Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019
I rise today to speak to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. It's not the first time I've had to point out a completely Orwellian misnomer in the title of a bill. Last week, I spoke to the Migration Amendment (Repairing Medical Transfers) Bill. That is a complete misnomer, because repairs are absolutely not needed. The name of that bill, like this one, is totally misleading. This bill is about ensuring 'integrity'. This government does not know the meaning of that word. This is nothing but a union-bashing bill that will not improve the lives of workers who desperately need their unions.
I take personal umbrage and offence at the title of this bill—let alone the content. For all my working life, I was a union member. The day I started nursing, I joined the Australian Nursing Federation. I was part of the legendary 50-day strike in Victoria that resulted in massive improvements for nurses: career structures, with pay rises; recognition of qualifications, with remuneration; and access to paid leave for education to upskill, which also led to better pay. That industrial action change the lives of nurses for the better. But if this legislation had been in place the government of the day might have deemed that action irresponsible, or outright unacceptable, and applied to have the union deregistered.
I was president of the Victorian branch when we fought in Victoria for nurse-patient ratios. We took industrial action, some of which was unprotected. Yes, we broke the law. Nurses in Victoria were prepared to go to any lengths to fix a health system that had been decimated by Jeff Kennett and his government. We had to deal with ridiculous workloads due to the shortage of nurses, which of course resulted in a drop in the quality of care. We simply could not deliver the care our patients required and needed. We won that battle, and nurse-to-patient ratios were implemented. My goodness, the impact of the ratios on the working lives of nurses and the quality of care is immeasurable. Those ratios are now law in Victoria.
Some would say our actions were reckless. Some of those in positions of power might not have understood the power of good that the unions' actions did. Some, like this government, might have deemed those actions worthy of punishment and, with the powers this legislation gives the minister and others, it could have led to the ANMF being deregistered. The Attorney-General denies this, but it is true. In fact, to think of it: perhaps the Attorney-General doth protest too much. With none of these important gains we made for nurses and the broader community, where would we be now? This law would have made those outcomes almost impossible to achieve and we would all be so much worse off. Unions do a power of good.
I was elected as an assistant federal secretary of the ANMF and then federal secretary, a position I was so proud to hold. At a national level, we fought to save Medicare and we saw the creation of nurse practitioners, a valuable addition to the healthcare workforce. We worked on health reform with the excellent Nicola Roxon, when she was health minister. We oversaw the establishment of AHPRA. We produced competency standards for nurses and worked really hard to make sure our health system was the best it could be and to ensure our members who elected me had a voice in every part of the health system and the health reform process.
But do you know what? Not everybody was happy with the outcomes. The AMA argued vehemently against nurse practitioners getting prescribing rights, but we campaigned and lobbied heavily for them. Imagine if the AMA could make a case to have the nurses union deregistered because they had a vested interest in prescribing rights for themselves. A sympathetic minister or judge might just agree. That's what could happen under this dreadful bill.
The nurses union is the largest in Australia, with 250,000 members. They elect their leaders and demand outcomes and representation. If they don't deliver, the members turf them out at the next election. That is democratically their right. Like freedom of the press, the freedom of workers to associate and form unions to bargain collectively is enshrined in international law. It must be done without the state interfering. This legislation inserts the state into that process, destroying that freedom. As Senator Ayres said in his excellent first speech last night, everyday people must be able to engage in our democracy. Undermining unions undermines our democracy.
In fact as I mentioned in my previous examples, this goes further. This bill allows interested parties to make an application for deregistration. In an article by Ewin Hannan of The Australian just last week we heard of an employer, Gerry Hanssen, fined $62,000 after a court found his blind hatred of the CFMMEU resulted in unlawful behaviour towards union officials. Under this law and this government, with their hatred of unions, someone like Mr Hanssen could be able to make applications to have the union deregistered. If someone like George Calombaris had discovered the union was investigating underpayment of his employees, he too could have applied to have the union deregistered before they did their work. This legislation is dreadful. It is far more extensive and extreme in the regulation of unions than what exists for businesses or even politicians.
We've recently asked serious questions about the ethical behaviour of ex-politicians Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop. We think the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction has some serious questions to answer. Maybe the PM should be ensuring the integrity of his own side before launching into bashing hardworking union members. We are still yet to see legislation presented to this parliament with respect to the egregious behaviour of banks—talk about needing to ensure integrity! Where is the effort to ensure the integrity of banks in the wake of the most damning royal commission in recent times? My own family fell victim to one of the most outrageous banking rorts. It has come to light in the last month or so that a financial institution continued to charge my father-in-law for financial advice after he had died. If the government want to ensure integrity then how about some legislation to fix the banking sector's lack of it?
Right now, there are thousands of workers being ripped off by their bosses, having their wages stolen. It is impossible to know how many. It is impossible to know the dollar amount of that theft. I know many employers do the right thing, and they are being unfairly disadvantaged by the dodgy ones. We owe it to the workers and to the good employers to ensure integrity in the workplace. Where is the legislation or government action to crack down on wage theft? There's none. They do not care about the workers—not one iota. These laws will mean that unethical employers get a free kick. In fact, the only people who would benefit from these laws are the Morrison government and unethical employers. If these laws applied equally to corporations, we would see banks, multinational pizza chains and restaurants of celebrity chefs all close down for repeatedly breaking workplace laws and their top executives sacked. Outrageous, you might say. Well, if that's outrageous for employers and multinationals, then it is equally outrageous for unions.
If this government cared about ensuring integrity in the workplace, how about tackling the issue of worker exploitation, which is rampant, especially among our migrant workforce, who are so very vulnerable. Recently, the National Union of Workers drew together a report on the exploitation of workers in the agricultural sector. The results are alarming. Farms are a big part of Australian life. We know that they are struggling at the moment, and this parliament has resolved to help. But what of the workers that pick, pack and protect farmers' produce? They deserve our help too. If we are serious about ensuring integrity for workers in this country we must help those exploited workers.
The vast majority of people who work on Australian farms are migrant workers from south-east Asian and Pacific nations. They are not bronzed Aussie kids or European backpackers. They live and work on a patchwork of precarious and unequal visas that separate workers by race and ethnicity. Many of them are undocumented. Those workers often face appalling working conditions that few, if any, other Australian workers are expected to face. They make as little as $4.80 per hour cash in hand with no tax or super. They are employed day to day with no job security by dodgy, unlicensed subcontractors. The NUW report found that they live in appalling, crowded conditions; work in extremes of weather; are subject to dangerous working conditions; often have no access to breaks, toilets, shade or even drinking water; and women are sometimes sexually harassed or isolated. It sounds like the slave based industries of the southern US before the Civil War but it is here in Australia right now.
The NUW surveyed 655 farmworkers and here is what they found. They found that $14.80 per hour before tax is the average wage of farm workers, $9 below the minimum wage. As I said, some earned as little as $4.80 per hour. They also found that 68 per cent of workers surveyed worked for a cash contractor or subcontractor; 33 per cent of workers reported holding a valid visa; and 57 per cent of workers work at a farm that supplies Coles and Woolworths. That's as far from ensuring integrity as one can get. It is the union that is bringing this to our notice, raising the workers' voices. They don't ask for much; ensuring integrity in the agricultural sector is not hard. They want fair wages. Every farm worker needs at least $24.36 an hour, with no more piece rates. They need visa justice with a fair visa system that gives migrant farm workers, dignity, security and safety. They want secure jobs, with no more cash contracting—direct, reliable, on-the-books jobs—and freedom of association. Migrant workers need union rights like any other worker. None of those things are on this government's agenda. They are on the unions' agenda and they are on the workers' agenda. Freedom of association might be on the government's agenda but only to totally put it at risk.
What of the biggest threat to our economy right now—stagnant wages? The RBA governor has been desperate to get wages rising again. At least he stopped telling workers to just ask for a pay rise. Who can just walk up and ask for one? The gig economy worker, who will definitely find herself without a gig? The casual worker, who knows anytime she puts her head up she'll lose shifts? The short-term contractor, who is desperate to get that next six-month contract? The cleaner, who has no bargaining power because of the fragmented nature of her industry? I could go on and on; none of them have the power to just roll up and ask for a pay rise.
We all know that the best bet for getting a pay rise is to join a union. That is why this government hates unions. They don't want workers to get pay rises. We saw in The Guardian this week an excellent missive on why they want to keep wages low. The Minister for Finance himself has said on national television that it was a deliberate strategy of the government to keep wages depressed. Of course they want unions out of the picture; they always have.
Enter this bill, and many others they keep putting up to bash unions about and to get rid of them. Who is the government to assert that they and big business should have a say in union amalgamations? It is the members who decide the structure of their unions. No union amalgamation can be against the public interest. It's a nonsense! How could ensuring the economic viability and increasing the bargaining power of the union be against the public interest? Union members are the public; they have a right to determine their own union's future. Again, this is the government trying to hold back the rights of workers to improve conditions. Why? To protect the profits of their mates in big business.
We just have to look at the creation of the Registered Organisations Commission. If it weren't so heinous I reckon it would be a joke—the very so-called independent body that implemented a dodgy strategy for the government against the AWU, orchestrating a media circus around completely unnecessary and unwarranted raids on the union offices, all in the name of trying to make the then minister for IR look good. Well, she sure as goodness did not look good! It was a complete farce, and this bill gives that organisation, the ROC, even more power.
Talk about integrity! How about this government putting integrity into its IR system and getting rid of the ROC? Workers in this country deserve to be protected. They deserve the right to join their unions and they deserve the right for their unions to act under their own democratic structures.
This Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 is designed to enforce the rule of law in the workplace. Privileged positions should be respected and the law should be respected. Unions and employer groups hold a special place in the Fair Work legislation and they need to respect that responsibility.
The problem, though, is that there are glaring occasions when registered organisations are not working in the best interests of their members or they are not complying with the law. We only have to look at what happened from depositions given at the Heydon royal commission: from abuse of the right-of-entry privileges, exhibiting coercion and secondary boycott conduct right through to extortion and blackmail. Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour hasn't finished. We only have to see what the Leader of the Opposition has been attempting to do to expel a member of a union. That just brought out all this bad behaviour again for everyone to see.
This legislation means that actions by unions which are unlawful will have major consequences. It's not just the royal commission that outlined a lot of these misbehaviours; there has been a lot of analysis of the consequences of this breaking the law and this militant industrial activity in infrastructure and new builds. Everyone knows about the money that we put into roads, schools and hospitals through the state governments and local government. The delays and extra costs as a result of militant behaviour that is unlawful means that there is less money because everything costs more. So there are fewer roads, fewer schools and fewer hospitals built.
The Master Builders Association estimates that this increasing cost is 30 per cent more due to unlawful industrial action and militancy. BCA and Infrastructure Australia estimate that infrastructure costs in Australia, as a result of this sort of activity, are 40 per cent more than similar projects in the USA. The McKellar Institute in 2016 analysed the costs for a standard two-lane non-divided road—and we have many of those in the Lyne electorate and we'd love to build more—and said that, because of the costs that are generated by these unlawful activities and militant behaviour, it costs 26 per cent more in Australia compared to in the UK, 42 per cent more than in the USA, 53 per cent more than in Canada and 78 per cent more than in the EU.
I would really love to be able to say to my local councils that the money that goes to fixing Clarence Town Road will go a whole lot further. But it's these big infrastructure projects where most of this behaviour is happening—big greenfield sites, not just local domestic building. Big projects that state governments and the federal government fund—sites that are funded by taxpayers—all cost more than they should. Privately funded infrastructure and privately funded construction projects all cost much more. Major real estate developments cost more. People buying property end up having to pay more because of the construction costs we've outlined. Everyone who has analysed it deems this is real, not just a confected allegation. Things do cost more in Australia because of some of the activities on these big sites.
How frequently is this happening? One only has to look at the figures that the ABCC, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, has just assembled in one of their reports: over 2,000 times in 15 years, and 200 times alone in 2018-19. Currently, there are 32 cases and 766 individuals contravening the law as it stands. That is the justification for these amendments. If there is unlawful behaviour of this extent across the length and breadth of the country, you can imagine how it's holding the nation back. The unlawful behaviour by the CFMMEU and their members just in this last calendar year, 2018-19, is $4 million. If you look at all the fines they've accumulated since 2004, including predecessor organisations to the ABCC, it's $16.4 million. That just gives you an idea of the extent and the breadth of this unlawful behaviour.
There are five schedules outlining what will be done, and they are sensible, reasonable amendments, which will allow the courts to adjudicate and ensure that officials that do demonstrate a disregard for the law or otherwise engage in misconduct will not be able to hold office in the registered organisation anymore. A person convicted of any offence that carries a penalty of five years imprisonment or more will now be automatically disqualified for the existing exclusion period of five years. This was recommended by the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption. There is justification for it, and it will ensure that individuals who commit serious criminal offences will not be able to hold office in a registered organisation.
It also expands the grounds on which the Federal Court can make an order disqualifying an individual from holding office for a period of time that it determines appropriate. Officers who deliberately flout the law who are found not to be fit and proper will risk losing the privilege of representing their members. The schedule also makes it an offence for anyone who has been disqualified to continue to act and interfere in the industrial scene. Even influencing the organisation that you've been dismissed from is captured by that amendment. It will improve the standards of integrity in registered organisations and it means that people who do break the law will face the consequences. The costs and the fines that have been imposed so far seem to be no barrier to this bad behaviour. Since 2017, they have looked at the earlier iteration, and it will bring these guidelines for actions by the courts in keeping with what corporations have to deal with under the Corporations Act. These are very sensible, measured changes.
The royal commission also heard evidence that a culture of lawlessness and disrespect continued in some of these organisations, and the bill will ensure that the Federal Court is appropriately empowered to deal with organisations or parts of an organisation that break the law or fail to act in their members' best interests. The vast majority of these organisations are operating within the law. This isn't a broad attack on the union movement; it's a very specific attack on bad behaviour, such as coercing people, abusing the right of entry, forcing people, extortion and blackmail, which are all there on the record. Dysfunctional organisations will be able to be directed so that their affairs are brought into order. You only have to look at what happened with the Health Services Union. There was a dysfunctional organisation there; all the parties involved agreed. But this bill means the courts can appoint an administrator to sort out the affairs, correct all the dysfunction and make sure substandard behaviour comes to an end. Whilst the organisation is under administration, the administrator will control the property and the affairs of the organisation and perform the functions and exercise the powers that their members need, and officers or employees of the organisation under administration must give the administrator all the relevant information, so anything that is reasonably required will be available. There will be new increased penalties. And the removal of a potential imprisonment term for failing to help an administrator and failing to provide an organisation's books on request is an appropriate change which responds to stakeholder concerns.
When corporations merge, they have to face a public interest test, and the ACCC assesses whether a merger is in the interests of the economy and whether competition is reduced as a result. Similarly, with the amendments in this bill, a proposed merger of registered organisations, including but not limited to those with significant economic influence, should be subject to a public interest consideration. I think this is a reasonable and a very wise move. When you look at the size of these mega unions, they have the capability to shut down vast parts of the Australian economy. In the corporate sphere, if similar mergers are on the cards, the ACCC has an ability to stop that merger happening. This bill will ensure that the Fair Work Commission applies a public interest test when any other mergers are brought forward. Under the bill, the Fair Work Commission will have an overarching discretion to determine whether this is a good merger or whether it should not proceed. While the bill outlines a number of matters for the commission to take into account, the ultimate decision is left to the commission itself. So there are many practical amendments in this bill which address the concerns that are evidenced in the commission and in the public press.
We want the rule of law to apply in the workplace. We want militant, unlawful action to cease and we want there to be consequences for repeated bad behaviour. All of the things that I've outlined shouldn't be a feature in the workplace or on major construction sites like the major highways that we're building. We've got $100 billion worth of construction and infrastructure planned over the next 10 years. Wouldn't it be great if lower costs meant that the infrastructure could be delivered 20, 30 per cent more efficiently? It would benefit the Australian taxpayer and the users of that infrastructure, and it would be a major benefit to the economy. And people who are borrowing for a home unit or a house would know that the construction costs haven't been put up because of militant action.
With all the home units being built, you've got to think: how much cheaper could those properties be for consumers? You've got to think of the consequences of increased construction costs for all the infrastructure that goes with new developments and major land releases. All of these things mean things cost more. We're trying to make housing more affordable, and we're trying to stamp out the militant, unlawful actions. I commend this bill to the House.
This Liberal Party enjoys delivering lectures on integrity. Last week, I heard the Attorney-General on the radio doing it again in relation to this bill. He and the other phony tough guys in the Liberal Party are telling us that they are going to ensure the integrity of the union movement. But, as the old saying goes, this seems to be a case of do as I say, not do as I do. To paraphrase another old saying, this Liberal government should focus on putting its own house in order before it lectures others on matters of integrity, because this Liberal Party has an uneasy relationship with the concept of integrity. There is not enough time in the day to go through them all, but let's just touch on a few examples that illustrate that fact.
We know that the member for Hume, along with his friend the Treasurer of Australia, still has questions to answer about the alleged illegal poisoning of critically endangered grasslands on a property partly owned by—guess who? The member for Hume. We know that his own department, the Department of the Environment and Energy no less, is now investigating this honourable member because of his interest in a company called Jam Land Pty Ltd, which was involved in that alleged poisoning of critically endangered grasslands. We also know that record-breaking amounts of money were paid by the Commonwealth to buy water from a company with links to this same member for Hume, a company that was owned by a Cayman Islands based entity that the same honourable member for Hume—
Thank you, Deputy Speaker. We don't know the full story yet—not yet, anyway—because the member for Hume won't tell us and his Prime Minister won't make him. You could deliver an entire speech about the member for Hume's own uneasy relationship with the concept of integrity, but I don't want his colleagues to feel left out. After all, we also heard Senator Cormann accepting free overseas holidays from Liberal Party donors—
With respect, Deputy Speaker, the subject of this bill is integrity, and there is a second reading amendment which has been moved by the Manager of Opposition Business and which talks about the government's inconsistent approach to royal commissions, the government's entire approach to workplace relations laws being to attack workers' organisations and the government not proposing to deal with legislation on a range of other matters.
This is a bill which purports to impose standards of integrity on a small sector of Australian society or a small sector of the Australian economy. It is symptomatic of the approach of this government that it is not prepared to deal with a whole range of other integrity matters that are before its eyes. I've given one example of an integrity matter that is before the government's eyes which it is not prepared to deal with; rather, it wishes to try to say that it is dealing and is entitled to deal only with a small part of what it alleges are integrity issues arising in a small part of Australian society or a small part of the Australian economy. But it's not prepared to look at the issues around the integrity of the member for Hume. It's also not prepared to look at integrity issues arising in relation to Senator Cormann accepting free overseas holidays from Liberal Party donors and failing to declare them, linked to the whole shady Helloworld Travel scandal that also involved former Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey.
We've had another integrity matter that this government is saying does not warrant the attention of this parliament in the slightest. That would be Senator Cash refusing to cooperate with an Australian Federal Police investigation into the leaking of sensitive information about police operations, leaks that came out of her own office.
Let's talk about another integrity matter that this government had no interest in: who could ever forget the 'choppergate' scandal in which the former member for McKellar Bronwyn Bishop so comprehensively disgraced herself? She's not here anymore, but the member for Fadden is still here. This is another integrity matter that the government thinks does not warrant the attention of this parliament. Who could forget that the member for Fadden was sacked from the ministry by the previous Prime Minister over multiple conflicts and the misuse of his ministerial position in the pursuit of the business interests, in particular, of Liberal donors in China as well as his own business interests? This Prime Minister's brought him back into cabinet, no less, not content with putting him in the ministry, presumably because it would be a gross inconsistency to exclude someone from this particular ministry because of a lack of integrity.
Then we've got the member for Dickson. He calls himself a minister of the Crown. He's a senior cabinet minister. This is another integrity matter that the government doesn't seem to be interested in taking any action about. It is not interested in taking action at an executive level and certainly not interested in having any discussion in this parliament. It wants to talk about integrity only in relation to a small sector of Australian society and a small sector of the Australian economy. The member for Dickson is the same honourable member who had 'no sight'—his words—of the payment of $423 million by his own department to a company called Paladin, which was based in an empty beach shack on Kangaroo Island, all without an open tender or other transparent process. What about that same member for Dickson, as Minister for Home Affairs, awarding a $591 million contract to a mysterious Brisbane based company to run garrison and welfare services on Nauru, again without an open tender or a transparent process? It happens to be the same company whose chief executive officer made a personal donation to the Minister for Home Affairs' branch of the LNP while the terms of that very contract were still being negotiated.
What about the Minister for Home Affairs, the same Minister for Home Affairs, agreeing to extend that lucrative contract and pay that mysterious Brisbane based company even more in the same month that the Liberal National Party received a donation from a related company registered to the same business address? This government's got a very narrow view of integrity; it only wants to bring bills to this parliament that deal with integrity in a small part of Australian society and a small part of the Australian economy. To go on about the Minister for Home Affairs: what about the Minister for Home Affairs personally intervening, against the advice of his own department, to award visas to at least two au pairs who were facing deportation for breaking Australian law—au pairs who were employed by the minister's former colleague and the family of a well-known Liberal Party donor?
I could then come to the Attorney-General. He's meant to have some interest in integrity. He's, after all, the minister who introduced the bill that's before the House—the 'Ensuring Integrity Bill', as he likes to refer to it. This Attorney-General is badging himself as the architect of ensuring integrity for a small part of Australian society and a small part of the Australian economy, namely the unions. This Attorney-General has treated the Administrative Appeals Tribunal—appointments to which he's responsible for—like a Liberal Party employment agency, appointing dozens of former Liberal Party MPs, former Liberal Party staffers and failed Liberal Party candidates to high-paying taxpayer funded jobs which should be going to properly qualified and experienced experts. The situation there has become so bad—and, again, we won't hear the Attorney-General talking about this part of integrity in government operations—that a review of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by a former High Court judge, a review that the Attorney-General sat on for some seven months, recommended that all future appointments to the tribunal should be made on the basis of merit—merit! That idea will no doubt come as a rude shock to the Attorney-General! Yet this Attorney-General has the temerity to stand up day after day and tell this parliament and the people of Australia that he's the man who will ensure the integrity of the union movement.
It's easy to forget, in the welter of discussion that this government would like to have about ensuring integrity in the union movement, that this Liberal government—this failing, tired, third-term Liberal government—went to the election promising to establish a Commonwealth integrity commission. They don't like to talk about it much anymore. They only committed to the idea because they were forced into it. But it's true—I need to remind Australians that it's true—that this government went to the election promising to establish a Commonwealth integrity commission. The current Attorney-General and the current Prime Minister announced it together in December last year; I do have the tapes. They even put money into the budget for this Commonwealth integrity commission. Of course, we've heard nothing of it since the election. We've had a list of legislation for this year published by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet which did not include legislation for a Commonwealth integrity commission. Apparently that's now gone back to the drawing board—or perhaps it's gone into the wastepaper basket. That's how much this government thinks of integrity. Its promise of a Commonwealth integrity commission has gone into the ether.
Of course, even if the Liberal government did follow through on its election commitment to establish a Commonwealth integrity commission, the body as outlined by the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General wouldn't ensure the integrity of the parliament and it certainly wouldn't ensure the integrity of the government. The Liberal Party's favoured model for an integrity commission would ensure no such thing. As many experts, including quite a number of eminent retired judges, observed at the time the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister made their policy announcement, their integrity commission would be the kind of model that you announce when you don't want an integrity commission. Their model for an integrity commission would give special treatment to politicians by establishing two separate divisions: the so-called law enforcement division would be tasked with investigating allegations of corruption by law enforcement, and the public sector division would investigate allegations of corruption involving politicians. But the powers of the law enforcement division to investigate allegations of corruption would be far more extensive than the powers of the public sector division, and only the law enforcement division could hold public hearings. One rule for the police, another rule for the Attorney-General and his colleagues—that's the indication that we should take about the attitude of this Liberal government to integrity, particularly on a national level, across government, which is what a national integrity commission should be about.
Putting to one side the many problems with the Liberal Party's preferred model for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission—their title—it is notable that we haven't heard a peep from the Attorney-General or any other member of the government about their proposed Commonwealth Integrity Commission Since the election. There have been no sermons from them about ensuring the integrity of this parliament or the government of Australia. They are so allergic to ensuring integrity—that's the title of this bill, 'ensuring integrity'—in their own ranks that they can't even bring themselves to talk about an election commitment that they made, which was to bring legislation for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission to this parliament.
Just to go back to the list, published by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, of legislation that's proposed for introduction to this parliament in 2019; there is there nothing about the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. They have listed, however, the Overseas Welfare Recipients Integrity Program Bill as a priority; the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Payment Integrity) Bill is also apparently a priority—again, these are very small, focused, targeted integrity measures—but nothing at all about a national integrity commission, which would grapple with integrity at the national level and across government. When it comes to welfare recipients, you might observe that these phony tough guys are all about ensuring integrity; when it comes to the union movement, they love to talk about integrity, but if they're putting their own house in order you'd be left wanting.
It's a great pleasure to be able to rise in this place on behalf of the people of Goldstein and in particular in support of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. I don't doubt for a second that the people of Goldstein have a basic expectation that those who seek to represent others in a union might be law-abiding citizens in their task and duties and as a consequence would support this bill. We have just heard one of, and we always enjoy, the—how would you put it?—I'll be charitable and say 'speeches' of the shadow Attorney-General. What we saw alive, and what we have been seeing since the election—I don't say this with any sense of joy; it's a sadness—is the opposition's enlivenment of the seven stages of grief. Immediately after the election we had shock and disbelief at their defeat and that they wouldn't be able to go on and do the opposite of what this bill seeks to achieve, to enlarge the space for their mates and paymasters in the unions to do as they wish on any industrial worksite around the country.
Then we had denial about the basis on which they lost the election and what that was driven by. Their solution to this denial was to select the current Leader of the Opposition to lead them rather than reflect on their dilemma and why they did not attract the votes of the Australian people. Then we had guilt. We saw that yesterday from the former Leader of the Opposition, who talked about his very great disappointment that he wasn't serving on this side of the chamber and able to lead his team to victory in order to do the exact opposite of what this legislation seeks to achieve. We then have seen things like anger and bargaining. We saw that particularly with the allocation of the shadow ministry, where people were included or excluded proportionately based on the rage over who was responsible for what, the chief victims of that being not only the former Leader of the Opposition but also the former shadow Treasurer. We've seen depression, loneliness and reflection. We saw that specifically through their complete incapacity to deal with basic issues like tax cuts, where prior to the election they opposed $387 billion in tax cuts and today they say that apparently we're not doing enough.
Then, of course, we've just seen, in the shadow Attorney-General's speech on this bill, the reconstruction and working through of the issues, and trying to understand and to find a meandering narrative—
Mr Simmonds interjecting—
and it meandered, as the good member for Ryan has reminded me—about why they can rationalise turning a blind eye to the illegality of union officials while concurrently lecturing others in this place about integrity!
At some point, I'm sure, the opposition will reach a moment of acceptance, having gone through those stages. And we are about to come up to a five-week break in the parliamentary schedule where they may just do that. It's entirely possible, of course, that they will go in the reverse direction and go back to things like denial and guilt, certainly anger and bargaining, and perhaps a reconstruction, working through the issues that they face.
And yes, as the member for Ryan says, part of it will be, I'm sure, about blaming the voters—'Don't they understand how good they could have had it if only there had been a change of government'—because, apparently, $387 billion of new taxes and ripping off the restrictions on those who seek to break the laws would somehow end up in a better outcome for the people of Australia.
But the matter before us right now is a relatively simple piece of legislation in its objective, its ambition, and its concurrence with the values of most of the people of this country. The simple proposition is that, if you are a union official seeking to represent others in an industrial capacity, you may be expected to adhere to the law, and that, if you do not adhere to the law, there is a pathway to disqualification—in exactly the same way as we look at it for people like company directors who are custodians of other people's money in pursuit of opportunity. We want people to meet basic standards in the workplace.
We all know horrific stories—and, tragically, they're coming out far too frequently these days—where we have registered organisations, whether they be business organisations or those in the trade union movement, where people breached the trust of the people that they are there to represent, where they use the weight and authority that they have and throw their weight around to do the wrong thing. Of course, a critical part of that is also around sometimes overstepping the mark on behalf of the people they represent in their engagement with employers, in breaking the law, in misallocating money and in seeking to advance their own interests at the expense of those they're representing.
When those things occur, it is not just an issue of integrity—though it is that. It is also a fundamental breach of trust. And the expectation that we have as a government is that, whether you are in business or in a representative body or a union, you have a basic obligation to those you represent to honour their trust, and that, if you don't, there should be penalties. It goes to the heart of your character and, therefore, your capacity to play your role.
That's why we, on this side of the House, support this piece of legislation. It's to elevate the basic expectation that's adhered to by so many others to the paymasters of the Australian Labor Party. And that's precisely why they oppose it, because sitting behind the modern Labor Party is a patronage network and, once a bright light is shone upon it and people are held to account and questions about conduct are asked in courts of law, a light is turned not just on the trade union movement—though that's critically important—but on themselves. They say sunlight is the greatest disinfectant. But there is a lot to disinfect on that side of the chamber. There is a lot to disinfect in the trade union movement. And what they do, in pursuit of that, is, of course, to trade on the trust of good, decent, hardworking Australians who empower them to represent their interests. And if those on the other side had any skerrick of integrity, they would support this piece of legislation.
I fully accept that many of them have traded their way through the system of the trade union movement to sit in this place and carry the trust of the Australian people and their communities in the parliament. They absolutely have. I realise the uncomfortableness that must sit with many of them, including those who have their backs turned to us now, to shine that light. That relationship does not end once you enter this place, because those people who sit atop the union movement and do the wrong thing continue to pull the purse strings, the membership strings and the factional strings. But at some point leadership is actually about standing up and turning to your colleagues and saying, 'We may have got here, but our responsibility is to now do what is right.' That is the test that they are failing in their opposition to this bill.
As a basic benchmark of what will happen if this bill passes, will workers be worse off? No, they will be better off. Will the institutions of our democracy be worse off? No, they'll be better off. The only people who will be worse off are the people sitting on that side of this chamber and the trade union leaders who break the law. If that is the basis of their opposition to this legislation and they are trying to conflate other issues with the concerns about criminal law-breaking that occurs in this country, then it is no wonder the Australian people kept them on that side of this chamber.
I won't take up much of the chamber's time here today. The final report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was a damning indictment on the conduct of senior union members and the culture of self-interest that flourished under their watch. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 is in part a response to recommendations made by the royal commission and purports to effectively deal with registered organisations that are dysfunctional or are not serving in the interests of their members. It does so by expanding the grounds for disqualification from office for the officials of registered organisations, expanding the grounds for cancelling the registration of registered organisations, adding a public interest test to amalgamations of registered organisations and allowing dysfunctional registered organisations to be subject to government intervention. The government says this bill strikes the appropriate balance, ensuring that registered organisations and their officers act with integrity and obey the law without unduly restricting the vast majority of organisations that do the right thing and diligently represent their members and act in their best interests.
The bill has been referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, with a final report due late October this year. My Senate colleagues and I will closely follow the committee's process and consider the recommendations that arise from that Senate committee.
We are particularly concerned by the provision in the bill that gives the minister a power to lodge an application to deregister a union or union official. It may be that safeguards should be in place to ensure that this power is not exploited for political purposes. Centre Alliance will consider the recommendations of the committee through the lens of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in which Justice Dyson Heydon QC wrote in his final report:
It is difficult to overstate the importance of a strong, efficient and focussed committee of management for the proper governance of a union. The committee of management is the body which on a monthly basis needs to be questioning, checking and, if necessary, challenging accounting records and resolutions promulgated by the officials at the unions. The committee of management is perhaps the most important safeguard for ensuring that members' money is deployed properly. A position on a committee of management is not a position to be taken lightly. Its members must learn to use two words more. One is 'Why?' the other is 'No'.
That statement bears a striking resemblance to those of another eminent jurist the Hon. Kenneth Hayne AC QC in the final report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry:
There can be no doubt that the primary responsibility for misconduct in the financial services industry lies with the entities concerned and those who managed and controlled those entities: their boards and senior management.
Nothing that is said in this report should be understood as diminishing that responsibility. Everything that is said in this report is to be understood in the light of that one undeniable fact, and that is that those who engaged in misconduct are responsible for what they did and for the consequences that followed. It is the entities, their boards and their senior executives who bear primary responsibility for what has happened. Close attention must be given to their culture, their governance and their remuneration practices. Clearly, unions aren't the only organisations that require urgent legislative action to hold their leaders to account.
My qualified support for this bill in this House is not a comment on the merits of the union movement or on the actions of individual union members. Centre Alliance is not yet satisfied that the government has taken all the reasonable steps to protect the public from the type of behaviour detailed in both the royal commission into trade unions and the royal commission into financial services.
This bill, I believe, is an improvement on the 2017 version. However, as I mentioned, my Centre Alliance colleagues and I will continue to talk with government and stakeholders to ensure that the government implements a measured and proportionate response to both royal commissions.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. I just want to clarify the word 'integrity' for those people who would have seen it in the title of the legislation and would have no doubt thought that this was the Liberal and National parties' Commonwealth Integrity Commission legislation. I'm sure that people like Monica from Sydney would have thought: 'This is it. This is the legislation promised by Prime Minister Morrison back in December last year. Here we are, on the last day of July—surely, with this government, they're doing what they said and bringing in legislation to establish a Commonwealth Integrity Commission to make sure that parliamentarians are doing the right thing.' But, no—sadly, this is not that legislation. This is a broken promise from the government. Instead, it's focused on kicking unions.
I've listened to the speakers from both sides of the chamber on this bill. I take some comfort from the indication from the member for Mayo that she will be looking closely at this legislation, because it is very important.
I do declare that I have worked for trade unions. Before coming into parliament, I worked for the Independent Education Union of Australia, the union that looks after private schools, so I understand the good work that unions do. I've actually helped people with unfair dismissals, all sorts of industrial matters and discrimination matters, so I have some understanding of the work of union officials.
I also should declare that I have three brothers and a couple of nephews who work in the construction sector, so I have some understanding of that sector. I declare this because the construction union is mentioned by government ministers two or three times every question time and probably 10 or 20 times a day by the Prime Minister. He seems to be obsessed with this union.
Sadly, this coalition government seems to be obsessed with union bashing. It is their favourite pastime. They are obsessed with it and think that it is in the national interest to do so. They don't care about the terrible conditions that employees have to put up with. They don't care whether employers are paying workers their entitlements. There's a deafening silence from those opposite when it comes to the theft of wages. They especially don't care whether worksites are safe.
Labor took to the election a suite of policies that would protect workers and make sure building companies cannot avoid their obligations to their employees; to government, to pay their taxes, obviously; to homeowners; and to honest businesses. I'm just going to touch on some of these: the tradie pay guarantee, which was a requirement for large Commonwealth construction projects that would ensure that tradies who do the work on time get paid on time, something that both sides of the chamber would support; the $7 million tradie litigation fund to give the Australian Securities and Investments Commission the ability to run more difficult court cases without draining the corporate watchdog's resources; the director identification number so that all company directors would be required to obtain a unique director identification number with a 100-point identification check; increased penalties associated with phoenix activity so that the bad employers, the sharks who rip people off over and over again, would be prevented from doing so; and a policy of naming and shaming that would allow the Commissioner of Taxation to name individuals and entities as part of the penalty for the most serious tax offences, for those people not doing the right thing by society.
These policies would have made a real difference to working Australians, and I ask those opposite to consider them. They're roaming around the policy wasteland looking for something to do. But for their kicking the occasional union tumbleweed, there'd be no movement at all. The coalition government begins its seventh year in office in September, and I'm sure the member for Blaxland remembers how long that has been. They aren't concerned about policy that would actually make a real difference to working people. They aren't concerned about economic policy to boost growth, wages and living conditions for all Australians. Instead, they just want to distract from their failures and entrench privilege.
Yesterday's HILDA survey report confirmed what most of my constituents already know: that living standards are going backwards under the Liberals. We see CPI data today confirming that. The median household income has declined by almost $500 in 2017, a fall of 0.6 per cent from 2016. What is particularly concerning is that there has been no increase in median household incomes for a decade. Many workers are finding it tough to make ends meet. Tradies in the construction sector who aren't being paid on time or aren't being paid at all by unscrupulous employers find it impossible to put food on the table or pay for the roof over their head. It's damaging for their financial health and also for their mental health. Labor always has a positive plan, so we wanted to stop dodgy bosses ripping off subbies, their workers and taxpayers, policies that would have made a real difference. So I ask those opposite to consider these policies that I've detailed if they actually care about small businesses.
In contrast, the coalition took to the election one plan: that was tax cuts. So now, finding themselves back on that side of the chamber without any plan to govern, what do they do? They turn to their old favourite from that well-worn song sheet: divide, divide, divide. It's a policy that begins with the verse 'We hate unions', and we've heard it in every speech so far from those opposite.
This bill or something not dissimilar to it was introduced in 2017 but lapsed when the parliament was prorogued in April. The stated purpose of the current bill before the House is:
… to respond to community concern and the recommendations of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption … to ensure the integrity of registered organisations and their officials, for the benefit of their members.
The royal commission formed the view that the governance requirements of organisations should be more like those imposed on corporations rather than incorporated associations, but this bill proposes much harder regulation—make sure you understand that: much harder regulation—on registered organisations than exists for corporations. For example, it allows not only the Registered Organisations Commissioner and the minister but also any other person with sufficient interest to apply to the court for an order to disqualify an official of a registered organisation. This is a much harsher regime than that for corporations, and differs from the recommendations of the Heydon royal commission. The Heydon royal commission specifically recommended that only the Registered Organisation Commissioner should have standing to seek disqualification orders. This could be a disaster. So let's call this out for what it is: it's an attack on the mighty union movement. Shame on this Morrison government!
Trade unions have a proud history in Australia. Workers rely on the union movement—be they union members paying fees or those workers who work alongside union members and get the benefits of what they fight for. Since many years before the High Court's Harvester decision in 1907, unions have been an accepted part of the fabric of society. It has been accepted that all Australian workers deserve to earn a fair day's pay for a fair day's work and, at the end of the day, return home safely to the families. It would be a very different working environment if trade unions did not exist. If it were not for unions, we would not have annual leave. We would not have industrial awards that underpin pay and conditions of employment for millions of workers. We would not have penalty rates—although penalty rates are actually under threat from the coalition government by both deed and inaction. We would not have maternity leave, superannuation, equal pay for women, health and safety, workers compensation, sick leave, long service leave and redundancy pay. We would not have allowances, including for uniforms. We would not have meal breaks and rest breaks. Workers once had to get through the whole day without any break at all. We would not have collective bargaining and unfair dismissal protection. That is a long list, and there are many others I could add.
I won't detain the House too long as I now go through the list of employment conditions spontaneously provided by employers since that 1907 Harvester decision.
I'll take that interjection from the member for Makin. Zip—absolutely nothing. We know that union density has been on the decline since the 1970s. So if ever there was a time when workers needed fearless union representation, it is now—and particularly in the construction industry. As I said, I talk to my brothers and nephews who work in this industry. We see people getting ripped off—and even worse. I have one brother who was literally inches away from death when two people were killed right alongside him. We know it is a dangerous industry. There was significant slowing in the annual rate of growth in average weekly earnings for adult men working full time in the construction industry between November 2013 and November 2018—the time the coalition has been in office, the years when the coalition has been asleep at the wheel. For all employees in construction during that period, there was an annual average growth of 0.8 per cent in weekly earnings, which is considerably below the annual average growth of 4.7 per cent achieved between November 2008 and November 2013—the Rudd and Gillard years.
But the growth in average weekly earnings is only one measure to gauge how crook the economy is. Arguably the best measure of wage growth by industry is the wage price index. Using this measure the annual growth in wages in the five years to 2 December 2018 was more subdued in male dominated industries such as mining and construction. The wage growth in these industries was 1.6 per cent and 1.9 per cent respectively. The all industry average wage growth was actually 2.2 per cent. What is most telling is that the average annual growth in mining and construction in the five years from December 2007 to December 2013 was four per cent and 3.5 per cent respectively.
That is government data. It is absolutely clear that wages in those industries are stagnating. So don't listen to the fear campaign coming out of the Liberal Party. I have seen the information they are putting out there. Dodgy figures are being trotted out by the dodgy Liberal Party propaganda union about the costs associated with the building industry. On top of stagnating wages under this government's watch, dodgy building firms are deliberately avoiding paying workers.
A government member interjecting—
Find your own chair if you want to make a comment, thank you! Phoenixing is a practice where dodgy companies deliberately burn companies in an attempt to avoid their obligations to employees, government, home owners and honest businesses. Phoenix activity not only hurts hardworking Australians, their families and their communities but costs the economy billions of dollars. One estimate is that it costs the Australian economy in excess of $5 billion per year, which is more than $200 for every person in Australia. But the Morrison government is doing nothing to stop these dodgy companies from ripping off hardworking Australians. Instead, it attacks the very organisations that stand up for workers and their families.
Just last week, a Perth court fined a Perth builder, Gerry Hanssen, for breaking industrial laws by refusing to allow union officials entry to a worksite—the same worksite where a German backpacker had died weeks before after falling 13 floors through an open shaft. The union officials had a lawful right at all times to enter the site and there clearly was a need, but the judge said Mr Hanssen was driven by his blind hatred of unions. I don't know Mr Hanssen, but it was not the first time that Mr Hanssen or his company had been brought before the law. He had previously been fined for exploiting migrant workers. Mr Hanssen is a major coalition donor and proudly admits that he is a member of the Western Australia Liberal Party. So why isn't the Prime Minister outraged about Mr Hanssen's law-breaking? Why hasn't the PM or the Western Australian industrial relations minister sought his expulsion from the Liberal Party? It's clear that the Liberals are equally driven by a blind hatred of unions. The Liberals' only agenda is to destroy unions without regard to how this will impact on the fabric of Australian society.
Unions make sure that worksites are safe for workers. Union officials need to enter worksites to carry out inspections. The very lives of workers depend on union officials being granted access to worksites. Surely no-one would argue that shutting down an unsafe worksite until it can be made safe is not a life-saving function of the union movement. The actual working days lost through worksites being shut down due to industrial action have been decreasing for the past two decades. That's in total. Even though there are millions of more Australians, the total number of working days has actually gone down as well as obviously the ratio. There are already laws in place that limit industrial action taken by employees. There are limits on the types of allowable bargaining demands through protected industrial action. Many enterprise bargaining agreements prevent industrial action during the term of that agreement. In fact, some might say that the industrial relations power has completely shifted. Even though it was a Labor government that actually brought in that change to centralised bargaining and the like, that is something that does not give a lot of rights to the employees in the work place.
So is the Prime Minister tightening up the laws and against this despicable behaviour by dodgy builders that endanger the lives of Australians? No; we are not seeking action on that at all. The only industrial laws that the Morrison government have brought into parliament are all about attacking unions. As I said from the start, this is not legislation bringing in the Commonwealth Integrity Commission, as promised in December last year by Prime Minister Morrison. Instead, this is a piece of legislation that is all about attacking unions, and the government should be ashamed of it.