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Wednesday, 10 September 2003
Page: 19678

Mr ORGAN (1:29 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Improved Remedies for Unprotected Action) Bill 2002, which seeks to amend section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act. I am sure that I reflect the feelings of many members of the House when I say, `Madam Deputy Speaker, here we go again.' Here we go again with an attack on the workers of this country by the government. For this bill is yet another attempt by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations to impose his ideologically tainted views upon the Australian community. Yet again, the minister's distorted logic has been revealed in his second reading speech, where he told us:

Strikes cost jobs ...

Surely, it should be much more obvious to the minister that getting the sack costs jobs, having employment agreements unjustly terminated costs jobs and mass redundancies cost jobs. They have cost jobs in manufacturing, banking, telecommunications and the public sector. The government's drive towards the privatisation of Telstra is currently costing jobs—thousands of jobs.

When the minister proclaims that `strikes cost jobs', it is nothing less than hypocrisy on the part of the government—a government renowned for its lack of interest in job creation. Instead it leaves it to market forces; the so-called—mythical—level playing field. There is no level playing field in industrial relations in this country, under this government, under this workplace relations minister.

What has the government done to fix the far more obvious impediments to job creation and job retention? It has come up with bills such as this. Its answer is to make it easier for bosses to sack workers. It has gone down this path by removing, watering down or abolishing unfair dismissal legislation—specifically designed to protect workers from arbitrary dismissal. And now, in this bill, it is turning its attention to the Industrial Relations Commission as a tool for its continuing attack on workers and unions.

The government cannot have it both ways. If it is serious about job protection and job creation, it should not be following an agenda of destroying the ability of Australian workers to protect their conditions of employment and their jobs. It should not be following an agenda of removing workers' right to strike. These are the serious implications of this bill—implications which members on the other side of the House seek to deny. Sadly and clearly, the minister has chosen to sustain his attack and to continue to bolster the power of bosses at the expense of unions and low-paid workers in Australia.

This bill, like so many of the minister's workplace relations bills, is unnecessary. The minister himself has stated that section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act `has generally proved to be an effective mechanism ...'

The amendments contained within the bill before us are based on principles that are patronising to the Australian community. These principles are revealed in all their pettiness in the minister's second reading speech. He tells us that protected action is a privilege, not a right—just as this government believe that university education is a privilege, not a right. They are at least consistent. However, they are consistently wrong and misguided. The government are out of step with the community, with community standards and with the proud working-class tradition of this nation. Here the Australian Greens and the government are clearly at odds.

The Greens believe that all workers should have the right to strike. The Greens believe in a level playing field in the workplace and in workers' rights. The Greens believe that workers have a right to take other forms of industrial action to protect and advance their interests. The Greens are strong supporters of the union movement. We believe that the role of the union is especially important at the present time, with this government in place and in the absence of effective and routine wage rises and improvements to conditions of employment.

As workers see their wages and conditions being eroded, they are being forced to take industrial action—as they have in the past. It is certainly clear that the minister and his colleagues will not be focused on looking after workers' interests for the remainder of their term in government. As a former industrial relations minister, Peter Reith, said back in 1998 to members of his party:

Never forget the history of politics and never forget which side we're on. We're on the side of making profits. We're on the side of people owning private capital.

And what is the other side? Who is on the other side? Labour, workers—that is who. It is clear where this government stands, and this bill is yet another embodiment of its core beliefs, if you can call them that.

Consider the implications of the bill before us. It seems from the outset to be heavy handed and, in effect, a pre-emptive strike against industrial action. This is because the bill restricts not only the right to strike in circumstances that are not protected action but also the right to strike in circumstances where the Industrial Relations Commission has not determined whether or not it is protected action. On that basis, it is entirely probable that the commission will be issuing orders that prohibit strike action that is in fact protected action. This is a disgraceful outcome. What kind of society is the minister trying to create here?

It is clear from this bill that the minister has a particular penchant for a society where workers are compliant, serf-like and subject to the whims of employers—a minority of whom, it has been shown throughout the history of this nation, are guided by greed rather than concern for the workers they employ. Let us be realistic here: bosses will abuse workers in order to generate profits. Bosses will put workers in situations where they are forced to take action. Bosses will intimidate and harass workers, they will unjustly sack workers and they will pay them inappropriate wages if they can get away with it. It appears that the government is very willing to support such bosses.

Despite what we might hear from the other side of the House, this is the reality of the Australian workplace in 2003. The government is dishonest to deny this. We only have to listen to the member for Herbert. He has told us that the workers of this country are all `happy in their jobs'. I can tell you the workers of this country are not all happy in their jobs and nor has the government, as the member for Herbert would have us believe, been able to achieve `industrial peace'. This is obvious denial, distortion and typical spin doctoring from the government on an issue of such importance to the fabric of our society—conditions within the workplace.

The minister, via the present bill and others, has codified his lack of concern for workers and is seeking to impart these views to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. This point is made clear by examining the factors the commission must consider when deciding whether or not to issue an interim order prohibiting industrial action. First off the rank is the purported damage that will be caused by industrial action. In these circumstances, there is no reference to the reason why the industrial action is taking place. Thus, the reason or reasons for the industrial action are ignored—reasons such as people being sacked, workers being demeaned, problems with management, entitlements not being paid. All of these causes of industrial action are ignored. What a one-sided view.

As I have said, this bill is yet another attack by this government and the workplace relations minister on the rights and conditions of Australian workers. In essence, it will make it harder for workers to take action to protect their colleagues and to defend hard won workplace conditions. As we have heard, the bill seeks to repeal subsection 3 of section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and to replace it with a harsher, more complex regime. Section 127(3) of the act, as it stands, states with regard to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission:

The Commission must hear and determine an application for an order under this section as quickly as practicable.

This clause is broad enough to deal with the current industrial environment and gives the commission the necessary flexibility. Once again, this bill is an unnecessary and unwarranted attack on workers and the union movement. The member for Herbert, on the government side of the House, has already indicated an instance where the commission successfully intervened in an industrial dispute using its existing powers. So why change the act? There is no need.

We only have to look at recent events in the Illawarra to further support the fact that this bill is unnecessary and that the Industrial Relations Commission already has the necessary powers. Just this week we have seen an example of how the present industrial relations system operates and how the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission can adequately handle workplace issues such as strikes, with no need for these extra intervention powers. According to a report in Tuesday's Illawarra Mercury, last Thursday about 70 workers in the raw materials and sinter plant at BHP Steel, Port Kembla, walked out after a colleague was sacked for an alleged safety breach. Australian Workers Union branch organiser Andrew Gillespie said the worker had `an impeccable work record' and was dismissed unfairly.

The union said that BHP had introduced a new set of so-called `cardinal rules' this year and workers risked summary dismissal for breaches of the cardinal rules. These rules were being imposed without appropriate discussion with the work force with regard to their impact, transitional implementation and practicality. In many instances the rules were in conflict with longstanding work practices. An extended education and testing regime would be the most appropriate way to deal with these safety issues. Instead, the company had proceeded down the path of instant dismissal as the method of education and implementation. Warnings, retraining, and counselling are the appropriate measures in circumstances such as breaches of workplace safety rules, not instant dismissal. This is not the way management should be dealing with longstanding, experienced workers who are often just doing the job as they have been instructed in the past. Management should accept some responsibility here—respons-ibility for communicating change and retraining to protect workers and to protect workers' jobs.

The Industrial Relations Commission should be the last resort in settling industrial disputes. I spoke with one of the Australian Workers Union officials this morning about the Port Kembla steelworks sinter plant matter. He pointed out that the union, not the company, had sought the intervention of the IRC in this instance and that the workers returned to the job on Monday, according to the commission's orders. The union is now working hard, via the commission, to support the worker who was sacked and who had been an employee of the steelworks for some 22 years and who was, according to the union, a model employee with an impeccable safety record.

We often hear it said in this House how employees—the workers—are the most important assets of any business, yet there are obviously some businesses in this land that do not hold this view. Bad management is not some isolated problem in this country, and workers are usually the victims of such management deficiencies. On top of that, we have this government constantly sticking the boot in. As I have shown, in recent times BHP Steel has attempted to impose an extremely harsh and inappropriate regime whereby employees face instant dismissal for breaches of certain safety rules. The union official I spoke to this morning pointed out that these rules are generally and very strictly applied to workers, whilst administrative staff and management seem to be exempt from them and exempt from the instant dismissal regime.

The government's focus on continually attacking workers and unions is entirely misplaced. It is management that should be subject to some of the effort the workplace relations minister and the government put into the area of industrial relations. As we speak, the Australian Workers Union is working hard to get back the job of a valuable, experienced employee at the BHP steelworks in Port Kembla. That is the role of unions—to support workers and conditions. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission is the independent arbiter and will hopefully act reasonably in this case, where the company has not.

The current bill seeks to encourage the commission to hear and determine applications to stop or prevent strikes in a more timely manner. As the above example shows, the commission is currently dealing with strikes and disputes in a timely manner—quickly and efficiently. The current act, as it stands, requiring it to hear and determine an application for an order as quickly as practicable, is obviously flexible enough to deal with industrial disputes. A more prescriptive regime is not necessary. Industrial disputes, by their nature, can be very complex and may be played out over an extended period. In the aforementioned BHP sinter plant dispute, the workplace incident occurred some weeks ago; a meeting was held involving management, the union and the employee; the company considered its position and made a determination; the union sought further talks with the company; and, finally, the matter was referred to the IRC. These proceedings extended over a period of some weeks before the IRC intervention was sought. The imposition of a 48-hour time frame on the IRC is a burden and may prove to be impractical.

I therefore cannot support this bill and will continue to condemn the attacks on workers and the union movement by this government and by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—a minister who likes to preach to us about industrial parties not being `exempt from acceptable standards of behaviour' and parties that should, as he said in his second reading speech, `not be able to avoid the rule of law'. Whose law? This government's law? This bill is bad law, like so much of the minister's law. In closing, I say to the minister: keep preaching, Minister, keep preaching; but the message is clear—the workers of this country do not want your employer based law and they do not support your continuing attacks on ordinary Australians.