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Thursday, 4 March 2004
Page: 20826

Senator NETTLE (12:33 PM) —With the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003 we once again have before us another of this government's never-ending attempts to enact discriminatory and divisive antiworker legislation. It is part of the government's attack on trade unions on behalf of employers who want to squeeze and exploit the vulnerabilities of a work force prevented from organising and collectively bargaining by the antiunion laws being put in place by this government. It is also part of this government's attempt to whip up antiunion feeling in the lead-up to a federal election, trying to find a wedge with which it can divide the community and undermine the support for opposition parties. Over the weekend we heard the Prime Minister attack union action in Victoria, trying to paint the support of unions as a threat to the security of the economy. According to the Sunday Age, he warned of `industrial relations mayhem' if his government was tossed out at the next election. He said:

... you only have to spend a few days in Victoria and you pick up a heightened sense of concern about industrial relations, a feeling that the unions have too much power in this state and the State Government's not very resolute in dealing with them.

Senator Ferris —And what about the teachers strike?

Senator NETTLE —That's right. I am sure that the power workers and their unions—the Electrical Trades Union and the Australian Services Union, who have recently been threatened with draconian essential services legislation by the Victorian Labor government—would question that allegation by the Prime Minister. So would the New South Wales rail workers and train drivers faced with a Labor government that has attacked train drivers and tried to shift the blame for a failing rail system onto the workers. I am sure the hospital nurses who had a stop-work meeting called by the Australian Nurses Federation at Moonee Valley racecourse in Melbourne this week would have a view different to the Prime Minister about the role of the Bracks Labor government. So would the New South Wales TAFE teachers who, along with students, are pursuing a campaign, led by the NSW Teachers Federation, against increased fees and attacks on public education by the NSW Labor government. They, despite opposition from the state government, will take industrial action next week—and the Australian Greens support them.

I am sure that the Australian Education Union, which led primary and secondary teachers yesterday in the teachers strike, a Victoria-wide strike, would beg to differ with the Prime Minister as the state Labor government attempts to make teachers work more for less. I take the opportunity to put on record the support of the Australian Greens for the teachers and the Australian Education Union as they defend their interests and the interests of students—and their parents—in the public education system. The system needs to be defended rigorously, as we see time and time again this government pouring public funds into private and non-government schools at the expense of public school education. We saw it again this week, with the government boosting funding for the non-government sector by $362 million. This is at a time when 70 per cent of students are in the public education system, yet we see this government providing the public education system with only 30 per cent of total federal funding for our schools sector.

This government has been attacking, and continues to attack, public education. The Greens will always support the rights of teachers, unions and the public education system. We express our solidarity with the Victorian teachers and the New South Wales TAFE teachers and with the many students and parents who have been on the streets this week—and will be again next week—in seeking to stand up and defend a strong public education system in this country.

The Prime Minister's agenda is clear. He wants to turn industrial relations into an election issue. He describes it as his job to `drive home the risk' of his government losing the next election. He can say what he likes. We have heard it all before. We heard it all with the government's attack on the Maritime Union of Australia and we continue to hear it with this government's multimillion dollar splurge on a royal commission witch-hunt against the unions in the building industry. But working men and women in this country will not believe the Prime Minister. His tired excuses and fear mongering are not working any more. He is running out of lies, and this bill—as well as other industrial relations bills before the Senate—will be seen for what it is: an illegitimate grab for unjustified powers to attack unions' right to organise.

It is not the first time that we have seen these provisions. The government tried to introduce these provisions as part of the Workplace Relations (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Act 2000. The government withdrew the provisions at the time so as to ensure the support of the opposition in passing other elements of the bill. We should not be seeing deals on this bill, and I am glad that senators who have spoken in this chamber have expressed their opposition to this bill. Let me place on the record that I am proud of the Greens's opposition to the government on industrial relations and on a range of other matters.

Senator Abetz —You oppose everything.

Senator NETTLE —Senator Abetz can add up as many times as he likes how many times the Greens have voted against the government, because I am proud of that record. I am proud to stand up against the attacks of the Howard government on workers and on those who come to this country to seek asylum. I am proud to stand up on a whole range of issues on which the Howard government is attacking working Australians, rather than supporting them, which is what we should see the government doing.

I will turn now to the detail of this legislation. The bill seeks to amend schedule 1B of the Workplace Relations Act in the following ways. Firstly, it requires the automatic disqualification for five years of persons—unless leave has been obtained from the Federal Court—from holding, from election to or from appointment to office if the court has imposed a financial penalty on that person for breach of provisions relating to the keeping of records, auditing and reporting to members.

Secondly, it seeks to create a number of new civil penalty provisions applying to officers and employees of organisations, including doing anything which would cause an organisation to contravene an order or direction of the commission or the court; doing anything which would contravene an order if it had been made against him or her rather than the organisation; contravening an order or direction applicable to the officer or employee; and, as an officer or employee of the organisation, being involved in any one of the above contraventions.

Thirdly, it seeks to create a civil penalty provision applying to members who breach an order or direction applying to them. Finally, it provides for penalties of up to $11,000 for an organisation and $2,200 for an individual. The workplace relations minister has said in relation to this bill:

People of a mind to defy the commission or the court ... will face heavy fines and possible disqualification from office, if this government gets its way.

It is clear that the minister and the government want the power to wade into any industrial dispute and take the side of the employers against the workers. There is no semblance of impartiality or responsibility on the part of the government. It is our view that a balanced perspective on industrial relations should not support this approach. There is no need for this legislation—as the speaker before me indicated. The driving force behind this legislation is the government's desire to destroy Australian trade unions. They want another weapon with which they can go to war against working men and women in this country.

The disqualification provisions of this legislation are particularly draconian. Disqualification from office is a totally disproportionate penalty for a breach of provisions that are largely related to administrative requirements—such as failing to keep adequate records or failing to meet deadlines for distribution of material to union members. There is no attempt to relate the magnitude of the penalty to the magnitude of the breach of the act. It would mean that, even in cases where the court might have imposed a very small penalty, a union official would be automatically disqualified.

There are already harsh disqualification provisions contained in the act. Part 4 of chapter 7 applies to cases of conviction for certain criminal offences, including fraud, intentional violence, certain ballot offences and offences in relation to the formation, registration or management of an association or organisation. The bill would make disqualification automatic and, as I said, on the basis in many cases of minor civil penalties that have been imposed. It is clear that the government are not concerned about preventing minor administrative breaches; rather, their real agenda is about attacking union organisers and officials that resist employers' attempts to drive down wages and conditions. The government will use any barrier that it can place in the way of unions, regardless of the consequences for fundamental rights.

The International Labour Organisation's Committee on Freedom of Association is very clear on this issue. It states that even a criminal conviction should not be a barrier to union office unless it is a criminal act which, by its nature, is such as to constitute a real risk for the proper exercise of trade union functions. Clearly, minor civil penalties, whilst onerous for the recipient, do not justify disqualification. The ACTU, in evidence to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Committee, compared the provisions of the bill to provisions of the Corporations Act relating to the disqualification of company directors. They said:

... automatic disqualification of company directors and officers occurs only in the case of serious criminal offences, a significantly more limited application than the current section 277 of the WRA. In the case of breaches of civil penalty provisions, ASIC carries the onus of satisfying the Court that disqualification is appropriate. This should be contrasted with the proposal in the Compliance Bill that the onus is on the disqualified person—

Debate interrupted.