BILLS - Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity)

November 26, 2019

 If only we saw a bit more Christmas spirit to the workers of Australia from those opposite like we just witnessed in the chamber earlier! But it is indeed a pleasure to follow on from Senator Ciccone, who gave a very thorough example of the work of unions, not only currently but also historically, and indeed his proud record as an official for the SDA, which was actually the first union I joined as a 15-year-old when I was working casually whilst at high school. From a young age, not only the value of being a union member but also the historical significance of it and the contribution they've been able to make to Australia and society over such a long period of time was instilled in me, and I will come to some of the issues.

What I wanted to do was put in context some of the issues that we're confronting with this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. What I want to talk about is a consideration of the economic circumstances that we find ourselves in, the conditions that workplaces find themselves in, what a union is and the role that they play in society, what the motivation is of those opposite in pursuing this legislation, and the consequences of this legislation, because they are far-reaching and they will have massive ramifications for the Australian people.

Let's consider what is currently confronting Australians with the state of the Australian economy. We know we have the slowest economic growth in a decade, the worst retail result since the 1990s recession, interest rates at record lows, the worst wages growth on record, record levels of household debt and almost two million Australians unemployed or underemployed. These are the economic circumstances that are confronting the Australian people at this time.

Then let's consider the scene at Australian workplaces at this time. Across Australia, we see workplace deaths—incidents that result in 200 Australians losing their lives each year. We see increasing casualisation. We see increasing labour hire. We see wage theft that is rampant. We saw BHP announce last week that they are automating 300 jobs at their Goonyella mine in Central Queensland. Many workplaces are bleak places at the moment. You've got wage stagnation. It's hard for workers to get a promotion, and there are plenty worried about their future; they really wonder how, if they were to lose their job, they would get back into the workforce. That is particularly evident around places in regional Queensland where there are a lot of people who have been laid off in recent times and really are pessimistic about their future and what that looks like. So this is the reality of workplaces that is confronting the Australian people.

But let's consider what a union is. It's the members. It's quite clear on that. It's the workers of Australia: the orderlies, the nurses, the council workers, the teachers, the cleaners. Unions are democratic, member based organisations. And if any people in Australia should understand democratic, member based organisations, it's the people who get elected to parliament from political parties, because that is exactly how we operate and what we are used to. All political parties operate in a similar way, with leaders elected by members. Unions are no different in terms of how they elect their leaders and conduct union affairs and union business. This is what a union is, always has been and always will be: it's made up by the strength of its members. That was the foundational principle of how unions were formed, and it continues to be the case today. Members understand that a union is only as strong as all of its members put together, and that is actually how they have achieved so much of what they have achieved historically.

Let's now consider what the motivation of this government is. They've got no agenda, post the election. We know they are beset by hubris, just conducting a victory lap around the country. We know they're rife with internal divisions. An election win didn't do that—we saw it for six years before the election, and we've seen it in the six months since. They've got no plan for the economy. They've got no plan for the big issues that the country faces, whether it be energy, where they haven't been able to settle on a policy, or taking real action on climate change for the Australian people.

It's actually a dangerous time for Australians. It's a dangerous time for workers and it's a dangerous time for vulnerable Australians as well. What we see with this bill is that it's all ideological, and that is what we are seeing with other pieces of legislation that the government is pursuing. But there are consequences to this. We know that the thing the Libs and Nats need to keep them functioning is some sort of direction and that the direction they are going to pursue is attacking workers and attacking vulnerable people. This legislation has consequences, and other legislation they are pursuing has consequences.

Think about the history of what unions have achieved—and these are just some of the things that unions have achieved. I think back to the shearers' strike in Queensland and what that led to in Queensland—significant change, let alone the formation of the Labor Party. I think of what they did, standing up for those workers who were being so mistreated by the government and those people who controlled labour in that state at that time. The role of unions in safety at work, in occupational health and safety, is such a fundamental thing for today. There is the eight-hour day. There is their stance on social issues. We're a week away from celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Goss government. Think about Queensland in the seventies and eighties and the role that unions played in standing up to the Bjelke-Petersen government, the role that they played with street marches, which were illegal at the time, and the role they played in fighting apartheid. This is the role that unions have played, not only in looking after workers but also in ensuring that we have a better society here in Australia and that those in other countries are able to live in a better society as well, let alone in Medicare and superannuation—and the list obviously goes on.

Only those opposite, only the conservatives, would see such a list and go: 'How can we make life tougher for unions? How can we make it harder for those things to be achieved into the future? How can we make it harder for workers to achieve progress?' But this is what those opposite do. Without an agenda, without a reason for governing, without anything positive to do, all they want to do is set out to make it tougher for working people and those who represent them to do their job. But this does lead to consequences.

It's clear that this bill will ensure more dangerous workplaces; it will ensure more wage and super theft from workers; and it will ensure that, while unions are preoccupied with filling out paperwork, they are unable to fight for workers. Australia's growth has been because of strong union representation over a century delivering good wages, and secure jobs and conditions for Australians. We know that this bill will certainly not ensure wage growth, it will not better conditions and it will not create one single, secure job. Further limiting the rights of workers to collectively organise, advocate and bargain with employers would have a damaging impact on the Australian economy at a time when wage growth has already stalled and when the theft of wages and superannuation is being uncovered in many industries.

You only have to think about Queensland, where there will be consequences as well. Regional communities are already being destroyed by casualisation. People doing the same job are being forced onto insecure contracts, with no security and lower wages. Queensland parliament's 2018 wage theft inquiry found that wage theft is endemic across Queensland and Australian workplaces, affecting around 437,000 workers in Queensland each year—that's approximately one in five workers—and that wage theft costs Queensland workers approximately $1.22 billion per year, with an additional $1.12 billion in unpaid superannuation. This is in addition to the Fair Work Ombudsman showing that over 40 per cent of employers in regional Queensland were not complying with their legal obligations, including one in three that were underpaying their workers, and that repeated noncompliance was prevalent.

When you look at how this law will be administered, particularly today of all days, when we are having this debate in this chamber, you see that the ROC can go back over 10 years to hunt for suspected union breaches, but they won't be doing that around wage theft. You only have to look at the role they played in the raid on the AWU in 2017. Today the Federal Court ordered that the union watchdog quash its investigation into the Australian Workers Union and return all funds it seized during that controversial police raid. So, of all days for that to be declared, today is the day. That goes to the true motivation of the Registered Organisations Commission but also to the motivation of this government and the role it played in that raid. There is no justification for this. There is no corporate equivalence.

Schedule 3 of the bill deals with administration of so-called dysfunctional organisations. In the new bill the minister or any person with sufficient interest, which could include employers and employer organisations, is given standing to put a union into administration. There is no equivalent of this for companies. If these kinds of laws were to be applied to companies, they'd be outraged, but there is no corporate equivalence.

One of the main objections to this bill is that it is unnecessary. There is already an effective and longstanding regime for the disqualification of union officers and deregistration of unions. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act was amended as recently as 2017 to provide that a union official could be disqualified on the basis of any civil penalty breaches of the act. There are currently a range of offences that automatically disqualify a person from standing for or holding office, including fraud, dishonesty, the intentional use of violence and damage to property. The current deregistration provisions allow the minister or a person interested to apply to deregister a union on a large number of grounds, including breaching the terms of the award, agreement or orders of the commission; taking industrial action that has hindered an employer or the provision of public services by the states or Commonwealth; and taking action that has had a substantial adverse effect on the health and safety or welfare of the community or part of the community. There is no equivalence for companies, once again.

Unions have been at the forefront of making workplaces safer in Australia and have a proud history of taking action in the interests of keeping workers and the public safe. This bill will further restrict the ability of unions to take collective action in circumstances where worker safety is in serious doubt. Just overnight in Central Queensland a worker lost their life whilst at work. Every worker should have the right to expect to be able to return home safe after a day at work.

The bill creates what is known as a 'chilling effect' on the work of unions and their officials, which could lead to the erosion of the good safety culture developed through the efforts of unions to hold employers accountable on worksites around the country. The chilling effect would erode the confidence and empowerment that union organisers, delegates and workplace health and safety representatives should feel they have in relation to organising, collectively bargaining and maintaining safe workplaces. This is something that Queenslanders are well aware of, especially given the prevalence of work in dangerous industries in our state. There have been some tragic historic circumstances around workplace accidents in Queensland and across Australia. Anything the bill does to diminish the role that unions can play in pursuing objectives in this regard is not worthy of being supported by this place.

The other thing that this bill will not do is help regional Queenslanders who are crying out for more jobs: It won't help the 500 fewer people in Hinkler trying to get a trade or the 1,440 in Flynn, the 1,000 in Groom and the 2,603 in Brisbane who just want to get the skills to help them find a job. The government is too busy short-changing TAFE and training. The bill won't help the unemployment rates throughout Queensland either. It is 6.4 per cent in Queensland compared to 5.3 per cent nationally. It's worse in places like Wide Bay, where it's 7.3 per cent; in Townsville it's 8.3 per cent; and it's 7.2 per cent in Central Queensland.

Young people in Queensland are also facing record high unemployment under the LNP government. They've nearly doubled the youth unemployment rate in Central Queensland, which is at 22.5 per cent. In outback Queensland it is 27 per cent, in Mackay it's 15 per cent, in Wide Bay it's 20 per cent and in Townsville it's 17 per cent. These are the economic conditions that young Queenslanders are facing, yet this government proposes only an attack on workers and an attack on their representatives through this bill.

There's no doubt that this bill is a political attack on working people, based on a politicised royal commission. We know that the Australian people want the government to focus on delivering wages growth and creating secure jobs. There is no policy justification for this bill. The amendments proposed for the bill go far beyond the recommendations of the Heydon royal commission. It is an attack on the important role that unions play in our society, and there is no corporate or political equivalent. The people who share the government's obsessive hatred of unions will love this legislation. They will weaponise it and use it to keep unions quiet and keep their hands tied, too frightened of breaching these laws to be able to operate. Not only is it undemocratic and draconian but it is simply unnecessary. I urge fellow senators to oppose this legislation.