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Wednesday, 5 March 2003
Page: 9306

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (6:14 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

This bill makes a secret ballot of employees a precondition for protected industrial action.

This bill is identical to one introduced into the House of Representatives on 20 February 2002, which was rejected by the Senate on 25 September 2002.

A secret ballot is a fair, effective and simple process for determining whether a group of employees at a workplace want to take industrial action. It will ensure that the right to protected industrial action is not abused by union officials pushing agendas unrelated to the interests of the workers at the workplace concerned.

Predictably, the ALP opposed the previous bill in the Senate. The Australian Democrats also opposed the previous bill, but proposed amendments. Those amendments would not have made a secret ballot a mandatory pre-condition to protected action. They would not have protected union members from possible coercion or intimidation in requesting a secret ballot prior to industrial action. Hence the government rejected the Democrats' amendments, and is pursuing the present bill.

Under this bill, secret ballots will not impede access to lawful protected action, but will provide a mechanism to ensure that protected action is a genuine choice of the employees involved. This will protect jobs by avoiding unnecessary strikes. The bill will enhance freedom of choice for workers and strengthen the accountability of unions to their members.

The conduct of a ballot will commence with an application to the commission for a ballot order. The applicant will propose a ballot agent, to conduct the ballot, and will propose the ballot question and the way in which the ballot is to be conducted.

An applicant, such as a union, can be the ballot agent, provided an independent advisor is appointed to oversee the ballot process.

The bill provides for postal ballots as the default method for a ballot, but gives the commission discretion to approve other methods, including on-site ballots.

If a union applies for a ballot, only union members whose employment would be covered by the proposed agreement would be entitled to vote. Where employees seeking a non-union agreement make an application, all employees whose employment would be covered by the proposed agreement would be entitled to vote. Only those union members or employees entitled to vote in a ballot would be able to take any subsequent authorised protected industrial action.

The bill does not require precise details and timing of the proposed industrial action to be specified in the ballot question. The bill allows for industrial action to commence within a 30 day period, beginning from the date the ballot result is declared, or the nominal expiry date of the relevant certified agreement, whichever is the later, although the commission may extend this validity period once, with the agreement of the parties.

The bill makes the Commonwealth liable for 80 per cent of the reasonable costs of a ballot, which the Commonwealth will pay directly to the ballot agent. This addresses accessibility concerns by requiring the Commonwealth to bear the majority of the cost, and limiting the impact which upfront costs would otherwise have on applicants.

The bill limits the scope for legal challenges to ballot orders and ballots, to minimise the possibility of delays and uncertainty that could affect employees' access to lawful protected action.

At the completion of a ballot, both the ballot agent and the independent advisor, if any, will provide the industrial registrar with a written report about the conduct of the ballot.

As before, the bill sets out simple and practical ballot requirements that guarantee the opportunity for employees to democratically decide whether to take industrial action.

Debate (on motion by Senator Mackay) adjourned.