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Tuesday, 10 September 2019
Page: 2261

Dr FREELANDER (Macarthur) (12:08): I am a little bit sad but unsurprised to speak on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2019. It's just another effort by the government to demonise workers in this time of very low wages growth, increasing pressure put on workers and increasing pressure put on families. I rise today as a proud member of the Labor Party, a party born out of the labour and union movement and as a proud union member myself.

I am of course the member of two unions. The first union that I'm a member of, and have been a member of for 40 years, is the mighty Australian Medical Association, many of whose members populate the foreshores of Sydney Harbour—some of the most expensive real estate in the country—and have very high incomes. The AMA is the body that exists to preserve and promote the interests of its members and also the wider interests of the Australian public through provision of health care. The AMA is a longstanding organisation with a proud history of promoting the health of all Australians. And while it is quite a large body, its membership has contributed to Australian life in many ways over many years. I am indeed a proud member of the AMA.

I am also a member of the Health Services Union—again, another proud organisation that exists to promote the interests of its members and the broader health of all Australians. However, the members of the Health Services Union are some of the most poorly paid, yet hardest working, workers in Australia. I am not a member of the National Farmers Federation, but I cannot help think of them and the work that they do every time a member opposite throws a tantrum, talks down the unions and disparages union members.

Many of the families that I've cared for over many years have family members who are members of a variety of unions. I can attest to the fact that they work hard in the interests of the businesses and the organisations they work for. They rely on unions to preserve their rights and their benefits. I'm a unionist because I believe in the power of collective bargaining, and I'm a unionist because I believe in workers' rights. I'm a unionist because I believe that no employee should go onto a worksite and have their safety and even their lives placed at risk by poor work practices. I've certainly seen a number of families that I've cared for lose family members because of workplace accidents.

Of that number, I remember in particular a fellow called Mark Evans, who was a truck driver. He was tragically killed in his work when a rock was thrown from a bridge at Menangle and went through the window of his truck, killing him instantly. He was a lovely, decent and hardworking man—the father of two lovely children. His wife then had to bring up her two children by herself. I remember Mark very well, because I looked after both his premature children for quite a long time after they were born at Campbelltown Hospital. I'm a unionist because I support the rights of people like Mark to have their lives protected. I'm a unionist because I'm a father, a husband and a grandparent. I want my children and my grandchildren to be protected and safe at work, and not taken advantage of.

What we are debating here today is just another ill-conceived attempt by those opposite to denigrate unions and bodies that represent workers, and to denigrate the workers themselves. It's just in the DNA of those opposite to attack workers, their representatives and their representative bodies. After all, it was those opposite who gave us the long-ago, unlamented WorkChoices. It was those opposite who allowed and continue to advocate for worker penalty rates to be stripped away, and it was those opposite who have kept wage growth low on a deliberate basis.

We must remember, however, that it's also those opposite who stridently opposed a royal commission into the banks and their work practices, and their efforts to eat away at the lifestyles of Australian workers and working families. At every chance, those opposite—the elected members of the Liberal and National parties—seek to strip away the rights of workers all around Australia. They see working Australians as their enemies. Perhaps that's because most working Australians would not be able to pay for a $10,000-per-head fundraiser for the Liberal Party at the headquarters of a massive media conglomerate. Or perhaps it's because working Australians believe it's wrong for someone to be paid $2 for an entire day's work.

My point is this: those opposite are out of touch and they're out of step with the needs of working Australians. The coalition, of course, have got very clever at pretending, every time they attack workers and unions, that they have a big picture in mind. In a time of increasing company profits, wage stagnation, lack of collective bargaining and deterioration in workers' standards of living, those opposite want to do what? They want to attack the rights of workers and their representatives. It's a shame.

I was in small business for decades. I know that working Australians work hard for what they get and they need their rights protected. All those opposite are ever interested in is promoting the interests of their mates at the top end of town. It's quite clear in Australia that we are facing polarisation and the development of a class system of serfs and landowners and landholders. And it's sad to see that those opposite would promote destruction of those who look after workers' rights as their priority. It's never about helping mums and dads put food on the table with this coalition; it's about how much money they can shove in the pockets of their mates, and that comes at the expense of workers and their families. Every time members of the Liberal and National government try to make unions public enemy No. 1, they are actually attacking the interests of their constituents, their loved ones and probably even the economy. I cannot understand how those opposite, particularly those who describe themselves as moderate, continue to do this. You can believe in small government and still believe in a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. If you want to protect the rights of workers then you should stand up for those who represent workers. You've got to believe in the union movement and in union values in terms of protecting workers' rights and workers' incomes.

I'm not sure that there are any true small-l Liberals left amongst those left amongst those opposite. This is a government that is shifting further and further to the right. It is determined to wrap unions in red tape to prevent them from doing their important work—defending their members' rights in fighting for better conditions, better pay, safer workplaces and protection for those who have been wronged in the workplace. Perhaps the coalition has finally discovered it is unpopular to attack the interests of working mums and dads, who are already struggling to make ends meet in these very difficult times. It doesn't look good to continuously harass their representatives and strip away their rights, so, instead, those opposite are opting to attack working-class Australians and their interests by placing restrictions on the financial management of unions. They have worked out this ploy as a way to attack working Australians. This is what we have come to in this country.

We aren't standing in this chamber doing important work on the economy, delivering policies that would revolutionise our hospitals, cut waiting times in emergency departments and provide free access to high-end specialist care. We aren't here trying to address low wages growth, the falling standards of living for many Australians, housing unaffordability or freedom of the press, or trying to improve the lives of working Australians; what we're doing is attacking workers' representatives. It is a terrible shame. This very conservative government is trying to restrict the capacity of our unions to defend working Australians.

Returning to my original anecdote on the importance of bodies that collectively represent their members' interests, imagine if we were here trying to place restrictions on the operations of the Farmers Federation, on the AMA, on the Business Council or on the Bankers Association. Imagine if we were doing that. There would likely be a huge schism in the coalition within a very short period of time. In my opinion, it's high time that the marriage of convenience between The Nationals and the Liberals came to an end, because our colleagues in the National Party can surely see the benefits of supporting small business and supporting workers. So let's hope that maybe in their behind-closed-doors meetings some of this will come up. This is where all the credibility to the arguments made by those opposite goes out the window. Legislation such as this isn't driven out of values or ideals; it is driven out of a desire to attack working Australians and the labour movement, nothing more.

The rhetoric is pathetic. We've come to expect constant hypocrisy from those opposite, and they relish these double standards. With those opposite, it's one set of rules for the top end of town—the ruling elite—and another for working Australians, and that's one reason why we are seeing a polarisation in our society. What this legislation does is effectively shut down worker-run funds while allowing employers to set up and run their own funds with little restriction. Worker entitlement funds fundamentally exist to protect workers' entitlements; however, they also exist to protect and service workers through provision of services, such as training, occupational health and safety officers, counselling, and, indeed—particularly in the construction industry—suicide prevention.

Shockingly, the government sees fit to restrict this. Why? Because those opposite do not care for the rights of working Australians. They're only interested in advocating for their mates and for big business. We see this in their response to the banking royal commission. We see this in their lack of oversight of the construction industry, particularly in states such as New South Wales. We see this in their response to the life insurance industry and some of the financial services continuing to take money from people who have passed away. We see this in their lack of oversight of workers in the gig economy. And we see this in their lack of oversight of some of the terrible practices that have occurred in some of the rural industries as well.

This legislation will give more power to the Registered Organisations Commission, and I want to specifically mention this as it causes me great concern. The commission has shown itself to be a politicised institution, acting as an enforcement arm of the Liberal and National parties. This is a terrible thing, and it should be discredited following its terrible attacks and raids on the Australian Workers Union and the leaks that occurred to allow the press to be there for the raids et cetera—a lack of oversight without any sort of propriety at all. I want to be clear: I'm sure there are good people in the Registered Organisations Commission, but the way the coalition government have constructed this agency to attack their political enemies is nothing short of abhorrent and tyrannical. Those opposite have turned attacking working Australians, their representatives and the labour movement into a full-time blood sport.

I say again: we aren't here trying to fix our schools and hospitals. The government, instead, is discussing ways in which we can attack those who advocate for the interests of their constituents, our loved ones and for Australian values. We may as well be here attacking the Salvation Army as far as I'm concerned. I'm a proud unionist, and I will not stand idly by while those opposite constantly attack the values of the union movement and attack organisations that have assisted my friends and my family and countless thousands of Australians in times of great need.

I want to take this time to list some of the important things that unions do. Unions defend workers who have been unfairly dismissed. They assist workers in recovering lost wages and money that has been stolen by their employers. They bargain to ensure that workers do not receive a pay cut against inflation. They defend the rights of our paramedics, police officers, nurses, firefighters and, indeed, our doctors in public hospitals. They ensure that members are not made to work in unsafe conditions, and they ensure that workers' lives are not placed at risk as a result of cost cutting on behalf of an employer. And they provide support to grieving widows, widowers and children of people in times of need after unspeakable disasters. Perhaps it's time that those opposite bear all this in mind the next time they decide to undertake a bit of worker and union bashing.