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Tuesday, 2 March 2004
Page: 20580

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (5:33 PM) —Madam Acting Deputy President—

Senator Abetz —Chalk and cheese.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —It is chalk and cheese, Senator Abetz, that is true. I was amazed at the character of the speech made by Senator Santoro, who I understand was a minister for industrial relations in the fine state of Queensland, to show such ignorance of the issues that the chamber has before it. The reality is that, if we were debating this issue on its merits, this debate would have been long over. We would not have wasted five minutes on it, because there is no merit in the legislation that is before the chamber—absolutely no merit whatsoever. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003 is just another piece of mischievous legislation designed to satisfy this government's vitriolic hatred of the trade union movement and to vilify the achievements and proud history of an organisation that has looked after the rights and conditions of working Australians for well over 100 years. Anyone with any sense of fairness who reads history objectively would know that the living standards that we all enjoy in this country today—whether you be a worker in a factory, a senator sitting in this chamber or a high-flying business executive—go back to the role played by the union movement over the past 100 years in arguing for and promoting the rights of ordinary Australians to better working conditions, better standards of living, better wages and better conditions. We all know that—and, if there was any sense of fairness on the other side of the chamber, Senator Santoro would get up and admit it and Senator Abetz when he closes this debate would get up and admit it. But we know they will not, because they have never been able to bring themselves at any stage in history to admit that the trade union movement has played an effective role on behalf of workers in this country.

This legislation is just another piece of Orwellian doublespeak. If you look at the industrial legislation that the government have brought into this chamber since 1996 and compare the language used in the titles of those bills with the actual intent behind them, then you would have to say that the government studied well George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. They understood clearly the message that was exposed in that piece of literature, because they have used it very effectively in all the industrial legislation they have been promoting. Those bills have been referred to, I think, as `the dirty dozen' reform agenda—the dozen bills that are about trying to neuter the effectiveness of the trade union movement by pretending to promote the interests of ordinary Australian workers.

This bill is simply a part of this broader picture of industrial relations reform—part of a series of bills which have been developed on ideological grounds. We know where the ideology comes from. It was there in 1996, it was there in 1998 when Peter Reith ordered the men in balaclavas and the dogs onto the wharves to go after the Maritime Union of Australia, it was there in the royal commission into the building industry when they sought to get at the building workers; and it will be there in future actions undertaken by this government in its approach to dealing with the trade union movement. It is unfortunate that it has confused the concept of reform with the politics of regression. This legislation and many of the other bills that we have before us are based on nothing more, as I said, than bland ideological hatred of the trade union movement and the collective ideal.

If this legislation were to get through this chamber in the form that is being promoted by this government, what would it achieve? It would lead to the creation of industrial turmoil out in the workplace. Workers and unions would be driven into a position of having to take direct industrial action to defend their living standards against the attacks that are clearly designed in this legislation. The legislation is designed to ensure that Australian workers will suffer, that Australian businesses will suffer and that conflict in the workplace will be inflamed. We have seen the example in Victoria with Jeff Kennett—which I was reminded of last week—when over 100,000 workers marched up Bourke Street in protest at his industrial laws. That is a clear example of what happens when you overstep the mark. In the same way that Kennett overstepped the mark in Victoria, this government has been attempting to overstep the mark since its election in 1996, but it has been prevented essentially by the actions of people in this chamber. It has been saved, some would say, from itself in its approach on industrial relations.

Let us look at some of the Orwellian titles of the dirty dozen. In many cases the intent of the bill is diametrically opposed to its title. Take the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Dismissal) Bill 2002, which allows small businesses to dismiss their employees with impunity and leaves sacked workers without recourse to unfair dismissal laws. Where is the fairness in that bill? Yet the government have deliberately used the term `fair dismissal bill'. What about the Workplace Relations (Award Simplification) Bill 2002? It simplifies the responsibilities of employers by removing matters such as limits on the minimum and maximum hours for part-time employees and payment of accident make-up pay, but it creates chaos and uncertainty in the lives of Australian families who find the safety net protecting their pay and conditions has been shredded to bits. The reality is that these ham-fisted class warriors of the Howard government are having themselves and working families on with this legislation—and this bill is no better.

On the surface, the bill sounds fairly innocent and fairly reasonable. It seeks to amend section 299 of the Workplace Relations Act relating to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission including the offence of contempt. The bill also increases fines for contempt and related offences. For some offences imprisonment terms will be increased. These are all provisions in the current act. They are not new; they are in the act and have been there since 1993. However, the reasons given by the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Abbott, for introducing this bill that the Industrial Relations Commission is somehow not respected and that its judgments are regularly flouted just do not add up. Of course the decisions of the independent umpire should be respected, but what has this government sought to do since 1996? It has sought to take the whistle off the umpire. If you look at the legislation across the board, you can see that much of it has been targeted at gagging the umpire's ability to blow the whistle and restricting the capacity of the umpire to play an effective role in running the industrial relations game. That is what the government has sought to do since 1996, yet it expresses concern that somehow or other the Industrial Relations Commission has not been respected.

If anybody holds the Industrial Relations Commission in disrespect, it is people on the other side this chamber—in fact, that is the very point. Issues of contempt in the commission are dealt with appropriately. As I have said, the act already contains numerous provisions which allow prosecutions for contempt of offences against the commission to be brought. Section 299 sets out a range of offences in relation to the commission, and they are very specific. In addition to section 229, there are other related provisions in the act, namely the Crimes Act and the Criminal Code that cover a wide range of offences, including the threatening, intimidation, coercion or prejudice of witnesses and non-compliance with commission requirements to appear, swear or make affirmation. These provisions also provide for significant penalties, including up to six months imprisonment for some offences.

The current system is clearly comprehensive, detailed and properly and effectively thought out. All parties operating under our industrial relations framework, whether they are unions or employer groups, understand their obligations to the commission. Noone in the industrial relations field is in doubt about what their commitment is to the commission and how they have to act within it and respond to it. The reality is that the current laws are working effectively, and the reality also is that the minister knows it. The minister knows the laws are working effectively.

So what is the government's real agenda with this legislation? It cannot be that actions brought under the section are proving problematic or ineffectual because there has not been an action brought under the section since 1993 when the contempt provisions of the act were significantly added to and changed. You would have thought, having listened to Senator Santoro's speech, that there was mayhem and chaos out there, that people were regularly holding the commission in contempt by ignoring its decisions.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —Senator Collins, I do not think they want to go as far as `tough love'. `Gentle love' might be more appropriate in these circumstances. If the commission had been subjected to the type of activity you would have thought they were being subjected to were you to believe Senator Santoro's speech, they would not have acted under the current provisions of the act to have protected their rights. The reality is that they did not. Non-compliance with commission orders are generally resolved in the Federal Court either directly between the parties involved in the dispute or with the assistance of the court.

We have to ask ourselves: why does the government feel it necessary to amend Section 299 when not one action has been brought under the section for over a decade? At the same time, you have to pose the more baffling question: why is the government not moving to make changes to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975, which contains a number of provisions largely equivalent to section 299 of the Workplace Relations Act? The answer is that the government is not really concerned about the commission being held in contempt at all. It simply wants to create a set of circumstances in the public relations environment to try to demonstrate that somehow or other the trade union movement are being big baddies out there: `We are dealing with them. We are going to make them pay. We are going to send them to prison. We are going to fine them double what they used to be fined.'

This morning Senator Abetz, in berating a comment I made on another bill, trotted out the old line that Paul Keating once used about my having the jobs of 100,000 metalworkers around my neck as a millstone. Two hours later, Senator Santoro had doubled that amount to 200,000. We have a number of industrial relations bills listed for debate in this chamber this week. By Thursday, the number of jobs that I will be accused of having around my neck will be around a million. Again, the truth does not seem to have much relevance for the other side when we are debating industrial relations.

I want to take a couple of minutes to identify what I think is the real government agenda. That real agenda is to say to working families in Australia, `Either you will play it our way or you will pay.' If you look at the evidence that was given to the Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee, which examined a number of the government's proposed workplace relations bills, including this one, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations themselves summed up the agenda. They said in short to the committee that the government considered that amendments to the act such as this one were necessary because they brought the law into line with government policy. The government use the term `policy', but of course we use the term `ideology'. They said they brought the bills in line with government ideology. That is what this agenda has all been about. This ideology, this hatred of the trade union movement, is not new to the Howard government. I have been in the industrial relations field for a long time and successive Liberal-National Party governments from Menzies right through have consistently put laws into the federal parliament aimed at attacking or restricting the capacity of the trade union movement to defend workers' rights. You can go back and see them. The legislation of 1975, the Viner amendments of 1983 and the bills that have been put through this chamber over the last six or seven years by the Howard government are all consistent in their objective, which is to restrict the capacity of the trade union movement to work on behalf of ordinary working Australians to improve their working conditions, their living standards and their pay.

At the end of the day, that is what is truly shocking about this bill and the other bills that we have in front of us this week. They simply demonstrate, once again, the paranoid fantasy that this government has about its imagined ideological enemies—its preparedness to set aside the rights of ordinary Australians and what it sees as the big bogyman in being able to attack the trade union movement. This bill, like the others, is sneaky, unnecessary and cynical. It demonstrates again the government's fanatical hatred of trade unions. That has never, and will never, be a sensible approach to industrial relations reform. I simply take this opportunity to say that I condemn the bill. I trust the Senate will treat this bill with as much contempt as this government treats the Industrial Relations Commission.