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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 1393

Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (13:47): Today I wish to talk about two aspects that have been raised so far in this debate. The first is the outrageous and laughable claim that this government is the friend of hardworking people. This is just simply not true. The second aspect that I wish to raise in relation to this debate is that this bill is poorly conceived, badly motivated and entirely unnecessary because it was dealt with in the last government, the 43rd Parliament.

I may be a new member of this House, but I am already over members of the government claiming to be the friend of hardworking people. Their actions and previous words are simply not demonstrating that they are the friend of working people. When the Prime Minister was the workplace relations minister he displayed on regular occasions casual disregard for workers and their rights and a lack of sympathy towards working Australians. In his own words on the Howard government's IR legacy, the Prime Minister, who was the former minister for workplace relations, said:

WorkChoices was a political mistake, but it may not have been an economic one.

This comes from Tony Abbott's Battlelines, published byMelbourne University Press in 2009. He went further, saying:

Let me begin my contribution to this debate by reminding members that workplace reform was one of the greatest achievements of the Howard government.

This is from Hansard of 13 August 2009 for the House of Representatives.

Let me take this opportunity to remind the House that Work Choices and the Howard government IR legacy was not kind to working people. Basic working conditions were eroded, basic conditions were cut, and working people were left worse off. Penalty rates were gone. Employers had the opportunity to impose on new employees individual contracts that saw penalty rates ripped out of them. And let's not forget the changes to unfair dismissal where you could turn up one day, say that your child was sick and that you had to go home and, rather than leniency from your employer, you could be sacked on the spot. You could be sacked without recourse to unfair dismissal. This is the legacy of Work Choices. This is the legacy of the former Howard government. This is not the words or actions of a government that claims to be the friend of working people.

Let me go further to highlight the claims from the government so far in this debate that they are the friend of working people. Let us also remember the Prime Minister's comments on paid maternity leave:

Compulsory paid maternity leave? Over this Government's dead body…

This is from a speech that was made to the Liberal Party conference on 22 July 2002 and quoted in the ABC's 7.30 Report. Just because you say you are somebody's friend does not make it so. Let's also not forget some of the actions of this former government when it comes to low paid workers. We have seen it often repeatedly opposing the claims of unions, members and workers to increase the minimum wage. Commonwealth submissions for the three years when the Prime Minister was in charge of workplace relations would have left low paid workers up to $25 a week worse off compared to the actual outcomes of national wage decisions. Again, this is not friendly behaviour towards working people.

This bill, as I have already said, is poorly conceived, badly motivated and entirely unnecessary. It should be rejected in its entirety. This bill creates a large volume of new regulation without evidence that it is necessary. It also creates a new Commonwealth regulator where one already exists. This claims to be the government that is going to get rid of red tape, yet it is introducing more. This bill creates a large volume of new regulation that will not just be for registered union organisations to deal with but for registered employer organisations to deal with. The government is failing to acknowledge this as the casualty of this bill that is before us.

The opposition believes that this bill will ensure that registered organisations including unions will be regulated like corporations. I have a problem with the rhetoric of regulating unions in the same way as corporations are regulated. Unions and registered organisations are very different to corporations, and each of these is different to charities or clubs. In Australia we have a tradition of regulating each of these different entities differently. But it appears that the government fails to understand the difference, so I will explain it. A corporation regulation is directed towards protecting the economic interests of investors and creditors—and, to that extent, consumers. It serves a different purpose to protecting the interests of union members or members of employer organisations.

Perhaps we need to remind the House what a union is. I will not use the words of the Australian Labor Party or the ACTU or any other labour organisation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics defines a trade union as an organisation made up of employees or workers:

… the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members.

Union members are united by their belief in the dignity of workers and their right to fair and just treatment at work. Such actions and beliefs are not the actions and beliefs of corporations. Therefore, it is not appropriate that registered organisations—whether they be unions or employee organisations or employer organisations—be regulated in the same way as corporations. The natural rights and interests that members have in their union and their activities is different to the economic interests of shareholders in companies. Further, the extra regulation in this bill will fall not just on the responsibilities of the full-time, salaried leadership of unions but also on those of the many rank-and-file delegates and elected representatives to governing bodies.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): The member for Hindmarsh is rising on an intervention?

Mr Williams: Yes.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Will the member for Bendigo take an intervention?

Ms Chesters: Sure.

Mr Williams: I am just wondering if the member for Bendigo endorses the actions of Craig Thomson and the other union representatives which this bill is trying to address.

Ms CHESTERS: I address that question in the rest of my speech, and I will first go back to where I was in my speech to address the interjection that was just made. The burden of this extra regulation will fall not just on the full-time, salaried union leadership but also on the rank-and-file members who are elected to governing bodies. If criminal activity occurs in any organisation, it should be dealt with by the appropriate body, criminal code and criminal act. Nobody is excusing the behaviour of one or two individuals, but you cannot punish the entire institution of registered organisations for the actions of one or two individuals.

I go back to talking about the rank-and-file people I was discussing before. The government has wrongly claimed that the reforms in this bill will protect members' interests and give greater democracy to union members. However, this bill will actually achieve the opposite. Rank-and-file members will be reluctant to participate in governing bodies if they are exposed to the large fines proposed in this bill. Almost all unions at a branch and national level have large, democratic governing bodies and are not composed of the Craig Thomson types you refer to but of delegates who are rank-and-file members and who are directed to deal with the business of the union.

Who are these rank-and-file members? I will highlight two workers who are part of their union and who are rank-and-file delegates responsible for making sure that our unions are the democratic structures they seek to be. There is the president of United Voice in Victoria, Marie Angrilli, who works for Spotless as a part-time school cleaner. She is not one of the union heavies that the other side would make her out to be; she is the proud president of an organisation and a volunteer, and the wage she draws is not from the union members' resources but from her paid job. She is not, as the government would suggest, one of the high-salaried union heavies who are trying to gobble up all the union's resources for their own purposes. She is not just a person cleaning on the shop floor; she is the president of an organisation, and her job will become harder under the rules in the bill. Another rank-and-file member in a leadership position in a union is the president of the rail operations division of the RTBU, Bob Bassett, who is a full-time conductor on V/Line. Both are hardworking, ordinary people being demonised by the government, which suggests that they are the ones who are sucking up all the resources of union members. These are the sort of people who are in charge of our unions. They are not the sort of people the government would claim they are.

It is not only the trade unions who are opposed to this bill; a number of employer organisations are also opposed not just to the contents of the bill but also to the speed with which it is being forced through. I note the submission of the Australian Industry Group to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee. I never thought that I would be on the same side as the Australian Industry Group on a matter of workplace relations debated in this House, but I am. Just as our union delegates come from the rank and file, the Australian Industry Group has 85 volunteer counsellors who are elected from their incorporated members in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Like many of our union delegates who are responsible for running their unions, these officers are volunteers: they give up their own time with no payment for their role. This bill seeks to make their job harder. It imposes new regulations on the volunteers who make sure their organisation is run properly. At the AIG, volunteer officers are responsible for determining policies and for ensuring that high standards of financial management and accountability are maintained. Yet the government's bill would introduce new regulation which would make their voluntary job harder. This would mean that they would have to either spend less time in their business or give up their role as a volunteer in a registered organisation.

It is important that legislation governing registered organisations remains balanced and appropriate. I quote from the Australian Industry Group's submission to the to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry on this bill. It says:

Unlawful conduct within one organisation must not be used as an excuse to impose unfair laws or an excessive compliance burden upon all registered organisations.

With this quote I have addressed the concerns raised by the member for Hindmarsh. I also note that AIG said Australia is a signatory to the ILO's Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948.

The SPEAKER: It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43.