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Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Page: 4289

Senator AYRES (New South Wales) (09:52): I rise to oppose the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. Senators often talk about democracy in this chamber. What does this institution do? What does it really do to protect and advance Australian democracy? The truth is, from my observation here, it does not much at all. The truth is that this bill takes Australia backwards—backwards towards authoritarianism and backwards towards a diminished democracy. Our democratic institutions are weakened every day by a government that doesn't have a plan for the big issues that face Australia. They only have a plan to undermine democratic accountability, attack freedom of the press, restrict democratic freedoms, attack legitimate protest activity and threaten their opponents.

This bill—the ensuring integrity legislation before us—sits comfortably within the antidemocratic trajectory of the Morrison government. The bill is an affront to democratic values. Democracy is not simply what occurs within this parliament and in election campaigns. Democracy is practised in communities every day, in organisations like trade unions, in meeting halls and at work. Democracy is also the conviction that giving people a voice and the capacity to exercise collective power makes all Australians stronger.

Working people organise into unions to give themselves a stronger voice, to strengthen democracy and to make sure that they are not dominated by their employer, market forces or the government. Unions are about giving workers real agency and building a stronger democracy. So why, in Australia, should democracy be excluded from the workplace? Why is this government so hostile to the institutions that ensure that working people have a real democratic voice in their work and in their industries?

Underlying this bill there is a deep and historic prejudice that working people cannot make decisions for themselves, that they should accept what their masters demand and that they should defer to their betters. It is a prejudice that echoes through the history of Australian conservativism. And the fight-back against Australian conservativism and unfettered imperial power of employers and unfair governments has defined the high points of Australia's post-settlement history. There was Eureka, the shearers' strikes in Bourke and Barcaldine, the 'great strike' of 1917, the maritime dispute of 1998, the great struggles against conscription in World War I and Vietnam, the fights for equal pay for women and Aboriginal Australians, the strikes, pickets and boycotts against apartheid or in support of Indonesian independence, and the decision by waterfront workers to boycott pig iron destined for imperial Japan in defiance of Robert Menzies. The Liberal hero, determined to ensure that pig iron made its way to the satanic mills of that hateful fascist regime, invoked the penalty provisions of authoritarian legislation then too. That is all that Liberals know how to do.

At the centre of all this history has been union action, often unlawful, often persecuted and prosecuted by conservative governments, decided democratically, pursued fearlessly by Australians committed to a better world. The Senate should show leadership here and demand the government deal with the real issues in Australian workplaces—falling wages and stalled productivity—and kick-start a new era of economic growth based upon cooperation and mutual respect. If passed, this legislation will have a profound effect. It will be felt in the hospitals, school rooms, offices and factories where Australians work hard every day. Our workplaces will be haunted by an absence—an absence of collective bargaining, the safety improvements that are never fought for, the exploitation that continues unchecked, the workers that are prevented from organising into a union and the protests against injustice that are silenced.

The bill has four schedules, and each individual schedule is an extraordinary authoritarian exercise of legislative power to interfere in the democratic processes of individual worker organisations. Taken together, it is a thuggish display of political brutality from a government that doesn't have an agenda beyond silencing those who disagree with it. In particular, I am concerned about measures that disqualify union members from holding office. Those over there, opposed to regulation in any form on business, are all for regulation, penalties and red tape when it comes to unions and community groups, environment groups and anybody except the vested interests that make up their base.

The current legislation already provides for an appropriate level of oversight. The regulator does have the capacity to intervene and make applications for serious offences of fraud or dishonesty or criminal breaches of an official's duties. The rest should be left to the democratic judgement of union members. Union members should decide who leads them, who represents them and who will make decisions on their behalf. Nobody—certainly not a hopelessly politicised bureaucracy or a government bent upon unions' destruction—should be able to reach into the affairs of an Australian union and determine the outcome of elections and otherwise democratic processes. This bill goes further, giving regulators the right to include any offence punishable on conviction by imprisonment for more than five years. It is a technical change that means a lot.

The proponents of the bill, and the quislings from the crossbench who have cravenly come here this week to vote for it, say that this bill is about Mr Setka, the secretary of one of the divisions of the CFMMEU. It is not. Like many Australians, I don't believe that Mr Setka is a model of leadership in the modern trade union movement. I supported the decision by the leader of the Labor Party to make sure that Mr Setka wasn't able to hold himself out as a member of the Labor Party. That sends a crystal clear message of leadership on violence, respect for women and the role of the labour movement in supporting women at work and the community. But I don't get a say on whether Mr Setka continues to be a branch official of the CFMMEU, and nor should I. I am not a member of the Victorian construction branch of the CFMMEU. The leaders of that union are a matter for the members of that union.

This bill will not have the effect of reaching back in time or disqualifying Mr Setka. That is a fig leaf argument of some members of the crossbench here today who know that they are doing the wrong thing. They are punishing the entire union movement for the failures of one man. They have fallen for the argument. It will have the very real effect though of making life tougher for ordinary workers who perform both paid and voluntary roles on behalf of their colleagues and organisations—for nurses, teachers and firefighters. It will tie them up in knots of bureaucracy and red tape.

The chilling effect on union action of the fear of future sanctions is going to be profound. Many good people will be excluded from being volunteers or leaders of their unions. I will give you an example. The Hon. Meredith Burgmann, former President of the New South Wales Legislative Council, is an old friend and mentor of mine. She is a great Australian. She is a trailblazer for women's rights, against racism and apartheid, a fighter for progressive values, and a union feminist, who fought hard for women workers and for women's rights within the labour movement. Before she was a politician and ultimately the president of the nation's oldest parliament, she was an activist and a union leader. She was a ratbag and a radical—she still is—always prepared to stand up to bullies and for decent progressive values.

She worked closely with Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and the other leaders of the Builders Labourers Federation as they fought for green bans that protected Sydney's heritage just as hard as they fought for industrial democracy and the wages and safety of builders labourers. She wrote the authoritative history of that union, which today is still controversial within the union. It chronicles the radical spirit that galvanised that rank-and-file controlled union to fight for good jobs and to really work with community organisations to picket, strike, boycott and protest for Sydney's heritage and public housing. She is presumably the kind of person that Peter Dutton thinks should be locked up.

She was the elected president of her union, which was the forerunner of the NTEU. She used that position to make that union modern, progressive and effective in New South Wales. She became a strong progressive voice in the labour movement. If this bill were the law in the 1980s, Meredith Burgmann would not have been able to be elected as an officer of that union, because she had convictions for various demonstration arrests, including a criminal conviction for assaulting police during a particularly chaotic antiwar demonstration against US Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1970, and repeated arrests and convictions for activism during the protest against the apartheid era tour by the racially selected rugby union Springboks. She was right about those issues then. She was right to protest, and her convictions then are a badge of honour now. Quite rightly, those convictions were no barrier to her serving as a Labor member of the New South Wales Legislative Council and ultimately as its President, but, if this bill were in place in the 1980s, she would have been barred from being a candidate for election to her own union. Famously, our wartime Prime Minister John Curtin spent time in jail. These great Australians were fit to serve as a member of the nation's oldest parliament and fit to lead this country through the Second World War but, according to this ensuring integrity bill, not fit to be branch officeholders in their unions.

These are a matter for union members to determine. I've fought union elections before. I've fought them in circumstances where I regarded opposing forces within the union as ultramilitant and as leading the union in the wrong direction. I relied upon the good judgement of union members, who always get it right when they cast their ballot in elections operated and supervised by the AEC. Taking away the right of unionists to decide who runs their union infantilises Australian workers and encourages less responsibility and less seriousness. The parliament should trust ordinary Australians to make the right calls in union elections.

I'm deeply concerned at the public interest test for amalgamations. This year, 95 per cent of members of the National Union of Workers and United Voice voted to create a new union—the United Workers Union. It's a new union of 150,000 people. It will be a powerful voice for Australian jobs—and jobs that Australians can count on. Under the ensuring integrity bill, the government hopelessly politicised government agencies, and even employers can use the new legislation to interfere in or to potentially prevent a similar decision by unions to amalgamate. How dare they? What possible basis could there be for any government to intervene, or any employer, in that democratic decision for workers themselves to shape their own organisations?

This is an outrageous, malevolent, deliberate and flagrant breach of freedom-of-association principles. The government and the crossbench should be condemned for allowing this to happen. The sustained campaign against unions prosecuted by this government is not only an affront to our democratic principles; it is precisely the opposite of what Australia needs. For one thing, it has led to a decline in living standards for Australian workers. Secondly, it has stifled efforts to lift productivity through cooperation. Thirdly, the assault on unions and union membership has further hollowed out our key democratic institutions.

In Australia, democracy in the street stops at the office door and at the factory gate. It's a democratic deficit that has driven the hollowing out of vital democratic institutions and traditions that are usually facilitated and strengthened by a union organisation. The consequences are stagnant real wages, falling standards of living, record underemployment, stalled productivity, stagnant economic growth and further damage to our skills and innovation system. Australia needs an expansion of workplace democracy. We need to give people a real say. We need to give them the tools for deliberation and representation and the institutional capacity to shape their working lives.

I know this because I've seen it firsthand. I've seen what happens when you give ordinary working people the chance to bargain with their employers as equals. I've seen them solve complex problems and resolve competing interests. I've seen what happens when you give them the chance to discuss workplace, economic, community and political issues with their colleagues. I've seen them weigh up competing views and determine a collective position. I've seen them evaluate whether a particular bargaining claim is correct or too ambitious or in everybody's interest. I've seen them weigh up the rights and interests of casual workers, permanent workers, apprentices and trainees. I've seen them assess workplace changes proposed by the employer or critically evaluate unfair decisions made by the employer. I've seen them engage with productivity issues big and small. I've seen them discuss safety at work and put into place democratic structures to make their workplaces safer and to save the lives of their colleagues. I've seen them decide whether to go on strike or to protest or to go to the industrial tribunal to seek justice.

That is deliberative democracy right there—real democracy, a vital addition to our democratic life that goes well beyond the limitations of the ballot box and the narrow approach to democracy favoured by the show on the other side. I've seen it in the faces of workers being organised for the first time, many from countries where they have been denied their democratic rights. You can see what it means to have power—real power—in their union and in their workplace, to defy the prerogative of management, to shape in some small way their lives and those of their colleagues. Either you believe that working people are capable of democratic responsibility or you do not. That is the essential question the Senate is being confronted with over the coming days. Denying working people the rights of freedom of association needed to organise a workplace, to be represented in a workplace and to change a workplace, as this bill seeks to do, denies their capacity to shape their own lives. It is surely a foundational belief of our democracy.

To my fellow senators: your votes on this bill will be a measure of your commitment to real democratic values. Do your job and reject the bill. This bill is a thuggish display of government power. This lot always do this when they have the numbers, always moving to intimidate working Australians and their unions, to crush any opposition to their agenda. Membership and organisation in an independent union genuinely controlled by its members enriches the democratic experience of workers and their families. I will always stand with those workers and their families and their free, democratic unions.

In a week where one of our major banks is embroiled in a scandal that involves 23 million breaches of money-laundering laws, some of it to facilitate child sex exploitation rings run by criminals and deviants in the Philippines, this government is asking the Senate to approve this bill. In the week that it is revealed that a minister in the Morrison government is being investigated by a purpose-built New South Wales police task force around allegations of leaking fraudulent documents to attack an elected official, this government is asking the Senate to approve this bill. In a week where the government is defending an aged-care crisis and serious allegations of interference in our democracy by overseas governments, with unemployment rising, wages falling, energy prices on an endless upward trajectory, the economy stalled, workplace productivity hopelessly stuck in a quagmire and a hopeless government that doesn't have a plan for any of the issues that matter to Australian families or for future prosperity or for the security and safety of Australians, all this moribund useless rump of a government has to offer is an attack on Australian unions and Australian workers. All it's got to offer is an assault on its ideological opponents, because that's what it always does.

I'll be interested to see whether members of the crossbench, who've been so quick to rush to Canberra this week to support this legislation, will be complaining and wringing their hands in the years to come as the government introduces more onerous legislation on Australian unions, moves to cut more penalty rates and moves to further undermine collective bargaining. I look forward to seeing some level of reflection upon members of the crossbench, because I fear that they know not what they do. They don't understand the role that the labour movement has played, that unions have played and that Australian workers have played in shaping Australian history. This is all the government know how to do. You can guarantee that they know they have a supine, subservient crossbench that gives them complete control of the Senate and there will be more to come. (Time expired)