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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18458

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (7:13 PM) —in reply—I am pleased to have the opportunity to sum up this debate, which I will do quite briefly. I should say I listened in a state of some consternation to the normally sensible member for Brisbane denouncing Peter Reith for saying that he was in favour of people making a profit. I thought members opposite were actually in favour of people making a profit as well.

This government wants to see more effective Australian businesses that provide better returns to shareholders and higher wages to their workers, because we are working better, smarter and more cooperatively. There was an old song that said something along the long lines of: `You don't know what you've got till it's gone.' I used to really enjoy the contributions in this area from the former shadow minister for workplace relations, the member for Barton. Even though I did not always agree with him, I always knew that he would provide an extremely thoughtful, considered and well-informed contribution in this place. Having listened to the new shadow minister, the member for Rankin, I would say that he may have a doctorate but I am afraid that on today's performance he was all bile and no brain. There were attacks on me—

Dr Emerson —Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, I rise on a point of order. The minister says he is familiar with an old song. There is another one that goes:

You may be right

I may be crazy

But it just may be a lunatic you're looking for.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Rankin will resume his seat. That is a trivial point of order and he will be dealt with if he tries it again.

Mr ABBOTT —I suppose that the shadow minister is entitled to take his Latham pills and hysterically attack his opposite number, but I thought it was a bit much when he launched a savage attack on the Registrar of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, a perfectly good public servant, just because that gentleman had previously been an official of an employer organisation. Even the member for Brisbane seems to have been somewhat afflicted by whatever it is which is troubling the member for Rankin. Perhaps it is the `I am in trouble with the Queensland AWU' disease, because I know both of them have had their difficulties in recent times with the Queensland AWU. Let me simply say to the member for Brisbane that this government has prosecuted employers for breach of the industrial rules; in fact, the most recent prosecution launched by the building industry task force is, as I understand it, against an employer. I do not like strikes. I do not much like lockouts either but, above all else, I do not like illegality: I do not like people breaking the industrial law. This bill is all about trying to ensure that the rule of law applies just as much in our workplaces as it does, or should do, in every other area of our national life.

The shadow minister said that this bill targeted unions and not employers. In fact, that is not the case. It applies to the officers of registered organisations, to union officials and to officials of company organisations. It does so for the very understandable reason that, if you have special privileges under the Workplace Relations Act, you also have special responsibilities. We want people who hold office in registered organisations to take their responsibilities seriously. The member for Throsby, in her contribution, said that there really was not a problem because, in her words, `Only some two per cent of applications for return to work orders actually resulted in orders being breached.' I put it to the member for Throsby: what level of noncompliance is acceptable? When does she think it is right to defy orders of the commission? I would suggest to her that surely it is never right to defy orders of the Industrial Relations Commission or of the Federal Court. I accept that the vast majority of officials of registered organisations, both unions and employer organisations, do take their responsibilities seriously and do try to respect the orders of the commission and court, but it does not always happen. It should always happen, and when it does not happen there are often very serious consequences.

For instance, some members of this House would be aware of a dispute late last year at the Patricia Baleen gas project in Gippsland in Victoria. An industrial dispute there lasted for more than two months. It went on for that length of time despite three orders of the Federal Court and two section 127 orders by the Industrial Relations Commission. It cost workers and companies millions of dollars and in the end, as a result of that unlawful industrial dispute, workers are now operating under an agreement which was subsequently found by the ACCC to be a coerced agreement. It is right that we should do more to ensure that the industrial umpire, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, is taken seriously.

Members opposite like to talk about the importance of the Industrial Relations Commission; they like to talk about the umpire. This bill is about ensuring that the umpire is taken seriously. This bill is about ensuring that when the umpire blows his whistle, the players stop the game and adhere to the rules as stated by the umpire. The sad thing is that there are some officials, admittedly a small minority of union officials, who boast of flouting Industrial Relations Commission orders. They should be made to take the Industrial Relations Commission more seriously. They should understand that there are significant consequences to flouting orders of the commission. Members of this parliament claim to take the rule of law seriously. If members opposite were serious about the rule of law in workplace relations, they would be supporting this bill.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Dr Emerson's amendment) stand part of the question.