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Tuesday, 2 March 2004
Page: 20524

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (1:38 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003 is much akin to the other bills we have dealt with this week. In fact, one thinks of Senator Abetz's trifecta when one considers this bill. The extent to which the government are prepared to relinquish what they are seeking to pursue in order to allow some matters to pass the Senate makes one ponder why we are exercising so much time on some of these bills. One obvious reason is that the government's lack of preparedness in their business agenda is bringing forward bills of lesser priority that have been sitting on the Notice Paper for quite some time. The government have decided to progress what Senator Abetz referred to a moment ago as begrudging small changes that the Senate has allowed through. Senator Abetz may indeed get his trifecta, but the real content of them is very far from the government's real agenda. But let us deal with this bill as it stands.

The stated aim of this bill is to amend section 299 of the Workplace Relations Act and to codify the contempt provisions as they apply to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, but there are already provisions in the Workplace Relations Act which, in conjunction with the common law, ensure that any contempt of the commission is an offence and is subject to penalties. This is in existing section 299. The former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the member for Warringah, Tony Abbott, acknowledged this when he said, `There is a law prohibiting contempt of the Industrial Relations Commission.' These were the member for Warringah's own words in an interview in a publication called Human Capital Australia, published in March last year. That the then minister could be acknowledging this but at the same time pursuing this type of legislation again makes one wonder about its worth.

In Labor's view the Senate should not pass unnecessary legislation that has been introduced merely to progress an ideological agenda. There is no demonstrated or practical need for this bill. In light of the lack of policy basis for this bill, it seems clear that the real aim of the bill is to find another avenue for the government to spout anti-union rhetoric, some of which we have been hearing yet again from the minister today. This is most evident in the provisions of this bill that would have the effect of jailing participants in industrial action. As was noted at the Senate inquiry, threatening to imprison people because of their industrial activity is hardly the path to a cooperative industrial relations system. In the minority report of that inquiry we make precisely that point. What is wrong with this bill is that it uses imprisonment as a primary remedy for the taking of industrial action. Anyone who has any conception about how these things should operate would understand that a primary remedy of imprisonment is hardly appropriate.

Let us look at the government's reasons for the bill. The stated reasons for this bill do not stand up to scrutiny. The explanatory memorandum suggests that we need this bill because of a 1987 Law Reform Commission report. However, the Law Reform Commission report did not recommend the introduction of the disobedience contempt that is proposed in this bill, and the contempt provisions in the industrial relations legislation in 1987 are not the same as the ones in section 299 today. They were substantially added to and changed in 1993 following the High Court case of Nationwide News v. Wills. For this government to prop up its case, it is going back to a 1987 Law Reform Commission report and takes no account of the changes that have occurred subsequently to deal with these issues.

Since the changes in 1993, no actions—and I stress no actions—have been brought under section 299. Not one witness to the Senate's inquiry into this bill presented any evidence of the use of section 299. The only group that raised concerns about the operation of the current provisions was the Australian Industry Group. But the Australian Industry Group claims that there were delays in enforcing orders in the court which, even if valid, were not addressed by this bill. So it would be absurd for the government to suggest that actions have been brought and failed because of some problem with the current legislative provisions when in fact they are just not used at all. Instead there is one reason and one reason only for this bill: the consistent theme of the Prime Minister liking provocative, conflict-driven workplace relations bills. Even if there is not a problem that needs fixing, the government continues to bowl up legislation like this, which leads us to Senator Abetz's trifecta we have today.

The Prime Minister continues to use bills such as this one to pursue his anti-union zealotry. He proudly told the Business Council of Australia in October last year that one of his greatest achievements was the de-unionisation of Australia's work force. We are talking not about industrial disputation but about de-unionisation as his objective. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister must not realise that even in the face of anti-union legislation like this bill and many before it there are still 1.8 million proud union members in this country.

Bills such as this one and several others that have been debated in the chamber in past weeks, and will be debated this week and in future weeks by this government, are aimed squarely at reducing the bargaining rights of working Australians and the capacity of their unions to represent them. The point of difference here is that the government argues that it is implementing a bargaining system. Yet it continues to find way after way, means after means to tie workers' hands behind their backs when they need to bargain. This government, going back to 1996, has never acknowledged that there is an unequal bargaining relationship between worker and employer. The only area where the government seeks to address that relationship is where the worker, through the characteristics of the industry, the sector or the time in which they are operating, has a glimpse of the industrial power that can address the imbalance in the relationship between the worker and their employer. It is then that we get the government wanting specific measures for the maritime dispute. It is then that we get the government wanting specific measures for the construction industry. It is then that the government wants to intervene and interfere. But it does not interfere when it needs to deal with the fundamental issue of having an adequate and fair bargaining system—that is, to understand and acknowledge that there will be a power imbalance between the employer and the worker and that the system should deal with that.

Many provisions in these bills may not be needed and they may never become law, but the Prime Minister is insisting that they continue to be bowled up. Almost none of the government's workplace relations bills have passed the Senate and those that have have been severely modified to contain the agenda that this government keeps promoting. Why have these bills not passed the Senate? Because they are poorly conceived and poorly developed. For those very strong reasons we will continue to oppose such legislation.