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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18443

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (6:05 PM) —I think the member for Deakin explained why the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003 should not be introduced. By outlining the fact that there are indeed union members currently charged and before the courts he clearly indicated to anyone listening that there is no need for further laws to outlaw criminal conduct. The fact is that this bill is not designed to regulate the rules of the workplace relations commission. It is not designed to focus on breaches by employers, union members and employees; this bill is designed to focus solely upon employees, members of unions and unions—employee organisations—registered under the Workplace Relations Act. This bill is partisan—it is biased—and it does not apply to employers alone. It applies to employer associations, but in the cut and thrust of industrial disputation employer associations in every practical sense are rarely involved in any potential breach of the Workplace Relations Act. So this bill is not about regulating properly the industrial laws of this country. This is designed purely to target one side of the workplace—the employees, the working families of Australia. That is the intention by this minister in introducing this bill this week into the House.

The member for Deakin indicated that there was also a need for this bill to be introduced into this House and enacted into law because of the industrial strife that is occurring throughout the land. He used words such as `chaos' and `anarchy'. That belies the comments we hear every time the minister gets to his feet and says, `We have record low industrial disputation in this country—we have fewer disputes in this country than ever before.' He says that that is a result of the laws of the Commonwealth. But the fact remains that this bill is not about trying to reduce any further disputations; it is about preventing the rights of working people to genuinely bargain at their workplace. It will tie the hands of workers when they are negotiating with their employers, and it should be rejected comprehensively by this House.

Let us be very clear about what we are referring to. It is not a bill that applies to employers; it is a bill that applies to employees, union members and unions. Therefore, it is clearly another example of Minister Abbott's bias and his ideological obsession with undermining the rights of employees and the rights of their organisations to represent workers.

I will refer specifically to some of the items in the bill that I am most concerned about. Firstly, for anyone who is fined under these provisions there is an automatic disqualification from holding union office for up to five years. Even if the breach were trivial—even if the breach were of a negligible nature—it would allow a court to deprive a union official of their income and the right to earn a living for up to five years. That to me is a clear attempt to prevent workers from having a right to proper representatives who can put their case either at the workplace level or elsewhere. In my view, that is a completely pernicious provision of the bill.

Secondly, there is a potential fine for union members of up to $2,200 for even the slightest transgression in respect of a procedural direction or order of the commission. It allows the minister to continue to use divisive legal proceedings long after disputes are finished and when the parties are trying to reconcile any differences. Anybody with any understanding of industrial relations knows that very rarely does judicial intervention actually expedite the reconciliation of differences within the workplace. In fact, judicial intervention—civil court intervention—in industrial matters almost invariably compounds the problems that occur. This is not about a breach of law; this is about people who have to work together every day reconciling differences. They have to reconcile them so that they can move on from those differences and work harmoniously beyond that point. To use the courts to fix or reconcile differences has historically never been a successful strategy, but it does not bother the minister, because the minister is not interested in reconciling differences at the workplace. As we saw today, the minister is about inflaming disputation.

Mr Albanese —Even in the chamber.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —Exactly; even in the chamber, as the member for Grayndler says. This minister fails to oversee the Workplace Relations Act in order to ensure that the parties to a dispute are given an even hand and are dealt with fairly. This minister is not only ideologically in pursuit of unions but also blinded by his hatred for unions. Indeed, this bill reflects his inability to oversee in a fair manner the laws of this country.

There is a further provision in this bill. There are already a whole host of penalty provisions, as I have said, in the Workplace Relations Act. Therefore, they are not required to be enacted here. We have to look at why this government is introducing this bill. Why are workers of this country not being provided with laws that are as fairly applicable to them as they would be to employers? Why would workers have such concern? Clearly, if this bill were to be enacted—a bill that is specifically targeting union members, union officials, delegates and employees—it would reduce the likelihood of workers at the workplace negotiating genuinely and collectively in order to achieve outcomes.

The minister has to come back into this House and explain to the Australian public why he has an obsession with stymieing workplace negotiations and why he has an obsession with inflaming, rather than reconciling, differences. They are the things he is charged with the responsibility to undertake, and he is failing at every step of the way. In every piece of legislation that comes into this place in relation to workplace matters, we see the minister's hand. It is about confrontation and it is about attacking those people who produce the wealth in this country—the Australian workers. They are the people who are providing the impetus for our economy. They are the people whom we can be proud of when we talk about the Australian economy working well. But it is that component of our society that the minister is targeting in relation to this bill. He should be ashamed of himself because it is an outrageous attack upon ordinary Australian working families.

As I have said, this bill is clearly a biased bill. It forces us to come to grips with another thing: if this minister were a serious, genuine, wise Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations he would be looking at other matters. He would be looking at how we are going to rectify some of the problems that have arisen because of casualisation of the work force. He would be looking at ways to prevent people from being able to find only part-time or temporary work.

I think the obligation of an Australian government is to focus on the critical things that concern ordinary Australian families—that is, can they get a permanent full-time job these days? We know the Treasurer comes into this place and boasts about how many jobs he has managed to help create in the last number of years, but he never talks about how few of those jobs now are permanent full-time jobs. That is a critical issue. It has to be confronted and tackled by this government. But the minister for employment, who is too busy pursuing his hatred of unions, their members and employees in general, is not interested in talking about how we can move people from precarious employment into permanent employment. People have permanent families; they do not want casual jobs or temporary jobs. The minister for employment should be focusing on issues like that.

The minister for employment should also be considering the effects of trying to balance life with work. Increasingly, families in this country are having difficulty reconciling or getting the right balance between life and work. These are issues we hear the government mention from time to time. They throw out the words `paid maternity leave' and then they just forget about it. We heard the Prime Minister talk about paid maternity leave about six months ago, but we have not heard a thing since. These sorts of structural issues that are occurring as a result of major changes to the economy and the workplace mean that, effectively, the minister for employment, along with other senior frontbenchers of the government, should be looking at ways to mitigate the effects of the increasing difficulties that Australian workers have in finding time to be with their families. These are the sorts of issues that the Australian public expect governments to consider and to act upon. But we have a minister who is consumed with attacking unionists and unions, instead of looking at the structural problems that arise following changes in the economy and, as a result, changes to workplaces.

It is about time the minister considered these things. The saying is `we work to live, not live to work'. A lot of Australian families would like to find that maxim to be true. They would like to find that it applies to them but, increasingly, that is not the case. The minister and this government should be looking at those matters. That is the sort of thing that the Australian public would expect from a wise, conscientious and productive minister for employment. We see none of that from this minister because he has no interest in the Australian work force. He has no concern for Australian workers. He shows no consideration at all for their concerns; he shows only this ideologically driven hatred of unions and their members.

We know that from the behaviour of the minister today in question time. The minister spoils for a fight. In fact, I have not seen him so agitated for some time, but he seemed to spoil for a fight today. He was on about conflict, about abusing the Leader of the Opposition and about raising the temperature in this place. He was not talking about the issues that matter in this country; he was on about raising the hostility and enmity towards members on this side. That is in his nature. He is a hostile minister who is not interested in finding solutions and reconciling differences. They are the sorts of things that we have come to expect of this minister, and he is failing.

I want to put this bill into the context of some of the other bills that I have referred to. Firstly, we have just had the vote on the fair termination bill—again rejected by the Senate and quite rightly so. It is not good enough for this country to apply a law to a workplace of fewer than 20 employees and say, `Because you don't happen to work with 21 employees, you have no rights or entitlements to challenge a termination of employment.' The fact that it is called a fair termination bill smacks of contempt as well. A fair termination bill? Clearly, this bill, if enacted, would allow employers to dismiss their work force without any recourse for those workers. How that can be called a fair termination bill is beyond me.

It is no different from the government's genuine bargaining bill. It is a bill that tries to prevent genuine bargaining. It is a bill that has attempted to have the powers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission limited so that there is no proper bargaining in the workplace. That is what is called a genuine bargaining bill. It is another Orwellian effort by this minister: say one thing, but mean another in effect; describe it as one thing, but mean the reverse in effect.

It was not long ago that the transmission of business bill was introduced into this place. The transmission of business bill allowed for powers to be given to the commission—that would be a first—to amend an order so that the rights of workers who were in a workplace that was bought by another company would not apply to that new employer. The only time in which this government intervenes to provide a power to the commission is to provide a power that would remove the entitlements of workers. Indeed, the transmission of business bill is about trying to ensure that the rights and entitlements of workers in a given workplace can be taken away as a result of an order by the commission. Again, the only time that this minister has introduced a bill that actually allows for the commission's powers to be enhanced is when it is about taking away the rights of employees.

The same was seen in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Protecting the Low Paid) Bill 2003—another nice piece of Orwellian speak. That bill allowed the commission to not pass on the national wage increase to the lowest paid in this country. Under the title `protecting the low paid', the bill empowered the commission not to pass on the national wage increase to the lowest paid workers in this country. That is what we are beginning to expect from this government. When they provide extra laws to the commission, they are only about taking things away from Australian workers; otherwise, they will denude the commission's powers to prevent them from resolving disputes. Not only is the bill before us one-sided and antiworker, not only does it attempt to prevent the rights of unions and their members and employees generally to collectively bargain, but it does not apply in any real sense to employers and, therefore, it should be condemned for its bias.

We know that the minister has a fondness for boxing. We know that he was a boxer in his days at university—he uses that as a bit of a PR thing to show how strong he is. Clearly, having looked at almost all of the bills that have been introduced into the House by this minister, we see that he is no supporter of Queensberry rules. Queensberry rules, whether we like them or not, apply equally to the parties in the bout. But clearly, with respect to workplace relations, this minister is not about ensuring that rules apply equally to the parties in a workplace or the parties to a potential dispute. In fact, if the workplace were a boxing ring, we would have the worker in there with his hands tied and we would have the employer in there free to actually have a go, but many employers do not want to punch their work force. The boss might say, `I'm not happy to have a go at my workers. I am trying to work out differences.' It would be like some sort of scene out of World Wrestling: the minister would jump in the ring on his own, saying, `If you're not going to give them a whack, I'll give them a whack.' That is effectively what he does.

Even when employers do not want to impose penalties upon their own work forces, this government and this minister will do it. We see that. The fact is that the third party that looms largest now in workplace matters is this government. If the employers and the workers are trying to find ways to reconcile their differences, that annoys this minister because this minister wants to see conflict, the end of unions and the end of entitlements for employees, and he wants to see the capacity to collectively and genuinely bargain at the workplace removed from this country—a principle of workplace relations that has been with us almost since Federation, since the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904. This minister wants to see those principles, the tenants of those workplace relations laws, removed entirely from this country so that workers are left unprotected and employers, in effect, will be allowed to do what they like. We have to reject this bill. It is one-sided, it is antiworker and it is against Australian workers. Therefore I ask the House to reject it, as it should be rejected.