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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18453

Mr BEVIS (6:53 PM) —I rise to oppose the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003. I congratulate the member for Calare on the brief but valuable contribution he made. I also congratulate my colleague the member for Corio, who always gives an impassioned address in matters of this kind, and the member for Throsby, who spoke earlier today. Their contributions are in stark contrast to those of the few government members—and there are only a few—who have entered this debate. In introducing this bill and in his comments surrounding it, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has maintained his approach to industrial relations, which is now something of a trademark. Minister Abbott's continuing ignorance of industrial relations has never held back his obsessive pursuit of laws that are designed to punish unions; restrict the power and independence of the Industrial Relations Commission, our umpire; and further tilt the industrial relations field in favour of those employers who share this government's views about industrial relations.

Minister Abbott used to refer to himself as an `L-plate' minister for workplace relations. That is his description of himself, I might add. His many misdemeanours in the job since then have guaranteed that, in the eyes of all who are involved in industrial relations, he has still not even graduated to P-plates. This fellow would have lost his learner's permit—it would have been revoked on any fair and reasonable assessment of his performance as minister for workplace relations. It is clear that, after a couple of years in the job, that L-plate status that he conferred upon himself publicly is still very appropriate. But he has never let that ignorance and lack of understanding of industrial relations and of the way in which workplaces operate—or, indeed, of the wider industrial relations system—stand in the way of his blind pursuit of biased and divisive laws. This is one of those laws. The minister has been driven—and it can be seen in this bill—to find new and bigger sticks with which to attack workers and their unions. This bill proposes to do that even after a dispute is resolved. That is one of the amazing things about this bill. It would take a resolved and settled dispute and open the wounds anew. Any government that thinks that is a wise course of action has clearly failed to talk with or listen to any of the key participants in industrial relations.

It comes as no surprise that Minister Abbott would seek to do this. We have only to look at his record. I will mention quickly a couple of past incidents. We recall the Tristar dispute in the automotive industry, where the minister rushed out and accused the workers of treason and publicly urged the company not to negotiate. That is a rather peculiar position for a minister of the Crown to adopt if they want to be seen as conducting themselves in good faith in seeking to resolve the dispute. The position adopted by the minister at the time was well encapsulated in a cartoon of the day. It showed Minister Abbott decked out in a fireman's uniform, ready to douse the flames of the fire of the industrial dispute. But it was not water that he was putting on the fire—he was at a petrol pump and he was pouring petrol on it. That cartoon pretty well said it all. Here you had a minister in the midst of a dispute whose only contribution was to inflame the problem. That was the way it was depicted in the mass media.

This divisive, aggressive and biased campaign by the Howard government and Minister Abbott is now well documented and widely understood. I want to refer to the comments of a respected industrial relations lawyer on the matter of the government's approach to industrial relations, of which this bill is yet another brick. I refer to the comments of Joe Catanzariti, who is widely known and respected. At the time he made these comments—October of last year—he was the national chairman and partner in employment and workplace relations matters for Clayton Utz, a company the Prime Minister will be familiar with as he used to be on their payroll as well. These are not the left-wing radicals of the law society that we are dealing with. This is what Joe Catanzariti had to say only last year:

It's time to ask the parties what they want and move away from [the] ideology of the political parties ...

When he refers to the parties, he means the industrial parties. He continues:

The time has come to rethink where we are. We have to ... take stock and start again.

This article in the workplace review publication was headed by the comment that Joe Catanzariti has urged the federal government to abandon its ideological position on industrial relations and amend the Workplace Relations Act so that it fits the practical needs of the industrial parties.

He went on to contrast the AIRC unfavourably with state tribunals—the same state tribunals which operate under state Labor laws and which are the subject of regular tirades from this minister whenever he has the opportunity. Catanzariti went on to say:

In recent years ... there had been memorable cases `that for want of jurisdiction ultimately required Federal Court intervention'.

He then cited Davids Distribution, G&K O'Connor and Yallourn Energy. He also commented that the Workplace Relations Act has become as complex as the tax act and lamented that, under the legalistic regime of this government, many lawyers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find flaws in technical legal matters rather than resolving disputes. This bill adds to that complexity. It goes precisely in the opposite direction to that advanced by people like Joe Catanzariti. Joe Catanzariti is identified as a leading lawyer in industrial relations, working for a firm which is certainly not regarded as close to the labour movement. Yet this bill flies in the face of all of that.

There are already substantial penalties in the act for breaches of orders and contempt. One has to wonder why it is that the government wants to pursue this. It certainly cannot be because there has been some wild spate of industrial action in the last couple of years that has driven the economy to its knees or that there has been some wild outburst of uncontrolled activity by unionists that has called police into the streets on a regular basis to quell the crowds. Of course that is nonsense. If you look at the most recent ABS figures on industrial disputes you will find the number of working days lost in the year 2000 was 469,000. In 2001 that had fallen to 393,000, and in 2002 that had fallen to 259,000. There is a continuing decline, and that decline has been evident in the statistics since about the mid-1980s.

In spite of the fact that industrial disputes are at very low levels and are continuing to decline, the government now brings in a piece of legislation intended to do one thing: take a massive legislative stick and try and punish and intimidate only one side in this industrial relations environment—the unions and the workers. Companies and lawyers are, frankly, already using loopholes in the act to place unions in a position where they may well find themselves in breaches of order and to deny unions natural justice. That is a view held not just by those in the labour movement; it is a view made clear by one of the commission's most senior members. An article from July of last year said:

A senior member of the IRC criticised employers for deliberately lodging applications for s166A certificates and other similar urgent applications late on Friday afternoons to deny unions natural justice.

Justice Paul Munro made the comment when he `reluctantly' issued a s166A certificate ... against the AMWU ...

In the decision, he criticised the company's actions in filing the application on the Friday afternoon so that the majority of the 72-hour notice period was taken up over the weekend. The article continued:

He said it had become regular practice for employers to `lodge relatively late on a Friday matters in respect of which there is a need for expedition enjoined by the Act'.

That means that as a commissioner he did not have any discretion with regard to this. The act that the government put in place ties the commission's hands. They must deal with it, they must deal with it within a tight time frame, and the orders that they give then have a tight time frame of 72 hours for the unions to comply. He said about this problem:

This provided `no real opportunity to accord what might be described as natural justice'.

We already have a situation under the current act whereby employers and their advocates are using loopholes in the legislation and the processes to deny unions natural justice and put them into a position where they are likely to be in breach of orders. There are already provisions in the act to deal with breach of orders, and I will come to those in a moment.

One of the things that clearly demonstrates the government's intent and the minister's intent is that the bill provides the minister with the power to intervene and seek penalties. He can do that without consultation with the parties and whether or not the parties agree with his intervention. That means that into a dispute that has been settled—a dispute in which the employer, the workers, the employer's representative and the workers' representative all agree that the matter has been settled satisfactorily and is ended—can trot the dark knight on his dark horse with a dark plan; into that can trot Minister Abbott to cause havoc for political gain.

Cast aside the interests of the company, cast aside the interests of the workers, cast aside the interests of good public policy and certainly cast aside any notion that the government and the minister are acting in good faith or as honest brokers. The minister can trot in there under this bill and effectively force a further dispute between the parties that reopens the entire wound. That is the process that this government says is a sensible way forward. This is the same government that has told us repeatedly since it came to office in 1996 that there should not be any third parties involved in industrial relations.

We have argued for years that what the government really meant was that there should be no unions involved. `We don't want unions,' say the Liberal Party and the National Party. `We don't want unions to have a role,' say the government, `and we certainly don't want the umpire to be making decisions we don't like or interfering with the prerogative of management.' Under a facade of rhetoric about no third-party involvement the government championed its major legislative reforms. Yet here we have a bill that puts front and centre a third party, not just to participate in the process but to override the key participants. With or without the wishes of any of the parties involved in an industrial dispute, the minister can trot in on his dark horse with dark plans and create havoc. And if that produces for the minister some political gain then that is what he will do, as he did in the Tristar dispute that I referred to earlier in which he poured petrol on the fire.

We have now stripped bare the government's claim of not wanting to see third parties involved. It is now nakedly apparent that this government relishes third-party involvement. What the government does not like is involvement of parties that do not agree with its industrial relations prescription. That is exactly what the government has been about in other bills and that is what this bill proposes, except that it goes further than other bills by giving the minister the direct power to intervene.

In his second reading speech on this bill the minister claimed that section 127 orders do not work. The heading of section 127 is `Orders to stop or prevent industrial action'. The minister claimed that these orders were not working and therefore he needed this bill that provides these extraordinary powers to him to continue to get a bigger and bigger stick with which to hit those involved in industrial relations. The minister cannot have it both ways. The same minister, introducing another bill this year, said:

Whilst section 127 has generally proved to be an effective mechanism, delays in making or enforcing section 127 orders have sometimes extended the period during which enterprises and their workers are exposed to unprotected industrial action.

Which is it, Minister? Either section 127 `has generally proved to be an effective mechanism'—your words, spoken in this House this year—in which case there is no basis whatsoever for this bill, or it is an abysmal failure that requires a whole new mechanism with a bigger stick and the right of the minister to personally intervene. You would think that by now, even with his L-plates, the minister would have figured out that if he is introducing two bills into this parliament in the same year he should at least use rhetoric for one that is compatible with that of the other. In his own words, in the second reading speeches that he has given on two bills, he has contradicted the very core argument he has advanced for this bill. There is no argument to be advanced for this bill.

The bill theoretically applies to employers as well as employees. I say `theoretically' because we know from past practice, and particularly with this government, that it is unlikely ever to be used against an employer. That is not because employers do everything correctly; indeed, they do not. Employers make their share of mistakes, as do unions and the rest of us—even, dare I say, a few politicians. But there is not a person in Australia who believes that Minister Abbott is about to initiate a prosecution against an employer for doing the wrong thing as a result of an order from the Industrial Relations Commission. There is not a person in Australia who believes that will happen. I will cite a couple of key examples. On many occasions there have been strikes in the automotive industry, the manufacturing industry and the construction industry that have gone on for two, three, four or five days. We have heard tirades of abuse from Minister Abbott, in this chamber and outside it, criticising those workers for taking industrial action. Contrast that with the attitude that this government, this minister and his predecessor have taken when employers take industrial action. I will cite three or four examples.

G&K O'Connor meatworks in Pakenham are often mentioned in this place. They are guilty of the longest lockout since the Great Depression. Indeed, I can find no precedent of a longer lockout. They locked their work force out for nine months because the work force was not prepared to take a pay cut. For nine months those workers were denied the opportunity to work. What did this government say about that? Has the minister at the table to this day criticised it? No. The minister at the time was Peter Reith. Far from criticising it, Peter Reith actually applauded it. Peter Reith is on the record in the local Pakenham Gazette as saying that he had no objection to G&K O'Connor locking out their 334 workers. He said he supported O'Connor's actions and the moves taken by the company to de-unionise their work force. That was the official position of the minister of the Crown, the immediate predecessor of the fellow at the table now. The minister at the table has had many opportunities in question time and in debates on bills before this parliament to clearly denounce the activities of G&K O'Connor and the nine-month lockout. If it had been a nine-day strike by workers, you can bet your bottom dollar that this minister would have been on the attack. But during a nine-month lockout by the company there was not one word of criticism from this minister.

That is not the only example. ACI in Victoria locked their work force out. In a very Scrooge like way, they closed the place down on Christmas Eve. The workers were locked out for five months. Again, there was not one word of criticism from Minister Abbott, his predecessor or any other minister in this government. Joy Manufacturing in New South Wales locked its work force out for three months. The situation was the same: not a word of complaint from this minister. He has had the opportunity in this debate to place on the record his concerns about those lockouts. As I have on many occasions in the past, I invite him to do so. I invite him to denounce the reprehensible actions of those employers in locking workers out—not for hours, Minister, not for days or weeks but for months. If there is any pretence at even-handedness by this government they will denounce the actions of those employers; but they do not.

Do the ordinary working men and women of Australia have any faith that now, all of a sudden, the government will act with an even hand in the administration of this bill if it is passed? Of course they will not. They never have. Their record is clear on this. The Prime Minister, former Minister Peter Reith and the current minister, Tony Abbott, are not honest brokers in industrial relations. They are actively biased participants. Do not forget what Peter Reith said in a speech he gave to a business lunch in Western Australia:

Never forget the history of politics and never forget which side we're on. We're on the side of making profits. We're on the side of people owning private capital.

So spoke a minister of the Crown, representing this government. It is a view held by the minister at the table. Until the government get fair dinkum about being even-handed and being people of good faith in this debate then no-one in Australia will trust them with the sorts of powers this bill seeks to give them. (Time expired)