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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18363

Dr EMERSON (11:55 AM) —We have just heard a tirade from Braveheart on the higher education legislation.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. L.R.S. Price)—Order! The member will refer to the minister by his title.

Dr EMERSON —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. But now we are going to be subjected to a similar tirade during this debate by his colleague the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, otherwise known as Flintheart. That is because this legislation, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003, applies very tough sanctions to one side of the workplace relations bargain. It applies very tough sanctions to any union official or any member of a union who may do anything that the minister considers to be unacceptable. He is a bully. He is a class warrior, certainly an apostle of the far Right, and he is now here in the chamber. It is appalling that now there are 12 pieces of legislation in the parliament introduced by this minister that are being debated and that each and every one of those has the one consistent objective. That consistent objective is to weaken the bargaining position of working Australians in any bargain with their employers. This minister consistently seeks to intervene in workplace bargains on one side of the equation, on the side of the employers. He seeks to intervene to create conflict where no conflict is necessary and to inflame conflict where there is already a dispute.

This bill imposes new penalties on union officials, employees and members of unions for non-compliance with commission or court orders under the Workplace Relations Act. It is no surprise whatsoever that the legislation is only aimed at employees, officials and members of unions. It does apply to registered employer organisations but it has no effect on employers who flout the law. So there we have it again: this one-sided approach from this one-eyed minister, this zealot of the far Right who comes into this chamber, time and time again, arguing for legislation that would yet again tilt the bargaining table very heavily in favour of employers and consistently against the interests of working Australians. The legislation provides for automatic disqualification from holding union office for up to five years for anyone who is fined under these provisions. That of course would deny union officials the right to earn a living if they get even a minor fine for some minor breach. So this is yet another instalment in this minister's union-busting campaign, given his obsessive right-wing zealotry, to try to destroy every trade union in this country, because he hates trade unions and he works consistently against the interests of working Australians.

The legislation potentially fines union members, not just officials but members of unions, up to $2,200 for even the slightest slip in respect of a procedural direction or order of the commission. Members of trade unions are not trained in all of the law associated with this legislation, the law associated with the issuing of court orders. Any slight slip and they could be fined up to $2,200. I refer, for example, to the Morris McMahon dispute, to which the minister turned up. This was where union members wanted to be represented in negotiations by their trade union. The minister goes along and Van, who is a worker who receives about $11 an hour—this is not a highly paid worker; this is a very lowly paid worker—says to the minister: `Yes, but we don't want the agreement with them, the Australian workplace agreement. I have my right. My choice is the union. If the union can help us, yeah.' And the minister says, `You have every right to ask for a collective agreement, every right in the world.'

This week in the parliament we have been addressing the issue of honesty. In this instance, the minister was, at the very best, being mean and tricky, because in the most literal sense he was correct—that is, they have every right to ask for a collective agreement. However, the employer, under the minister's legislation, has every right to refuse it. The minister did not point that out to Van, on $11 an hour, did he? No, he did not. He was being tricky, saying that Van has the right to ask for a collective agreement. He did not tell the truth, and the truth is that the employer has the right to say no, under the minister's legislation.

Subsequently in those conversations, the minister said, `People who want a collective agreement can have one.' That is untrue—truth has gone overboard yet again. The minister is in on the act on truth overboard, because he says that people who want a collective agreement can have one. That is what he told Van at the Morris McMahon picket line that involved a lockout for 17 weeks. He told Van that if those union members want a collective agreement they can have one. That is untrue. Truth has gone overboard yet again. Why are the members of this government constitutionally incapable of telling the truth? Why would you mislead a worker on $11 an hour; why would you give that worker false hope that the workers at that particular factory could be represented in the negotiations by a trade union when, under the minister's own legislation, they could not? That is mean, tricky and untruthful.

This flint-hearted minister is the minister who said there is a risk of people getting too fussy and becoming job snobs. He talks about compassion; in fact, he gave a speech to the H.R. Nicholls Society—it says it all, doesn't it?—on constructive compassion. Does calling people job snobs show compassion? Where is the compassion there? This government complains that Labor claims it has a mortgage on compassion; we do have a mortgage on compassion! There is no compassion from the flint-hearted minister. There is no compassion for low-paid workers in this country from this government.

This is the same minister who, we remember, talked about a bad boss and said, `If we were honest most of us would accept that a bad boss is a little bit like a bad father or a bad husband: notwithstanding all his or her faults, he tends to do more good than harm; he might be a bad boss, but at least he is employing someone while he is a boss.' So here is the minister condoning abusive relationships in the work-place, where employers can dismiss their employees unfairly.

Just the night before last Labor was able to get the support of the minor parties to defeat completely unfair legislation; the basic protections of Australian workers would have been torn away through the termination of employment bill. That bill would have allowed employers to dismiss their employees unfairly, as would the double dissolution triggers that are already before the parliament in the form of unfair dismissal legislation for small business. That legislation would allow small businesses with 20 or fewer employees to dismiss their employees unfairly. Of course, in typical Orwellian fashion that legislation is called the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002. That is the government's understanding and appreciation of the notion of fairness—that it can dismiss people unfairly and then call the legislation it uses to do that the fair dismissal bill. We will not have a bar of it. We will not have a bar of the flint-heartedness of this government, and whenever it introduces legislation into this parliament that further disadvantages working Australians we will oppose it. We opposed the legislation the night before last, and we are opposing this particular bill, because yet again it is flint-hearted and it is unfair.

This legislation also allows the minister—not just the employer but the minister—to continue divisive legal proceedings long after disputes have finished and the parties are trying to work harmoniously again. We know the minister has form on this. He has written to the automotive industry, and he has told them that they are not muscling up enough in their negotiations on enterprise bargains with trade unions—and with the AMWU in particular. The minister is very disappointed with the fact that there have been some 1,400 enterprise bargains and, despite the minister's prophecy that there would be rampant industrial disputation in the automotive industry, there has not been. The negotiations, on the whole—over-whelmingly—have been proceeding without industrial disputation, and the minister is disappointed, because he is the minister for conflict and division. He prophesied that there would be rampant industrial disputation in the automotive industry, and he is very disappointed because there has not been. So he has written to them and said, `What is wrong with you employers? It is about time to muscle up.' Now he has legislation in this parliament that would allow him to intervene: if the employers will not do it, he will.

The minister consistently talks about the rule of law. In an interview with Business Review Weekly in April this year he said, `Business generally has done too little to en-sure that the rule of law is the reality in workplace relations.' There have been instances where employers in the automotive industry have decided not to proceed with or not to continue legal proceedings against union officials, and the minister is very angry about that, because he wants conflict and division. If a minister of workplace relations is going to intervene in a dispute, he or she should intervene to try to resolve the dispute—but this minister intervenes to inflame disputes. Even when disputes are over he wants to intervene through this legislation to restart them. Talk about an apostle of the far Right! All the minister is interested in is conflict.

Who does this bill apply to? It applies to members, officials and employees of registered organisations, which, effectively, are trade unions. Yes, it applies to employer associations but not to employers. Because em-ployer associations or organisations are rarely direct participants in industrial action, it has no practical effect on them. If this legislation were to pass through the Senate, what would be a contravention? A contravention is being involved in contravention triggers, and that is what triggers the punitive measures in the legislation. It includes aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the contravention; inducing the contravention by threats or promises or otherwise; or being in any way knowingly concerned in or party to the contravention.

So if you are an employee who is represented by a union and you know that the union is doing something that is in contravention of an order then you can be prosecuted—not by the employer and not by an employer organisation but by this minister. He wants to get in on the act and he wants to prosecute low-paid workers who happen to know that their union, which they expect is operating in their best interests, might be contravening an order. So do not go after the union; go after the defenceless worker. This guy—this minister—wants to use industrial thuggery to initiate actions to go after vulnerable workers so that he can get an order and get them fined up to $2,200 and, if they happen to be a union official, take away their livelihood for up to five years.

What penalties would apply? A person who has been ordered to pay a pecuniary penalty is automatically disqualified from holding office in a registered organisation for up to five years. The amendments would empower the Federal Court to impose pecuniary penalties of $11,000 for bodies corporate and $2,200 for individuals—that is, $2,200 for some of the most lowly paid, vulnerable workers in this country who would be targeted by this minister's thuggery. It would also empower the Federal Court to order a person to pay compensation to a registered organisation that has suffered damage as a result of the contravention. So, again, it may be available to the court to determine that an employee, essentially minding his or her own business but who happens to know that the union which is representing them may or may not be contravening an order, could be subject to damages from the employer—ordered by a Federal Court and encouraged by this minister. Why wouldn't we say that he is a flint-hearted minister? He lacks all compassion. This is completely unfair legislation.

Who could apply for these orders? The minister could, or his Industrial Registrar could—so he can intervene directly in these disputes—or any person authorised in writing by the minister or the Industrial Registrar could. In fact, a registered organisation can apply for a compensation order against a union official, an employee or a member. Let me point out that the Industrial Registrar who would be empowered is Nicholas Wilson, who commenced a five-year term in December 2002 and who used to be the Assistant Director of the South Australian Employers Federation. So here we are again: the minister, as when entering into any dispute, is taking one side—the side of the employer—and exercising his one-eyed, right-wing zealotry. We will not have a bar of it. We oppose this legislation completely and we are moving a second reading amendment. Therefore, I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the Bill a sec-ond reading, the House condemns the Gover-nment for:

(1) systematically intervening in workplaces against the interests of working Australians who choose to be represented by trade unions; and

(2) its double standards in attacking working Australians and their trade unions through selective changes to the legislative frame-work while refusing to take com-parable action against corporate misbehaviour in-cluding:

(a) introducing new offences and penalties for trade union officials while failing to amend the Corp-orations Act to introduce comparable offences and penalties for highly paid executives and directors;

(b) failing to introduce legislative pro-vis-ions to rein in obscene executive pay-outs; and

(c) failing to take action against the use of corporate insolvencies and `phoenix' companies to avoid paying employee entitlements and debts owed to small businesses”.

The point of the second reading amendment shows that this government is systematic in what it does. It is systematic in inflaming industrial disputes and it is systematic in creating industrial disputes. When it does, it always comes in on one side: against the interests of working Australians. This minister pointed out earlier in his tenure that he understands that the second wave of industrial relations legislation failed to pass the Senate because it was indigestible. It came too closely on the heels of the first wave. The Senate rejected it because it could not and would not digest it. So the minister has responded by breaking up the second wave legislation into a series of bite sized chunks—some 11 bills altogether. Each and every one of those bills is designed to weaken the bargaining position of working Australians vis-a-vis their employers. He said:

By contrast, there were no comparable industrial milestones in the Howard Government's second term. The Government's `second wave' legislation never made it through the Senate partly, it was argued, because the 1996 reforms hadn't been given enough time to work and partly because omnibus legislation gives critics an excuse to reject everything on the basis of one or two issues. The Government's third term challenge is to regain its earlier momentum ...

That is what he is trying to do. He is trying to break up this second wave of legislation into bite sized chunks. I can tell you, Labor does not find the bite sized chunks any tastier than the original full loaf, because it is all tilted against the interests of working Australians. This minister has been at it since the time he took office as the minister for workplace relations. He does not know his legislation. He misleads workers on picket lines, who have been locked out for 17 weeks, in terms of the impact of his own legislation, and he tells workers on $11 an hour that they have every right to be represented by their union in negotiations with the employer when they do not.

The minister does not even understand his legislation or, worse, he understands it very well but, when faced with the sadness, as we would see it, of a worker locked out for 17 weeks and earning only $11 an hour, cannot say with courage and honesty to that worker, `Under my legislation, it is true you don't have the right to be represented by your trade union because the employer doesn't want you represented by your trade union.'

This flint-hearted minister is pursuing this package of 12 pieces of legislation for one reason and one reason only—that is, to ingratiate himself with the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister over 25 years in this parliament has consistently said that dearest to his heart—if we can find his heart—is the so-called reform of workplace relations. That first wave of legislation set back very savagely the interests of working Australians. But this minister knows how to curry favour with the Prime Minister in his competition with the Treasurer to become the leader of the Liberal Party. That is what this is all about. With every piece of legislation that he puts into this parliament, he gets a pat on the back from the Prime Minister—who also has no understanding of the word `compassion', just like this flint-hearted minister—for continuing to pursue the Prime Minister's ideological obsession with creating a situation where there is no bargaining strength on the part of an employee.

The Prime Minister and the minister's preference would be individual contracts in all cases—no collective agreements. What this minister likes and embraces is Australian workplace agreements. If Australian workplace agreements were ever applied around Australia in numbers, we would have working Australians in a shocking bargaining position with their employers. But that is exactly what they are after. They are after the complete deregulation of the labour market—far right wing ideology—so that the employee in a negotiation has no bargaining strength whatsoever. There is a method to this. Why would they want that situation? It is because, first, they are Liberals, and Liberals do like a situation of very uneven bargaining power; and, secondly, the philosophy and economic policy of this government has been to enter Australia into a race to the bottom—a race to the bottom of low skills and low wages, where working Australians are forced to compete on wage costs against the countries of East Asia.

We know from the 1996 first wave of legislation that that is what the government sought to achieve. We know from the 1996-97 savage cuts to education and training budgets that this government is not interested in investing in the skills of the Australian work force. And you would not be: if your goal were to enter Australia into a race to the bottom, to take the low road, to low skills and low wages, why would you invest in the skills, the intelligence and the talents of working Australians? That is where the most savage budget cuts are. The government is saying, `We're taking you down the low road, to low skills and low wages, so that you can compete on wage costs against the countries of East Asia, most particularly China.'

This is a race that Australia and working Australians should never have been entered into. It is a race that we should never aspire to win. Labor's approach is to take working Australians along the high road, to high skills and high wages, and to invest in the talents of working Australians. It is not to compete on wage costs against the countries of East Asia, most particularly China, but to compete on the basis of innovation and the talents of working Australians. We want a situation where working Australians can command high wages, but this government has entered us into this race to the bottom.

These are the choices that will be confronting working Australians at the next election. Will they continue down this low road of low skills and low wages or will they get an opportunity, by changing the government of this country, to go along the high road of high skills and high wages? That is the choice that will be available, and I know what the Australian people will do. They want to go along the high road. They do not want to go any more along this road of the flint-hearted minister, who says that a bad boss is better than no boss at all and that an abusive relationship between an employer and an employee is okay. These are appalling comments from which he has never resiled. When he was asked about it, he said, `I could have put it slightly differently.' That was his greatest concession; he said that he could have put it slightly differently. But the minister spent a lot of time thinking about this; this was no off-the-cuff remark. It revealed the true mentality of this man. This man from the far Right thinks that an abusive relationship in the workplace is okay. Why do we know that? We know that because he wants to empower employers to dismiss their workers unfairly—that is, to be in an abusive relationship with an employee. If in those circumstances an employee says, `I'm not going to cop this,' and the employer then dismisses the employee, there will be no remedy.

That is what this minister wanted to do two nights ago in legislation that went to the Senate. He wanted to take over the unfair dismissal legislation of the states, using the corporations power, and then weaken it to this very weak level where an employee would have no real remedy. For small businesses with fewer than 20 employees, there would be no remedy whatsoever. You would think, though, that from time to time the government would like to say, `We've tried to even things up and we're now going to take a few measures against the big end of town.' But, no, when it comes to regulation against the big end of town, they will not have a bar of it. They allow for excessive corporate salaries. They have allowed consistently for very poor corporate behaviour in this country. They have opposed just about every measure that we have introduced—including private members' bills to try to create more information in the marketplace on the activities of corporate cowboys—because those at the big end of town are their mates. It is a consistent pattern of behaviour. That is why we moved this second reading amendment. This legislation—one of a dozen pieces of legislation—is, yet again, one sided and unfair.

As I said when I was first asked to take on this position of shadow minister for workplace relations, my presumption will be that if legislation is brought into this chamber by this minister it is almost certainly antiworker legislation, and it is therefore bad and we will oppose it. The night before last, we opposed the legislation that would have ripped away at the social safety net and the basic protections of vulnerable Australians—protections against being dismissed unfairly. We opposed that legislation and we are proud to be able to stand up for working Australians in this country through that opposition.

This legislation too will allow this minister to get into the middle of industrial disputation, to inflame industrial disputes, not only where industrial disputation is already taking place but even when the parties have settled—even when they have said, `Look, we've had a bit of a blue here, but it's time to move on.' The minister is saying, through this legislation, that he reserves the right to intervene after a dispute has been settled and then apply punitive sanctions to some of the poorest, most vulnerable workers in this country who may have had, in his view, the audacity to be represented by a trade union, who may only tangentially have been involved in a contravention of an order of the federal court by a trade union.

The minister wants to strike terror into the hearts of working Australians, saying, `You could be hit with these punitive fines and, therefore, it is not in your interest to join a trade union.' That is what this is all about. He is making working Australians think seriously about the risk of becoming a trade union member in this country because, if they do, this minister, through this legislation, would reserve the right to intervene in a dispute that is ongoing, or even when it is settled, and have penalties of $2,200 applied to innocent working Australians who did nothing more than choose to be represented by a trade union. He is a flint-hearted minister, he is an apostle of the far Right, and we will not have a bar of this legislation. Every breath in our bodies will be applied to defeating this legislation in the House of Representatives and in the Senate.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. L.R.S. Price)—The honourable member for Rankin has moved an amendment. Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Zahra —I am happy to second the amendment.