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Wednesday, 26 March 2003
Page: 10170


Senator SHERRY (11:19 AM) —On behalf of the Australian Labor Party opposition, I rise to speak to the message from the House of Representatives. The Labor Party will not agree with the message from the House of Representatives and will be voting to oppose it. The message we are dealing with relates to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill 2002 [No. 2]. This bill, which was introduced by the government, came about as a result of the courts and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission not yet resolving whether bargaining fees are an industrial matter. We are not certain at this time whether, in fact, bargaining fees are an industrial matter. If it is held that they are not, the proposed laws that were presented by the Liberal government become nothing more than a useless appendage to the act, because provisions in certified agreements dealing with bargaining bills would have no legal force.

The Labor Party takes the view that now is not the appropriate time to be considering this matter before the parliament when it is not clear what the legal position is in respect of bargaining fees and whether or not they have legal force. However, the Liberal government has presented a piece of legislation that effectively outlaws bargaining fees. The Labor Party takes the view that, in presenting the legislation to outlaw bargaining fees, the government was intervening unnecessarily in matters that are determined by the relevant parties to industrial provisions. It is up to the individuals involved—both employees and employers—to determine what are appropriate bargaining fees at an enterprise level. The same principle holds true in the issues relating to Australian workplace agreements. The Labor Party does not believe that, where the parties have agreed, government should be interfering in the agreements that are reached.

The government has entitled this bill the Workplace Relations Amendment (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill 2002 [No. 2]. That is the description it has given the bill. We have seen a variety of other titles used for industrial relations legislation. We have had the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002 and the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Termination) Bill 2002—they are titles of other bills which come to mind. I want to say very firmly and clearly to the Senate that this bill is not about compulsory union fees; the bill itself speaks of `bargaining service fees'.

The position taken by the Labor opposition to this piece of legislation in the Senate was a positive one. We took that approach in conjunction with my Senate colleague Australian Democrat Senator Murray and successfully moved six amendments to the legislation. Without going into all the detail, the core of the amendments was to outline a process by which permissible bargaining fees would be allowed. The substantial detail of that is contained in the first amendment, which was carried by the Senate. It outlines a process whereby an organisation may charge a permissible bargaining fee if it is in connection with an agreement made under section 170LJ. The agreement's beneficiaries include those who have not made a contribution to the costs of reaching the agreement by means of paying a union membership fee. The permissible bargaining fee has to be explained in clear language, and in writing, to all employees in advance of the vote on the agreement, and I emphasise that a vote will take place on the agreement.

In summary, the amendment provides that the details of the permissible bargaining fee and the services are set out in the agreement; all employees affected by the agreement are advised; a valid majority of persons employed at the time whose employment would be subject to the agreement must have genuinely agreed to the provision; the agreement provides for the method and timing of the fee to be paid; the independent Industrial Relations Commission is to be satisfied that the fee is fair and reasonable; and the agreement provides that new employees pay the fee only for a pro rata period of the agreement.

That is the substance of the first amendment and the six amendments that were successfully moved by Senator Murray on behalf of the Australian Democrats and supported by the Australian Labor Party. Amendment (2) provides for a tough provision if a false or misleading representation is made. There is some inappropriate irony in the fact that the government has decided to pick up the tougher enforcement provisions and accept them when they go to prohibiting bargaining fees, but it is not supporting the other five amendments which outline the process through which bargaining fees may be charged.

The Labor Party maintains its position. It thinks it has been positive and responsible in amending the bill in the way that has been advanced by Senator Murray. I was informed this morning that Senator Murray, on behalf of the Australian Democrats, is not going to insist on the amendments that were carried and, therefore, will be voting to accept the message from the House of Representatives. I ask, through you, Chair: is that correct, Senator Murray?


Senator Murray —To clarify, as a courtesy I advise the Labor Party that that will be so.


Senator SHERRY —Thank you. I thank the Temporary Chairman for his indulgence. I was advised correctly. I wanted to confirm that before I launched into a critique—I did not want to be unfair. It is a matter of grave disappointment to the Australian Labor Party that the Australian Democrats are going to back down and support the government's message and effectively support the bill that the government has presented to the other place and to the Senate. As I said earlier, the Australian Labor Party believes the amendments that were moved by Senator Murray— I emphasise that they were Senator Murray's amendments—were appropriate and well balanced. They made the current position, which is legally unclear, very clear. We had certainty as a result of the amendments that Senator Murray moved and which the Australian Labor Party supported. We are disappointed with the approach of the Australian Democrats.

As I indicated in my opening remarks, the Australian Labor Party, as true defenders of the protections and rights of workers in this country, will not be changing their position. We believe that it is appropriate and may be permissible for bargaining fees to be charged. There should be a clear process for that to occur, and it is wrong in principle to be interfering in agreements that are reached between employees—workers—and employers. Where they agree and where these arrangements are subject to a ballot in a democratic process, it is inappropriate for government to be interfering in this way. For the very clear reasons of principle that I have outlined to the Senate chamber this morning, the Labor Party will not be supporting the message. They will not be backing down and they will not change their position on this issue.