Parliamentary speeches

Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 - Second Reading Speech

July 29, 2019

I rise to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 and to oppose it, alongside all my Labor colleagues. And can I say how pleased I was to be in the chamber for the contribution of the member for Oxley, which really nailed what's at stake with this bill, unlike the contribution of the member for Hinkler, which just demonstrated what is the central proposition in this debate, and that is that the Morrison government is utterly obsessed with unions and utterly obsessed with destroying unions in Australia. We see that in this debate, because all we see is the same litany of talking points repeated, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with the provisions of the bill before us. The examples they trot out again and again have the flavour of too many question time contributions. What they reveal is the attitude of this government and its members to working people and their organisations—nothing to do with the provisions they are putting before the House.

That was really summed up towards the end of the contribution by the member for Hinkler, when he described this bill as being another test for Labor. All this government—this opposition in exile—can do is throw up tests for Labor, because they have no positive vision for Australians and certainly no positive vision for the Australian economy or the workplaces that should drive that economy. The obsession that government members have with unions and with destroying unionism blinds them to the real issues in Australian workplaces, and we know all about them on this side—flatlining wages, the exploitation of too many workers and the rise of insecure forms of work. All this is adding up to a drift towards a labour market that simply isn't working for anyone who has to work for a living.

Simply put, too many people in Australia today have too little power at work. That's why unionism really matters now perhaps more than ever. What is so disappointing in this context is that this government doesn't even deign to show respect for the fact that working people, due to the nature of power imbalances in workplaces, join together to bargain with their employers as well as to advance other mutual interests. This dislike, this disdain, is so raw that it blinds them. And I should say that I am a very proud union member, and I want to put on the record that I'm also a firm believer in democratic and accountable trade unions. But one thing this bill is not is a driver towards that. In fact, I believe, if passed—and I fervently hope it will not be passed; it certainly should not be passed—it would undermine that aspiration, despite what government members allege.

And so, back to the context. At a time when we have declining real wages and declining living standards, which has been recognised by the Reserve Bank of Australia and, indeed, by the broad business community as a handbrake on economic growth in Australia, we have a Liberal government that is determined, it would seem, including through this bill, to drive down those wages and conditions further. Is it any wonder that this is the same mob that came up with WorkChoices? And now this reanimated bill from the last parliament. It again demonstrates not only that the government have no ideas for Australia or Australian workplaces but also that they fail to recognise that there are real issues at play that should be explored. That is why I'm so pleased that the shadow minister moved his second reading amendment, which brings the debate back to the issues that this place should be talking about. Hopefully it will invite members opposite to reflect on some of these considerations, the fact that so many families—not just in electorates like mine and the member for Dobell's but in government members', too—rely on penalty rates to make ends meet and to put food on the table. Labor does, and that's why we're putting these issues squarely into this debate as we do every day in this parliament.

Instead, we have this bill, the provisions in which represent just another example of this obsessive series of attacks on the trade union movement—indeed, on its very existence, which they seem unable to accept. They claim they want to see registered organisations and their officials afforded the same level of accountability that applies to company directors, but this bill doesn't do that; it goes much, much further. Indeed, this is tacitly acknowledged.

If we compare this bill and the provisions of the 2017 bill, we see that there aren't really any substantive differences which have been caused by the amendments. Every key feature of this bill reflects, in very similar terms, key features of the bill that was before the parliament in 2017. The changes across the board are minor. When we go to some of the automatic disqualification provisions, there are minor difference that go to the court process for disqualification, but that is only a slightly narrower fit-and-proper test on any more than a cursory examination. Similarly, there are no changes to the offence related to people continuing to act as an official once disqualified. There are differences on the issues on registration, but, again, when those changes are considered as a whole it may be that they widen rather than narrow the grounds of conduct that can justify deregistration. Similarly, the last substantive element of the bill, the amalgamation provisions, which are so profoundly antidemocratic, have been changed in some respects but, again, broadly reflect those provisions previously before the parliament.

While there have been amendments, even as amended the bill goes way beyond those recommendations contained in the Heydon royal commission. The bill also clearly contravenes the International Labour Organization's convention 87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention. If we look clearly through the provisions of the bill, that's just for starters when we look at the human rights implications. I hope that members opposite, in considering their contribution to the bill, have had a look at the statement of compatibility with human rights, which is a pretty unconvincing document, because this is a piece of legislation which raises a range of issues: the rights to work in article 22 of the ICCPR; articles 6 and 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the right to take part in public affairs and elections in article 25 of the ICCPR; the right to privacy and not to be subject to unlawful attacks on a person's reputation in article 17 of the ICCPR; and, of course, the right to freedom of association and the right to take part in public affairs and elections. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association made the following observations:

Legislative provisions which regulate in detail the internal functioning of workers' and employers' organizations pose a serious risk of interference by the public authorities. Where such provisions are deemed necessary by the public authorities, they should simply establish an overall framework in which the greatest possible autonomy is left to the organizations in their functioning and administration. Restrictions on this principle should have the sole objective of protecting the interests of members and guaranteeing the democratic functioning of organizations. Furthermore, there should be a procedure for appeal to an impartial and independent judicial body so as to avoid any risk of excessive or arbitrary interference in the free functioning of organizations.

This is not a standard that the provisions before the House meet. They are profoundly antidemocratic and very challenging, seen through this lens. I'm hopeful that the consideration of this bill by a Senate committee will further ventilate these concerns and perhaps persuade members opposite to reconsider, at the very least, some of these egregious assaults on not just rights at work but also fundamental human rights.

This legislation, in the broad, will fundamentally change the balance and the dynamic in workplace bargaining. It can prevent nurses, aged-cared workers and retail workers from being able to stand up together and secure much-needed pay rises. It is also a law which can be weaponised at the expense of workers; a law that will attack people's fundamental rights to come together and organise collectively. Of course, we already have bodies that regulate what happens where unlawful action is taken. It's already much harder in Australia to exercise your right to bargain than in many other developed countries. This is a situation that will only be exacerbated by the bill that is before the House should it be passed. Again, it is very difficult to see how this can do anything but further suppress wages—something which has been recognised by many economists as well as people in the union movement and this side of the House.

If the Morrison government were really serious about ensuring integrity, as it claims to be by bringing forward this bill again, we would of course, by now, already have a national independent anticorruption commission. All of us in this place over the last couple of weeks have reflected on the need for that, haven't we? A national anticorruption body would be able to look at wrongdoing and corruption by companies—including some of the biggest companies in Australia—by unions, by public servants and by politicians. But, of course, this government is not all that serious about ensuring integrity. Rather, it's all about fulfilling its ideological imperatives and always trying to find issues on which it can attempt to wedge Labor. The overwhelming objective of this government is to wedge this side of politics, which perhaps is the most depressing part of the government when we look at it. They are bereft of an agenda, other than to continue to talk about us many weeks after an election upon which they've formed government. They have no vision for Australia and have no concern for Australians. They are just looking to impose tests on this side of politics.

The original version of this bill was dangerous and extreme. That is why the 45th Parliament rejected this bill in that form. The government are now bringing it back, reanimating this zombie bill, solely because they have a friendlier Senate. They've dressed it up and they say that changes have been made, but these changes are largely cosmetic in nature. They've come back with this legislation because that is what the conservative side of politics does. Every time they get additional power they come after workers and unions. This is in the context of us seeing countless examples of employers ripping off workers in recent times. The papers are full of these examples across many industries but particularly those industries where the workers have particular vulnerabilities. We don't see the government going after those industries. We don't see legislation that would tackle stagnant wages or wage theft—although it is being talked about, we are yet to see anything—or worker exploitation, despite too many horrifying stories of the most awful exploitation. We don't see any recognition on the government's side that the labour share of the economy is shrinking. We don't see any recognition of that. Perhaps members opposite don't see this as a problem.

As the member for Oxley reminded me, wage growth in Australia is at a 50-year low. Something that members opposite sometimes claim as a virtue is this increasing inequality of income—that this is a design feature of institutional arrangements. When that was said by Minister Cormann, that was perhaps regarded by some as a gaffe. But, when we see this bill, it's clear that it is a design feature of the sort of workplace regulation model this government would like to see—to further deny the capacity of workers to bargain and to further suppress wages, with the flow-on consequences for society as well as individual households.

So the government may have rewritten parts of the bill to address some concerns but the bill, fundamentally, is not in a form that any fair-minded person can accept. Fundamentally, the bill mistakes unions for something analogous to for-profit corporations, and they are not; they are democratic and representative organisations. Of course—I should be clear—that's not to say that the bill provides for equal treatment between unions and companies. Despite what government members have said, it clearly does not.

Let me be clear: on this side of the House we will not support a bill that makes it harder for workers to get a pay rise. We will not support a bill that could leave workers without the representatives that protect them from wage theft, superannuation theft and dangerous workplaces. This bill, fundamentally, represents a politically motivated attack on workers' ability to organise and be represented, run their own unions and determine who leads them and also, when it comes to amalgamation provisions, how they come together with other workers to best reflect their interests. Workers should get to choose who represents them, not the Prime Minister or his lecturing Minister for Industrial Relations.

The government has claimed again that the bill has been revised to more closely align these reforms with their corporate equivalents, but this bill, as other speakers and I have attempted to demonstrate, is far more extensive and extreme in the regulation of unions than what exists for businesses. These laws would make it possible for government ministers or disgruntled employers to shut down unions and deny working people the right to choose their own representatives. It is fundamentally important in any decent and democratic society that people are free from government and employer interference so they can join unions and elect representatives who will fight for them and organise them. This is absolutely fundamental to a democratic society, whereas this bill is about silencing working people and making it harder for all workers to win pay rises, deliver decent conditions at work and be the bulwark of a decent society in which everyone gets a fair go, in work and in life.