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Monday, 8 March 2004
Page: 20919

Senator NETTLE (12:39 PM) —As I said last week, the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003 is an attack on workers rights to organise and to defend their rights. It is part of an ongoing campaign by this government to put into the hands of employers legal weapons that they can use to attack workers' conditions and wages by attacking their unions. The disqualification provisions in this bill and the provisions allowing for the imprisonment of union officials are some of the most draconian measures that we have seen coming from the government in their campaign to attack trade unions and the rights of workers. They come at the end of a long list of biased and misbalanced proposals that the government have brought before the parliament. Workers need to be able to organise with their union to defend their wages and conditions. They have a right to campaign in their workplace and in the community for better wages and conditions. And unions have a legitimate political role to play in our society, campaigning for things such as public education, health and a sustainable environment. That is what we have seen in the last week—unions campaigning for a better deal, not just for their members but for all of us.

Just yesterday, in Canberra, we saw child-care workers gathering to express their anger about the inadequacy of pay for child-care workers. Child-care workers have an extremely important role to play in our society—caring for and teaching and educating the next generation of Australians. It is extremely important work, yet this government has failed to commit to adequately fund child care to enable child-care workers to be appropriately remunerated for their work. It is not good enough for Larry Anthony—

Senator Abetz —Mr Anthony to you.

Senator NETTLE —Mr Anthony, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, to say that child-care workers' wages are an issue between employers and employees. The government has a responsibility to ensure that child care is adequately funded—and that includes decent wages for child-care workers. The Greens support adequate funding for child care, which includes decent wages for child-care workers. I have already signed on to the union's charter of rights for quality child care.

Not only is this government not taking its responsibility to fund child-care workers properly but also in this bill before the Senate today it is seeking to restrict the right of child-care workers to effectively organise in their union and take action to ensure that they get proper wages and conditions. This bill is about putting out of action unions and union officials that campaign for the rights of working men and women in child-care centres—just as we saw this weekend with LHMU officials leading people in the community in a campaign about affordable wages for child-care workers. This is the crux of the issue: unions and union officials should be able to effectively organise to improve the working conditions of all employees. Unions should be able to organise and workers have a right to expect that their union officials will not be subject to a political witch-hunt under the guise of the provisions in this legislation.

Another example from my home state is the New South Wales rail system. It is in crisis, and we see a state Labor government that, instead of trying to fix the problem, is blaming workers. Maintenance workers, led by their union, will go on strike today. The Greens express our solidarity with them as they take legitimate industrial action in response to the state government's actions which threaten to close regional maintenance centres in Goulburn and in Bathurst.

Senator McGauran —If only the Berlin Wall hadn't come down, life would be fantastic.

Senator NETTLE —Railway unions are standing up for railway workers and for a better public transport system for commuters. Also this morning in New South Wales, TAFE teachers across the state held stop-work meetings to vote on industrial action to protest against student fee hikes.

Senator McGauran —If only Lenin had not murdered Trotsky.

Senator Brown —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The senator opposite is interjecting about Lenin and the Berlin Wall. He is a great supporter of the Beijing communist regime. I think it is unruly for him to be interjecting at all, and he should desist.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Lightfoot)—There is no point of order, Senator Brown.

Senator Brown —On that point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President, I would ask that you look at it again. There is a point of order about it being disorderly to interject.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —It is disorderly to interject, but the chamber has allowed it for some decades—in fact, ever since this chamber came into being. Therefore, there is no point of order.

Senator NETTLE —This morning in New South Wales TAFE teachers held stop-work meetings to vote on industrial action to protest against student fee hikes. This is in response to a New South Wales government decision which sees fees rising by as much as 220 per cent. TAFE teachers today voted to hold a 24-hour strike on Wednesday in defence of public education and against the appalling imposition of a 220 per cent fee increase for students at TAFEs in New South Wales. Last month, teachers in New South Wales refused to sign student enrolment forms in protest against the fee rises. The Greens support the actions of the teachers federation and we commend them for their courageous stand in defence of public education.

To return to this bill: the disqualification provisions in this bill are much more far-reaching than those in the Corporations Act for directors, as was pointed out by the ACTU in their submission to the Senate committee that looked at this piece of legislation. The ACTU concluded their evidence by highlighting the even greater inconsistency between the proposals in this bill and the disqualification provisions for federal parliamentarians.

The act already has adequate penalties for breaches of orders, so the provisions in this bill are aimed at heightening the pressure on unions. The increased threat of imprisonment for taking industrial action is particularly concerning. Are we returning to a situation like in 1969 when Clarie O'Shea, a tramways union official, went to jail in defence of his members' interests, and workers responded with mass strikes? Is this the `industrial mayhem' that the Prime Minister was talking about last weekend?

The International Labour Organisation's position on this matter is quite clear. They say:

... no one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organising or participating in a peaceful strike.

The Greens will not support laws that would send union members or officials to jail for defending workers' interests and we hope that no other senator believes that this is appropriate.

The real politicised character of this bill is absolutely clear when we look at the proposed role of the minister. Item 8 would insert a new subsection 310(1) in schedule 1B of the act. This item would empower the minister or his delegate to make an application for an order for a penalty arising from a breach of a commission or court order. Currently this can only be done by an industrial registrar, a union or an employer. This would mean that even if only a minor breach of an order has occurred and even if the employer and the registrar do not wish to pursue the issue because the dispute has been resolved or the issue is too minor, the minister can step in and apply for a penalty and bring about the automatic disqualification of a union official. This is the crux of the government's agenda of not ensuring the resolution of disputes through negotiation and bargaining, but rather the relentless pursuit of unions and union officials regardless of the consequence for the work, the workers and the members of the union.

The Greens are adamantly opposed to this bill. We do not accept that there is any legitimate purpose to the proposed changes. The bill is nothing but an attempt by the government to gain draconian powers with which it can pursue its ambition to destroy unions and any attempt by workers to collectively organise in defence of their own interests. We will never support attacks on freedom of association and the right to take industrial action. We will always be on the side of the working men and women of this country who have faced seven long years of attacks from this government. The Greens will not be supporting this bill.