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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18786


Mr ORGAN (8:17 PM) —The primary purpose of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003 is, according to the minister, to amend the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to codify the generic criminal contempt offence provisions that will impact upon the responsibilities people and organisations have to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. Of note is that the bill seeks to increase the penalty provisions for criminal offences in the Workplace Relations Act that arise when people or organisations are found to be in contempt of the commission. This bill is also complementary to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003, which, on behalf of the Australian Greens and the people of Cunningham, I have already condemned in this chamber. Just like that bill, this one seeks to divide Australia. It is unnecessary as inappropriate law already exists. It reveals yet another plank in the government's ideological crusade that makes up the battering ram which the minister uses to crash into trade unions and the millions of workers they represent.

We have just had a lecture in legal history from the member for Curtin portraying unions and unionists as mere law breakers. There was not one mention of their role in the community and how unions represent the community in many ways. The member for Curtin told us about those who `make their living thriving on disputation and intimidation'. This is how she portrays union officials; what an outrageous statement—to portray union officials as thriving on intimidation and disputation. All union officials I have worked with have done everything in their power to avoid disputation; that is what they are there for. We have heard the member for Rankin comprehensively outline the government's agenda—the so-called dirty dozen bills that this House is facing. We have heard how the government is attacking unions, attacking workers' rights and using the courts in any way it can. It seems that every day the minister enters this chamber with his sights trained upon our unions and upon workers' conditions of employment that those unions rightfully and properly protect.

The minister's crash-through approach guarantees injury. The wreckage will be scattered throughout the community and will not be confined to trade unionists. I note that the member for Curtin did not use the word community once in her tirade against the union movement. We have to remember that there are a lot of linkages between the union movement and the community, as I will mention over the next few minutes. The injured in this instance will be the low paid and those that need protection from a minority of unscrupulous employers in circumstances that warrant trade unions taking industrial action—that is, whenever action is needed to get the point across; the point being an ancient one and one that is a cornerstone of the Australian consciousness. This point can be expressed without the need for pretentious language or legal history lessons; it is not on to exploit, to demean or to harass workers. This principle continues to this day in spite of the government's attempts at silencing the right to strike in these circumstances.

The right to strike sits comfortably with the two other fundamental expressions of our democracy: the right to vote and the right to free speech. However, because of the government's debilitating actions it is the weakest triplet of the three. Unlike the government, I believe the right to strike is an important one that must be nurtured for the collective good of our community. If this bill is passed, unions that strike outside the protected bargaining period will face dramatically increased penalties. For that reason alone this bill should be condemned. However, there are other reasons. This bill will have a tragic effect upon our wider community if passed. People in Australia—and in the electorate of Cunningham I have experienced this—look to trade unions for protection in opposing inappropriate development. These groups will be left without the security or support that union sponsored green bans provide and have provided for a number of decades now.

Accordingly, this bill is a slap in the face for the community and a rod on the back of people who rely upon unions to protect their way and quality of life from inappropriate developments such as high rises, dams, subdivisions and all that comprises the seething mass of overdevelopment currently spreading throughout this country. Green bans have helped to protect areas such as The Rocks in Sydney and Battery Point in Hobart. I have been involved in a green ban, a picket line, an Aboriginal tent embassy and a community picket, which have all taken place in the Sandon Point area in my electorate of Cunningham over the last two years.

Restricting the right of unions to strike outside the increasingly limited protected action period under the Workplace Relations Act in this way is rocket fuel for every developer's bulldozer and a sharpening of every woodchipper's teeth turned against every parcel of public land and every breath of open public space. This is not alarmist ranting. This is historical fact. The green bans movement from 1971 to 1975 prevented $5 billion worth of ecologically irresponsible building development in NSW alone. With the help of Jack Mundey and other vanguard unionists, large sections of Sydney were saved from becoming one almighty Gold Coast-Los Angeles cross. Better still, the social movement that opposes inappropriate development was born. As Meredith Burgmann commented:

... those who most vehemently denounced Mundey—Developers, politicians, newspaper editorialists, column writers and various self appointed opinion leaders—were progressively quietened by the growing popularity of the movement, and especially in its aftermath as its visible effects in preserving the built and natural environment became widely appreciated.

We have to thank the union movement for that. The contents of this bill place that under threat. It is clear that this bill will make it easier for developers to develop their inappropriate structures along the coast and throughout this nation. For that reason as well, the Australian Greens oppose this bill.

However, it gets worse. This bill has the potential to be an accessory to real physical injury. With unions being punished with jail and fines for defying the Industrial Relations Commission, it will be hard for unions to meaningfully oppose the heavy-handed actions of this very government. As you are aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Lindsay, the government is not known for its soft and cuddly policies, particularly when it comes to, for example, the deportation of asylum seekers. So to complete the argument, if this bill is passed, it will become increasingly difficult for people to oppose the forced deportation of asylum seekers to their country of origin, as unions and unionists will not be able to ban these misery flights without potentially being in contempt of the Industrial Relations Commission. When a deportee may face the possibility of death or torture, however remote or random, many in the community would applaud trade unions and community groups for taking such a basic yet principled stand when they stop these flights by withdrawing their labour. If this bill is passed, the detention centre vans, the airports and the aeroplanes that are used to forcibly return asylum seekers will undoubtedly continue to churn out their cargoes of human tragedy. So a clear result of this bill will be to further add to the circumstances whereby the government can act unopposed and Australia's disgraceful human rights record will continue to lengthen.

These are the implications that arise out of the bill that we are dealing with here tonight. This bill is unnecessary, because the Industrial Relations Commission already has on the statute books strong powers that provide sanctions against people and organisations. As such, it is right to portray this bill as being heavy-handed and another of the government's over-the-top, ideologically driven policy objectives. Perhaps the most basic problem with this bill is that it squarely attempts to restrict the impact of unionists and unionism. Let us not forget that unionists join unions voluntarily and attempt to improve their work and the quality of all of our lives in Australia. Provided unions continue to act in a responsible manner, they do not need to be continually harassed by this government. We continually hear the other side of the House mention, almost gloatingly, that the number of unionists in this country has fallen in recent years. It is all well and good to talk about that, but I think there is much cause for concern at the decreasing number of unionists in this country.

By introducing this bill which codifies contempt offences and makes it harder for unions to represent the interests of their members, the environment and the community in general, the government has revealed the contempt that it has for working people. As I have said to this House in previous addresses on industrial relations matters, I encourage the government to rethink its approach and the way it treats one of the most critical institutions in Australia—our trade unions. Until this government shows some even-handedness, I condemn this bill and all of the ideologically driven baggage that it represents.