Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019; Second Reading
We've just heard a very clear, powerful and persuasive argument from the Leader of the Opposition as to why the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 is bad legislation and should be rejected. As other speakers from this side of the House have made absolutely clear in their contributions to this debate, this legislation is another attack on unions and the Australian workers whom those unions represent—the men and women of Australia who do the work that many others would rather not do, who have families to provide for, whose own lives are becoming much harder because of rising costs of living and stagnant wages. They are increasingly being exploited and their only protection from further exploitation is from the unions that represent them.
This government and previous coalition governments have sought to demonise and destroy unions in this country. They do this because coalition governments see unions as their political enemies and a thorn in their side—opponents to them and supporters of the big business operators whom coalition governments ultimately rely on. They are the people who back the coalition governments, and this government is simply doing their work for them. Big businesses profit continually from the workers they exploit. In recent years, not only have business profits continued to rise while wages flat-lined, but this government has continued to back and support big businesses who, time and time again, have been shown to be engaging in unethical practices—one after the other. The government continues to back those businesses even after we have seen a continuous range of damning assessments of their performances.
Let me relate some of the examples. If we go into the aged-care sector, we have seen providers of those services in a string of scandals—now the subject of a royal commission, finally. Hopefully its recommendations will bring some good to that sector. We had the banking royal commission, which exposed the disgraceful behaviour of the big banks whilst they wallowed in their multibillion dollar profits. Yet, how many of their executives were charged or brought to account? Indeed, we are still to see most of the 76 recommendations of that commission even brought in to this parliament for debate and implementation. We have had national fast-food chains and restaurateurs who lobbied for penalty rate cuts whilst they were not even paying basic wages. We've had housing developers keep trading, when they were knowingly in financial difficulty, ultimately becoming bankrupt and in the process ripping off prospective homeowners of their life savings or subcontractors and workers of tens of thousands of dollars.
It was only a few weeks ago that I met with two subcontractors of a building firm that went bankrupt in South Australia. They run their own small business. They were owed half a million dollars by a bankrupted developer. The half a million dollars that they lost, that they were owed and that they will never get almost bankrupted their own business. It brought incredible stress to their own individual households, and it put mental health strain and stresses on them, which they have to deal with each and every day. So, it not only ruined them financially; it literally ruined their households and their lives, and yet they have fought tooth and nail to cling to their business and rebuild it. They are doing that, and I congratulate them for doing so. But, it's an example of what happens when developers go bankrupt. From my experience in most cases those developers knew that they were going to go bankrupt and kept trading whilst they were insolvent. There is no way I accept that those developers that have gone bankrupt in South Australia—and there has been a string of them now—would not have foreseen what was happening to them financially. Yet, again, what happens to any of them? Very little. Indeed, many of them go on to establish a new business and start the whole cycle all over again.
We have seen building companies who do substandard construction work, using cheap materials, and in the process put lives at risk or take short cuts, which, as the Leader of the Opposition alluded to just a moment ago, result in the death of workers—and in the case that he referred to, Marianka, the young German woman. I could refer to another death that happened in South Australia in a similar way, where again it was preventable. It was of a South American worker who came to the state and was engaged on a building site. But again, nothing ever happens to bring those people to account whilst lives are being lost. With respect to the use of cheap building materials and with respect to the combustible cladding that has been used on many building sites—and I make no apologies in saying this—I do not believe that the people who constructed and used that material did not know that it was combustible. Yet they put lives at risk; lives have been lost. In the process, the rectification costs are going to be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
I don't see too much action being taken against any of those people, whether it's people working in those industry sectors or elsewhere. Yet we do know that each year about 190 lives are lost in work related accidents. Those are the lives that are lost; those don't include the people who are injured, quite often in a permanent way, which in turn changes their lives forever and a day, and it doesn't include the people who lose their lives because of work related illnesses that arise because employers don't take the necessary precautions. We're seeing that right now with people dying from silicosis, as we saw it with people dying from asbestos in years gone by.
Any workplace death is indeed a tragedy, but when it can be prevented and it knowingly isn't, quite frankly, it is a crime. Yet we see members of the government come into this House to speak in support of this legislation and provide not a scintilla of justification for it. I read the second reading speech of the minister. He makes one reference to one person and one union in order to justify the draconian measures in this legislation. It is overreach on the part of the government to try to argue that this legislation is necessary on the basis of one person and one union.
This legislation is about weakening unions by not allowing them to run their affairs in the manner that they believe is in the interests of their members, and this legislation seeks to prevent unions from doing that in several ways. The first is not allowing them to amalgamate, because that clearly makes them look stronger and that's not in the government's interest. The legislation also makes it easier to have a union official who's holding a particular office disqualified. Preventing union officials from doing their jobs is effectively denying workers the protections and the support provided to them by the union, because if a union official cannot do their job then clearly the workers remain unprotected.
I've noted from legislation that has already been brought in in recent years by this coalition government that the job of union officials in standing up for their members and simply arguing for what is fair, right and decent has become much harder. I refer to the case of Ark Tribe in South Australia a few years ago, where the Australian Building and Construction Commission wanted to prosecute him simply for taking a stand on workplace safety. When they wanted to haul him in and question him about it, he was denied legal representation, one of the fundamental tenets of our justice system in this country. Ultimately, he won that case, and rightly so, because it was unjust. But it's an example of the draconian legislation that this government brought into this place and continues to support and believe in. But it doesn't believe in it when it comes to doing the same to employers. The ensuring integrity bill imposes harsher regulations on unions than on any other organisations, despite the denials of government members. It is simply not true to say, as the government does, that this bill brings the regulation of unions in line with the regulation of corporations.
There is no justification for the measures in the bill which go much further than the recommendations of the Heydon royal commission. I will use some examples. Under this bill, the minister, the Registered Organisations Commissioner or any other person with sufficient interest, which could include an employer or an employer organisation, can bring action to disqualify a union leader, deregister a union, restrict and control the union's funds and property, or impose an administrative scheme on a union and prevent union amalgamations. In other words, this legislation totally allows others outside of a union to interfere with the operations of that union.
For example, grounds for disqualification from office include a single minor technical contravention of a civil penalty provision in the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act such as filing financial or membership records even a day late. That could be the basis for action against the union. Another example is that an application for disqualification could be brought against a member of a branch council who changes position within a union and is unable to complete the required financial duties training within six months of taking office because that worker is a full-time shiftworker, perhaps in a rural location, and unable to take the time off from work to travel to a metropolitan area to complete the necessary training. Again, that is an example of the kind of thing that someone with the wrong intent could use against a union. That's not the kind of justice system we want in this country.
I say with respect to members from the government side who made contributions to this debate who constantly referred to union members 'acting unlawfully' that, if they are acting unlawfully, by definition it means there is a law in place to deal with that matter. Quite frankly, we have enough laws in this place to deal with all kinds of breaches relating to industrial relations or criminal acts or other civil acts that are against the law. We don't need additional legislation to control unions, as this legislation seeks to impose.
The employment conditions of people in this country have been won over more than 100 years of efforts by unions in this country. It has been a hard battle for Australian workers today to have the rights and entitlements in their workplace that they have. They are entitlements that I suspect no coalition government member would like to see taken away from them or any of their family members. And, yet, they come into this place and argue for legislation that could well do that. And they do it at a time when, more than ever before in my memory, worker exploitation is rife. It doesn't matter which industry sector I look at, I can point to bad examples where workers are being exploited in a way that it was never intended that the laws of this country would allow—yet it still happens.
What is the focus of this government while all of that is happening? It's not to try to protect the workers but to bring in laws to protect those who are exploiting them. This is bad legislation. It is unnecessary legislation. There is no justification for it. It is simply another attempt by this government to try to demonise and bring down unions simply because unions oppose many of the policies that this government wants to introduce into this place and simply because it has to support its backers, the big business operators of this country.