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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18447

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR (6:25 PM) —The Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003 is the latest bill in a conga line of pernicious and punitive industrial relations bills brought into this House by the failed Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. This bill has its genesis in the hoary old industrial relations agenda of the Prime Minister, which was put before the Australian people during the Fightback era. The particular provisions in the bill that has been introduced by this minister were first included in the Workplace Relations Amend-ment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002 but were removed to secure passage of that legislation through the parliament.

The Howard government's industrial relations platform is like a mutating cancer on the body politic of Australia. Too often the minister comes up with a bill that contains no new proposals, but simply a rerun of legislation previously rejected and defeated in the parliament. He is like one of those rubber dummies that gets knocked over and bobs up again—that is his pattern of performance in this House. You would have to be as thick as two bricks to keep coming into the parliament with this type of legislation, which is roundly rejected time and time again by this House.

I do not know of any other minister with a failure rate like the current Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. He has had more knock-backs than old Uncle Festus at the country dance on a Saturday night. It is unbelievable but true. He comes into this parliament with these pernicious pieces of legislation, he gets them knocked out by the parliament, and then he has the temerity to reintroduce them under another guise and expect an unsuspecting public and a very smart parliament to go along with his agenda.

This piece of legislation will end the same way as other rotten pieces of industrial relations legislation that have been sponsored by the minister. He is fast becoming an embarrassment to the government. We witnessed the performance of the minister today in question time—an appalling performance—in relation to the ethanol issue. He is fast becoming an embarrassment. My suggestion to the Prime Minister would be to remove him from this portfolio because he is simply doing damage, not only to his own government but to the industrial relations fabric of this country.

This bill amends the Workplace Relations Act to create statutory duties for officers, employees and members of registered organisations—that is, trade unions and employer organisations—in order to comply with the orders of the Federal Court and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It empowers the Federal Court, in the case of a contravention of this legislation, to impose monetary penalties on those who transgress and it orders a person to pay compensation to a registered organisation that has suffered damage as a result of the contravention. It supports any order the court considers appropriate, including the granting of interim and final injunctions. More perniciously—and this is where the minister's true colours are there for everybody to see—it automatically disqualifies a person who has been ordered to pay a pecuniary penalty from holding office in a registered organisation for up to five years, unless the Federal Court orders otherwise in a separate application by the disqualified person.

The only people who may apply for such orders—and this is where the third-party intervention of this government is there for all to see—are the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the Industrial Registrar, or persons authorised in writing by them. Although the bill theoretically applies to all types of orders of the court and commission, it is plainly directed at orders that industrial action stop or does not occur. That is the genesis of this particular legislation.

We can once again see the true colours of the minister, because this particular legislation would almost exclusively affect unionists. It would not, for example, touch an illegal lockout by an individual employer unless an employer association were directly involved in the illegality. That particular provision relates to a circumstance that we have in my electorate of Corio at the moment with the Geelong Wool Combing dispute. We had a lockout by an employer that was illegal. Under this particular piece of legislation, that initial illegal lockout would not have come under the ambit of this legislation, yet union officials who may contravene a determination by the Industrial Relations Commission would be so liable. I cannot think of a more unbalanced and unfair piece of legislation that affects workers and companies in my electorate.

I think at the outset we need to ask ourselves several things in considering this piece of legislation. The first proposition that we must consider is this: is this law necessary? We have already heard in this debate thus far from many members on this side of the House that there are existing powers of the Federal Court to deal with these matters. The Federal Court has power to order injunctions. It has the power to institute penalties. Yet here we have a piece of legislation which is specifically aimed at unionists and not individual employers and which seeks to intervene in a third-party sense in industrial disputes where the parties may be attempting to achieve a resolution.

So it fails the first test. This legislation fails the test of necessity. When it fails that test, it exposes the minister and his agenda. If this law is unnecessary, if the powers that are granted under this law and the situations that can be addressed under this legislation can be effectively addressed under existing legislation, then I think the parliament and the Australian people are entitled to ask the question: why is this piece of legislation being put to the Australian parliament at this time? We on this side of the House know why. We know that the minister is a con-frontationist minister and we know the Prime Minister is simply wanting to load the double dissolution gun for an election before the politics of this nation really turn sour on him.

The second issue that we have to consider as the backdrop to this piece of legislation is the bona fides of the minister and the government that are introducing the legislation. I do not really have to answer this particular question, because the Australian people—and particularly workers—know the answer exactly. They know the answer to that question on the bona fides of this minister. His bona fides is demonstrated quite clearly by his actions in this portfolio area. He has not sought at any stage in the legislative program that he has put before the parliament in his portfolio to improve the industrial relations climate in this country. What he has sought to do is to set workers against companies and set companies against their communities. That is the worst legacy of this minister. He is a failed minister. He is a failed minister simply because of the legislation that he has brought into this parliament that has already been rejected by the parliament. There is no greater test of the minister's failure than the one I have just outlined.

This bill does not enhance the industrial relations agenda of this country in any reasonable way. It is pandering to the blind prejudices of a minister who should not be in control of this portfolio. I listened with great interest to the contribution of the member for Corangamite to this debate earlier on in this place. The honourable member for Corangamite has been a speaker on many pieces of industrial relations legislation that have been brought by this minister to this House. On every one he has supported the worst minister for employment and workplace relations that this country has seen. He has supported every measure of this minister that is designed to drive the boot into the workers of Geelong.

I want the member for Corangamite to recall, if he can, the words that he said in this House some time earlier in this debate because I think it is instructive to see just how government members delude themselves about this sort of legislation when they bring it into the House. The honourable member for Corangamite made great play of speaking about the rule of law in industrial relations. He talked about unlawful activity and about intimidation by elements in the union move-ment in industrial disputation. He has never talked about the intimidation by companies. He has never talked about companies that use the legal system to intimidate their workers. Nor does he stick up in this place for the workers of Geelong Wool Combing who are locked out of their particular workplace.

When the honourable member for Corangamite gets up and talks about the rule of law, intimidation and unlawful activities, I remind him of the dispute on the Victorian waterfront when his own government trained mercenaries in a foreign place to break the law here in Australia—and who knows if they were trained to engage in violence on the waterfront. That is the legacy of this government. But it did not stop with the training of mercenaries. We had balaclava-ed hoodlums with dogs that were set upon workers in Victoria.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —The honourable minister at the dispatch box may laugh at that and the honourable member for Corangamite may have a smile on his face, but every worker in Geelong knows the position of the member for Corangamite on these matters, because it is on the public record. They know about his support for the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who regularly brings legislation into this House to deny workers their rights, to limit their capacity to bargain effectively in the workplace for a better deal for their families. They know that the member for Corangamite stands squarely with the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, in this matter.

It is interesting that the honourable member for Corangamite talks about intimidation. He might cast his mind back to the bushfire committee hearing in Manjimup, because, after that hearing, a certain state Liberal member wanted to settle an issue with me outside the council hall.

Mr GAVAN O'CONNOR —The minister asks whether I took the opportunity to do that. I have to remind the minister that I am Irish, I am a country boy and I can look after myself. I do not take any intimidation from a small-town Liberal member from Manjimup. I was raised in the sixties. When Elton John penned the song Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting,he was really reflecting on Colac in the early sixties! The honourable member for Corangamite would appreciate that. The Alvie boys can look after themselves! But I didn't come into this House whingeing about intimidation like the honourable member for Corangamite did. I did not come into this House claiming privilege and whingeing about the intimidation in a piece of legislation.

The honourable member for Corangamite also made a point about inappropriate payments in the building industry. That is a very unfortunate example to make in the context of the ethanol debate that we are having here in parliament this week and the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations by the Manildra Group to get a particular outcome from this government on the ethanol issue. I thought the honourable me-mber for a Corangamite was a little smarter than that.

The honourable member for Corangamite has spoken on this piece of legislation and he has accused the union movement of many things—of intimidation, unlawful activities and violating the rule of law. The Hansard shows that, on 23 June 2003, the honourable member for Corangamite asked a dorothy dix question in relation to the auto industry. In response to that question, Mr Hockey at the time absolutely misrepresented the position of auto workers in Geelong. The honourable member for Corangamite needs to be very careful. There are some 5,000 workers in the automotive industry and the TCF industry in Geelong and now, with this piece of pernicious legislation brought in by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Geelong people know exactly where the member for Corangamite and other members of the government stand on industrial relations issues.

This legislation that we are debating here today is aimed specifically only at those who work for unions. It does not attempt to target employers who illegally lock out working Australians from their workplaces. I mentioned the current Geelong Wool Combing dispute. The genesis of this dispute is simply this: workers who had never taken industrial action in their lives, who had been loyal employees for Geelong Wool Combing, turned up for work and were locked out for refusing to accept the company's proposal to cut their wages by 25 per cent, to introduce the unlimited use of casuals and to ruin any sort of guarantee of their permanent employment in the future.

The work force at Geelong Wool Combing wants to bargain in good faith, but the company will not do so. And we know on whose side the member for Corangamite and other members opposite stand on this particular issue, because it is here in the legislation we are debating today. Under this legislation, a defiance of an industrial relations court or the law or the Industrial Relations Commission will result in dire penalties against unionists. But the company that, in this instance, acted illegally in the first place would escape any sort of scrutiny and any sort of penalty at all.

The Leader of the Opposition visited the picket line last week and it was an enormous morale boost to the workers at Geelong Wool Combing, and I thank him for that. The workers have received strong support from the union movement in Geelong and I congratulate John Kranz, the Secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council, and all those unions—I will not name them individually—who have stood side by side with ordinary working people.

Let me explain to the House the impact of this government's legislation on those workers. Some of them are losing their houses. Some of them are saying that they can only put mince on the table every few days. One man said to me that he had already lost $15,000 and he was about to lose his house. I pay tribute to Glen Musgrove and the workers at Geelong Wool Combing who continue to resist the sort of industrial relations system that this minister wants to implement. It is a punitive piece of legislation. It is an unfair piece of legislation. It is another bill in a saga of legislation that has been brought into this House by this minister aimed at working people in my electorate. Let there be no mistake about it: this minister wants to crush unions in the Geelong region and to penalise workers in the workplace, and the member for Corangamite, who has many workers living in his electorate, is an accomplice to this fact. (Time expired)