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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18777

Dr EMERSON (7:36 PM) —The stated aim of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003 is to amend section 299 of the Workplace Relations Act and to codify the contempt provisions as they apply to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. But there are already provisions in the Workplace Relations Act which, in conjunction with the common law, would ensure that any contempt of the commission is an offence and is subject to penalties—this is the existing section 299. Even the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations acknowledged this recently when he said:

There is a law prohibiting contempt of the Industrial Relations Commission.

The minister was right for once. These were the minister's own words in an interview to a publication called Human Capital Australia, which was published in March this year. We have to question the real aim of this bill. If, as I state, there is no necessity for this legislation, why has the minister sought to introduce it into the parliament? The answer is: to give the workplace relations minister yet another chance to stand up in the House and impress his boss, the Prime Minister, with his tough talking anti-union rhetoric. This House should not pass unnecessary legislation that has been introduced for no other purpose than to further the political ambitions of a government minister—in this case, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations.

There is no policy need for this legislation and, for that reason, Labor opposes it and proposes a second reading amendment. I move:

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

“the House declines to give the Bill a second reading and condemns the Government for:

(1) bringing divisive and unnecessary legislation before this House aimed at inflaming conflict in Australian work-places; and

(2) failing to provide adequate collective barg-aining rights for working Australians, and instead proposing legis-lation that would make the settlement of industrial disputes more difficult”.

I want to canvass for a moment the minister's stated reasons for the bill. He states that the bill is necessary, but the fact is that it does not even stand up to the most scant of scrutiny. The explanatory memorandum suggests that we need this bill because of a 1987 Law Reform Commission report. That report was prepared a very long time ago—15 years ago. But the contempt provisions in 1987 are not the same as the ones in section 299 today. They were substantially added to and changed in 1993 following the High Court case of Nationwide News Pty Ltd v. Wills.

Since those changes were made in 1993 how many actions have been brought under section 299? None that I could find—not one. Zilch. Zero. There is a provision in the existing act—there is law there available for use for contempt of the Industrial Relations Commission—and it has never been used. It begs the question yet again: why introduce this legislation if the existing law has not been used? It is not that actions have been brought and failed because of some problem with the provisions; they are just not used at all. Why are we wasting our time debating changes to those provisions that were introduced in 1993? There is one reason and one reason only: the minister likes provocative, conflict driven workplace relations bills. Even if there is not a problem that needs fixing he will make one up just to try to legislate for it anyway.

Members might recall Mr Jay Pendarvis, an employer who in the 1980s had a red-hot go at the meatworkers union in the bitter Mudginberri dispute. Mr Pendarvis considers that Minister Tony Abbott is too far to the right. In August of last year the Australian newspaper reported Mr Pendarvis as saying:

Tony Abbott was “a dangerous man”.

“His attitude is them against us. He's 100 per cent employer-orientated, and the employees don't get a look in.”

These are the statements not of a trade union official—not of the ACTU—but of Mr Pendarvis, a well-known strikebreaker. The saddest part of all this is that the minister proudly agrees with Mr Pendarvis. On 29 August last year the member for Prospect asked the minister about Mr Pendarvis's comments in a question without notice in this House. Mr Abbott said:

Jay Pendarvis is a very intelligent man. I accept that. He has done a lot of great things for Australian industrial relations. If he says that I am a dangerous man, who am I to disagree?

How can we take anything this minister brings to the House seriously? He not only admits that he is a dangerous man but also boasts that he is. He also says that Mr Pendarvis is an intelligent man and not to be disagreed with. We know that Mr Pendarvis's comments finger the minister as a dangerous zealot—a man who revels in pitting Australian against Australian. And the minister is proud of it. He wears it as a badge of honour.

What is motivating this minister to be so zealously divisive and energetically obsessive in bringing inflammatory bills like this one before the House? His motivation is pretty clear: his boss, the Prime Minister, loves these sorts of bills and he encourages the minister to do this. Remember this is a Prime Minister who over more than 25 years in this parliament has held very closely and dearly to him an industrial relations agenda designed to decimate the trade union movement in this country—to pit a single employee against a powerful employer in what the Prime Minister fondly calls `labour market deregulation'. But it is un-Australian.

For 100 years Australia has supported an Industrial Relations Commission—that is, an independent umpire being able to arbitrate on disputes—and it has supported the right of Australians to bargain collectively so that their bargaining power is enhanced against employers compared with the situation of a single employee in each case. That is exactly what the Prime Minister wants: a single employee bargaining against a powerful employer. His minister, this zealous workplace relations minister, is desperately keen to please his boss. That is why we are debating this legislation in this House: the Prime Minister loves these sorts of bills. They may not be needed. They may never become law but, by golly, the Prime Minister would be very proud of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations for putting them up and going on and on about them, as he does. Frothing at the mouth, this minister—this right-wing zealot—brings legislation into this House calculated to do one thing only: to divide Australians and to pit Australian against Australian.

Undermining the basic rights of working Australians and the unions that represent them is not just the minister's passion but the Prime Minister's passion, and we know that the minister's political ambitions are best served by keeping his boss, the Prime Minister, very happy. He has been spotted as the Prime Minister's favourite well before this—he was spotted as not only his favourite, in fact, but his spy, when he was working in John Hewson's office in the early 1990s. Dr Hewson recently told the Bulletin magazine that he sacked Tony Abbott for `incompetence and disloyalty'. So the minister may be dangerous, incompetent and disloyal, but it seems that he is smart enough, politically savvy enough, to know that if he keeps sweet with the Prime Minister—

Miss Jackie Kelly —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order in terms of reflection on the member. I just think that is out of order.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—I thank the parliamentary secretary. The member for Rankin, I am listening closely.

Dr EMERSON —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is a vacuous piece of legislation in terms of any requirement for it in this parliament. I am explaining to members of parliament and the broader community the true motivation for bringing in legislation. It has only one purpose, and that is to divide Australians, while pleasing the Prime Minister. Ministers in this government are very keen to please the Prime Minister, and none of them is keener to please the Prime Minister than the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Why is it that this minister is so keen to please the Prime Minister? The answer is this: the Prime Minister is not about to give the Liberal Party's crown jewels back to the old-money lawyers of Melbourne, back to Peter Costello's mob.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Rankin will return to the substance of the bill, please.

Dr EMERSON —The point is that this legislation is designed for one purpose only, and that is to please the Prime Minister. We have a bevy of ministers whose purpose in life is not to bring into this House legislation that would advance the interests of the working men and women of this country but to please the Prime Minister. This is a Prime Minister who would love to see someone from Sydney become his successor, and that has been figured out. It has certainly been figured out by this minister. We have another minister on the front bench who is very keen to please the Prime Minister, and that is the Minister for Education, Science and Training. So we have got a contest between the Minister for Education, Science and Training and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Both of them are members from Sydney, so that is greatly to their advantage compared with the Treasurer, who of course hails from Melbourne.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is not averse to a bit of adulation and worship to keep him in the Prime Minister's good books. I want to refer you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to a classic comment from the minister, where he is talking about the Prime Minister on Meet the Press on 29 June this year. He said:

I see no reason why he can't continue to do that job indefinitely.

So now the Prime Minister is immortal too! But, Minister, isn't it against one of the Ten Commandments to worship false idols—`Thou shalt not have false gods before thee?' But that is not all. This minister went on to say:

Certainly I think that the Prime Minister has well and truly established himself as the greatest Liberal since Bob Menzies ... John Howard is going strong and he is getting better and better as he goes on.

Isn't that just about the worst case you have ever heard of sucking up to your boss? This minister needs time. He needs time to wear down his heir apparent—old Noheart. We have got Flintheart and Braveheart trying to wear down Noheart. He needs time and he also needs the capacity to impress his Prime Minister, and that is the best explanation for the legislation that is being brought into this House time and time again.

I refer to the legislation of which this bill forms a part. There are 12 bills in this parliament at this time. When I was appointed to this shadow portfolio, I indicated that if the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations were sponsoring workplace relations legislation, it almost certainly would be against the interests of Australian working families and that, on that basis, Labor would oppose it. I made those statements after reading the legislation that is in the parliament, sponsored by this zealous minister. There are 12 bills in this parliament, and each and every one of them is detrimental to the interests of working Australians and the trade unions that represent them. They are best known as the `dirty dozen bills'. There are a dirty dozen of them. I will briefly go through them and I will refer to the second reading amendment, which says:

“the House declines to give the Bill a second reading and condemns the Government for:

(1) bringing divisive and unnecessary legislation before this House aimed at inflaming conflict in Australian workplaces; and

(2) failing to provide adequate collective barg-aining rights for working Australians, and in-stead proposing legisla-tion that would make the settlement of industrial dis-putes more difficult”.

That is a very good summary of the dirty dozen bills that are in this parliament at this stage. I will go through them briefly, one by one. The first one is the Orwellian-titled Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002 [No. 2], which allows small businesses—all businesses with fewer than 20 employees—to dismiss their employees fairly, or rather, unfairly. It was originally titled `the unfair dismissal bill', but straight out of the `Ministry of Truth', straight out of the minister's department, they said: `We'll do something really clever here. We'll fool the Australian people into thinking this is fair by changing the title from the “unfair dismissal bill” to the “fair dismissal bill”.' This bill is already a double dissolution trigger, and it is the first of the dirty dozen.

The second bill of the dirty dozen is the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Termination) Bill 2002. That bill excludes casuals from unfair dismissal protection for at least the first 12 months of their employment—that is, they have no rights to remedies for being unfairly dismissed if they have been employed for up to 12 months. Labor proposed a period of six months, but that amendment was defeated by the government in the House; and it is in the Senate this week. The third bill is the Workplace Relations Amendment (Termination of Employment) Bill 2002, which overrides the unfair dismissal jurisdiction of the states without their consent and weakens the unfair dismissal law—surprise, surprise. So the minister tried to do two things: first, he tried to grab the unfair dismissal laws off the states, using the corporations power, against their express wishes; second, in the same legislation, he tried to weaken the rights of Australian workers to any remedies for being unfairly dismissed.

Labor was supported by the minor parties in defeating this bill just last week. No doubt it will be back as yet another double dissolution trigger, and Labor will oppose it again in all its forms. If the minister wants to rattle up double dissolution trigger after double dissolution trigger based on his zealous determination to tear away the basic protections for working Australians, to tear away at the safety nets, to tear away at workers' entitlements, then we would welcome fighting an election on that basis. We would welcome fighting an election on fairness in this country, because there has not been fairness in this country for seven years under this government. This is another piece of Orwellian legislation designed to the detriment of the interests of working Australians.

The government continues to try to weaken the award system. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Choice in Award Coverage) Bill 2002 exempts small business employers with no union members from new award coverage. That is the fourth. The fifth is the Workplace Relations Amendment (Award Simplification) Bill 2002—yet another Orwellian title. It further restricts the matters that could be arbitrated by the commission. It removes matters such as limits on the minimum and maximum hours for part-time employees and payment of accident make-up pay. That is the fifth of the dirty dozen.

The sixth of the dirty dozen is the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003. This legislation is particularly reprehensible. It shamelessly introduces new penalties for union officials and members without also applying them to individual employers. Why would we not be surprised about that? It is one-sided legislation yet again—new penalties, new threats against trade unions and the members of trade unions. Of course, the minister does not want to apply those same threats, those same sanctions, those same penalties to employers for fear of upsetting them. Have we ever seen a more one-sided minister for workplace relations? The answer is yes. His name is Peter Reith, and he has gone. But this minister has trodden carefully in his footsteps, trying to emulate the ideology, the philosophy and the divisive policies of the former workplace relations minister. What have they both got in common? The Prime Minister—their boss.

It is my contention through this contribution tonight that this legislation and the dirty dozen bills are motivated solely by the purpose of the workplace relations minister trying to impress the Prime Minister of this country, who has devoted much of his working life and much of his time in this parliament to conjuring up, supporting and implementing policies to the detriment of the working men and women of Australia—and certainly to the detriment of the trade union movement of this country.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003 would fine union members up to $2,200 each just for turning up to a picket line. It would also mean that union officials would automatically be disqualified from holding office in a union for up to five years if they have been fined at all. It does not matter what the size of the fine is. It could be $50 or it could be $150 for failing to meet a deadline in providing documentation. It could have been inadvertent. It could be a matter of a trade union official, under time pressure in trying to look after workers, trying to repel an assault—launched time and time again by this government—on the rights of those members. A trade union official receiving a minor fine under this legislation could be automatically barred from his or her livelihood, from being a trade union official, for up to five years.

I think most members of this parliament would have incurred a speeding fine at some stage. You may incur a minor fine for breaking the speed limit by up to 10 kilometres per hour. Does that mean you automatically lose your licence for five years? There is no sense of proportionality here. There is no notion of repetitive breaches of the legislation—none whatsoever. If you transgress once then this minister can intervene and make sure that as a trade union official you lose your livelihood for up to five years, and an employee who chooses to be represented by a particular trade union and simply joins a picket line that that employee knows may be in contravention of a court order may be fined up to $2,200.

This minister went along to a picket line at Morris McMahon in Sydney, where there was an employee earning the princely sum of less than $12 an hour. That employee said, `All we want to do is to be represented by our union.' The minister said, `You have every right to ask the boss if you want to be represented by the union.' That was mean and tricky, because the minister did not add that under his own legislation the boss has every right to refuse. That goes to the heart of the right to bargain collectively in this country. This is one of the few Western countries, maybe the only Western country, where the right to collective bargaining has been removed by a government. The minister told that worker earning less than $12 an hour that the worker could ask for a collective agreement, could ask to be represented; but, of course, what he did not say was that the boss could refuse—and of course the boss did refuse.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—I point out to the member for Rankin, who has been speaking for 22 minutes, that it would be appreciated if we could have some words about the actual bill that the parliament is debating tonight.

Dr EMERSON —Mr Deputy Speaker, I would be delighted to speak at length on this legislation if there were any substance whatsoever to it. I will point out that the legislation is about codifying contempt provisions. Here is the minister's second reading speech—two pages of vitriol and bile. It talks about codification of an offence called disobedience contempt. The second codification is publishing a false allegation of misconduct affecting the commission. The third codification offence is inducing another person to give false evidence, and the fourth codification offence in this bill is giving false evidence. The point I have made is that this legislation is unnecessary because those powers are already in the existing law, combined with the common law provisions in relation to contempt.

I have to say there is not a great deal to talk about. That is why we brought in the second reading amendment on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003. The bill lacks substance but is heavy on motivation. The point I am making is the motivation for this legislation, which is vacuous in content but malicious in intent, is the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations forever trying to suck up to the Prime Minister of this country.

This minister wants to portray himself as the tough guy of Australian politics—the union buster—but it is not working for him. We see him frothing at the mouth here in question time. Old rabid Abbott is always frothing at the mouth and taking the side of the employer. He is always trying to tear down the trade union movement of this country. But he does not get very far. He has become aware of the fact that he is perceived as being a one-eyed, lightweight ideologue. So in positioning himself to try to become a candidate for the leadership he has now taken to giving lofty, esoteric speeches. He wants to now become a sensitive new age guy.

But the real test of leadership, the real test of the success of a minister, is his or her ability to develop and implement policies that this parliament finds acceptable. By that test, the minister is a complete and abject failure. Almost none of his industrial relations bills have passed the Senate. The `dirty dozen' bills are being blocked in the Senate because they are so unfair, they are so iniquitous, they are so biased and they are so determined to strip away the basic protections afforded to working Australians—to tear away at that safety net and to nobble the independent umpire—that the Senate will not cop it; the Senate will not have a bar of it. Twelve pieces of legislation—the dirty dozen—and he cannot get any of them through. This is a sign of a minister who is an abject failure.

Now he has turned to giving these esoteric speeches about civilisation and the beast in man because he wants to convert to this sensitive new age guy. But there is no substitute for hard work; there is no substitute for getting legislation into the parliament that is acceptable to the parliament of Australia. But his legislation is poorly conceived and poorly developed. His legislation, like this bill, is so biased; it is so right wing. That is why the parliament finds it so unacceptable.

The minister has tried another approach. About four times a year he tells the media that he has a welfare-to-work plan. This is a plan to encourage people who are receiving welfare to make the transition to work. The fact is, as has been repeatedly pointed out by the member for Lilley, there are effective marginal tax rates of up to 111 per cent facing some of the poorest people in this country as they seek to move from welfare to work. That is a punitive effective marginal tax rate. The minister's friends in Warringah on the North Shore of Sydney complain about a marginal tax rate of 48.5 per cent—they say, `That's punitive; that's cruel; that's unfair'—but an effective marginal tax rate for low-income workers of up to 111 per cent is acceptable!

The minister understands, at least, that this is a problem. So about four times a year the minister rolls out this idea: `I'm going to facilitate the transition from welfare to work.' This is a Labor idea. It was a Labor idea that was brought forward as policy in the 1998 election. It is a Labor idea that has been advanced by the shadow minister for families, the member for Lilley. It is not even the minister's idea. At least he should give credit as to where the idea came from. Worse than that, he bowls it up four times a year and the media says, `Great new idea from this thinker, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations,' but when he tries to get it through cabinet the answer is a big fat no: `Go away, Tony; you've failed again.'

The truth of the matter is this bloke puts himself forward as the bovver boy, the big thug, the guy who gets into Labor, the guy who gets into the trade union movement, the guy who gets into the working men and women of Australia, but when it comes down to it he is a policy failure. He has one idea only, and it is not even his. He comes into the cabinet four times a year and they tell him to go away: `We've heard that one idea, Tony. Come back next year with another idea. Then we might have a look at that.'

The only idea he has is his aspiration for the leadership. He is a Sydney boy and the Prime Minister wants to keep the leadership of the Liberal Party in Sydney and not give it to the lawyers of Melbourne through the Treasurer. The minister is a policy failure. On behalf of working Australians I say to the minister: move on, move out, and the sooner the better—and for God's sake stop sucking up to your boss with unnecessary legislation like this bill here before us in this parliament today.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Snowdon —I second the amendment.