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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7386

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (21:18): I will indicate a number of things here. If the crossbenchers are considering accepting this, they should know that this is probably one of the most significant changes to bargaining that this country has seen since Work Choices. It will stop what is an international right for unions to collectively bargain. Collective bargaining will be stopped after six months and what will happen is that either an agreement that the employer wants will go to the commission or there will be some combination of agreed positions and employer positions that go to the commission for the commission to either agree or disagree to.

I do not believe the argument that the unions can make submissions to the commission is of any value, because the proposition is that the commission either endorses or does not endorse the 'agreement' that comes to the commission. So the commission will not be considering a bargained agreement. It will not be the outcome of good faith bargaining. It will be what the employer, after a period of six months, determines should be put to the commission and then the commission will arbitrate that. It is an employer agreement. It is not a bargained agreement; it is the employer's agreement.

All the arguments we have heard about how you will save costs if you get to this position are so much nonsense. We know that the mining industry provided the details for the department to create the explanatory memorandum. The explanatory memorandum is so full of holes. The explanatory memorandum talks about there being no evidence. At page xii of the explanatory memorandum it says:

Based on significant anecdotal evidence and qualitative statements provided to the Review Panel, as a rough estimate, five months is used as a hypothetical time period for protracted greenfields agreement negotiations for major resource and energy projects.

It has all been so picked out of the air.

The environmental issues have to be factored in on this as well. The minister has been absolutely incapable of providing any evidence that the unions have stopped effective bargaining or stopped an agreement for a greenfields site. Why would the unions want to do that? The unions would want their members to be there earning a quid, getting the project built. There seems to be this view from the coalition that all the unions want to do is delay. I can tell you: the unions' members do not want a delay. The Labor Party does not want a delay and neither do the unions. I do not know a union anywhere—and I was a union official for 27 years and I negotiated plenty of construction industry agreements. We did not want a delay; we wanted the agreement in place so that our members could get the benefit of the agreement. But it is never an agreement at any price; it is always an agreement based on decent bargaining and proper give and take. This stops the bargaining and stops the give and take.

If you go to page XIV of the regulation impact statement, it talks about how projects could be delayed by problems with prolonged negotiations—could be; no evidence before us that there have been any delays. It says:

… there is no available data on the frequency of delays on which to cost the regulatory reduction.

It goes on to say it could delay and then comes up with this argument that the cost offset has been based on delays for 50 of the 100 projects over 10 years. This is Disneyland stuff. This is some economist in the department sitting down trying to come up with some argument to back up a political argument. I think the economist has failed miserably.

We want agreements to be negotiated without delay. We want them to be negotiated with fairness in mind. We want the same as the government: realistic time frames, no delays and in the interest of employees. However, those tests are not met by the government's legislation, not met by the bill.

They go on to talk about a delay of costs of $1.25 million per project for eight public and private sector projects—made-up figures; no basis to this at all other than being asserted on the basis of some economic jiggery-pokery in the department.

Then they go on to talk about administrative costs in the agreement; that it costs employers money to negotiate. It costs every employer to negotiate. That is the price of democracy in this country. So to argue that you could now put a price on the democratic processes and implementing our obligations under international conventions, I think, is a bit rich. Sure, bargaining is lengthy and onerous at times but, if the principle is that you can cut out people's rights to bargain, stop collective bargaining in this country on the basis of lengthy and onerous bargaining then every industry, every union and every worker needs to be aware that this principle could be applied to them as well. If you apply this in the building and construction industry, you could apply it elsewhere and then we know where that leads: to a diminution of rights across the country—exactly what this government has always wanted.

In relation to the analysis that has been done on the cost of bargaining, I say that the cost of bargaining is the cost of democracy in this country. That is what bargaining is about: democratic rights for workers to be able to collectively bargain. So there are costs involved in that.

The problem we have is that the coalition are prepared to sacrifice workers' rights on the basis of an argument that it would provide certainty to investors. The only certainty investors would get would be the certainty of the proposals that we are putting forward, and that is that there is an arbitrated outcome. We take a view that it is a different arbitrated outcome than the panel but we agree with the principle of an arbitrated outcome. The coalition are not arguing for an arbitrated outcome; they are arguing, as I understand it, that an 'agreement' goes up. That agreement contains the wish list of the employers and then it is a take it or leave it on that agreement. That is the position: a take it or leave it. So the act of bargaining is pushed aside. The democratic rights of workers are pushed aside, because the unions are representing their members and the workers will be coming on the job. The issue that is arbitrated or determined—or whatever the word is that the minister wants to use—is a yes or no on the employer's wish list that could not be bargained in good faith at the enterprise level.

So we take the view that, by agreeing, if the crossbench agrees to this, then a greenfields workplace determination means the destruction of basic rights and bargaining rights for unions in this county, especially in this area. We would be worried about the implications of this flowing into other areas because, if it is simply about investment, I am sure you can get people arguing about delays and bargaining if we want to invest in the clearing industry, the catering industry, the manufacturing industry—industries across the country—and then people would be denied on this principle of bargaining rights.

This is a very important issue. It is an issue that we should not take lightly. If we start going down the path of denying the trade union movement in this country their right to bargain on behalf of their members, that is a slippery slope. We know that slippery slope has already been reached at one stage, through Work Choices. We know where the government wants to go. We know that they want to move in a whole range of areas to diminish the capacity for unions to negotiate effectively on behalf of their members. The International Monetary Fund has looked at this issue of the decline of the unions' bargaining capacity and what it means, and in their analysis it is a transfer of profits from the employees to the employers. That is what is starting to happen, and the gap between the rich and the poor blows out.

So these are big issues that we are dealing with. It is not like the rhetoric that the minister has been arguing—that it is simply putting another phase of protections in and another phase of good-faith bargaining in. Let's be clear what this is about. It is about an attack on the capacity of unions in this country to bargain collectively, because the employer will have the upper hand. The employer will not need to give any concessions on key issues in the bargaining process over the six months. It can argue that it is still bargaining in good faith but it is never going to bargain on wages, on key conditions or on anything that improves the rights of workers. What can end up happening here is that the determination would be made on what might have happened elsewhere. The chances of unions improving wages and conditions are diminished because that is not what the determination will do. The determination will not determine improvements on contested areas; it will at the very best give what is around the place or maybe the lowest of what is around in terms of agreements.

This is a very dangerous position we are in. The crossbenchers should be aware of the seriousness of what they are about to do in terms of a decision on this because a decision to support the government's position on workplace determinations is a fundamental denial of collective bargaining in this country. It is a reinforcement of employer prerogative in this country. It will not mean an end to uncertainty, because the minister conceded herself that this could go on for six months again, and then another six months. So the fundamental principle of certainty that the minister has argued is so much nonsense. It is not going to provide certainty. The certainty will come from the opposition's amendments that will provide an arbitrated outcome on the outstanding issues. That will force the employers to bargain on the issues or end up getting arbitrated outcomes. We should reject the government's position and we should support the opposition's position. (Time expired)