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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5314


Senator NETTLE (4:37 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002, which substantially mirrors proposed legislation the government introduced to parliament last year before the federal election. The government states that most of the provisions are technical, but the bill needs to be seen in the context of the coalition government's agenda to marginalise trade unions in the economic and social life of our country. In his second reading speech to this bill, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations stated that unions should:

... become more competitive, open and accountable in their internal activities.

He also stated that the bill will:

... enable registered organisations to be relevant, modern, service-oriented bodies, in touch with their members and in touch with modern principles of governance.

I believe that these remarks demonstrate a misunderstanding of the nature of unions. Unions are cooperative bodies and their members cooperate with each other and with other unions to advance their interests. In doing so, they benefit millions of Australians and they are a vital part of Australian life and make a valuable contribution to our civil society. The minister's remarks also imply that the current operations of Australian unions are not open and accountable and that unions somehow lack the ability to be relevant, modern and responsive to their members. The Australian Greens disagree.

Just this year we have seen unions responding to serious workplace issues such as excessive hours of work at a time when many Australians have no paid work, the need for paid leave for new parents and the improvement of redundancy provisions for their members. The ACTU and the Queensland Council of Unions are seeking better redundancy provisions for workers retrenched from their jobs and the lifting of exemptions from small business employers and companies employing people as long-term casuals. The coalition government yesterday argued, in a case before the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission, that employees can rely on the public income support system in the event that they are made redundant. This is the same social security system—under which great hardship is imposed on people whose benefits are suspended under the system—that the Ombudsman criticised this month for the way it imposes penalties. We have seen more criticism today with a report coming out from the National Welfare Rights Network.

With the wave of corporate collapses we have seen in the past few years that have left workers out of jobs and often out of pocket while company directors plan excessive exit arrangements for themselves, unions have a right to be nervous. Indeed, parliamentarians have, as recently as this morning, passed legislation to ensure their own lucrative exit strategies in the form of the Members of Parliament (Life Gold Pass) Bill 2002. We have also seen an increasing trend towards older workers facing discrimination when seeking new jobs after retrenchment. The Queensland Council of Unions advises that it is a particular problem for people aged 45 years and over, most of whom are out of work for more than six months after a retrenchment.

Contrary to the government's assertions and irrelevant comparisons with the experience of the Hawke-Keating Labor government, the unemployment rate in Australia remains high, stuck at 6.2 per cent. Around 131,000 unemployed people have been out of paid work for a year or longer and another 105,000 people have been out of work for between six to 12 months. Added to this, a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report revealed that almost one in four part-time workers want to work more hours. Then, of course, there are those discouraged job seekers who do not appear in these particular statistics.

At the same time, this government has introduced a regressive goods and services tax, which hurts low- and middle-income earners, and has cut back on the provision of public services such as education and health. In this climate, unions are right to seek better redundancy provisions for working people. Indeed, the Commonwealth government's submission to the union termination, change and redundancy case undermines its own arguments. Mr Abbott argued:

Retrenchments are a regrettable but necessary feature of a market economy. Retrenchments allow businesses and the economy to adjust and adapt during the business cycle. When new technologies and other innovations are introduced and when new efficiencies are realised, retrenchments may be necessary to re-organise and streamline more efficient businesses.

If the government is happy to leave the market to sort out these cyclical adjustments then, following on from the government's own reasoning, it should be happy to leave the market to sort out the redundancy arrangements. That means letting unions get on with the business of representing their members with regard to redundancy cases. Ideally, the social security system would provide for people's needs in times of unemployment, but Australia has a long way to go before it adequately addresses the needs of those workers who are not able to negotiate the high wages that act as a buffer against lean times and those for whom precarious seasonal, casual and short-term work is the only option.

The Australian Greens fully support the concept of trade unions operating according to democratic principles. We reject the government's premise behind this piece of legislation that unions are largely unaccountable and undemocratic. We also oppose the government's attempt to undermine the legitimate role of independent trade unions by encouraging enterprise associations. Enterprise associations accord with the government's view that industrial relations should be devolved down to the workplace level, or even the individual level through AWAs. Some on the other side of this chamber would put forward the argument that enterprise associations play a role in redressing a power imbalance between employers and unions where trade unions have too much power. Far from this, the evidence shows, and the Greens would put forward, that the balance of power in employer-employee relationships is weighted in favour of the employer. This is why working people belong to trade unions—it is a means for them to counter their position of relative disadvantage.

Independent trade unions provide a degree of protection. Their strength is drawn in large part from encompassing more than one workplace and from being able to employ full-time professional officials and organisers. Even then they face numerous obstacles, particularly under this government. Witness the impact of enterprise bargaining in the Commonwealth Public Service, where certified agreements are negotiated by individual departments and agencies. Even though the Community and Public Sector Union has substantial coverage of employees, the focus on enterprise based bargaining has generated large discrepancies in wage levels and working conditions. Enterprise associations, on the other hand, are based on a single workplace or company. In the case of small workplaces, enterprise associations are likely to have meagre financial resources. This naturally limits their bargaining power and makes them vulnerable to employer influence.

Enterprise associations can also find it difficult to stand up for employers when this is essential. While it is clear that employees and employers of any enterprise have a common interest in the successful operation of the business, there are times when their interests will conflict, and this is when employees truly need a strong and independent trade union to represent them. It may be true that there have been enterprise associations in the past that have worked in the genuine interests of their members. But we also know that unscrupulous employers can use enterprise associations to undermine genuine trade unionism and employees' rights to freedom of association.

One of the most notable cases of recent times is Suncorp Metway which, over a number of years, has tried to use the enterprise union registration provisions as a means of keeping out independent trade unions. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission found in 1991 that senior management had driven the establishment of the Metway Group Staff Association, formed in 1988, with the sole objective of avoiding outside bodies and avoiding federal jurisdiction which would have required the company to operate under a federal award. The company had undertaken to fully fund the staff association, paying for administrative services, wages, travel and legal expenses. The association changed its name to Metway Group Industrial Organisation of Employees and again, in late 1996, to Suncorp Metway Queensland Industry Development Corporation Staff Association following the merger between Metway Bank, Suncorp and QIDC. The staff association sought registration with the federal commission. The name was changed again, while the registration application was on foot, to SMQ Enterprise Union.

The commission rejected the application in 1999. The commission found that the SMQ Enterprise Union failed to meet the registration requirements that it was free from control by or improper influence from Suncorp Metway. It did so on the basis that the members of the management committee held shares in the company. The company then went on to register their union as an incorporated association, the Suncorp Metway Employee Council, again funded by the company. Suncorp Metway then set about developing a certified agreement through a team of management and staff representatives—the latter hand-picked by management and with no negotiating experience— and then sought feedback from the employee council. In the meantime, Suncorp Metway bought GIO from AMP in September 2001.

In May this year, Suncorp Metway sought to have their agreement certified before the commission. The company wanted their non-union agreement to cover GIO employees even though they had not been consulted about the provisions or asked to vote on the agreement. The Finance Sector Union appeared in the case on behalf of Suncorp Metway and GIO employees to raise concerns about the non-union agreement. Suncorp Metway told the commission that the agreement had met the registration requirements and that the majority of Suncorp employees had voted for it. But in July this year, the majority of GIO employees decided they wanted a union negotiated agreement. The commission found that the agreement met the requirements under the Workplace Relations Act for registration as a non-union agreement. This enabled the company to undermine the wages and conditions of former GIO employees through a provision that allowed the company to pick off workers one by one.

I hope that the Suncorp Metway case is exceptional and that this kind of conduct is not widespread in Australia. But this case certainly illustrates the dangers with enterprise associations. If the Workplace Relations Act is to permit the registration of enterprise associations—and the Australian Greens would argue that it simply should not—then we need to have safeguards in place against the kind of behaviour that Suncorp Metway management has engaged in.

The bills provide a provision that having an interest in the enterprise in question of itself is not an obstacle to the commission deciding that the association is free from control by or improper influence from the person or body. In the light of this provision, it is important to ensure that the other tests relating to the direct involvement of enterprises in enterprise unions are as strong as possible to protect the independence of any trade union.

I note that the bill was amended in the other place to insert a provision that appears to go some way towards addressing our concerns. It directs the commission to have regard to an employer's financial contribution towards the costs and expenses of an enterprise association when considering whether the association is free from control by or improper influence from the employer. This provision relies on the commission exercising discretion and the Australian Greens recognise there is a role for these discretionary powers. However, in the current political climate, with the coalition government clearly intent on pursuing an anti-union agenda, the Greens want to be certain that this legislation is strong enough to enable the commission to deal with cases like Suncorp Metway so that the commission can support the independence of trade unions. So I will be asking a range of questions in the committee stage of this bill to determine whether, indeed, this is the case as a result of the amendments made in the other place.