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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5327

Senator FORSHAW (5:47 PM) —I have to say that it is a unique experience to be able to stand in the Senate and speak in a debate on a workplace relations bill and actually indicate that the opposition will be supporting the government's legislation. I have to pinch myself constantly to check that this is the fact, but of course that is the fact. We are supporting the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002 and the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2002, which deal with the regulation and registration of industrial organisations.

Senator FORSHAW —It is the first, but it is not the first of many. In fact, it is probably the first and only time that it will happen. The reason that we are able to support the legislation is that the government has seen the wisdom of the opposition's case that has been put to it over many months, and agreed to remove from the bill the onerous provisions that it was seeking to put into it. But of course, as we understand, the government is not giving up on endeavouring to further emasculate the operation of the industrial relations system in this country and the trade union movement in particular. As I understand it, the government intends to introduce new legislation which will target trade unions and seek to introduce such provisions as penalty provisions, fines and so on—a return to the old days of the penal provisions which we all thought had long gone. So, whilst I am able to say, as my colleagues have said, that we support this legislation, it is because the government for once has seen at least some commonsense. But we know what its real agenda is and we await the next round of debate in this chamber and elsewhere when it comes back with some further bills to attack the trade union movement.

The history of this government—indeed, the history of this Prime Minister even before the coalition was elected to government in 1996—has been to set out to undermine the role of the trade union movement in this country. That is a fact. I do not even think people on the government side pretend any longer that that is not their agenda. It was the agenda of the current Prime Minister, Mr Howard, when he was the opposition spokesperson on industrial relations. He said he had two great missions in life. One was to what he called `reform' the tax system. He claims he has done that, but of course we now see that, having promised that there would be no new taxes introduced, increasingly there are new taxes, new surcharges, being introduced.

The Prime Minister's other mission for many years has been to undermine the role of the trade union movement. I often ask myself: what is the logic behind the government's ideology on this issue? Why are they so intent today—in an era which is far different from what may have been the case after World War II and during the Cold War years—on attacking the trade union movement? I think there are two reasons. The first is that they do not like unions—they just do not like them. The second reason is that they do not like the fact that the union movement and the Australian Labor Party have a unique and enduring relationship. The Australian Labor Party is one of the few truly labour parties in the world. It is because of the history emanating from the struggles in the union movement in the late 19th century, and it is something that continues today and that will continue to endure. It stands us apart from other political parties in this country that have come and gone—and, indeed, from other parties throughout the world.

Senator Alston, who has carriage of this bill in the chamber is, as we know, the chief spear carrier in the chamber for getting stuck into the unions. We have Mr Abbott in the other place, who muscles up to the dispatch box every chance he gets and gets stuck into the unions. Up here Senator Alston tries to imitate him. Senator Alston's basic approach is to attack Labor senators by saying that we are all ex-union officials. The mere making of that statement, he thinks, somehow condemns us and is designed to reduce our standing in the community. Many of us are ex-trade union officials and we are proud of it, as Senator George Campbell said. The fact that many of us are ex-trade union officials is because we have been involved in representing workers both industrially and politically for many years before coming into this chamber. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, it is a great testament to democracy in this country that that has occurred.

Senator Ferris —It is the only way you got here.

Senator FORSHAW —Senator Ferris does not say too often in this chamber that she was a representative of an employer organisation. She keeps quiet the fact that she was associated for many years with the National Farmers Federation—the employer union that seeks to represent all farmers and graziers in this country. Many a time Ihad fruitful, cordial and constructive relationships with the NFF. I have had a few battles with them as well, and I will come back to that in a minute.

Being an ex-trade union official also brings with it a wealth of experience across a broad range of industries. Many of us, certainly all of us on this side, being involved in trade unions had prior experience in a range of industries before we took up elected office in those democratic organisations. For instance, I was employed in a range of industries before I joined the AWU and was subsequently fortunate enough to become an official. The same applies to Senator George Campbell in relation to the Metal Workers Union, and my other colleague from New South Wales, Senator Hutchins, was employed for a number of years in the transport industry. In representing workers and their families, you get to see a huge slice of life across this nation, and you meet and represent members of your organisation—not only in an industrial workplace sense but also in a broader sense. I can recall on many occasions being involved in the union assisting employees and indeed employers in difficult situations such as redundancy and in the pastoral industry during the drought.

I contrast that with the government that Senator Alston represents. He constantly gets up here and says, `You're a union official; you're an ex-union official,' and that somehow we are beholden to the trade union movement. Let us have a look at the government. You can start with the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Hill. He is a lawyer. Then you can move all along the front bench: Senator Alston is a lawyer; Senator Minchin is a lawyer; Senator Vanstone is a lawyer; Senator Patterson is one of the only two odd ones out—she is not a lawyer; Senator Ellison is a lawyer; Senator Ian Macdonald is a lawyer; Senator Kemp is not a lawyer; Senator Abetz is a lawyer; Senator Coonan is a lawyer. I have nothing against lawyers per se—after all, I am a qualified lawyer myself. I do add the qualifier that I have never actually practised so I am not guilty in that regard. Eighty per cent of the front bench here come from the legal profession and most of them had a very narrow work experience before they entered this Senate. That is a contrast between the government and the opposition with regard to representation in this chamber.

Senator George Campbell and other opposition speakers have pointed out that this government has been engaged in a constant attack on the trade union movement since it came to office in 1996. We have seen legislation introduced into this parliament designed to frustrate the operations of trade unions, legislation designed to undermine and emasculate the powers of the Industrial Relations Commission and legislation that overturned years and years of negotiations in the workplace by restricting back to 20 the number of allowable matters that awards could contain. The government had absolutely no regard in that exercise to the fact that employees and employers, unions and employer organisations, may have negotiated over many years conditions of employment. The government came in and said, `We're going to legislate as a government to eliminate from the awards what you have already negotiated and what has been conciliated or arbitrated by the industrial relations umpire—the Industrial Relations Commission.' This government has used legislation to take away people's legal rights. That is what this government has done and it continues to try to do that whether it be in the area of unfair dismissal, bargaining rights and so on. It just goes on and on. As Senator Campbell also pointed out—and I want to refer to this as well—the government set up the Office of the Employment Advocate. What a misnomer that is. It is effectively the office of the employer advocate because the work that has been done by the Office of the Employment Advocate has all been directed in one way and that is in the interests of employers.

As we know, the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a royal commission into the building industry, trying to expose practices in that industry and directing that attack at the CFMEU. The government has not been interested in pursuing all of the problems and rorts that have gone on in that industry, or in other industries, that have been perpetrated by employers. For instance, a couple of years ago I stood in this chamber and reported on the situation with the Gilbertson meatworks in Grafton. It was a situation where employees went to work one day working for one company. The next day, they went to work and found out that the company had been put into liquidation and, by some inside manoeuvrings, their employment had been effectively transferred to a shelf company. They suddenly found that the company that they were now working for had no assets and could not pay them their entitlements. Then the meatworks were closed and these workers were unable to obtain entitlements to the tune of $3 million to $4 million. That sort of activity has happened in a range of circumstances. This government had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do something about it. We have seen companies like Ansett, HIH and One.Tel go to the wall. We have seen major corporate collapses in this country, and the government is silent about that. Of course, it is in there, whipping up the fervour and getting stuck into the unions because, by getting stuck into the unions, it thinks that it is also getting stuck into the Labor Party.

This legislation deals with the registration of organisations. As previous speakers have said, contrary to what the government might portray, trade unions are subject to some of the strictest laws in this country. There is a body of law stretching back to 1904 that regulates trade unions and industrial organisations of employees and employers. I stand to be corrected, but I think that the original Conciliation and Arbitration Act, passed in 1904, was the second piece of legislation put through the federal parliament. I might be wrong on that, but it was certainly one of the very first pieces of legislation. If any of the lawyers on the government side care—and another one is coming into the chamber now: Senator Mason—they could go and look at the Commonwealth Law Reports. They will see case after case dealing with the industrial regulation of trade unions. It has a long history. As previous speakers have pointed out, trade unions are democratic organisations. They are governed not only by their registered rules, but by the vast array of industrial legislation that requires audited accounts and that elections be conducted, and that provides for those elections to be conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. It also provides strict requirements for the observance of the organisation's rules and so on. As we know, that stands in marked contrast to what happens in a range of companies across this country.

Senator Ludwig —Or in the Liberal Party!

Senator FORSHAW —Or in the Liberal Party. Thank you, Senator Ludwig. I am sure that you will take that up in your remarks. Trade unions are truly democratic organisations. This government knows that, but it tries to portray a different picture.

I will conclude by quoting a few words from a great Australian. He said:

The trades union movement has meant a great deal in our industrial history. It has represented collective bargaining. It has given strength to workers as a group which no worker as an individual could have possessed. It has been an effective weapon against the obdurate or short-sighted employer. It has had supreme value in the working of the characteristically Australian system of compulsory industrial arbitration. As a servant of the wage-earner, unionism has done an extraordinarily good job of work.

Those words were uttered by Robert Gordon Menzies in 1943. They are words that this Prime Minister, who claims that he owes so much to the legacy of Sir Robert Menzies, should read, re-read and take notice of.