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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 2337

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (12:09 PM) —It seems that almost no-one has a good word for these compulsory union fees except the ACTU and some members of this House who feel that it is vital to support the ACTU line. Even decent, honest members of the ALP, who are in a position to express themselves without fear of ACTU coercion, believe that there is something wrong with compulsory union fees. As we have just heard from the member for Parkes, the Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, said:

You can't put a tax on other members of the work force and the state can't require the collection of union fees from non-unionists.

The Western Australian workplace relations minister, John Kobelke, has said:

We think unions need to get out and provide services to their members and attract ... members—

on the basis of—

... what they can offer.

Even the federal shadow minister for workplace relations, the member for Barton, said:

Before I felt comfortable with that concept—

that is to say, the concept of compulsory union fees—

I would want to know why unions are unable to recruit members in a particular area.

That is what he said late last year. It is not quite what he is saying now because, unfortunately, the member for Barton's decent instincts have been overridden by the instructions of his caucus, in turn operating on the basis of instructions from the ACTU. But nearly everyone, when asked to consider this matter free of that kind of organisational heavying, realised that there is something wrong with the idea of extracting compulsory levies from nonmembers. It is a little bit like coming along and saying, `Political parties provide everyone with a service. If we did not exist, democracy under the Westminster system would not be able to function. We provide the vital quality control in the system that enables citizens to be confident that the vast majority of their members will be reasonable, decent people. We do this service for everyone, therefore you must all pay a levy to one or other of the political parties.' Of course that is a ridiculous position to put forward, yet what we are seeing is the industrial equivalent of compulsory levies to political parties. What we are seeing, in fact, is industrial conscription. That is what members opposite are supporting with their attitude to the Workplace Relations Amendment (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill.

This bill that the government has put before the House today is designed to ensure that freedom of association is a reality in practice, as well as in theory, in Australian workplaces. It is designed to stop the practice which is now becoming widespread in sections of Australian industry of trying to bring about Clayton's compulsory unionism—compulsory unionism through the backdoor—by imposing on all workers in a workplace, through the vehicle of a certified agreement, a bargaining agents clause, as it is called, but which is, in effect, a compulsory union levy. Hundreds of certified agreements, particularly in the Victorian construction industry, now have these bargaining agents clauses included in them. The bargaining agents clause usually provides that non-union members should pay a levy of up to $500. Invariably the levy is set at a higher rate than union membership fees. My department advises me that there are bargaining agents clauses in more than five per cent of the certified agreements which were sought to be registered in the last 12 months. So this really is a blatant attempt by unions, that cannot persuade people to join, to coerce them to join through the device of these fees.

The Industrial Relations Commission has considered this matter and a single senior member of the commission has, indeed, said that these clauses breach the freedom of association principles. Nevertheless, a single member found technical reasons not to strike these clauses out of certified agreements and that decision was upheld at the level of a full bench.

Subsequently, the Federal Court has found that these clauses are actually unenforceable, but they are still there in hundreds, if not thousands, of certified agreements and they will proliferate if this House, this parliament, does not pass legislation before it. Let no-one be in any doubt: coercion is taking place in the workplaces of Australia to try to ensure that people do sign up to a union and that, if they do not sign up, they pay these fees. After the evidence that has been made available day by day to the Cole royal commission into the construction industry, anyone who does not believe that coercion is taking place in the workplaces of Australia plainly believes in the tooth fairy. Although members opposite, I suppose, think that you can have higher spending, lower taxes and a bigger surplus so maybe they do, after all, believe in the tooth fairy.

I want to address some of the generic points made by members opposite. First of all, members opposite claim that these compulsory union fees are in fact some kind of an industrial version of the fee for service principle. In order for something to be a valid exhibition of the fee for service principle, you have to actually ask for it. Informed consent is an essential part of anything that is reasonably described as fee for service. There is no informed consent in the case of these compulsory union fees. If a business sought to charge someone for a so-called service that was not requested and was not necessarily needed, that would be nothing but a rort. It is in fact illegal to do so under various pieces of corporate legislation. If someone walked past my house and decided that it was in need of a bit of paint, pulled out the paint brush and started painting without asking my permission and, then, when I came home tried to present me with a bill for hundreds of dollars, that would be nothing but a rort, a rip-off and a racket. These compulsory union fees are the industrial equivalent of that.

The point has been made by members opposite that this is some kind of industrial version of the mutual obligation principle—that if you get the `benefit' of union work you should pay the price of union membership. I have to say that it is a pretty dubious benefit in many instances. I think most of the unions that we are familiar with are not benefiting their members and other people in the industry. In fact, if the AMWU and the CFMEU are any guide, these unions specialise in destroying the jobs of everyone in their industries, let alone the jobs of their members. So it is indeed an extremely dubious benefit. The fact is that, for something to be legitimately described as a kind of mutual obligation arrangement, the benefit in question has to be sought. You have to ask for a benefit before anyone can say that there is some kind of mutual obligation or reciprocal obligation involved.

The third generic point made by members opposite is that the government's legislation in some way infringes ILO conventions. Let me read to the House paragraph 100 of an ILO general survey which says:

... systems which prohibit union security practices in order to guarantee the right not to join an organization, as well as systems which authorize such practices, are compatible with the Convention.

The relevant convention is ILO Convention No. 87. So, plainly, this bill does comply with Australia's obligations to the ILO. I want to take up a couple of particular points that were raised by the shadow minister, the member for Barton, and I think he really did struggle to fill his half-hour with relevant objections to the government's bill. He said that, first of all, the bill had the wrong title. That is a very weighty objection! Let me point out to the member for Barton that only unions are seeking to apply these compulsory levies; there is no talk of business organisations seeking to impose compulsory levies on their nonmembers, even though they could probably use the money. The fact is that it is a perfectly adequate title for the bill.

The member for Barton said that there was no proof of coercion offered. I do not think the member for Barton has been reading his press clippings. Every day we hear of rampant coercion and intimidation in the construction industry which, of course, is the very place where most of these compulsory union levy clauses exist. Listening to the member for Barton I could not help thinking that, while he is no doubt genuinely and sincerely—as are his colleagues—against coercion in general, it seems that they have never found a piece of coercion in particular that they cannot find some kind of justification to support.

The final point that the member for Barton made was that this bill in some way pre-empts a decision of the Federal Court. This House has never regarded itself as excluded from legislation because there has been a decision by the Federal Court. The fact is that the relevant decision by the Federal Court is under appeal anyway and, in any event, even if that particular decision is upheld on appeal, unless the House passes this legislation, these clauses will remain in hundreds, if not thousands, of certified agreements and the union activists, the union heavies, will be fanning out across the workplaces, trying to demand that non-union members pay these fees.

If this practice of compulsory union levies under the guise of bargaining agents fees is not struck down, the reality is that up to six million non-union members in Australia will face, over time, paying $500 a year in a union tax. I do not think this would be good for them, I do not think it would be good for Australia and, ultimately, I do not even think it would be good for the union movement, because it is old-style unionism in all its ugliness and coercion. If the union movement is to have a dynamic future in this country it must move with the times. It must sell itself; it must persuade people to belong rather than expect the state or the party to do that job for it.

Listening to the member for Barton, I felt that his problem was not so much that this particular bill pre-empts a Federal Court decision so much as the fact that it pre-empts the ALP resolving the struggle for its soul. Right now, members opposite are engaged in a bitter internal debate over what their party really stands for. It is a debate which is far from resolved. On the one hand, there are the forces of light, including the member for Kingston; on the other hand, there are the forces of darkness, led for the time being by the member for Rankin. The forces of light believe that the ALP must be a genuinely democratic party rather than a union quasi-dictatorship. The member for Rankin, for reasons best known to himself, seems to have put himself at the head of the old guard—no doubt because big Bill Ludwig has provided the instruction of the day. In all of this, the member for Barton, who is a thoroughly decent human being and a highly intelligent former union lawyer, strikes me as the Tariq Aziz of Australian politics—the reasonable face of a union dictatorship. He did his best with this bill, but I am afraid it was a thoroughly unconvincing effort. The bill should be passed by the House, and I commend the bill to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Wilkie)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.