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Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Page: 2502


Senator LINES (Western Australia) (21:42): I want to speak tonight about the Abbott government's ideological bent against unions. We have seen an unprecedented attack on unions in this country by the Abbott government. Of course, when we talk about fraudulent activity, it applies right across our community and no-one on this side of the House wants to protect anyone who has broken the law. The law is there to act in people's best interests and make sure that those who are guilty are brought to justice.

But that is not what the Abbott government is on about. They are attacking unions in an unprecedented way in our community. Unions are one of the pillars of our civil society and unions do contribute to a civil society, to a fairer society. But the Abbott government wants a new society where individuals compete against each other and fend for themselves. And after tonight's disgraceful budget, the Abbott government is very clear that it wants to build that sort of individual society. What I know and what I know voters in Western Australia will realise when they read the papers tomorrow and listen to the news tonight, is that for a whole lot of people in our community, life just got a whole lot tougher.

But this ideological bent against unions was well and truly on display today when Senator Back got up to speak in defence of the government's Fair Work amendments. Senator Back forgot to mention a number of the key points that came out of the Senate inquiry into the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Bill in his attack against unions. He forgot to mention that in fact, leading business groups and unions are opposed to the government's Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act amendments. But of course, what we know about the Abbott government, borne out by their budget tonight, is that they never let facts get in the way of a good story. Labor introduced a Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Bill. When we did that, the Abbott government, and indeed Senator Back and others, accused Labor of lacking accountability because they believed the time frames were too short. Indeed, in his speech in the second reading debate today, Senator Back accused Mr Shorten of 'laziness and incompetence.' This brings me to the heart of what I want to speak about tonight, which is the laziness and incompetence of the Abbott government.

The government would have us believe that good unions are okay and that they want workers to belong to these sorts of unions. But those of us on this side are not fooled by that rhetoric—not one bit. Senator Back in his speech today devoted a lot of time to talking about Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson—former officials of the Health Services Union who have been dealt with quite properly under the laws of this land. The good senator went into the details of their fraudulent activities and he mentioned the amount of a million dollars, and then he flipped the picture and he started to paint a picture of his mother when she was in a Perth nursing home. Senator Back said quite correctly that his mother had received the best possible care, and he said what an excellent job the aged-care workers had done in looking after his mother. Senator Back went on to say that they had seen their union fees going for many years to the sorts of activities that Mr Williamson and Mr Thomson had either admitted to or had been found guilty of. Again the Abbott government has shown their complete laziness and incompetence, because the union Senator Back was referring to was not the Health Services Union; in fact, it was my union, United Voice. So here he is, casting aspersions upon a good union in Western Australia, somehow trying to convince people in this place and those listening that those 'excellent carers'—in his words—are members of the Health Services Union when in fact they are members of United Voice.

Senator Back went on to say he interviewed a woman from Eastern Europe, and he said that her union fees had been misused by the union and had gone to the likes of Craig Thomson and Mr Williamson. Again we see the laziness and the incompetence of the Abbott government. If they had just checked the simple facts—'Gee, I wonder if it is the Health Services Union in Western Australia'. No, it is not. It is United Voice. Senator Back owes an apology to the members of United Voice who work in that aged-care facility and to all the other members he slurred with his comments. In fact, I would go further and say that he should make an apology to the ordinary members on the executive of United Voice for accusing them of fraudulent activity.

But wait, there is more; Senator Back did not stop there. He went on to tell us a story about the Australian Workers Union that he heard in Kalgoorlie last year. He was told a story about a million dollars going missing. Senator Cameron was in the Senate at the time and he interjected and was very clear in his speech subsequently referring to Senator Back. He said that if Senator Back had information about what he alleged was fraudulent activity around this million dollars, he should take it to the police. In fact, Senator Cameron challenged him and asked him whether he had. Rather than sitting here, under the privilege of parliamentary privilege, accusing unions like United Voice and the Australian Workers Union of some kind of fraudulent activity, if he has got proof in relation to the Australian Workers Union, he should take it to them. I spoke to the Australian Workers Union today, and it is a bit of an urban myth. So I suggest again that the Abbott government get its facts right.

Then Senator Back attacked the MUA. The MUA has just spent 12 months trying to negotiate for deckhands for a tugboat operator in Port Hedland. For 12 months they have been negotiating an enterprise agreement, and they used the legitimate clauses under the Fair Work Act and surveyed workers and members of that union, who agreed unanimously to take industrial action. And somehow, according to Senator Back, that is wrong—when after 12 months of negotiation members fail to reach agreement with their employer, they take a ballot and agree to take industrial action. Again, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story: Senator Back forgot to mention that they have to give their employer three days' notice of intended industrial action. As for the other facts Senator Back missed out, let's see what those members are not able to get their employer to agree to. These deckhands currently work 12 hours a day—and, under the Abbott government's proposal, they will be doing that until they are 70. Not only that; they work not five days straight, not seven days straight, not even 14 days straight, but 28 days straight without any annual leave. The sticking point in that agreement is the four weeks annual leave that they are missing out on. And Senator Back implies that these members are somehow holding the country to ransom. As I said: don't let facts get in the way of a good story.

I am thankful tonight that I can defend unions like United Voice, the Australian Workers Union in Western Australia where this ridiculous million-dollar story came from, and the MUA, whose members are taking legitimate, protected industrial action. These are members who work 12 hours a day, 28 days straight, and all they want is four weeks leave a year when the average is six. It is quite disgusting to see the ideology and the hatred of unions on display by members of the Abbott government. As I said at the beginning: it is time that Senator Back and others who hold these views without any facts apologise to those hardworking workers who are doing their best and are taking legitimate action. He owes them an apology, and he certainly owes those aged-care workers in Western Australia an apology for slurring their good character. I can assure senators that they are low-paid members and the Abbott government took money out of their mouths so they will not be getting the wage increase they thought they would.