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Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Page: 4300


Senator WONG (South AustraliaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (10:42): Labor will be opposing the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. This week, 14 years ago, as shadow minister for employment, I stood in this chamber and spoke against the Howard government's Work Choices legislation—a ruthless and extreme agenda which stripped protections from employees and stripped the fairness out of Australian workplaces. At the time, I said that the Work Choices reforms were ideological, extreme, unfair and divisive, and that they showed just how out of touch the Howard government had become—out of touch with Australian values; out of touch with the concerns of the Australian people. Under Work Choices, countless Australian workers—many of them already low-income workers—had their pay reduced, their conditions cut and their job security shattered.

What those reforms epitomised was the coalition's ideological obsessions, the Liberals' ideological obsessions and arrogance. It was Australian working families who paid the price. The Liberals' extreme Work Choices agenda will never be forgotten by Australian workers or the Labor Party. I was proud to serve in the Labor government that tore up those disgraceful laws, but here we are again, 14 years later, and we see the same debate, the same extreme ideology and a tired and cynical Liberal government again selling out Australian workers. Those opposite are at it again. They're still attacking Australian workers. At a time of stagnant wage growth, instead of acting to improve wages and improve working conditions, what are they doing? Having a go at Australian workers and the people who represent them. At a time when Australians are struggling with underemployment, instead of an economic plan to deliver more jobs, better jobs and better-paying jobs, the coalition are back to attacking Australian workers. They are still—and this is their central agenda—trying to rip the fairness out of our industrial relations system. Work Choices is not 'dead, buried and cremated', as Tony Abbott promised; it has merely been hiding. The heart still beats in those over there, because they can never let go of it. It is an article of faith for the Liberal Party. It is the only agenda they can actually all really get behind. The only thing that has changed in the 14 years since Work Choices passed this chamber is that, this time, they are going after the trade union movement first.

I started my career in the union movement as an organiser, representing ordinary working Australians and protecting their rights at work. The workers I represented as a young person, as a young lawyer, were people who had been unfairly dismissed, people who had had their wages stolen, people who had faced discrimination at work. The union was the only organisation standing up for them. It was the only organisation in their corner, and without a union they would have been powerless to fight for their pay and conditions or their rights at work. I stood on picket lines with people who had been ripped off and picket lines with people who had been abused and mistreated by their employers. I have seen, as have so many of us, what happens when we do not have fairness in the industrial relations system: we see how Australian workers miss out.

I will not forget visiting one factory—a nonunionised, anti-union employer—on a 40-degree day in Adelaide and seeing rows of migrant workers sitting at sewing machines under a corrugated iron roof with no ventilation. These are not conditions that are acceptable in this country, and without unions this is what some workers face. But this government would not care if this were the norm.

Every working Australian, every Australian, is better off because of our trade union movement. It was unions that improved safety at workplaces; unions that fought for the minimum wage and for wage increases; unions who won improvements in working hours, entitlement to paid holidays and better employment conditions. It was trade unions that fought for greater equality of women in this society, and it was unions and the Australian Labor Party that created our universal superannuation system. Imagine what kind of country we would be without a strong trade union movement.

But, I tell you what, if you have a look at the hollowed-out middle class and ever-growing gap between those who have and those who do not in the United States, we can picture what it would look like. And it is not what we want for this country, but it is precisely the model that those opposite have always wanted: dog-eat-dog capitalism that entrenches the advantages and disadvantages of birth. That is why they have introduced this bill. It is their latest attack on Australian workers and the representatives of working people. It is a bill that will subject democratically-run organisations to an unprecedented level of political interference. It is a bill which will have a chilling effect on the work of unions and of union officials. It is a bill which will hurt working people, drive down wages and make Australian worksites less safe.

The bill would allow the minister or anyone with a sufficient interest to apply to deregister an organisation, disqualify a person from office, exclude certain members or impose an administrative scheme. The person with sufficient interest could include an employer, a rival in a leadership ballot or a business lobby group. It would allow for deregistration of unions representing our midwives, nurses, flight attendants or firefighters for three paperwork breaches. It would also introduce a 'fit-and-proper person' test, which would disqualify a person from holding an elected position in a union if they break certain laws. This includes a union official who refuses to comply with a denial of entry to inspect a dangerous worksite or to investigate the rampant underpayment of workers—to investigate wage theft. The application to disqualify the official could even potentially be made by the very business which is underpaying workers. That is weaponising the law against Australia's trade union officials and the representatives of working people. I took a lot of underpayment-of-wages claims when I was a union official and a lawyer. Many of the people behind me could have had this law weaponised against them for doing nothing other than standing up for what people were owed.

This bill would also deny Australian workers free choice about who leads their union and how it is run, and it goes further than anything which applies to Australian business. There is no equivalence in this legislation, no matter what the government says. Those opposite actually want unions and union officials to be held to a completely different standard to businesses or even members of parliament and senators.

One of the worst features of this bill that is introduced is that it would impose a public interest test on mergers of unions, which takes the right to choose away from Australian workers. The Liberal government, lobbyist groups and, potentially, businesses themselves could seek to block a union merger, even if supported by members. This is really an unprecedented interference in the management of democratically run organisations, and again it holds the labour movement to a completely different standard to that which is applicable to Australian companies. There is no reasonable justification for these measures. They do not apply equally to corporations, nor were they recommended by the royal commission into trade unions—and we know what that was like. The measures in this bill are nothing more than an ideological attack.

The government claims the bill is about improving workplaces. It will do nothing of the sort, and we saw that from the evidence to the Senate inquiry. These changes would have a devastating impact on workers and their ability to organise. The United Firefighters Union, who represent men and women who face dangerous and often life-threatening situations in their daily work, said this:

The UFUA and its members seek to ensure the entire community and its infrastructure are safe and protected from emergency incidents. This Bill would impede the UFUA's work in protecting the people who protect us.

The government are very happy to stand next to these brave men and women when it suits them, but they are not prepared to stand beside the people who protect them.

The AMWU secretary told the Senate committee about how the measures in this bill could have crippled the important work they did to hold James Hardie to account. Remember that? Remember James Hardie, when members of the Liberal Party and the company acted to delay assistance and compensation whilst people died? The actions of the AMWU, who took action to secure justice for people who suffered horrific illness and untimely death, would be considered unprotected. They could be grounds for the disqualification of officers and the deregistration of the union. Another example is the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, who gave evidence that the bill would mean that very limited, if any, industrial action could be taken by nurses and midwives across the country, 'even if they have concerns about inadequate patient care, their professional obligations or their own health and safety'.

The impact this bill will have on Australian workplaces is deeply alarming, because it will reduce safety, reduce the ability to organise and reduce Australians' rights at work. So, as much as those opposite try to make this about criminals, it is not. It is an attack on nurses, it is an attack on teachers, it is an attack on police officers and it is an attack on all the Australian workers who need representation at work. I tell you, if the government actually cared about working people and their families, they might start by taking action on some of the real issues that are impacting the people who send us here every day. We have unprecedented wage theft. We have insecure work. We have increasing casualisation and fragmentation of work. One in five workers in the construction, healthcare, retail, accommodation and food service industries have been a victim of wage theft. But that's not what this bill is about. This bill is about ideology, not politics, and it's about attacking unions—the organisations that actually act to protect workers.

I want to briefly discuss the amendments the government put forward. I think it was last Friday. I remember Work Choices, because then we had, I think, a hundred pages of amendments half an hour before debate. This is a desperate government putting forward rushed and inadequate amendments at a ludicrously late stage of the legislative process, but this fact remains: these amendments do nothing to change the fact that this is a bill that does not apply to business. This is a bill that doesn't apply to business, doesn't apply to banks and doesn't apply to politicians; it applies only to working people and their representatives. And it is still a bill that could have worker representatives sacked and unions put into administration or deregistered for three simple paperwork breaches. And it is still a bill that would create an extraordinarily wide range of grounds on which a union can be deregistered and for which an official can be disqualified. And it is still a bill that holds unions to a completely different standard from businesses, banks and politicians. I tell you what, when Mr Morrison holds his mates and his frontbenchers to the same standards he wants to hold unions, then we can talk about ensuring integrity. The fact is this bill can't be fixed, and these weak amendments do not do that.

'Work Choices' was a very cynical name, and so is 'Ensuring Integrity', because, if this government cared about integrity, why didn't it start by looking at the rorts, rip-offs and scandals exposed in the banking royal commission—the one they voted 26 times against? Australians had their homes taken, their businesses wound up and their lives destroyed by misconduct in the banking sector. But, for 600 days, this government fought against the banking royal commission and ran a protection racket for the big banks. And now they are dragging their heels. We've had 300 days since the royal commission handed down its report, and six out of 76 recommendations implemented. All the while, big banks continue to break the law. We've had the revelations of Westpac's behaviour: the 23 million breaches of our money-laundering laws, and their failure to act on customers using their services to purchase child exploitation material—I mean, you can barely say that and actually believe that that occurred. But we're not here trying to improve the integrity in the banks! In fact, the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, says: 'This is just a matter for the board.'

And of course this Prime Minister is completely disinterested in ensuring the integrity of his own cabinet. Yesterday, it was revealed that the Crime Command's Financial Crimes Squad of the New South Wales police has established a special strike force, Strike Force Garrad, to investigate whether Mr Taylor, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, committed a crime by providing a fraudulent document to the media to attack a political opponent. We have a minister of the Crown being investigated by the police—by a special strike force—for a criminal offence. You'd think that the principles of our democracy and our Westminster system would mean that this minister would stand aside. But he didn't. If the Prime Minister had some integrity, he would ensure that Minister Taylor stood aside. But he didn't stand him down. In fact, he didn't show integrity. He just showed nothing but a contempt for parliament and the principles of ministerial integrity and accountability. I'd say this: Mr Morrison even threw his own integrity into question, by a personal call to the New South Wales police commissioner to discuss details of the investigation. No wonder this is a man who continues to drag his feet on a national integrity commission. I guess it makes their party room nervous.

The facts are these. This is a government that could not care less about integrity. If this government cared about integrity, it would stop hiding information from the public. It would stop threatening journalists. It would stop being loose with the truth and it would stand down the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction. It would comply with the Freedom of Information Act. It would implement the recommendations of the banking royal commission. It would take action against lawlessness in the corporate sector. It would ensure that its ministers adhered to ministerial standards. And it would introduce a national integrity commission.

But this bill has nothing to do with integrity. It has everything to do with ideology. It has everything to do with the government's relentless ideological attack on Australian unions and the workers they seek to represent and protect. It's an attack on working people and on freedom of association. It will undermine our democracy. This government has no plan, no principles, no integrity. All it has is a tired and dangerous ideological agenda. But I would say this to those opposite: Australians haven't forgotten Work Choices, and they won't forget this bill.

I want to end this contribution with the same contribution I made 14 years ago as we went to the vote on Work Choices, in 2005. It is quite likely we will lose this vote. But we will not be beaten. We are not beaten. What this government have never understood, as they abuse and revile trade union officials and those in the labour movement, is what created the labour movement, what binds the labour movement and what has guaranteed such widespread support in the campaign against this bill by unionists and non-unionists alike. What binds us is a belief in our self-worth and also the worth of the person next to us. We have always understood that not only do we fight for our worth and dignity but we fight for the worth and the dignity of the person working alongside us. We fight for the principle of a fair go for all. We fight for a fair wage for a fair day's work. We have always done this as a labour movement, and we will continue to do this as a labour movement. This fight is not over. We will fight this until the next election and beyond. And this fight will continue, because we are here for the long haul. We have always been here for the long haul. And, fundamentally, we fight for a fairer Australia.