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Monday, 17 June 2002
Page: 3507

Mr HUNT (9:37 PM) —It gives me great pleasure to rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002. I want to start immediately with the philosophical arguments raised by the member for Melbourne. The member for Melbourne painted this as in some way an assault on the basic freedoms of workers, as a capitalist plot, yet it is about three fundamental principles. Firstly, it is about higher productivity, which has occurred over the last six years; secondly, it is about higher employment, again which has occurred under these changes over the last six years; and, thirdly—and this seems to be an idea which has eluded the member for Melbourne—it is about greater democracy, both in the workplace and more broadly within society in general. That is why in the United Kingdom—that great, heavy, capitalist society that he champions so strongly—they have secret ballots.

There are four principles which this bill introduces that I would like to address initially. First, it brings a fundamental principle of democracy to trade union activity. It is the notion that every worker, when deciding whether to withhold his or her labour, has the right to do so in secret, to do so free of coercion and to do so free of the oppression of those around them. The second principle is that this bill protects jobs by ensuring democracy, and it does so because on every occasion that there is industrial action—as we have seen in this very last week with the BHP plant at Westernport in my own seat of Flinders—it risks the long-term future of jobs for the majority. The heads of the car industry in Australia have raised the fact that they might no longer source component parts from within Australia as a result of this industrial action. Yet I know, from the families in the area and from the discussions that I have had, that there was a real concern amongst the workers in Westernport as to whether or not they would have the freedom to choose, because the families knew that the actions which were occurring were being done in public and without any choice but to vote in the full glare and amongst the full pressure of the union leadership.

The third principle that the bill provides for is industrial action under worker approval, including the idea that worker approval includes all affected employees, not just the union members who are affected. That is a critical distinction: people have a right to participate in the union but they also have a right not to participate in the union. That is one of the fundamental principles of freedom that we have. This bill strengthens and enshrines that right to opt in and, more importantly, to opt out, because it means that workers can participate in any decision to withhold labour rather than having to rely on a union of which they are not part and over which they have no control. Fourthly, the key principle is that the bill helps to make unions accountable to workers and subject to the workers' wishes without placing a premium on the decisions of the leadership from the top down, so it institutes a genuine democratisation to the processes within the workplace. Why would anybody be afraid of that? What is there to be afraid of in a process which dictates democracy in the workplace within a collective agreement?

I want in particular to look briefly at the dispute which has just occurred at the BHP Westernport plant in Hastings on the Mornington Peninsula in the electorate of Flinders. It is accepted in law and within this bill that any individual has the right to control his or her own labour. That is not in dispute but it is subject to two critical precepts. The first is that, in doing so, nobody has the right to compel or to prevent anyone else from working in their own right if they so choose. You simply cannot prevent others from working. Making your own decisions is a matter for you, but it is not a right to prevent others from making the choice for themselves. The second precept is that it has to be a genuinely free choice. In all other aspects of our society, we accept the notion that we have the freedom to choose, free from the glare of publicity and peer pressure, whenever there is a democratic right to be exercised. In particular, I note that when you look at like-minded countries—the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany, Ireland—all have strong secret ballot provisions, yet this approach, this philosophy, is being opposed by the Labor Party, the opposition, in this very debate. Those two principles qualify the basic right to choose to give or to withhold labour, and that is that you cannot prevent others from doing so and you must be free to make your own choice without oppression and without coercion.

In looking at this bill, I want to examine it in three steps. The first is to look at the current situation; the second is to examine the operation of the bill; and the third is to put it in context—to examine the importance of this bill. What is the current situation? The current situation is that we have a context of unnecessary strikes which can be undemocratically approved. A union leadership can decide what is best for a worker without genuine consultation or reference to that worker. Yes, there is a set of existing secret ballot provisions in the Workplace Relations Act which give the Industrial Relations Commission discretion to order secret ballots, but the means of achieving this are so public and so onerous that these provisions are rarely used. It is interesting that the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has been able to identify only seven secret ballots ordered under the existing Workplace Relations Act provisions in the last eight years. Only some of these ballots relate to the act of taking industrial action, of withdrawing labour, which means `one out, all out'. Generally, those that do relate to taking industrial action are held while the industrial action is ongoing and do not seek approval prior to the industrial action commencing.

The fact is that the vast majority of decisions to take industrial action are unregulated. There is no guarantee that all workers are consulted or that they genuinely support taking the industrial action. It is a fact of human nature that in a heavy, oppressive environment individuals will find it difficult. Whether they do or whether they do not, we have an obligation to ensure that they have the right to make that choice free from the threat, the possibility or even the spectre of oppression. What we have seen is that the existing provisions have not provided sufficient protection to workers who feel pressured into taking industrial action. In that situation, the proposed changes to the Workplace Relations Act will ensure that a decision to take industrial action is both democratic and genuine. The use of `hands up' voting places unfair peer pressure on members to approve an action.

How does this bill operate? What will it actually do to redress the current situation? The government's focus in this bill is on the point of the decision to commence industrial action. That is the key moment. The bill aims to protect jobs by ensuring, enshrining and strengthening democracy at the key moment of control over one's own labour so that workers who will be most affected by going on strike will have an unfettered say about whether or not they want to do so. When will it apply? Applications for a secret ballot can be made to the Industrial Relations Commission. The application for a ballot can be made only when a bargaining period is in place and not more than 30 days before the last occurring nominal expiry date of any relevant certified agreements. Who can apply for a ballot? If an organisation of employees initiated the bargaining period, then the organisation can apply or an employee or employees can also apply. Very importantly, the bill provides that, if an employee wishes to remain anonymous, they can appoint an agent to initiate the bargaining period, represent them during the application for a ballot and provide notice of the industrial action to the employer. There is protection for a worker seeking to be covered by this legislation.

Indeed, the bill goes on to make it an offence for a person to disclose information that will identify any other person as someone who has appointed an agent for the purposes of seeking a ballot. That is a critical protection. What it means is that action cannot be forced. Industrial action can disrupt not just the group of employees involved. As we saw in BHP Westernport, a small number of employees held over 1,000 other employees in that institution to ransom and, more than that, they held thousands of employees in the automotive industry throughout Australia to ransom. As a consequence, the long-term future—not even the short-term future but the long-term future—of that industry has been placed in jeopardy. That is why the leaders of that industry have expressly stated that they seek to look elsewhere to provide alternative sources of supply for key components—and all because a small number of employees took an action which affected a great number of employees. It was one small group who jeopardised the position of thousands of employees.

By making a secret ballot a compulsory precondition for industrial action, three things happen. First, you get a true picture of the worker support. Second, you add democratic legitimacy to that action. Third, you place power where it belongs—at the workplace level, in the hands of the employees directly involved—because, if the leadership does accurately represent their views, then they have nothing to fear from a secret ballot. If, however, they do not accurately represent the views of the rank and file, then a secret ballot will expose the true position. That is all that this legislation seeks to achieve, and that is all that anyone can ask.

That is the way the bill operates. Why, then, is the bill so important? At a philosophical level, we believe in a freedom to organise. We accept the notion in law that there is a freedom to give or to withhold one's own labour, but neither of these can fully work without the freedom to choose and without the individual's capacity to make the choice that `I will give my labour' or `I will withhold it' without the oppression of an organised environment which militates against it—and that was the word which came back in Hastings from the families of both those who were on strike and those who were affected by the strike. The second thing is that it protects jobs by ensuring democracy, and the third thing is that it overcomes an existing lacuna in the legislation. The fact that there have been just over a handful of secret ballots ordered in the last half a dozen years shows that the fear of going public in asking for a secret ballot is a significant inhibitor in itself.

These are the key points I wish to make. Ultimately, I believe that the Workplace Relations Amendment (Secret Ballots for Protected Action) Bill 2002 enshrines in law a fundamental principle of democracy. It enshrines in the workplace the choice of each individual over whether to give or to withhold their own employment. Significantly, it adopts a principle that exists in the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany and Ireland. And for anyone who opposes that, surely the question must be: what are you afraid of? If it is operating successfully in those countries and if the Blair government's Employment Relations Act 1999 retained the secrecy provision, what are we trying to achieve here? Very simply, this bill enshrines the right for individuals to decide their own future in the workplace. I commend the bill to the House.