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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3936


Mr FLETCHER (BradfieldParliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications) (16:18): When I was speaking previously, before I was interrupted by the inexorable procedural workings of this House, I was making the point that, in the brief time available to me, I intended to cover three matters: firstly, that the Labor Party took the workplace relations environment back to the 1970s, as the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government engaged in a colossal act of payback to its union mates; secondly, that the reforms contained in this bill form part of the critically important policy agenda of increasing productivity and efficiency in the Australian economy, which is something that I would hope all members of this House agree is of vital importance; thirdly, that in the policy that the coalition took to the 2013 election to improve the fair work laws, we made specific and detailed promises, and the bill before the House this afternoon is about giving effect to those promises.

Let me turn, firstly, therefore, to the proposition that under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government we saw a government which was determined to return the workplace relations environment back to the bad old days of the 1970s. We saw a government which was craven in its desire to advance the agenda of union officials in a way that we had not seen in Australia for many years. I want to speak specifically about the question of the right of entry, and I want to make it very clear that the coalition has a fundamentally different view about the question of the right of entry to that which was advanced by the previous Labor government. In the view of the coalition, the right of entry into a workplace for union officials is a specific privilege granted under statute to which appropriate conditions ought to apply. Unfortunately, union bosses and officials take a different view. It suits their convenience and their particular view of the world that they should have an untrammelled and automatic, very wide ranging right of entry. They are not interested in considerations of efficiency, productivity or the impact on the efficient operation of the workplace. Those are not their agenda or concern. But as a national government, we are certainly interested in these considerations and think they are policy considerations of the highest order.

I am sorry to say that the previous Labor government and key figures within it said one thing in the lead-up to the 2007 election and did very different things in the area of the industrial relations when they came to government. In 2007 the Labor Party and some of its key figures promised on multiple occasions that if they came to government there would be no changes to the union right of entry laws. What did we hear from then Deputy Opposition Leader Julia Gillard on 28 August 2007? She said:

We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.

In other words, they would maintain the existing legal framework dealing with right of entry. These were reassuring words, words calculated to give the impression that she and her Labor Party colleagues were thinking about the broader policy perspective to do with this issue and not the narrow, self-interested agenda of the union bosses and the union officials.

But, of course, what did we see as soon as Ms Gillard and her colleagues got into government? We saw that the previous promises and assurances given in relation to the question of right of entry were abandoned. Under the Fair Work Act legislation that, as minister, the then member for Lalor, Ms Gillard, introduced, the unions—union bosses and union officials in particular—were given much easier access to workplaces than they had previously had. That is a very unfortunate demonstration of the fact that the previous Labor government evidently saw its highest policy priority as giving effect to the agenda and the desires of union bosses and union officials.

I am also sorry to note that the consequence of this change to the legislative framework was that a set of provisions was inserted into law that were then routinely exploited by many union officials. The consequences were extremely severe in many workplaces and businesses that were seeking to get on and improve production, operate efficiently, generate profits, generate returns for their owners, generate secure working conditions and employment for their employees, and meet their various stakeholder responsibilities. In seeking to do that they were routinely disrupted by militant union officials who were keen to use the new powers that had been handed to them by the Labor government acting to give effect to the agenda of union officials and union bosses. We saw many businesses facing an extraordinarily excessive number of workplace visits from union officials. This occurred even when employees at the workplace were not union members and even when the employees had not requested the union's presence. But, of course, the whole notion of workers having the right to choose whether or not they are represented, and in particular having the right to choose not to be a member of a union, is something that makes the blood of union officials boil, it makes their teeth grind, and of course they will do everything they can to resist that principle.

The Fair Work Act review panel—no biased set of people from one side or the other—noted a number of examples of precisely the phenomenon I have just spoken about. The Pluto LNG project received over 200 right-of-entry visits in just three months. BHP Billiton's Worsley alumina plant faced 676 right-of-entry visits in a single year, imposing an extraordinary burden on the efficient operation of these facilities.

But I am sorry to say it did not stop there, because by 2013 the responsible minister, the employment and workplace relations minister, was no longer the former member for Lalor. It was by this time the notorious member for Maribyrnong, who had, prior to coming into the parliament, been a prominent union boss, and who by this time was in a position where he could to the maximum extent possible give effect to the agenda and policy objectives of union bosses and officials. And he wasted no time in doing that, adding to his sorry record across a whole range of portfolios. He introduced further objectionable amendments to the Fair Work Act, which gave statutory authorisation to lunch room invasions. Union bosses now have the right under the provisions introduced by the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—and, I need hardly add, current Leader of the Opposition—to insist on addressing workers in their lunch room, even when the workers have not requested their presence and are not union members. This is entirely unfair to that very substantial majority of people who are not union members. I remind the House that approaching 90 per cent of people in the workforce in the private sector are not union members. Yet those workers are now exposed to the ever-present risk of having their desire to peacefully sit there and eat their sandwiches or soup disrupted at any time by an unwanted, unwelcome visiting union official insisting on haranguing them. We say that it is time to put an end to it.

The former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations not only introduced this highly objectionable provision but also introduced another highly objectionable provision: a ludicrous obligation that employers would be required to pay for the cost of transport of union officials to remote work sites, such as offshore resources projects. This created an employer funded union boss joy-ride, a scheme that has been extensively abused.

But this is not the only objectionable provision the bill before the House seeks to correct. Another example of the 1970s style union practices that we saw under the previous government was the loophole in the law they were quite happy to leave in place that allowed employees to strike first and talk later. That is simply getting things the wrong way around.

Secondly, I want to make the point that this is an issue of productivity and of efficiency. The trends are very clear when you look at days lost due to industrial action. Under the previous Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government, working days lost just in the building and construction sector—a sector that has been exposed for the notorious union militancy of the CFMEU, a union that shows a continual disregard for the rule of law—jumped form 24,000 in 2011-12 to an estimated 89,000 in 2012-13.

Lastly, I want to turn to the fact that in our policy in this area, coming up to the 2013 election, the coalition made very clear and specific promises. Nobody could have the slightest doubt about what we stood for and what we intended to do. But I might further add that the measures contained in this bill are not only those that were promised by the coalition before the 2013 election. They include measures that the Labor Party had committed to before the 2007 election but then took a different path once in government.

The measures in this bill are intended to restore certainty to the workplace relations systems. They will amend the right-of-entry provisions to address the imbalance introduced by Ms Gillard's Fair Work Act. This bill will fairly and sensibly balance the right of employees to be represented in the workplace, if they wish to be, with the right of employers to go about their business without unnecessary inconvenience and disruption. There will be no more lunchroom invasions and union boss joyrides. This bill will amend the act to extend good-faith bargaining rules to the negotiation of greenfield agreements to improve standards of bargaining conduct. This bill will also implement a number of recommendations from the 2012 Fair Work Review Act Panel that will improve the operation of the individual flexibility arrangements provision under that legislation. And, very importantly, this bill will remove the 'strike first, talk later' loophole under the Fair Work Act. This is a very important bill before the House. It implements measures that were contained in our policy, and it is about improving productivity and efficiency and striking the right balance when it comes to workplace relations.

I commend this bill to the House.