australians have said that they have had enough of it. I commend this bill to the House.