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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18388

Mr ORGAN (1:45 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003. However, I must at the outset express my opposition to this bill. It is yet another piece of discriminatory, antiworker legislation in a long list of such legislation that the government has brought before this House. In the same week that this House has dealt with allegations of complicity and favouritism by the Prime Minister in assisting his mates in big business and in which the government has allocated a multimillion dollar assistance package to the firm Manildra, here we are yet again dealing with a piece of legislation which attacks workers in our community, many of whom are on low wages and minimal conditions.

It is clear that the government has got its priorities wrong. This government, from the Prime Minister down, has a long history of attacking workers and, in particular, trade unions. It is part of the ideological crusade by the far right, and the result is an attack on workers' wages and conditions and a diminishing of the quality of life for ordinary Australians. It reeks of pettiness and a lack of compassion from this government. The Greens will continue to vigorously oppose such attacks and to support unions' and workers' rights both within this parliament and out in the wider community.

This bill seeks to amend the Workplace Regulations Act in the following ways: firstly, to provide the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations with a mechanism to impose financial penalties for noncompliance with orders of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and the Federal Court; and, secondly, to provide the minister with the power to pursue civil penalties against officers and employees of registered organisations—most obviously trade unions—who are fined by the court for failing to comply with court and commission orders. In other words, the minister wants the power to pursue union leaders personally for disqualification if they ignore return to work and similar orders. It is yet another savage and senseless attack on unions by the minister and the Howard coalition government. We have heard here in this debate the member for Rankin refer to the minister as `one-eyed', `a far right zealot', `a bully', `flint-heart', `the minister for conflict' and `the minister for division'. I must say that I have heard similar comments in my electorate of Cunningham, such is the widespread concern at the direction this government is taking in the area of industrial relations reform.

The Greens are strongly opposed to this bill, as we believe it will provide the minister with extraordinary, unnecessary and unjustifiable powers in regard to pursuing this government's misdirected and regressive ideological agenda. The bill reintroduces provisions which were withdrawn by government prior to the passage of the Workplace Relations (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Act 2000. This act only passed due to a last minute deal between the ALP and the government after the most controversial elements of the legislation had been removed. The workplace relations minister has been reported as saying:

People of a mind to defy the commission or the court, people who say—as one union official boasted not so long ago, he collected section 127 orders in his top drawer—people of that mind are now on notice that they will face heavy fines and possible disqualification from office if this government gets its way.

The extension of the workplace relations minister's power into the sphere of the Federal Court and the Industrial Relations Commission in this context is both unreasonable and unnecessary. The federal government wants to heavily fine and automatically disqualify trade union representatives who fail to comply with orders of the court, even if the court or the parties involved do not wish to pursue legal remedies. This necessarily entails an unacceptable venture by the minister into a decision making realm in which he does not belong and which this parliament, in good conscience, should deem unacceptable. The minister for workplace relations is not the appropriate person to be seeking extra powers in this area.

The minister has advised taking a narrow-minded approach to unions. He has an obvious lack of appreciation of the important role that unions have played and continue to play in Australian society. The minister is riding roughshod over entrenched legal, political and socioeconomic traditions—such as the right to defend workers' entitlements—that serve an important purpose in any democratic and free society. His convictions about what role the government should play in crushing the power of unions are dangerous and misguided. He and his colleagues have engaged in a war against the union movement, and he seeks to implicate the parliament in this war.

In an address last year to the H.R. Nicholls Society, the minister made the point that he believes the government should consider taking on the role of what he described as `industrial policeman'. This militant approach to an important component of the Australian community is not the path that this parliament wishes to tread. The Howard government has taken too extreme an approach to the union movement, and this parliament must be mindful of the wider social and political impact of condoning this approach. The federal government prides itself on its record of responsible government. Government, in broad terms, has a role to play in certain circumstances as an arbitrator in the political sphere; however, its involvement should be as a disinterested party, not in pursuing a biased and narrow-focused ideological agenda. In this circumstance the government is seeking to impose its will over a matter which is clearly within the jurisdiction of the law. This is unacceptable. Under these circumstances we can conclude that, whilst the government is obviously driven, it is not being responsible.

The proposed legislation is unnecessary in respect of the court's existing powers. Currently, the situation of a party failing to comply with a court order can simply be addressed by an action of contempt of court. The government wishes to exert power in imposing fines where findings of contempt are made. In the past, impositions of fines by the court in civil cases of this variety were not considered acceptable. However, in more recent times, the court has proven itself more willing to make punitive orders in these circumstances. There is simply no need for the minister to have this capacity. Indeed, such powers should only be extended to a government minister in extreme circumstances when a pressing need is demonstrated. Even then, providing the minister with such powers is questionable. The government has provided no compelling evidence as to why these powers are required, aside from its obvious agenda against unions. Of particular concern is the fact that the minister wishes to pursue orders where the parties and the court have chosen not to. This is an extreme and unnecessary measure.

The Greens also have concerns about the provisions of this bill in relation to comparable corporate governance disqualification provisions; for example, the court currently has the power to disqualify managers where it is satisfied that disqualification is justified after going through the relevant process to ensure fairness. Importantly, applications are brought by an independent authority. However, under the proposed bill such a process is not followed; instead applications are made directly by the minister. Disqualifications are automatic but then subject to appeal. So the onus is shifted onto the official. Also there is no additional requirement that the court be satisfied that the disqualification is justified. The government is attempting to provide the minister with the power to bring applications at his whim, which is unjustified and irresponsible.

On the subject of disqualification, under the proposed changes a prescribed order is a fine that the Federal Court has ordered for failing to comply with the civil penalty provision. Once a prescribed order has been made, the subject of that order is automatically disqualified from holding office for five years unless an application for leave to hold office is successful. Disqualification begins 28 days after the prescribed order unless an application for leave to hold office is made. If the application for leave to hold office takes longer than three months to decide and has not been extended then disqualification begins after three months. At present, offences which attract disqualification are criminal type offences such as convictions for fraud, violence towards another person or intentional damage to property. They also include offences such as committing electoral fraud. Including the failure to comply with a civil order, such as a return to work order, is an anomaly in this context. Including an act that a union official may engage in to protect the interests of themselves or a member shows that this government's assessment of the context and effect of such actions is askew, to say the least.

Trade unions play a crucial role in our society. They assist employees to address the power imbalance that necessarily exists between workers and their bosses. This power imbalance is widely acknowledged within the community, and indeed has been acknowledged by the highest court in Australia. Despite this and in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, the government refuses to acknowledge that unions play a crucial democratic role in our community. Without their contribution, Australian society would be a lesser society indeed. There are almost two million people in Australia who belong to a trade union. Trade unions represent the interests of ordinary Australian people, who would be far worse off if trade unions did not exist or did not fight the battles they have to protect and enhance employment conditions. It is clear that the Howard government is firmly focused upon protecting the interests of those that it actually represents. As the minister himself has said:

The Commonwealth has a duty to the community and the national interest to ensure that its laws are respected and upheld, particularly where this may prevent unlawful industrial action which threatens business performance ...

Recently we have seen the effect of the government's efforts, and a sign of things to come if the government gets its way, with the imposition of a $300,000 penalty on three major building unions: the Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Australian Workers Union. These fines, which are far larger than usual, were imposed as a result of the government's pursuit of unions using commercial laws. All three unions agreed to the penalty as a means of settling the restraint of trade dispute. This penalty is part of a deal which includes an agreement by all three unions that they will no longer use picket lines around the Orbost area, where the dispute arose which had been delaying the construction of an East Gippsland gas plant. The government plans to continue this sort of action by setting up a $7 million legal unit aimed at pursuing unionists.

The reason that the unionists and the community took action in this context was to prevent the company that would eventually operate the plant, Upstream Petroleum, from employing staff on contract. As a result of the deal, the company agreed to negotiate an agreement with staff collectively rather than use individual contracts. Union organisers do not take action for selfish reasons; they do so with workers in mind to ensure that hard-won conditions, including those to do with workplace safety and wages, are maintained and improved. They do not deserve to be pursued individually, and for the government to intimidate organisers in this fashion is unfair and draconian.

Recently we had a situation in the Illawarra where a stand-off between the unions and BHP Steel might have resulted in the federal government taking action if it had gained the powers it is currently pursuing. The government has promised that cases against unions will be pursued where there is evidence of the defiance of orders and where taking action is in the so-called public interest. In this context it appears that the public interest is, in actual fact, the interest of large companies. The government has promised it will give particular emphasis to such matters, amongst other things, as the impact of the defined contact on third parties in the broader economy. The Greens wonder if recent industrial action in the Illawarra between unions and BHP Steel might have been a situation where the government would have used its extra powers if it were able. In this circumstance the company took unprecedented action against the unions as tensions increased. As justification, the head of BHP Steel, Lance Hockridge, said something which sounded very similar to the government's reason for taking action against unions. He said:

The bottom line is, this sort of irresponsible action puts investment in this region, by ourselves and other companies, at risk.

BHP Steel said that it had been forced to take unprecedented action against the steel unions to protect its business, its customer confidence and the security of its employees. During this time, BHP Steel initiated action for the contravention of return to work orders. Once again this was a situation where unions feared the company was trying to force employees onto individual contracts. This is an example of union officials taking action to protect the rights and interests of their members in an industrial context where negotiations have broken down and serious loss of rights and conditions may ensue. The pursuit of individual union organisers—such as Mr Andy Gillespie, the Australian Workers Union branch secretary, who in this context was representing the interests of workers—is unnecessarily heavy-handed and unfair. It would result in thousands of Australian workers sacrificing conditions that have been hard fought and hard won.

By introducing this bill the government is indicating its desire to put another nail in the coffin of a fair, just and equitable Australia. What is this government's vision for the future of our nation? Is it to have no unions, union delegates in jail, unions bankrupted, workers and their representatives subjected to ongoing intimidation and a lowering of OH&S standards? The Greens condemn this bill and the government for its continued attacks upon the interests of working people in this country and attempts to whittle away the hard-won rights and entitlements of Australian workers and their unions.

The SPEAKER —While there is a question before the chair, I think it would be inappropriate for me to call a further speaker at this stage. The member for Burke, while anticipating the call, will be recognised later by the chair. It being 2.00 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A.