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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1023

Senator McEWEN (South AustraliaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (16:07): I, too, would like to contribute to this debate about the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill and the reference to a committee of the Senate of it by Senator Moore, who moved a motion on behalf of Senator Wong.

We heard from Senator Fifield at length the reasons why this matter was referred to a committee, but what Senator Fifield failed to mention in his rambling speech about this matter was that the initial referral of the bill to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee was to an inquiry that sat on 26 November 2013 for a period from 1.30 pm to 4.20 pm, and that time was truncated even further by the fact that there was a tea-break for 10 minutes in the middle of that. In all, the Senate legislation committee has an opportunity to look at this bill for a period of less than three hours.

That is the fundamental reason why opposition senators have sought to refer this matter to a references committee—so that the Senate can have a proper opportunity to have a look at the complications, the implications and the potential of this bill. It is not an abuse of process to refer it to the references committee; in fact, it endorses the role of the Senate as the chamber that inquires into legislation fulsomely, and that is what will happen if the government ever lets this motion come to a conclusion and allows the bill to be referred to the references committee, where it can be comprehensively analysed.

We were never surprised when the government introduced this bill—purportedly to bring further regulation that unions and employers would have to abide by. Despite promises by now Prime Minister Mr Tony Abbott that the government would not revisit the whole issue of Work Choices, we know that government members, including the Prime Minister, harbour long-held desires to bring back Work Choices, and they will attempt to do it in whatever way they can. The reason they want to bring back Work Choices is because of a fundamental hatred of trade unions. Of course, in this they fail to mention that trade unions are actually organisations made up of members—ordinary working Australians who choose to join together in a collective to attempt to improve their working lives and their working conditions.

Trade unions in this country have a very, very proud and long history. For more than 100 years trade unions have worked to protect the interests of ordinary working Australians. It would be remiss of me not to revisit the successes of the trade union movement on behalf of ordinary working Australians. From the very beginning trade unions sought to ensure that Australian working people had a living wage. That was the basis of the strikes that trade unions engaged in in the previous century—that ordinary working Australians, including shearers and miners, had a decent living wage so that they could put food on the table for their families.

Trade unions are also to be thanked for prosecuting the case for things like annual leave—annual leave so that ordinary working people can have time away from the workplace to spend time with their families. We should also thank trade unions for things like paid parental leave, because it was trade unions who prosecuted the importance of ensuring that women would be able to return to their workplace after a period of time away when they were having children.

The other things that I distinctly remember working for as a trade union official, and an ordinary trade union member and as a delegate of the trade union in my workplace, were things like ensuring that casual workers—in particular, low-paid casual women workers—received entitlements to things like maternity leave as it was back then. I am very proud of my work with my trade union, the Australian Services Union and before that the Federated Clerks Union, to ensure that ordinary working Australian women, including casual workers, could get maternity leave—have leave to leave the workplace, have a child and come back to the job to which they were entitled.

I can also remember working as a trade union official to ensure that working women in the clerical sector—white-collar clerical workers—has a decent classification structure. While when I was a trade union official blue-collar workers, particularly in manufacturing industry, had managed to negotiate for themselves a decent classification structure so that they were appropriately awarded for the skills that they acquired on the job and in training, it had been for a long period of time that Australian women clerical workers did not have access to that kind of classification structure and that the skills they learnt on the job were not rewarded with wage increases. One of the proudest moments that we had in the Federated Clerks Union was to ensure that there was a proper skills based classification structure put in the Clerks Award and various other awards that had white-collar workers and, in particular, women.

Unions have achieved many great things. What the government does not want is for the unions to continue to achieve great things for working people. They want to dismantle the union system in Australia because they are fundamentally opposed to any notion of collectivism. They are fundamentally opposed to working people working together to secure better conditions for themselves. When they say to you that they are not hostile to trade unions all of the evidence is to the contrary.

I can distinctly remember in my early years in this Senate fighting against Work Choices, which was the single most belligerent hostile piece of legislation against working people that this parliament has ever seen. It was fundamentally about ripping out any baseline for conditions for working people so that there would be a free-for-all in the workplaces of Australia. Who would win out of a free-for-all? Not the ordinary working people—it would be employers. I am the first to acknowledge that there are decent employers in this country. I worked for a lot of them. But I am also the first person to say there are rogue employers out there and they do need to be controlled by legislation. That is why the Labor Party will always seek to have appropriate legislation in place to protect the conditions of working people because these need a legislative underpinning.

The matters raised in this Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill go to increasing the amount of regulation and red tape that unions have to put up with. I have been a trade union secretary and before that I worked in the private sector as a clerical worker in small business. I also worked in medium-sized businesses and the Public Service. I can tell you that the amount of red tape and regulation on trade unions is way above anything on any private-sector organisation that I ever worked with as an employee. It is much more significant with trade unions. I can well remember the compliance requirement on trade union secretaries, on trade union members and trade union delegates. It was a perpetual machine, if you like, to ensure that compliance with those requirements of the relevant act was undertaken appropriately.

The trade unions that I worked for and those union officials I worked with accepted that and they complied with those regulations. Nobody likes to see corruption or people doing the wrong thing, whether it is in trade unions or business or government or anywhere else. Where that is discovered, it should be weeded out and punished. But there are already numerous provisions in place in industrial law, civil law and criminal law to address those breaches and corruption if they are discovered.

We do not need another layer of regulation and red tape that would occur if the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill were to become law. That is my view. I think it is appropriate that the Senate as a whole has the amount of time that it needs to look at that issue, about whether this bill if it were enacted would bring an inordinate level of red tape bureaucracy on not just unions but also employer-registered organisations.

I understand from the inquiry—that very brief, three-hour inquiry that was held on this significant bill—that matters were raised about whether this bill would bring an inordinate amount of compliance requirements not just on unions but also on employers. It is passing strange that this government likes to talk about cutting red tape and green tape and cutting regulations but surprise, surprise: here is a bill that actually increases red tape and regulation. On one hand the government says it wants less of that and on the other hand, lo and behold, here is a bill that brings in more of that regulation and more of the burden not just on unions but employers as well.

We are used to this government saying one thing and doing another. We heard the Prime Minister commit before the election to 'no health cuts'. Today, in question time, we heard his Assistant Minister for Health being unable to commit to no health cuts: fudging and hiding behind commissions of audit and review and examinations. We just know what that is going to deliver. That will deliver more cuts to health. And, as well, we heard this government say that it was on a unity ticket with the Labor Party on education funding. Well, that did not last very long. Less than three months later, what do we have?—the government running away from education.

Senator Fifield and others on that side get up and say, 'Really, really, really, we don't dislike unions. We come from trade union families' et cetera. Well, I am sorry but we just cannot trust you on that.

Your record on trade unions leads us to that conclusion. Every time the coalition is in government what do they go for first? Trade unions. They do not tell the Australian people that is what they are going to do, of course. They do not tell the Australian people that is what they are going to do because, by and large, Australian people think trade unions do a good job. Ordinary Australians understand that trade unions do a good job. They understand that if we do not have trade unions then we run the risk of losing our penalty rates, basic entitlements to a decent wage for a decent day's work, annual leave, long service leave and sick leave—to all of those things that unions have fought for and struggled to hold on to throughout every coalition government.

I have to say there were some coalition governments that were not as hostile to unions as the previous Howard government and this current Abbott government. There were some coalition governments that understood that working people had the right to organise collectively in pursuit of the best possible conditions for themselves and their families. But in my experience, as the years have gone on you have seen the more fundamentalist conservatives come out of the woodwork. You see the really nasty conservatives come out of the woodwork. They have moved on from the days of Menzies and even Fraser. Those over there do not like him anymore. He was a bit too moderate. So we are seeing this increase in the kind of ultraconservative conservatives coming out. Of course, we are seeing evidence of it here this week. Certain senators are, if you like, attempting to subvert the processes of the Senate by putting in matters of public interest to suit their own personal needs. But I will not go too far into the lack of discipline over there on the government benches in the Senate.

What I am proud of in the Senate is how opposition senators are resolute in their determination to defeat any legislation that attacks trade unions. Yes, some of us come from a trade union background like myself. I am very proud of my trade union background, as is Senator Bilyk, who actually came from the same trade union as I did. We have nothing to be ashamed of and we are proud of it.

Senator Ian Macdonald: Why are only 14 per cent of people in trade unions?

Senator McEWEN: You can have a go as much as you like about trade unions and members of trade unions. Senator Bilyk, I and everybody else who has actually worked cooperatively with trade unions knows that at the very fundamental basis they are made up of ordinary working people who understand it is important to act collectively to protect their working conditions. They understand that we need to have decent legislation to protect them. This particular piece of legislation is nothing about protecting trade union members; it is about making it as difficult as possible for trade unions to operate. That is why we need to refer this bill to a Senate committee that will give it a decent going over, a thorough looking at. A Senate committee will have time to look at all of the implications of this bill for trade unions and employers.

You refuse to have a decent inquiry into this bill because you just want it done and dusted so you can recommence Work Choices, so you can recommence your attacks on trade unions to do what you did not promise to the Australian people before the election. You did not say to them, 'We are going to go after trade unions again.' You did not say to them, 'We are going to bring back Work Choices,' but, by gum, that is what you are going to do—and we know it. We know it on this side and we are going you stop you as much as we can.

In order to do that we do need to have a decent inquiry into this piece of legislation. That is why I am proud to support Senator Moore moving the motion on behalf of Senator Wong to refer this bill to a Senate committee for a decent inquiry. It is what the people of Australia would expect of us on this side and that is why we have moved this motion. That is why I ask the Senate to support it. I know you are going to get up and say that you are not going to support this motion, but I think all government senators should be ashamed of themselves and hang their heads in shame for the attacks that they continue to perpetrate on ordinary working Australians.