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Tuesday, 2 March 2004
Page: 20584

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (5:52 PM) —Who said dinosaurs were extinct? We have just heard from one and it seems to be back to Jurassic Park days with Senator George Campbell's contribution. I thank honourable senators for their contributions to this debate and, if I may, I will deal with some of the comments that have been made along the way and then remind the Senate of the legislation before us.

Despite all the rhetoric that we heard from the other side, there was one contribution that stood out—and that was from a former distinguished minister for industrial relations in the Queensland government, Senator Santoro. He made a very worthwhile contribution in this debate, and I thank him for his contribution and his commonsense approach to the issues. He set out the government's position very well.

During the debate we heard the lament about the deunionised work force. If the work force is being deunionised it is because workers are deciding not to join trade unions. You may wonder why the workers are leaving the trade union movement in droves. But it is no wonder when we have to listen to the sorts of contributions that have just been made in this place by Senator George Campbell on the other side. It would be somewhat embarrassing to have somebody like Senator George Campbell represent you if you were a worker. Senator Campbell made sure that his job was so much easier by ensuring that 100,000 people in the industry that he was allegedly representing lost their jobs. That is not my statistic, that is not Howard government rhetoric; that is the accusation made against him by former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating.

When people from your own side of politics accuse you of having lost 100,000 jobs in a particular industry whilst you were the head trade union official, there is merit in analysing and examining that allegation. Unfortunately, there are 100,000 Australians who know that to be a fact because they lost their jobs because of the activities of Senator George Campbell who, for his efforts, has now been promoted to the front bench of the Australian Labor Party. The people of Australia need to realise that if later this year there is a change of government it would be the likes of Senator George Campbell who would be deciding the industrial relations policy of this country. At the end of the day, there is only one group to blame for the work force being deunionised, and that is the union leadership for driving away the workers. It was the workers—

Senator Jacinta Collins —Don't contradict the Prime Minister.

Senator ABETZ —I am not contradicting the Prime Minister. Senator Collins, in her contribution, lamented the deunionised work force. The work force is being deunionised because of the sort of behaviour that we are witnessing now from a former trade union official. They are all former trade union officials over there, Madam Acting Deputy President Kirk, as you would well know. Workers nowadays, because of this government's policies, actually have a choice about whether or not they want to be members of a union. And we believe that that is a very important choice that each and every individual Australian worker should have. Once they were given that choice they left in droves.

Another contributor to this debate suggested that every workplace relations bill that has come before the parliament from this government over the past eight years has been designed to be provocative towards unions and the workers. If that is the case they might like to explain to the Australian people why we have enjoyed the lowest rate of industrial disputation in this country, ever. If we were so provocative and if we were wrecking the industrial infrastructure within this country, one would imagine that the workers would be outraged and there would be industrial disputation every day of the week. The simple fact is that as a result of our policies the workers of this country are enjoying not only more job opportunities—because we now have more people in employment—but also an increase in real wages. We are still in a period of strong economic growth with employment growth and, as a result, employment opportunities.

A suggestion was also made that there was some sort of imbalance of power. If there were an imbalance of power, one would imagine people would be getting lower and lower wages. I remind those opposite of the proud boast of the former Labor Prime Minister that real wages had gone down. We in the Liberal-National Party government are proud of the fact that real wages have increased under our regime.

Senator Jacinta Collins —What about the social wage?

Senator ABETZ —I accept Senator Collins's interjection. The greatest social wage we can give is an actual wage or an actual job—which the Labor Party were unable to deliver because of their policies. We have now delivered jobs not by the thousands or hundreds of thousands but by the million for the people of Australia. That is why the unemployment rate has come down to below six per cent. Sure, we have a long way to go. Whilst 5.6 per cent is a good figure, it should be even better—and we are working hard to achieve that. But when the people of Australia come to compare the Australian Labor Party with the Liberal and National parties in this area they will see that it has been our policies that have delivered these very exciting results for the working men and women of this country. People have jobs, their wages have increased in real terms, and that provides them with real and genuine security.

Senator George Campbell gave us a very interesting discussion. I will not seek to deal with everything that was mentioned by Senator Campbell. Suffice to say that his defence of the building industry in the face of the findings of the royal commission that highlighted the corruption, the thuggery, the standover tactics is just beyond belief—and that remark comes from a frontbencher. I remind the Senate and the Australian people that, if the Labor Party were to win at the next election later this year, Senator Campbell would be serving as a minister in the Australian government and, by implication, condoning the sorts of activities that were found to be illegal by the royal commission. Of course, with those sorts of activities we would have a government that would be overseeing yet again an increase in unemployment and a decrease in real wages—and they claim to be the champions of the worker.

The workers of this country expect their government to have a regime in place whereby the rule of law does apply to industrial matters. That is exactly what this bill seeks to do. It seeks to codify the contempt offences in the Workplace Relations Act. It is as simple as that. The nearly hysterical opposition, put forward by the Australian extremes and the Australian Labor Party, is just mind-boggling. It goes to show what their ideology is and what their methodology would be should they ever be given the Treasury benches in this place.

The proposed amendments to this bill are essentially technical amendments that are necessary to ensure that the legislation operates effectively and that the obligations it imposes are clearly understood. The contempt provisions of the act are intended to protect the integrity of the commission and to support commission proceedings and orders. If you genuinely believe in the Industrial Relations Commission—as those opposite claim—one would imagine that they would therefore support provisions that ensure that people cannot act in contempt of its orders. The Workplace Relations Act already prohibits contempt of the commission, but it does so through a deemed contempt offence that imports the uncertainties and complexities of common law contempt. All we are seeking to do, as the bill says, is to clarify that. The average person does not necessarily understand what conduct amounts to contempt. The bill takes this broad and potentially confusing offence and converts it into a number of offences that clearly spell out what conduct breaches the law. It makes the law clear; it makes the law accessible.

The bill has four main components. Firstly, the bill sets out specific offences that are a contempt of the commission. These offences are already substantially covered by the current catch-all offence. Secondly, it draws attention to existing offences under the Crimes Act and the Criminal Code that apply to the commission. Thirdly, it provides for a new specific offence of giving false evidence to the commission. Fourthly, it updates the penalties to more accurately reflect the seriousness of conduct that would undermine the integrity of the commission, which is what those opposite are opposing.

The opposition has focused its criticisms on proposed new section 299(3), which provides for an offence to prohibit the contravention of an order of the commission. This is disobedience contempt at common law. Unlike the existing provision, the new offence is very clear about what sort of conduct can result in a court imposing criminal sanctions on a person. There is a penalty of imprisonment, which has been referred to by Senator Collins. But contrary to what she suggested, this bill does not use prison as a primary remedy against industrial action. That is an absolute misrepresentation of the amendments. No-one will be penalised for taking protected, legitimate industrial action which is allowed under the Workplace Relations Act.

Before a person is exposed to a penalty under this bill, in connection with taking industrial action, the person would need to have (a) taken the unprotected industrial action and (b) be the subject of an order by the commission that the industrial action cease or not occur and (c) have intentionally failed to comply with that order or been reckless as to whether they complied with the order. One wonders why the Australian Labor Party is so trenchant in its opposition of such a provision. There are three aspects that need to be satisfied. If all three are satisfied then it seems reasonable that in those circumstances a substantial penalty ought be applied.

The current act already includes a sentencing option of six months imprisonment for breaching section 299(1)(e), which could apply where a person breaches orders of the commission, but the current provision is not clear that this sort of conduct could result in such a sanction being applied. This bill makes it clear. It is appropriate that there are effective sanctions that can be imposed where a person who is bound by an order intentionally breaches that order. Courts are protected by criminal sanctions for contempt, as are other Commonwealth tribunals, and the government's policy is that the commission warrants the same degree of protection. It is obvious that the Australian Labor Party does not believe that the commission warrants that degree of protection. We happen to disagree; we believe that the commission is worthy of that protection.

The opposition has asserted that there is no evidence that the incidence of industrial action or noncompliance with orders has increased or is so prevalent that systematic changes are required to deal with these issues. However, even the ACTU conceded in its submission to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References committee that orders of the commission are sometimes breached. The ACTU submission referred to a number of excuses for such breaches. They were either minor or trivial or the industrial action did not continue for too long after the order was made, or the action ceased after the federal court followed up the commission's order with an injunction. Responsible union officials, one would have thought, should always respect orders of the commission. The government's view is that there are no excuses. If a union does not agree that the commission should have made an order, it should appeal against the order. The government agrees with the president of the commission, when he said:

The act provides for the manner in which decisions and orders are to be challenged and that process is to be preferred to a practice of selective observance based on a perceived interest.

Other commissioners have noted the seriousness of failing to comply with its orders. For example, Senior Deputy President Acton noted in the Calsonic case last year:

It is clear that the AMWU failed to comply with all the terms of the section 127 order I issued on 28 May 2003. The AMWU's failure in this regard is a serious matter and is to be condemned, not the least because it undermines the rule of law and the objects of the act.

Can somebody remind me which union Senator George Campbell was associated with? It would not have been the AMWU, by any chance?

My friend and colleague from the Democrats Senator Murray was concerned that the government was seeking to prosecute every example of noncompliance. This is not the case. The Director of Public Prosecutions is an independent officeholder and he will decide if a case is to be prosecuted under the Commonwealth's prosecution policy. Under this policy, a prosecution can occur only where the DPP decides that it is in the public interest, taking into account all the relevant facts. Knowing who the DPP is, might I say that Senator Murray should have no fear—the DPP is a Tasmanian.

The suggestion was made by a number of contributors that there was no evidence that section 299(1)(e) has ever been used. Senator Collins suggested that this meant there was no need for any amendment. There are a number of likely reasons for the existing offence not having been used to date: (a) the very low penalties that may be imposed; (b) the lack of clarity about which conduct amounts to contempt of the commission; and (c) that it has not previously been a key government priority to investigate possible breaches and seek compliance with orders. These are the very factors the government is trying to remedy through this bill. The bill would ensure that the sanctions for contempt of the commission are effective. It does this by replacing the existing offence, which is unclear and out of date, with offences that are clearly drafted and supported by adequate penalties.

There are other matters that I would like to pursue during the committee stage. While I thank all honourable senators for their contributions, I think the approach being taken, especially by the Australian Labor Party, is to be regretted. If they genuinely believed in the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, they would want to see its orders being observed. If they believed in the commission being the umpire, it would be appropriate for both sides of the equation to abide by the decisions and there would not be selective observance of the commission's orders. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.