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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4908

Senator HARRIS (6:06 PM) —In rising to speak to the Democrats' amendments to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002, I would like briefly to address a couple of issues that I raised during my contribution to the second reading debate. As the bill presently stands, industrial action—that is, the right to strike—is available under the Workplace Relations Act to employers, unions and employees, but only where the parties are negotiating an enterprise bargaining agreement, referred to as a certified agreement under the act. The bill as it stands proposes to reduce the rights of workers to take genuine industrial action. Industrial action would only be protected if at least 40 per cent of the eligible voters participated in a ballot and if more than 50 per cent of the votes cast were in favour of the proposed industrial action. This procedure would result in only a small number of employees in a secret ballot determining whether to take industrial action.

The bill is all about unions. It does nothing to address employer secret ballots of shareholders, nor does it address lockouts, where an employer refuses to allow its employees on the premises and does not allow them to work. Under the Workplace Relations Act, employees have a limited right to take industrial action and there is a right to lock out employees. This can lawfully occur only when bargaining for a certified agreement or when a workplace agreement is being negotiated. If the government is serious about this proposed amendment, then it should, in order to maintain a balanced position, require that employers be also subject to the same secret ballot provisions as workers. As the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association pointed out in its submission to the Senate committee considering the legislation:

It would appear that the Government believes that Chief Executive Officers of major corporations which may have large shareholders can effectively be a law unto themselves and be the decision maker for and on behalf of their constituents.

That is, the shareholders. It also said:

It would appear that the Government takes the view that shareholders of corporations have no right to have a say in relation to such serious issues as the taking of protected industrial action by a corporation against its workers.

That is one of the areas where, if it is good enough to impose a condition on workers, then it is good enough to impose exactly the same condition on employers. That is one issue that this piece of legislation does not take into account.

I would also like to point out that the secret pre-strike ballots are already available under section 136 of the Workplace Relations Act when requested by employees. It is also possible under section 135 for the commission to order that a secret ballot be conducted if it considers that this would be helpful to resolve a dispute where industrial action is pending or to ascertain whether an agreement has been genuinely made. Another problem with the bill relates to the cost of the secret ballots. Section 170NBF would provide that the applicant for a ballot order is liable for the cost of holding the ballot. Under new subsection 170NBFA(1) the Industrial Registrar is required to determine the reasonable ballot costs. New section 170NBFA(2) provides that the Commonwealth will be liable to pay to the authorised ballot agent 80 per cent of the reasonable ballot costs. Through this bill, the government are attempting to prescribe secret ballots, and I believe that, if they are going to do that, it is their responsibility or the responsibility of any subsequent government to bear the cost of it.

If we look at a submission by the Australian Education Union—which was put to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee comments on over six or seven bills, but I will address the issues only relating to the secret ballots—they say:

The provisions of the Secret Ballots for Protected Action Bill, as they relate to the compilation of a Voting Roll, would delay the holding of a ballot by 6-8 weeks at large education employers ...

The rights given to employers to contest the holding of a ballot for industrial action will ensure that employers will easily be able to delay ballots ...

The Secret Ballots for Protected Action Bill will in some cases lead to more serious industrial action and will make industrial action harder to lift ...

The Australian Education Union goes on to say:

In summary, we urge the Committee to recommend the rejection of all the Amendment Bills in their entirety. They would further disadvantage workers, add confusion instead of clarity to tribunal and court proceedings, impact hardest on the least organised and most vulnerable sections of the workforce, and place cumbersome and expensive barriers in the path of workers and their organisations participating as equals in genuine enterprise bargaining.

I believe the unions represent something like 155,000 employees. There are teachers and teachers' aides and, in lots of private enterprises, there is a far greater range of members. So, when a union that represents such a substantive number of employees puts very clearly and succinctly the problems relating to this particular bill and urges the committee to recommend that all the bills in their entirety be opposed, it is very difficult to accept the position that the government is putting forward. The Democrats amendments are an attempt to rectify in some way the problems with this bill, but I believe the fact that the bill is so structurally flawed and one-sided leaves the senators in this place no option other than to also vote against the Democrats amendments; albeit they are an attempt to rectify some of the problems. I indicate that One Nation will not be supporting Senator Murray's amendments to the bill.