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Wednesday, 20 February 2002
Page: 502

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:38 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The secret ballot process proposed by this bill will create and protect jobs by preventing unnecessary strikes. It will enhance freedom of choice for workers and strengthen the accountability of unions to their members.

A secret ballot is a fair, effective and simple process for determining whether a group of employees at a workplace want to take industrial action. It will ensure that the right to protected industrial action is not abused by union officials pushing agendas unrelated to the workers at the workplace concerned.

Australia has previously had provisions allowing secret ballots at the federal level, but they have not been a compulsory precondition to industrial action. Since 1994 some industrial action—that associated with genuine workplace bargaining—has been protected.

In view of the protections that the Workplace Relations Act 1996 provides against civil liability for industrial action taken in pursuit of enterprise agreements, it is fair that secret ballots are a precondition for protected industrial action.

Secret ballot arrangements exist in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany and Ireland.

Secret ballot provisions have been operating in the UK since 1984. The Blair government's Employment Relations Act 1999 retained them. Legislative requirements for secret ballots in the UK have:

helped to significantly reduce strike activity—strikes which ultimately cost jobs;

given union members a direct say in the authorisation of industrial action;

encouraged greater consultation by unions of their members; and

the support of UK trade union leaders.

The government's previous attempts to implement secret ballots aspects have failed. However, the issue remained a core aspect of our 2001 election policy and this bill fulfils our promise to the Australian community.

Introducing a previous secret ballots bill, the then Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, my distinguished predecessor the Hon. Peter Reith MP, welcomed further Senate committee scrutiny, so long as such a Senate review focussed on achieving a workable scheme, rather than providing a platform for union opposition to fundamental democratic principles.

In this bill, the government is proposing key changes in response to concerns raised during the Senate inquiries into the 1999 and 2000 bills. The bill also incorporates measures which ILO officials have indicated would be consistent with ILO standards.

The bill allows applications from a union or an employee who is a negotiating party for ballot orders to be made up to 30 days prior to the nominal expiry date of a current certified agreement, if any, provided a bargaining period is in place. It requires the Industrial Relations Commission, as far as reasonably possible, to determine all applications within two working days.

Secret ballots will not impede access to lawful protected action, but will simply provide a mechanism to ensure that protected action is a genuine choice of the employees involved.

The 2000 bill contained a strong preference for postal voting. This bill provides postal ballots as a default, but gives the commission discretion to approve a proposal for a more effective method in a particular case. In some circumstances, the commission may choose to order on-site ballots. The 2000 bill required precise details of the nature of the proposed industrial action. This bill eases these requirements.

If a union applies for a ballot, only union members whose employment would be covered by the proposed agreement would be entitled to vote. Where employees seeking a non-union agreement make an application, all employees whose employment would be covered by the proposed agreement would be entitled to vote.

In addition, employees can appoint an agent to advance these processes in order to ensure their anonymity.

Only those union members or employees entitled to vote would be able to take any subsequent authorised protected industrial action.

Following discussion with ILO officials and concerns raised during the Senate review, only 40 per cent of eligible voters need to participate in such a ballot.

The 2000 bill required ballot questions to include the date on which industrial action would commence. Concerns were raised that this locked parties into a predetermined path that may not reflect progress made during agreement negotiations. This bill allows for industrial action to commence within a 30-day period, beginning from the date the ballot result is declared or the nominal expiry date of the relevant certified agreement, whichever is the later. The commission may extend this validity period once, with the agreement of the parties.

The bill makes the Commonwealth liable for 80 per cent of the reasonable ballot cost, which the Commonwealth will pay directly to the ballot agent. This adjustment addresses accessibility concerns by requiring the Commonwealth to bear the majority of the cost, and limiting the impact which up-front costs would otherwise have on applicants.

The bill will allow ballots to be conducted by an applicant. Usually this will be a union. To ensure the ballot is fair and democratic in these situations, the bill will also require the commission to appoint an authorised independent adviser to oversee the ballot process.

To ensure democratic principles are upheld, challenges to ballot orders and ballots will only be possible in exceptional circumstances, for example in cases of a substantial contravention, fraud, providing misleading information to the commission or an irregularity that affected the outcome of a ballot.

At the completion of the ballot, both the authorised ballot agent and the authorised independent adviser, if any, will provide the Industrial Registrar with a written report about the conduct of the ballot.

These reports will set out details of any complaints received or irregularities identified in the conduct of the ballot. These matters will not impact directly on the validity of the ballot unless they would have had a significant impact on the integrity or outcome of the ballot. However, the commission will be able to take these reports into account in deciding whether the ballot agent is a fit and proper person to conduct future ballots.

It should be clear to the parliament and to the wider Australian community that the government has addressed the reasonable concerns raised about previous bills. Therefore, I enthusiastically commend this bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Cox) adjourned.