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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5321

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (5:11 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002 because I initially thought we would have been opposing it. To my surprise I understand we are now supporting it and, as a consequence, there will be amendments going through both chambers. I think it is important to note, however, that the substance of the amendments that will finally find their way through the Senate and the House of Representatives will be substantially different to the intent of the original bill initiated by the minister which fell into the category—as has all the industrial relations legislation initiated by this government—of ideological rantings against the union movement.

This government, in its six years in office, has never been serious in seeking substantive industrial relations reform. However, over that period of time it has been obsessed with pursuing an agenda which, in its eyes, has been aimed at crushing the trade union movement, rendering the trade union movement in this country irrelevant to the protection of workers in the workplace, and reducing the capacity of ordinary workers to defend and promote their interests through collective organisation on the job. That has been the essence of the approach of this government to industrial relations since it came to power in 1996.

That is demonstrated by a number of significant features that have occurred over that time. The obsession of the then minister, Mr Reith, with the waterfront and the exercise of Dubai, the balaclavas, the guard dogs and the rest of it that we witnessed over the dispute on the waterfront reflected one dimension of this government's obsession with attacking the trade union movement. But we have also seen it manifested in other ways by the stream of legislation that has been pursued through both these chambers—legislation on unfair dismissals which became fair dismissals and a range of other forms of legislation containing rhetorical doublespeak. George Orwell would have been proud to read some of the industrial relations legislation that has been introduced into this chamber over the past three or four years. But all of it has been aimed at, in some form or other, restricting or impacting upon the capacity of the trade union movement to represent its members. This bill originally fell into that category.

As has been indicated, the most obnoxious elements of the bill have been removed through a process of negotiation, and I understand that the bill will be passed by both chambers. However, in an article which appeared in the Financial Review on 29 May, the minister indicated that, independently of this legislation, he will be pursuing his agenda in respect of some other issues. In part, we have seen this government introduce industrial relations legislation into this chamber in order to create the triggers for a double dissolution, in order to set itself up to take political advantage of what it sees as a political football—that is, dealing with industrial relations in this country.

From the title of this legislation, you would think that unions were not accountable and that constrictions of this nature were necessary in order to impose accountability on the union movement. It is important to indicate on the public record that unions have always been accountable. Unions have derived their corporate power from registration under the industrial relations act in all its forms, from when it first came into being in 1902, and they have at all stages been required to have some form of registration. As a consequence of that registration, they have also been required to meet certain conditions that have been set at given points in time over that history.

Very significant reforms were introduced when the Fraser government came to power in 1975, driven by the same ideological agendas that drive this government but perhaps not with the same venom attached to them as we have seen attached to them by ministers in this government. In 1977 the Fraser government introduced a very substantial bill into the parliament and it was passed by the parliament. It required unions to apply very significant accounting and reporting provisions in the rules—accounting and reporting provisions which still apply to trade unions and which require unions to sign off on their accounts, to publish their accounts to their members and to be answerable for the expenditure and collection of membership moneys.

They also put into the act at that time postal balloting provisions for the election of certain officers and office holders in unions. These were very substantial requirements on the election of officers, whether they were full-time positions or part-time positions. At that time they required, for example, full postal balloting for the election of officers of councils of unions, of management bodies of unions, and they introduced very significant electoral procedures as well as the need for substantial qualifications to stand for office. They also introduced a prohibition on union officials holding office in certain circumstances. All of these were substantially onerous provisions and all of these currently apply under the present provisions of the Workplace Relations Act.

Despite all that was done in that period of time, there is one thing about which the trade union movement in this country can hold up its head—that is, with very few exceptions, the trade union movement in this country all through its history has always been honest, open and fair in its dealings with its membership and with the community. There have been very few exceptions when the union movement has been found to be engaging in practices that could be described as criminal or as having criminal intent. You could not say the same for the corporate sector in this country, of course. You would be hard-pressed to make a statement of that nature in regard to the corporate sector. There are myriad cases, in recent times and in the past, when the corporate sector has got up to all sorts of dubious activities, and many of them have finished up by doing their time. As they say, if you cannot do the time, do not do the crime. Some of them have actually done the crime and done the time because they have been caught out operating in a crooked or underhanded way.

I suppose there is one event of the seventies, going back to the Fraser era, which demonstrates that. In the mid-seventies, the Fraser government thought that there was a political advantage in setting up a royal commission into the unions. Mr Acting Deputy President Hutchins, you would remember that royal commission. It was a royal commission into the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union. The commission was set up, before a lot of this legislation was introduced, specifically for the purpose of demonstrating how crooked the trade union movement in this country was. The Fraser government thought that they had an easy target with the painters and dockers union. This union had had some notorious publicity over the years and it was deemed to be an easy target.

What happened out of the royal commission into the painters and dockers union? Were any members of the painters and dockers union found to be engaged in malpractice? No. Were any members of the painters and dockers union prosecuted? No. What they did find was a lot of illegal activity happening around the waterfront—but it was all to do with tax evasion schemes that were at the bottom of Sydney Harbour! That was where the illegal activity around the waterfront was taking place—not on the wharves where the work was being carried out but in the malpractice schemes that were concocted by people in the business community to avoid taxation and their taxation responsibilities.

There have been a number of royal commissions into the trade union movement over the years—in fact, I think I have been engaged in three of them, from time to time— and none of them has ever demonstrated one iota of illegal activity by the trade union movement, much to the government's chagrin. You cannot say the same for corporate leadership in this country. You only have to read the press over the past couple of days to identify what is happening in our corporate sector in terms of corporate accountability.

Perhaps this government would be better off spending its time engaged in looking at corporate governance issues and cleaning up what is happening in the business sector in this country than wasting its time in ideological pursuits against the trade union movement. There are more rorts occurring in the corporate sector than have ever been demonstrated to have occurred or fingered in terms of the trade union movement. Union structures are democratic. Unions are accountable to their membership, both through the reporting process that is imposed upon them and by the very nature of the way in which they operate.

Senator Alston shakes his head. I doubt that he has ever been in a factory; I doubt that he has ever seen a union meeting in operation. I take it by his silence that he probably has not. He can shake his head and come in here consistently in an attempt to berate the union movement and people on this side of the chamber for having union membership. He should not waste his time, because all the people on this side of the chamber are proud of the union badges they wear. They have worn them for a very long time.

Senator Ferris —There are fewer and fewer of them. They are an endangered species.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —They are proud of the union badges they wear, Senator Ferris. I have never ever regretted the day I joined the trade union movement and never ever regretted my involvement in it. I wear my union badge with pride, as all the union people on this side of the chamber do. So you waste your time and your energy by trying to berate us about our union membership, as everyone on this side of the chamber is proud of it. We have all been involved in dealing with our union members, in the consultation process that occurs and in the necessity of explaining things thoroughly to them, because unionists may not, in many respects, be highly educated, but they are not unintelligent and they know when they are being sold a pup.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —Perhaps I would be interested to hear your contribution to this debate, Senator Ferris. You seem to be very keen on participating in it. I am sure we will make room for your 20 minutes of dissertation in terms of this legislation and what you think of your government's approach to dealing with industrial relations. The reality is that the approach of this government to industrial relations since 1996 has been all about electoral advantage. It has had nothing to do with genuine industrial relations reform.

There is the Office of the Employment Advocate—what a misnomer; another bit of Orwellian rhetoric—which spends most of its time running around and pursuing the unions in the building industry and, when it is not doing that, it spends the rest of its time setting up AWAs. You have pursued the AWA agenda. We actually had an inquiry into AWAs in the public sector. I think Senator Nettle referred to public sector employees. We looked at the operation of AWAs in the public sector and we actually had a unanimous report by a Senate references committee, including members of the other side, saying that AWAs were not a proper form of regulation of industrial relations in the public sector. It rejected the use of AWAs in the public sector. This was a committee that had on it members of the other side of the chamber. They actually took to heart the necessity of genuinely looking at the issues that were involved in public sector AWAs and joined in the unanimous recommendations of that committee. The reality is that everyone you talk to around this country knows that employers see AWAs as a means of cutting wages and working conditions. Their belief is that AWAs are for cutting wages and working conditions—being able to deal with the conditions of employment that they feel are onerous—and that they somehow or other enable them to remove them.

Those are only some examples of the sort of legislation that this government has sought to introduce. But, at the end of the day, this government—as I said in my initial remarks—has been about trying to destroy or render ineffective the trade union movement and its function on behalf of workers in this country. It has been tried before and I am sure it will be tried again. There is one thing that you can say with some degree of certainty in respect of this government, and that is that the trade union movement will survive and it will be here long after this government has passed into history.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —It will be around, Senator Ferris, long after you have passed into history—I can guarantee you that. It will not go away. Workers know that at the end of the day the only real protection and real insurance that they have out there is the organised trade union movement, which collectively protect their interests. That is what they do and that is what they will continue to do. If you actually looked, Senator Ferris, you would see that real union numbers are growing at the moment. In real terms they are actually growing.

Senator Ferris —Dream on!

Senator Alston —In real terms! Not inflationary?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hutchins)—Senator Alston, could you please bring yourself to order, and you, Senator Ferris, as well.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —I will not repeat the point that I made. They can try to deride it on the other side of the chamber. They would like to think that it is otherwise but the reality is that union numbers, in real terms, are growing. It is true that, as a percentage of the work force, union numbers have declined, but real union numbers are growing at this point in time.

I will conclude by saying that the trade union movement has been under sustained attack from this government over the past six years. It is interesting to note that the trade unions have been given no recognition for the contribution they made to the reform process during the eighties in this country. There has been no recognition of what they contributed during the eighties to the reform process within our industries, within our factories and within the Australian economy in terms of lifting the productivity of the nation. Despite the very substantial degree of reform which took place, there was no recognition. That contribution has been ignored and we continue with the ideological war. We will continue to see legislation introduced in this chamber by this government and by the current minister for industrial relations and the agenda will be to lift the ideological issues, put them onto the front page and try to fight the ideological battle. (Time expired)