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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18789

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (8:28 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003. It is not a particularly long bill, and it is not easy just to refer to the provisions, for a number of reasons. One reason is that they are not extensive provisions. Many of the provisions replicate, in many senses, those that already exist in the Workplace Relations Act 1996.

A good indication that a bill is not really supported by the government benches is that it cannot find too many government speakers. Clearly in this case the member for Curtin must have got the short straw and was asked to read out a speech about the 19th century, in which she referred to a prime minister who has not been with us for over a century and a half—Benjamin Disraeli. She made comments about the history of Australia's industrial relations laws, talking about how they were formed and determined in Great Britain—which I suppose she would call the mother country. The fact is, our laws were created as a result of the changes occurring at the time of discussions about forming this country. We should be very proud of the fact that we departed from some of those laws in Great Britain that were antiworker during that period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I know there are some who might hanker for the master and servant laws to return to this country—the member for Curtin may be one of them—but I do not believe it is possible to give us a history lesson on this bill and somehow think that the basis of our current laws are those laws that were made so far away and so long ago. As I have said and, indeed, the member for Rankin has said, we have a proud history in this country of having laws that entitle working people—that is what they are; Australian working families—to collectively bargain their negotiations. There was a time, not that long ago, when almost all these negotiations occurred at a macro level. Certainly, in the last 15 years or so, there has been an attempt to find a balance between the centralised wage-fixing system and the bargaining system.

My view is that there has been a skewed and unfair balance in recent years towards local bargaining because, unfortunately—as members who have spoken on this matter have already said; those on this side of the House at least—the bargaining is uneven and unfair in many instances if there are no protections in place. As I have said when speaking on other bills in this area of law, when Labor governments decided to enact laws that would allow decentralised bargaining or bargaining in the workplace, they enacted provisions to protect the rights of working people, unions, members of unions and non-members generally, and those laws are being stripped away by this government.

So this government did not commence the devolution of workplace relations. They accepted that this was the path that this country should take, but they have not accepted that protections for working people have to be enshrined in the laws of this Commonwealth. They have not accepted that there have to be laws to protect people less powerful than large employers or groups of employers. Not only do they want to strip away those protections; also, instead of turning their minds to other matters, they are looking at introducing pernicious laws that are biased and aimed at one side of the equation, one side of the negotiation table—people who represent workers or the workers themselves.

As the shadow minister, the member for Rankin, has said, 12 bills have been introduced in recent times and not one of them is devoid of an antiworker or antiunion flavour. This bill before us is no different. This bill is attempting not to codify contempt offences but to extend the powers that are currently in place. The fact remains that there are already provisions in the Workplace Relations Act that allow the commission to deal with matters of contempt. This government knows that, but it is not really interested. It is interested in ensuring that it can expand and increase the punitive measures within the Workplace Relations Act.

By my way of thinking, this bill is largely a bill to allow the minister to grandstand. He is good at that. He tends to spend most of his time gnawing away, attacking unions, attacking anyone associated with unions and smearing people who are in any way working for unions or have been formerly associated with unions. We know that that is the code: if you are antiworker in this country, the best way to attack workers without alarming too many people in their homes across the country is to attack unions—because unions provide protection and representation for over two million workers in this country and, as a result of their actions, they effectively provide protection for all non-members as well. One way or another, they provide that protection, and this government knows it. But this government is antiworker and anti-Australian in the way that it deals with these matters.

So this bill is not required. This bill is not required because the provisions are currently in place. The section to which I refer, section 299 of the Workplace Relations Act, currently reads:

Offences in relation to Commission

(1) A person shall not:

(a) insult or disturb a member of the Commission in the exercise of powers, or the performance of functions, as a member; or

(b) interrupt the proceedings of the Commission; or

(c) use insulting language towards a member of the Commission exercising powers, or performing functions, as a member; or

(d) by writing or speech use words calculated to influence improperly a member of the Commission or a witness before the Commission; or

(e) do any other act or thing that would, if the Commission were a court of record, be a contempt of that court.

It goes on, under the heading `Penalty':

(a) in the case of a natural person - $500 or im-prisonment for 6 months, or both; and

(b) in the case of a body corporate - $1,000.

Those provisions are there. As I said, they have been in place now since, I think, 1993, when they were introduced by the then Labor government. Those provisions arose out of the 1987 Law Reform Commission report. In introducing this bill into the House, the government has sought to rely upon the recommendations of the 1987 Law Reform Commission report. Indeed, the member for Curtin raised the fact that the Law Reform Commission report formed part of the basis for the bill. The former Labor government acted upon the Law Reform Commission report in 1993 and, ironically, were then opposed by the coalition in opposition—and I will get to why a little later.

So there is a law that actually defends the commission against contempt. It provides the capacity to punish those who are in contempt—who are in some way interfering improperly or unlawfully with the commission. This bill is therefore a redundancy. This bill is really a superfluous act on behalf of the government, which likes to spend all of its energies pretty much focusing on attacking the working families of Australia, the real producers of this country. In the end it is the greatest producers of this country who are under constant attack by this government, and tonight is no different.

We have to wonder why the minister has introduced this legislation. Indeed, as I have said, section 299 has not been used in any great way. That is a reflection not on the incapacity of the commission but on the fact that industrial relations is a sensitive issue. Normally it is about parties in an ongoing relationship. It is about parties not just dealing with the legalities of the rights and wrongs of an argument but also trying to reconcile differences in the workplace in order to come up with a resolution that reflects a fair and decent outcome in employment conditions for working people at a particular workplace. That is indeed the basis of industrial relations, which this minister either fails to comprehend or does not concern himself with.

Whilst there are laws in place, any experienced commissioner or officer of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission knows that, if you wish to inflame a dispute, you impose legal sanctions. They should be there. Indeed, very often the commission uses section 127 orders where it considers parties are in contempt or in breach of an order of the commission. But this bill imposes extra penalties when in fact there is no need to. Experienced commissioners or officers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission—no matter whether they come from the employer or employee side of the equation—know from their many years of presiding over matters, whether conciliating or arbitrating, that recourse to the law is not the sole solution, nor should it be the first solution, when becoming involved in these matters, because the relationship that exists between working people and their employer has to go on beyond any differences, any argy-bargy that may occur. As I say, that is why on occasion you will find a hesitation by commissioners to go the whole way and, indeed, a hesitation by unions and employers to proceed too far, to go beyond the brink. We have a minister who does not know where the brink is—or, if he does, he usually goes beyond it. Again he has gone beyond the brink in areas covered by this legislation.

It concerns us that the minister fails to understand the basics of human relations, let alone industrial relations—the need to have bona fides and the need to have a relationship beyond any dispute. The minister just seems at a loss to understand these things. That is why it is not uncommon for employers to shy away from the more militant or anarchic positions he takes in relation to the way in which employers should operate in the workplace. As we know, the minister used to see himself as a bit of a pug or boxer when he was at Oxford. I think he is left-handed, so he must have been a bit of a south paw. But clearly this minister does not believe in Queensberry rules when it comes to workplace relations; he believes in Rafferty's rules, if you are lucky—or perhaps just Abbott's rules.

But this minister has got it wrong time and time again, just as he has got it wrong on this bill. He does not get the message that the Senate is rejecting these bills because they are bad law. He neither understands nor seems to care about that. But it is a problem, and I think the quicker he starts looking at much more important issues confronting employers and employees in the workplace, the better. I know that the ACTU congress is meeting this week to discuss a lot of issues. I am not sure that the ACTU would invite the minister to its congress to talk about issues; he probably would not be the first on its invitation list. But it probably would be wise for him to at least listen to the debate that is being held on issues like balancing work and life—that is, work and family life—and other matters which are becoming increasingly difficult in Australia at the workplace level, such as how we are going to mitigate the social effects of the increasing casualisation of the work force. Casualisation is growing very fast. It did not start under this government. It is a growing trend and it is not easy to fix. To an extent it was happening under the Hawke and Keating governments, and so I am not trying to score a point here. A bipartisan approach should be taken to trying to sort out some of these matters that are sometimes, it seems, beyond governments.

A wise and conscientious minister would not spend all of his time in working out ways to hurt working people or to damage the careers of union officials, almost all of whom just want to represent working people and do their job properly and lawfully. A wise and conscientious minister would be turning his mind to the casualisation of the work force and saying, `Well, people have permanent families and they want permanent jobs. They have full-time mortgages and they do not want part-time jobs.' Some people do; some people can choose casual jobs, moving in and out of the work force. That is fantastic; that is fine. There is no need to remove that form of flexibility; it has to be there. But people are crying out for full-time jobs—permanent ones.

It is really hard to get a mortgage. It is hard enough for first home buyers now under the current policies, with houses appreciating at an astronomical rate. But it is also hard when you go to a bank manager and they ask you what your work is and you say, `Well, this is what I do and I make X thousand dollars a year.' They ask, `Oh yeah, and how long have you been there?' and you say, `I have been there six months.' Then they ask, `How long do you expect to be there?' and you say, `I don't know because I am a casual.' It is becoming increasingly difficult. It is not just the minister for workplace relations finding laws that hurt working people or unions; the minister for employment should be looking at ways of mitigating the effects occurring in these areas.

But the minister for workplace relations just does not seem to change. I notice that in the Weekend Australian Financial Review the minister has indicated that the federal government will introduce legislation to override Friday's decision of the full court of the Federal Court and was considering an appeal to the High Court. That matter concerned a workplace where negotiations had been settled on most matters. There had been no agreement on redundancy provisions. Both the employer and the union therefore said, `We'll negotiate the redundancy provisions a year later.' They then could not reach agreement and the employer sought to prevent lawful industrial action. The fact is that the Federal Court found that the union and its members had every right to bargain lawfully for that extra provision, because it was not within the settlement of the first enterprise agreement. That matter was taken to the Federal Court of Australia, and the decision by the single justice was upheld. They argued that clearly it is the right of working people to continue to negotiate matters that were not settled by the original enterprise bargain.

So we have the judiciary in some instances having to interpret matters because this minister only plays one side of the street when it comes to industrial relations. It is a failure on his part. As I have said on a number of occasions, he has introduced many laws that are antiworker. He introduced the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 1999—that was a classic. That was about trying to remove the rights of low-paid people getting the national wage increase. This bill fits into that category. It is probably not as nakedly antiworker. It is more about attacking people who represent working families in trying to collectively bargain about decent conditions in an environment where things are not so easy—where houses are not easy to buy for first home owners and where people are having difficulty paying for their health and education costs. So I oppose this bill. It should be opposed by the parliament and I am sure that it will be rejected by Senate.