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Monday, 29 March 2004
Page: 27465

Dr EMERSON (6:08 PM) —Almost all the bills I have spoken on since becoming the shadow minister for workplace relations are bad for our country—bad because they tear away the safety net of conditions of employment for working Australians, which has been established over a period of more than 100 years, and bad because they are driven by anti-union ideology rather than good public policy. Parts of the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Amendment (Employee Involvement and Compliance) Bill 2002 are driven by the same anti-union ideology. It is almost as if the government just cannot help itself.

There is an opportunity within this bill to achieve some valuable reform in respect of health and safety for our Commonwealth public servants. I am certainly a strong defender of the Commonwealth Public Service, having been a member of it. I spoke at a CPSU conference just yesterday and reassured Commonwealth public servants that they will have under a Latham government a very strong advocate and supporter in me as minister not only for workplace relations but for the Public Service as well.

Labor acknowledges that the bill contains some useful provisions, as we did in 2000 when a very similar bill was proposed by this government. Labor made it clear that it supported the bulk of the bill but was opposed to those blatantly anti-union parts of the bill which sought to restrict the role of unions in occupational health and safety. Sadly, the government has forsaken the opportunity to re-present this bill in a form that would have been acceptable to all parties. The government's lack of commitment to this bill is shown by the fact that it has let it sit dormant for almost two years—since its introduction in June 2002—and the substance of the bill also makes that lack of commitment apparent. While the government has tinkered with some of the provisions that concerned senators in 2000, most of the objectionable provisions remain intact. As a consequence, Labor will be moving amendments to this bill tonight to remove those provisions. We will also be considering further amendments in the Senate.

I want to address the important question of the role of unions in the Public Service. The bill is clear in its aim to limit the role of unions in workplace health and safety in the Public Service. The minister's second reading speech states this in the following terms:

This bill will enhance consultation between employers and employees by facilitating a more direct relationship between them. The current prerogative role of unions ... is being removed.

Unions can still be involved at the request of an employee, and that type of provision is not new. In its second wave legislation, which was defeated in its entirety in 1999, the government tried to add an invitation by an employee to union right of entry requirement. Although that provision failed, the government is now trying to get the same provision through in respect of public sector health and safety issues. This is true to form for the Howard government. If it cannot get the reform it wants, it tries the same reform on a smaller target. I should use the word `reform' advisedly, because you could hardly describe many of the proposals that come forward in the workplace relations area under the Howard government as reform. They are more change than reform—and change that is driven by an anti-union ideology, an ideology that is hostile to the very notion of collective bargaining and the right of working Australians, whether they are employed in the public sector or the private sector, to be represented by a union, if that is their choice. It is so ironic that the government talks about choice all the time, except, of course, when employees choose to be represented by a union. The government consistently puts legislation into this parliament and practice into Australian workplaces that deny them that basic right to be represented by a union if they so wish.

So, as I have pointed out, if the government cannot get the changes that it wants in full, it tries to do the same on a smaller target. This is exactly what it has done with the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003. It has packaged up its failed second wave changes and aimed them specifically at the building industry, identifying the building industry as a stalking horse for its wider industrial relations agenda. It is hoping to first get Senate support for its industrial relations changes in the building industry and then to expand those second wave changes to the entire Australian work force. We may remember well when the former workplace relations minister was asked whether, if he were able to secure the passage of the building and construction industry bill, he would consider extending its provisions to other industries and he replied that he would be stupid not to.

The provisions in this bill are also not surprising in light of the government's secret plans to cut unions out of public sector bargaining altogether. How do we know that? These plans were revealed in a leaked cabinet submission in December 2002, under the same previous workplace relations minister. The then minister was developing a proposal to require that all new Public Service positions and all promotions be subject to the acceptance of Australian workplace agreements—or AWAs. So dispense with the long-established merit principle in the Public Service and throw that out of the window: you do not get a promotion if you are the right person for the job—if you are meritorious; you only get a promotion if you agree to accept an AWA.

It is ideology gone mad that in the Public Service a minister would seek to introduce a change which in effect said, `The merit principle is out the window. The good guys and the good girls are the ones who accept an AWA. They get the promotions and those who insist on being represented by a union or on bargaining collectively will not get promotions.' What sort of principle is that? What sort of incentive is that to introduce into the Commonwealth Public Service? I think it is a stinking rotten incentive. It is a stinking rotten incentive that is designed to further politicise the Australian Public Service, which we have seen so comprehensively on this government's agenda since 1996. It was then, of course, that it assured the Public Service, before the 1996 election, that there would be no forced redundancies, that job losses in the Public Service would not exceed 2,500 and that this would be done entirely through natural attrition. The result, once the government got elected, was that more than 30,000 jobs were slashed in the Public Service, mostly through forced redundancies. That was one of the earliest of many broken promises on the part of the Howard government.

The then workplace relations minister, the current Minister for Health and Ageing, began the process of doing that by taking to cabinet a submission which would require public servants to accept AWAs as a condition of their promotion, in pursuit of the government's mad ideological right-wing agenda. Part of the same proposal was that the government was going to ban all union collective agreements: they would only agree to non-union agreements—again, ideology gone mad. The government wanted to create a situation where there could be no union agreements in the Australian Public Service. What a disgrace—so much for choice. Employees just could not choose to be represented by their union if that proposal became policy. Moreover, there is not a lot of good faith bargaining inherent in that approach.

I had the honour today of introducing on behalf of Labor a private member's bill that would restore good faith bargaining in the Workplace Relations Act—a provision that was removed by this government in 1996 so that it no longer became a requirement on the parties to bargain in good faith. What government would consider that good policy? In fact, privately a number of large corporations have said to me that they would like to see reinserted into the Workplace Relations Act a requirement on the parties—employers and employees, as represented either individually or by unions—to bargain in good faith. It is a perfectly reasonable request, yet this government removed that requirement in 1996, creating a situation where lockouts have become a blight on the Australian industrial landscape, where workers have been locked out by employers for 15, 20 and even 25 weeks. They have been starved into submission and put in a situation where their families have broken down and where they have been forced to sell their homes. This is the sort of change that this government considers to be a reform. It is not a reform; it is a completely retrograde step. So there is not a lot of good faith bargaining there, and the provisions in this bill that restrict the involvement of unions in health and safety issues are just another part of the same mad right-wing ideological agenda. Labor will not support these provisions.

I now move to the area of compliance and penalties. Labor does support those parts of the bill that strengthen the enforcement aspects of occupational health and safety for Commonwealth employees. We agree with the government that there is merit in increasing the levels of penalties in the occupational health and safety act and introducing civil pecuniary penalties for Commonwealth employers, in addition to refining existing criminal penalties. This dual criminal and civil system of enforcement is also consistent with state occupational health and safety systems. Labor accepts that introducing a civil stream of enforcement can expedite prosecutions. Under the current criminal only system, very few prosecutions are brought at all. The Senate inquiry into the 2000 bill found that, from 50,000 reported accidents and 1,770 investigations, only nine prosecutions had been brought. This is exacerbated by the immunity of the Commonwealth and most Commonwealth authorities from prosecution. As a result, it appears that the criminal penalties under the current act have little deterrent effect at all. An important aspect of this new dual system is that the bill will add a new provision, which was not in the 2000 bill, to make it possible to secure a pecuniary penalty order against the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority.

I now turn to the issue of consultation. Labor notes that the bill before us is different from the 2000 bill in respect of some of the provisions relating to health and safety committees. The amendments take account of some but not all of the concerns raised by Labor senators in respect of the 2000 bill. The current provisions will be considered in the context of these changes in the Senate.

This bill is disappointing because it shows yet again that the government is unable to separate ideology from policy development. It consistently wants to put ideology ahead of good public policy. We could have had a bill before the House tonight that would have gained Labor's unqualified support, but the government's obsessive hatred of unions is stronger than its desire to see an improved health and safety regime for public sector employees. As a result, Labor will be moving amendments to this bill and will be considering it in further detail as part of the Senate's processes. The government may or may not accept those amendments—again putting the future passage of this bill in jeopardy.

I urge the government to take out those pernicious provisions that relate to removing unions from occupational health and safety in the public sector. Removing unions is a completely unnecessary move. Unions have a role to play in monitoring and enforcing occupational health and safety in the public sector, just as they do in the building and construction industry and other industries. But the government want to remove the rights of unions and the role of unions in protecting the health and safety of their members on work sites in the public sector and anywhere they possibly can around Australia.

You are left in the very invidious position of questioning the government's commitment to ensuring strong enforcement of workplace health and safety in this country when, wherever this issue arises, even when the government bring in legislation, they insist that in the course of it they remove any genuine role for unions in enforcement. I fear that in those circumstances the government will go in the same direction that they are going with the building and construction industry bill, saying that they will put in their own enforcement agency. The truth of the matter is that in the building and construction industry bill the government's enforcement agency will be designed simply to ensure that it has as much control over the activities of unions as possible but not genuinely to ensure high standards of workplace health and safety in this country. So we do have grave reservations about the reasons for the government's insistence that the role of unions in health and safety compliance in the public sector be greatly diminished. For that reason we are moving amendments. I will move those later on, when we get to the consideration in detail stage of the debate.