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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19660

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (12:02 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Remedies for Unprotected Action) Bill 2002 is yet another attempt by the discredited Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to reintroduce by stealth aspects of the Prime Minister's very old Fightback industrial relations agenda and the even more discredited former Minister Peter Reith's second wave industrial relations bill from 1996. Around this House, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is now known as the minister for creating long-term unemployment and the minister for bad, unfair and lopsided workplace relations.

Never before in Australia's history have workers seen such a blatant and concerted attempt to run down the rights of many to increase the power of a few. The essence of this legislation is to place new emphasis on the way that the Industrial Relations Commission deals with section 127 applications. That provision gives the Industrial Relations Commission the power to order that industrial action stop. It is a section mainly used by employers against strike action and work bans by workers. I also note that under the legislation the definition of `industrial action' is broad enough to encompass action by employers, such as lockouts. That is an issue I want to comment on in more detail in the context of this debate. There is a situation in Geelong at the moment, at Geelong Wool Combing Pty Ltd, where more than 90 workers have been locked out of their workplace for 133 days.

The current provisions of the act provide that the Industrial Relations Commission must hear and determine applications for orders as quickly as practicable. The new provision directs the commission to hear and determine an application for a section 127 order within 48 hours. The act also gives the commission explicit powers to make interim orders if it cannot come to a decision within 48 hours. In evaluating this particular piece of legislation and the bona fides of the minister, one simple question needs to be asked: is this legislation necessary? Further, to whose advantage is it being enacted? The answer to the first question is a simple no; it is not necessary. The Senate inquiry into similar provisions in the 1999 second wave legislation of former Minister Peter Reith determined that 50 per cent of section 127 applications were decided within two days. As the member for Rankin has mentioned, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission annual report of 2001-02 documents that 85 per cent were heard within four days.

In answer to the second question, it is patently clear that, in directing the commission to take into account additional considerations such as damage to industry and the undesirability of the occurrence of unprotected industrial action, the minister has rung the bell on the real intent of this legislation, which is to diminish the power of workers and their unions in the industrial relations marketplace. I will make some comment on the industrial action that is canvassed in this legislation. While it may technically encompass the actions of employers, such as lockouts, it is really aimed at the actions of workers when they strike over industrial matters. The minister's second reading speech makes that patently obvious. It is clear from the minister's action in bringing this legislation into the House, and from the content of the legislation, that the government is still pursuing its agenda to punish workers and to nobble their representatives in the workplace.

In speaking to the second reading amendment, I would like to make some comments on the issue of lockouts. At this point in time, a company in Geelong has locked out its work force. The textile workers who are employed at Geelong Wool Combing have been locked out for some 133 days. These workers have not taken strike action in 10 years or imposed any sorts of bans in the life of this company. Here we have a regional company taking industrial relations action under the auspices of this government's legislation which is penalising workers in the Geelong area. Recently the Australian Industrial Relations Commission made some determinations which, fortunately, will protect those workers if this company were to make a decision to close the plant and move offshore, which many are speculating is the real reason for this industrial relations dispute.

The bald facts of this matter are that in 2001 the workers at Geelong Wool Combing reached an enterprise agreement with the management and owners of Geelong Wool Combing which, in the current circumstances, the company is attempting to violate and change. We hear a lot from the members opposite about the actions of workers and their representatives in this country. It is always in a negative light, despite the platitudes often trotted out in the context of these debates on the minister's legislative agenda in the workplace relations area. The simple fact is this: the company intends to cut workers' wages by a massive 25 per cent and wants to introduce the unlimited use of casual labour. That is the real intent of the changes that are being proposed and it is the reason behind the lockout of these workers.

I think it a sorry situation that a company in a rural and regional community has taken this action. We know that in regional communities there is a social fabric and a real sense of community. I say to Geelong Wool Combing that it is time that it came to the table and bargained in good faith on these matters. The company has been offered a set of proposals that will assist it through its current difficulties but which in the long term will maintain the current standards, wages and conditions on which many of these workers have built their families and their households. I do not think the proposition the workers have put to the company in this case is unreasonable. The workers have acknowledged that there is a difficult situation in the wool industry and problems with throughput at the plant and in accessing raw materials for the production process. The workers have constructively put before the company—as they have done in the past—a set of proposals designed to guide the enterprise through its current difficulties. But the company has chosen to turn its back on those proposals and has failed to bargain in good faith.

I want to remind the company, its management and its shareholders that at the time the company was set up in Geelong it received in the order of $25 million in taxpayers' funds to assist its establishment in our community. I happen to know about the process of negotiation that went on in establishing this plant. For over a decade, the company has been prepared to extract some profit from the operations of the enterprise from a work force that has remained loyal, diligent and skilled at creating profit. It has been happy to take from, but will not on this occasion give back to, the community, which put $25 million into the company's pockets to establish in the Geelong region.

The only feature recommending this pernicious legislation is that it is not as bad as some of the pieces of legislation that have been brought into this House by this minister. Even so, I ask the members opposite: would they take a 25 per cent pay cut today? I bet that not one Liberal Party or National Party member would step forward and put their hand up. I say to the members opposite that, if the parliament made a determination that the numbers on the coalition side were to be reduced by half and that the rest of the backbench were to be made part-time and casual employees, not one of them would be stepping forward and agreeing to it. And that says it all. They are happy to come into this parliament with a legislative agenda that drives the boot into Australian—and particularly Geelong—workers, yet they will not cop the same thing themselves. That is where the hypocrisy of this government starts and ends.

I am pleased to say that, in the Geelong community, we have rallied behind the workers who have been locked out of their employment. I pay tribute yet again on the floor of this House to the union movement, which has been maligned in this debate already by Liberal Party and National Party members. I pay tribute to the CFMEU, the AMWU, the MUA, the education unions, the AWU, the TCF union and other unions in the Geelong region. I apologise if I have omitted you on this occasion, but you are all included because I know you have given such strong support to the Geelong Wool Combing workers. It has been a magnificent effort to support workers who have lost their houses and whose children have to go to school knowing that tomorrow there may not be tucker on the table. The workers of Geelong have rallied behind the Geelong Wool Combing workers, and it is to the credit of the union movement that its members are standing as one in the face of what I term a reprehensible action by this company. Recently in Market Square in Geelong there were over 1,000 people at a lunchtime rally demonstrating support for the workers at Geelong Wool Combing.

I pay tribute also to my state Labor colleagues Ian Trezise, Peter Loney, Elaine Carbines, Michael Crutchfield, John Eren and Lisa Neville, because in so many ways those Labor members have demonstrated their public support for these workers. It is no accident that there are no state Liberal Party or National Party members in the Geelong area, because workers in our region know—

Dr Stone —What about Stewie?

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —I said state.

Dr Stone —You said state or national.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —Let me correct it for the public record for the parliamentary secretary. We do have a Liberal member over the other side of the river, who I note is not listed to speak in this debate—he usually is. He is the mouthpiece for the Prime Minister from the seat of Corangamite. We do have a federal Liberal member there, and he cuts a lonely figure when it comes to these sorts of issues. There is a good reason why there are no state Liberal-National Party members in the Geelong area. It is because that community had had a gutful of the Kennett era and the punitive industrial relations agenda that was pursued by the former, now disgraced and deposed, Liberal Premier of Victoria.

Dr Stone —Who rescued it from the Cain era.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —The parliamentary secretary talks about rescuing. We know who needs to be rescued down in Geelong. It is the Liberal Party. It is in an absolute shambles, and the reason for that is that working people have turned upon you to the point where you do not even have an office there. You might have a tent out in Harding Park, but you do not even have an office there.

Mr Randall —How's Simon going? Good leader!

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —The honourable member raises leadership. We know about state Liberal leaders and state National Party leaders—there aren't any of them! That is the bald fact of the matter. You can interject about leadership, my friend. Tell us about your state Liberal leaders. There aren't any of them, because there aren't any state Liberal-National Party governments. There is a good reason for that: they have been rejected. And you are next on the list.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. L.R.S. Price)—Order! I am loath to interrupt the honourable member, but he might return to the substance of the bill.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —I congratulate the businesses in Geelong who have supported the Geelong Wool Combing workers. It is really interesting how businesses and businesspeople have an essential sense of fairness, and many of them in Geelong have come out to support these workers. They provide food, materials and financial support, and I thank those businesses today on the floor of this House that know the importance of maintaining the social fabric in our community in Geelong. And I thank the Geelong community for what they have done in supporting those workers who have lost their houses and who now face financial ruin because of this lockout.

In the context of this second reading amendment, I ask: what sort of industrial relations system gives comfort to a company to lock out a loyal work force and deny them their livelihoods? These are people who have never engaged in industrial action and have supported the company over the past decade by their skills and by their loyalty to it. This is an industrial relations system created by a conservative government with a narrow political agenda and a narrow industrial relations agenda that has one simple focus, and that is to destroy the union movement and the collective capacity of workers to bargain for an advance in their wages and working conditions.

We will be opposing this legislation. I would like, in conclusion, to mention some matters relating to the honourable member for Herbert, who suggested that our amendment would not move Australia forward one centimetre. I say this to the member for Herbert: we condemn the government for its failure to provide the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, as the independent umpire, with adequate powers to settle industrial disputes and to ensure parties bargain in good faith. If such powers were in existence in this country today, there would be no continuation of the Geelong Wool Combing dispute. (Time expired)