House debates

Wednesday, 25 October 2017


Turnbull Government

7:30 pm

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Unfortunately, it's been a shameful week in this parliament. It was a truly depressing moment in Australian politics yesterday when the Minister for Justice made the contemptible smear that members of the Labor Party were somehow opposed to locking up paedophiles. The extraordinary AFP raids on the Australian Workers' Union's offices in Sydney and Melbourne later that afternoon took us to a new low. Our democratic institutions are precious, but they are in perilous shape. We don't spend enough time looking after them and doing the things that strengthen the system rather than advance the interests of any individual actor, and that goes for all MPs in this building, not just me. As a result, trust in our democratic institutions has collapsed, and the public think that political actors are in it for themselves and will cynically use our institutions for their own benefit rather than the public good. That comes at a great cost to all of us, corroding the utility of our institutions to drive change in our society and implement reform.

One of the most insidious trends in this regard over the past four years has been the criminalisation of the political contest—the use of institutions with coercive powers created by the government of the day and designed to persecute political opponents of the government in the parliament and civil society more broadly. We've seen this in the Prime Minister's disturbing habit of calling the police on his political opponents when he doesn't get his way: in the past on the NBN during the last federal election campaign and with respect to the Medicare text messages sent during the campaign. But it's important to understand that this behaviour happens in the context of the establishment of an $80 million royal commission into the trade union movement designed to pursue the coalition's political industrial opponents, and the establishment of the Registered Organisations Commission to institutionalise those political attacks on a forward basis.

The Prime Minister likes to claim that these institutions are not, in fact, political exercises but are instead institutions designed to restore the rule of law to our workplaces. However, it is hard to take this claim seriously when you compare the government's attack-dog approach to the trade union movement with its response to the greatest moral scandal in our nation today: the systemic exploitation of many thousands of temporary migrant workers across our nation. This is lawlessness in Australian workplaces today. It's not from unions; it's from employers who have engaged in endemic wage theft, the payment of below-minimum-wage rates of pay and denial of basic workplace conditions, and the abuse of workers, including horrific sexual abuse, in thousands of documented instances.

From June 2015 to July 2016, the Fair Work Ombudsman recovered more than $27 million owed to more than 11,000 workers who were underpaid by their employers, and it's clear this is just the tip of the iceberg. A 2016 survey of 4,000 overseas workers who completed the eight-day regional work requirements found that 66 per cent felt employers took advantage of them by underpaying them. In 2015-16, the AFP received 75 referrals related to workplace exploitation that were suspected to amount to human trafficking or related offences under Commonwealth law and, of those, 39 related to sexual exploitation; the rest were other forms of exploitation. Indeed, this lawlessness is so widespread that it's impossible to imagine that it is not having an impact on wages growth across the retail and hospitality sectors, but where are the show trials for 7-Eleven, Domino's and Caltex? Where are the calls for the coalition to stop accepting campaign donations from the companies and directors related to this lawlessness? Where are the calls for coalition MPs to disassociate themselves from directors of companies who have employed business models designed to facilitate wage theft from the most vulnerable members of our society? Where are the criminal charges for the routine falsification of documents, time sheets and pay slips that we see in these cases?

Instead, we see an AFP raid of a union over a 10-year-old donation to a civil society group—a donation disclosed at the time to the AEC and, indeed, publicised by the AWU, and it was documented in material provided to the royal commission. It was a raid implemented by 32 AFP officers without first seeking the voluntary production of the documents; a raid that occurred in the context of 117 officers at the AFP having been cut and leaving the AFP's ability to investigate crimes like drug trafficking diminished; a raid that occurred when the media were informed in advance, with television cameras waiting outside to document it and the Prime Minister's media unit tweeting along as it went; and a raid at the request of a body established by government, with members appointed by the government, pursuing a referral from the employment minister.

The Prime Minister insists these raids were not political, but does anyone believe they would have occurred if the member for Maribyrnong were not the Leader of the Opposition? These attacks on political opponents and civil society using the coercive powers of state, begun by the Abbott government and continued by the Turnbull government, are reminiscent of the Bjelke-Petersen era. It's Joh for Canberra 2.0, and it's a demonstration of the desperation of those opposite, the paucity of their agenda, the hollowness of the government and the depths they have sunk to so early in this term of the parliament.