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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18451

Mr ANDREN (6:45 PM) —I want to make a short contribution to the second reading debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003. I have supported some of the government's reforms in the Workplace Relations Act, especially in relation to small business and unfair dismissal proposals. However, before I go on, I want to make the point that in the last division on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Fair Termination) Bill 2002, I ascertained from the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, in the short time available while the bells were ringing, that a series of amendments I moved to correct the exclusion of casuals from unlawful dismissal processes had in fact not been accepted in the Senate or indeed in this House because, as I understand it, their passage was dependent on accepting other amendments. In those circumstances, I had no option but to abstain and hope that the government corrects this next time round. Indeed, the minister says in his reasons that, while these amendments may have some merit, the House of Representatives believes further consideration is necessary. They do have merit—based around basic human rights—and should have been in the legislation passed by the House.

Under the provisions of this bill, there is specification of the general duties of officers and employees of registered organisations, for both employers and employees, in relation to orders and directions of the Federal Court or the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. The bill provides for the automatic disqualification from office or employment within registered organisations of those who have prescribed pecuniary orders—that is, fines—imposed on them for contempt of orders of the Federal Court or of the AIRC. The bill provides for a registered organisation to seek compensation directly from its officers or employees whose actions have brought the fine where the organisation took reasonable steps to prevent those actions.

The enforcement of court or commission orders is not something I take issue with when they are brought through the normal processes of our legal system. As it stands, applications to enforce court or commission orders must be brought by the aggrieved party in an industrial dispute—that is inevitably the employer or business enterprise. If industrial action—a strike, for instance—is taking place or is about to take place, the AIRC has the power to order that the strike cease or not go ahead. Such an order can be initiated by the AIRC itself or sought by a party to the action or by a party or organisation likely to be affected. Basically, anyone directly or indirectly involved in the strike situation can seek enforcement of the initial orders.

The Federal Court then has the power to order punitive action if its return to work order or orders to cease industrial action are not complied with. Similarly, this can also happen on the application by a party directly involved in the dispute or action or someone indirectly or adversely affected by it. These powers are provided for under section 127 of the Workplace Relations Act. While the minister deemed in his second reading speech that it is a matter of boast among union officials to have multiple orders under this section piled up in a desk drawer, he also said, in relation to another workplace relations bill, that section 127 has generally been proved an effective mechanism. He then pointed to delays in the making and enforcing of these orders as risking the exposure of workers to implications associated with unprotected action.

Administrative delays do not warrant the need for a government minister to become involved in the business of the courts by seeking to enforce court orders. The process currently in place for enforcement is more than adequate, and there is no good reason or need for the government of the day to involve itself, especially if none of the parties to a matter, nor the commission, wish to pursue a matter any further.

This bill is a blatant and totally unnecessary blurring of the separation of powers. It is an undesirable approach to law-making and enforcement in this country. It harks back to the original workplace relations bills introduced into parliament—I think it was back in 1997. I believe that at their initial stage there was a deliberate attempt to downgrade or exclude the AIRC from the processes. With the installation of the employer advocate, the pendulum was tilted very heavily in favour of the employer. So continued a process of converting the employees of this country—casualised and part-time as they have become in many situations—to simple units of cost in an economic enterprise rather than valued partners in private enterprise. So I drew a line at the time these bills were introduced—it may not have been a line that impressed anyone else or indeed of which they took much notice—until such time as the Senate and the Democrats at that time worked assiduously on that legislation and delivered a reasonable package of reforms.

I also object to this bill because it interferes with rules of natural justice. It reverses one of the most basic tenets of our legal system: the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. If the minister seeks to penalise an officer or employee of a registered organisation for noncompliance with orders of the AIRC or Federal Court, as well as being fined the person is automatically disqualified from their position in the organisation. This happens automatically—not after the court or the AIRC have found that noncompliance with orders has occurred but when the minister seeks action for noncompliance. The punishment is meted out—in part, at least—before it is established that an offence has occurred. In no area of law is punishment delivered before a court has decided on the case before it—at least, not in this country.

It is not the place of government to enforce the rules of this country; its job, along with the parliament, is to make them. I do not see ministers attempting to make laws giving them the power to enforce court orders in child support matters, for example. I dare say the government would view such cases as well and truly matters for the parties concerned and the courts. The separation of powers is a foundation of our democratic system of government. It should not be blighted by any government's ideological leanings. This should especially be the case with the making of industrial relations law, which is the last bastion that protects the interests of employees, as I said, in an economic climate that is gradually eroding worker rights and turning workers into units of cost rather than partners in the enterprise. This is not microeconomic reform; it is macroideology gone mad. Regardless of one's ideological bent, there is no place for the direct involvement of government. I cannot support the passage of this bill.