Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to speak in opposition to this draconian, reactionary legislation, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. In 2016, Marianka Heumann, a young German backpacker working on a Perth building site, fell into an open lift shaft. Marianka plunged 14 storeys to her death. We cannot imagine the horror of the final seconds that she would have experienced. She was only 27, a promising life cut short, on a visit to Australia from which she never returned to her native land.
The CFMEU received photos from the site that appeared to show safety contraventions. Two CFMEU organisers arrived at the site with right of entry permits. Why were they there? They were there to carry out what is a prime duty of trade union officials: to ensure the safety of workers—to ensure that workers who leave home in the morning get to go home to their family, friends and local community at night. The fact is that Marianka was tragically let down. She was never going home. Those CFMEU organisers wanted to know why, and they wanted to make sure that it never happened to any of Marianka's colleagues.
This construction company was owned and run by Gerry Hanssen. Gerry Hanssen, of course, is a Liberal Party member. He's a Liberal Party donor. How does he react to this response to a pointless waste of such a young life cut short? How does he respond to this move by a union to come in and to inspect the site to ensure that it doesn't happen again? You would think that he would make every effort to ensure that it would never happen again to another person in his care, whom he has a duty to as the owner of this company. You would think he would welcome every possible inspection to ensure that safety was there on the site and that those who worked for him to gain profits for him got to go home at the end of the day. Oh, no. He responded by illegally excluding the union from the building site.
Speaking with The Australian newspaper he described himself as 'A Liberal at heart'. A young woman in his employee was dead, and his response was to bar the CFMEU organisers from entering and doing exactly what the law allowed them to do. A young woman was dead, and Hanssen wanted to block the union from investigating. A young woman was dead, and Hanssen said he was unrepentant about blocking the union from doing the very job that the law—the magical thing that those opposite say they want to uphold—sanctions the union to do. A young woman was dead, and Hanssen said the enemy was the union.
Federal Circuit Court judge Sandy Street said Hanssen was 'blinded by his hatred' of the CFMEU. Where might he have got that hatred from? It's the sort of rhetoric that we hear from the dispatch box every question time in this House. It's the sort of rhetoric that we hear from those who are supposed to represent the national interest rather than sectional interests when it comes to workplace relations. It's the sort of rhetoric that we hear, for partisan political purposes, perpetrated by those opposite, day after day. Here we have a legitimate role of a union, a legitimate role of a company too.
I've made it very clear for my entire time in this place that Labor, at our best, understands that there are common interests between workers and employers, that you can't actually have trade union members unless you have a private sector that's employing those trade union members, that we have common interests in boosting productivity, that we have common interests in ensuring that workers can contribute in their work places, that businesses which are most successful are ones that have the harmony and the enthusiasm of their workforce. Profits aren't created in abstract—certainly not profits in companies that employ people; there are some speculative operations so enamoured by those opposite who think everyone engages in that sort of activity. But the truth is that businesses that employ people rely upon those people. Smart employers who I've got to know over the years—the Lindsay Foxes of this world—understand exactly that; they want not just workers who work for them for a wage, but workers who are proud to work for them. They understand that safety is critical.
Yet, what do we have with this legislation before us today? What do we have with the rhetoric from those opposite with this legislation? They ignore the Gerry Hanssens. We know that he was fined some $62,000 for excluding the union from the work site. What we know, though, is that this young woman, Marianka Heumann, won't be coming back.
Those opposite, when they talk about industrial relations, are so unbalanced in their approach. This is a government that's just won its third term in office. In this third term in office, they come to this place with wages stagnating. In their third term in office, we have examples of wage theft of $8 million-plus by a very prominent member of the community, Mr Calombaris. We have penalty rates cut yet again, on 1 July, just before this parliament resumed sitting.
The circumstances surrounding Marianka's death are not unique. There are fatalities and serious injuries on too many worksites right across the country, and some of those, not all, are absolutely preventable. What we have from those opposite, though, is just an anti-union obsession. They're not concerned about the impact of the current industrial relations system on the economy, or the fact that enterprise bargaining isn't working in a fair way. When I met with the Business Council of Australia, it said that. It's not just the ACTU; it's both sides. The Reserve Bank of Australia says that. Every economist says that. What's the government's solution to the problem with the economy and stagnant wages? Get rid of the trade union movement! What do you think that will result in—wages going up or wages going down?
We know that the most successful economies in the world are the ones that understand that trade unions have a critical role to play in our democracy. It is a vital role: the right to organise labour. Those opposite say there is some contradiction in our position and in the position I've taken with regard to Mr John Setka. One of the first things I did as the leader of the Labor Party was advocate for his suspension from the party. That remains in place. I've said this man does not have values that are consistent with the values of the Australian Labor Party. The recent court conviction confirms that. There is no contradiction in my saying that he should no longer be a member of a party that I lead and the fact that I respect the right of trade unions to determine democratically who leads them. That's not the job of parliamentarians; that's the job of the unions—democratically. That is a fundamental principle of democratic engagement.
If you look at totalitarian regimes, one of the things that defines them is attacks on the rights of organised labour to have their own independent organisation. So, yes, the Labor Party has proud connections with the trade union movement going back to 1891, but we are separate entities. I have always regarded that as an important principle for the Labor Party. But it is also an important principle for the trade union movement: their right to act independently of us. We are not one organisation. We are a political party that has to represent more than just trade union members. We have to represent independent contractors. We have to represent the interests of people who aren't members of unions. We have to represent small business. We have to represent people who are looking for work but are unable to get it, hence why we are arguing the case for Newstart recipients. We're a broad party. What we won't do is stand back and support bad legislation that is aimed, yet again, at providing an argument rather than a solution.
This government are obsessed with trying to provide wedges to the Australian Labor Party. They're not governing in the national interest. They don't have an agenda for their third term. The average trade unionist is not a CFMMEU member. The average trade unionist in 2019 is female, in their mid-40s and likely to be a nurse or a childcare worker. That's the face of the modern trade union movement. What this legislation does, though, is provide for penalties against unions that aren't there for employer organisations. No-one here in the government is arguing that Mr Calombaris should be barred from ever having a business, or, indeed, continuing in his business. You've got to be consistent—and we on this side will be consistent. From time to time, people might have noticed that Mr Setka hasn't responded warmly to my actions! From time to time, I've got the guts to make decisions that are in the interests of the nation. Those opposite don't. They represent sectional interests. They are not prepared to call out bad behaviour by employers. They don't ever do it. They stand up and defend their sectional interests. They are defending, in this case, their donors and their advocates in the Liberal Party. That is why this legislation should be rejected. They should go back to the drawing board.
We are prepared to discuss legislation that genuinely advances the needs of employees and employers. I don't want unions behaving badly, but I don't want employers behaving badly either. This legislation attempts to provide political power and take away the rights of workers. Most people affected by this legislation are volunteers. They are people who give up their own time to sit in committee of management meetings or executive meetings of trade unions. They do it because they care about their fellow workers. Usually it costs them money to do it—let alone time. If those opposite don't understand the concept of solidarity, maybe they should understand the concept of mateship—because the talk about it occasionally. This legislation should be rejected. It's a substitute for real action from the government—a government like a chook with no head, frantically doing a few laps of the yard, running around with lots of noise but no real action. (Time expired)
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.
I don't know where to begin, to be honest. This Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 is just so appalling in every way. This government's come back after the election just to bash unions. We've had stagnant wages in this country for a long time. I've just spoken in the Federation Chamber about the state of the economy under the government. Wages are flat. And what the government wants to do is demonise among the few organisations in this nation that are actively out there, every day, advocating for higher wages for workers. We know they are successful. We know it's a simple fact that unionised workplaces enjoy higher wages for their workers.
The HILDA report of 2013—not the one that was announced yesterday, but the one before that—said that in workplaces that are unionised men earn 12 per cent more and women earn 18 per cent more. Wages are 18 per cent higher if you're a woman and 12 per cent higher if you're a man in unionised workplaces. If it wants to lift wages in this country, what the government should be doing is asking: how can we help the unions do a better job? If it really believes there is a cultural issue with unions, or particular unions, it should address those particular issues and stop bashing unions.
The Leader of the Opposition gave a very good speech earlier, talking about Mr Gerry Hanssen, a Liberal Party member and building contractor in WA. Mr Hanssen was referred to by a judge as having a 'blind hatred' of unions. 'Bling hatred' is a strong term, especially from a judge. That's what we see opposite every day in this place. We see blind hatred towards unions. There's no acknowledgement from those on the opposite side of this chamber that unions have a legitimate and lawful right to exist in this country and to advocate on behalf of their members. It's a real concern, because we've seen in the past—certainly in the 1930s in Europe—what happens when you demonise and delegitimise unions and construct laws to restrict the way they can lawfully operate. We have seen what can happen as a result of that.
The blind hatred that Mr Hanssen has is, I think, replicated on the other side of this chamber. It's a shocking cycle to be in. Those opposite need to be acting in the national interest, not the corporate interest. Those opposite are not there to look after just one segment of the community. They are meant be to representing the entire community, and that includes union members. Instead what we saw in the last parliament was this ferocious defence of the big banks. A day did not pass without those opposite defending the big banks, despite the most awful perfidy on the part of the banks. There were stories in the media about the absolutely disgraceful behaviour—and criminal behaviour—by banks. Yet those opposite voted 26 times to try to avoid a royal commission into the banks. We've since had a royal commission, and 76 recommendations came out of the royal commission, but nobody on that side or, indeed, this side is suggesting that banks should be made illegal because of the criminal activities they undertook. Instead, what we seek to do is clean them up.
The Leader of the Opposition mentioned also that the average unionist is a middle-aged woman. Yet those opposite would have everybody in this place believe that every union member wears a hard hat and is a big beefy bloke in a blue singlet, full of vulgarities, on a building site. That's the picture they paint, and it's just not true. It's women in the finance sector, the health sector and the aged-care sector, women generally in low-paid jobs, who need every bit of protection they can get in the workplace and every extra dollar in a pay packet. They are the people unions represent, and they are the people who will be hurt by this legislation, if this legislation goes through, because this legislation is all about corralling unions and making it harder for unions to do their job.
What we know is that unions are finding it harder and harder to do simple things like check wage records—to go to an employer and check the time sheets and the records. The red tape they have to go through is extraordinary, and it gives the dodgy employers the time and the ability to basically hide the paperwork. By the time a union gets permission to go on site, there's nothing to see. The old days are long gone when a union official could turn up unannounced and say, 'I'm here to check your records and the wage records of our members,' and carry out those checks on behalf of members. Those days are long gone. As a result, we're seeing wage theft at extraordinary levels. It's become a business model: wage theft and theft of super. Industry Super Australia is a very reputable body; I don't think anybody over there would disagree with that. Industry Super Australia says one-third of employers are underpaying superannuation entitlements to their workers. That means 2.4 million Australians are having $3.5 billion a year in superannuation entitlements stolen from them, and one of the major reasons is that unions can't get into the workplaces to check the books and make sure their union members are being looked after.
One of the principal problems with this legislation, of course, is that it brings the dead hand of the parliament onto the democratic ideals of an organisation. Can you imagine this parliament saying to a bowling club or anybody else, 'No, you can't elect that person to be your president or your secretary. You can't have that person working for you.' It's up to the members of those organisations to determine who they want to represent them. By all means, go out there and publicly state, 'This person's got this sort of record,' or 'This person has this sort of reputation.' That should all be transparent and accountable. Let the members decide for themselves who they wish to represent them. That's certainly how this place operates. If this place had the same standards that the government seeks to impose on unions, half this chamber would be empty because half the people elected wouldn't be allowed to stand. What this legislation seeks to do is an absolute outrage.
I've watched with interest the comings and goings of this new parliament. There are a fair few new faces. Two faces I'm yet to see in these halls are those of Reith and Howard, yet this bill has their fingerprints all over it. Those of us old enough will remember Mr Reith and his attack on the trade union movement, particularly the waterside workers movement, back in the 1990s.
Did we see the style of attack that was used on unions used on the banks? No, we didn't. Where was this level of watchdog action after the royal commission into the banks? Where are the restrictions on the banks similar to those that they seek to place on trade unions?
Why go after the workers' representatives? The principal reason this government goes after the representatives of workers is that they are too good at their job. The reason those opposite go after unions is that unions are too good at their job representing their members. They represent them on wages, on safety and on all sorts of working conditions, so the big employers and the dodgy employers go to those opposite and say: 'Hey, unions are costing me money. I've got to do all these safety regulations now. I've got to pay higher wages. I've got to do all these things. How about you bringing the unions into line?' Those opposite, like good little lapdogs, doff the cap to their employer donors and say: 'Yep, sure thing. We'll bring in laws that will stop unions doing their job and make it harder for people to get good wages and to enjoy safer conditions at work.'
The original version of this bill was dangerous and extreme. That's why the 45th Parliament rejected it. We, on this side, will again reject it in the 46th, and we'll see what happens in the Senate, in the other place, where the government's trying it on again. They've got a friendlier Senate, and we'll see what happens up there. Every time they can, they bash the unions. That's all they want to do: bash unions—not lead and not govern but just bash unions.
We've seen countless examples of employers ripping off their workers in recent years, from 7-Eleven to Domino's Pizza to Chatime to Michael Hill jewellers and others. There was the recent celebrated case of Mr Calombaris. In Tasmania, the biggest theft case was that of the employees working at ACL Bearing Company many years ago. The owners walked away with all the entitlements of the workers, leaving a debt for the government to pick up. What happened to them? Nothing. Are they banned from being employers in the future? No, the government goes after the unions.
Wage theft is a real issue, and those opposite are paying lip service to it. It's become a business model. Wage theft is the real problem in this country, along with super theft and safety at work for workers. These are the real industrial relations issues that the government should be confronting, not bashing unions, which are among the few organisations in this country whose entire reason for existence is to help workers get a better deal. There is no mention of that and no mention of going after wage theft in this.
How many times have the so-called tough cop on the beat, the ABCC, hauled employers before the courts for safety breaches? None as far as I'm aware. They don't go after the dodgy employers and the unsafe workplaces, but by gee they'll go after a union member who wears a sticker on their helmet on a construction site. That's a serious breach of the law according to the ABCC—wearing a sticker on your helmet.
The reverberations that will follow this bill if it is successful will affect every working person, every member of a trade union and every employee of a trade union, and that's what those opposite are trying to achieve. As I say, it's not just the big, beefy blokes in the blue singlets who are affected by this; it's teachers, aged-care workers and childcare workers—people who are on low incomes and in insecure work, who need every single bit of protection they can get. Those opposite are not seeking to protect those workers; they're seeking to put barriers in the way of better protections. We have the architect of this disgraceful bill, the apprentice to Mr Reith, walking into the chamber now.
What we know of this bill is that it seeks to hobble the ability of unions to operate within their own governance structures, structures that have been in place for years and have stood the test of time. Talk about a sledgehammer to crack a walnut! There is not a systemic issue with unions in this country. There may be one or two examples that they could deal with; in fact, the existing law could deal with those. But instead they see this as an opportunity to bash unions, to get unions out of the way and to stop unions from being able to represent low-income workers in insecure work. The effect of this legislation will be to keep wages stagnant, to hurt safety conditions at work and to prevent union officials from doing their job and looking after their workers.
This bill is far more extensive and extreme in the regulation of unions than what exists for business or indeed, as I said, for politicians. It will make it possible for government ministers and disgruntled employers to shut down unions and to deny working people their right to choose their own representatives. It's an absolutely outrageous assault on the right to freedom of association. Those opposite like to talk about freedom of association, the freedom to choose and liberty, and this is just an absolute assault on those principles.
This is an outrageous bill. I fully support the member for Watson's amendments, because this bill is a disgrace. It's antiworker, it's anti-Australian and it should fail the House.
As we come into this place, into this parliament, there's a giant portrait of the first member for Kennedy. I always give Charlie McDonald a salute as I go past. We're still out there, Charlie! We won arbitration in Australia in the 1900s. Prior to the 1900s, with the balance of power, the labour movement had won arbitration in New South Wales and later in Queensland. When we won arbitration, the two employers in Queensland were the sugar mills—they owned all the plantations; it was plantation farming which, sadly, we're going back to again now—and mining. Those were the only two industries we had. We had a little bit of shearing but we were never a big sheep state.
What happened when we got arbitration was that the employers said: 'Oh, we'll bring the coolies in to work the mines and we'll bring the Kanaks in to work the cane fields. So where did that get you, Mr Worker? Ha, ha, ha!' Charlie McDonald, in his first speech to the House, was ranting and raving against people coming in from overseas, undermining our pay and conditions and taking our jobs. The only force in Australia that has been voicing those opinions and who has fought the fight against this submergence of we Australians by the mass import of people from overseas—until Sally McManus came along with the ACTU, pointing out that one in every two new jobs created since 2013 has gone to a temporary visa holder—has been the CFMMEU.
Now, the rightists over here, who secretly squeal and yell about all these people coming to Australia, haven't got the guts to say it publicly but the CFMMEU has. And on the lily pad Left of course the CFMMEU is copping hell because they want all the refugees of the world to come in. The rightists over here don't, but they're not game to open their mouths.
I'll start my contribution to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 debate on that note. A lot of people say, 'He's in the CFMMEU?' It's shock and horror. How come I'm in the CFMMEU? I jumped university to make a squillion dollars, which I was proceeding to make by floating my own mining company, when the mining crash came. I ended up labouring in the lead smelter at Mount Isa Mines, the lowest of the low in the sense that if you're good enough they take you out of the smelters and put you underground. But I wasn't good enough. That's where I was.
We had a shaker—and it bears telling the story. I had to jump up on one side of this shaker and hit it with a sledgehammer and then jump off really quickly, because when it started working it was supposed to go backwards and forwards. It would freeze, but when it started working it came at you at 60 miles an hour. So I had to jump off and then jump back on again and hit it. So I'd jump on and hit it and jump off, and then the bloke on the other side would jump on and hit it and jump off. We complained about this and got absolutely nowhere at the safety meetings, so I went to the delegate. This particular incident was after a big strike. All of the delegates were acting foremen, so the union shopfloor delegates weren't going to open their mouths. So I went to the union downtown in Mount Isa. The delegate came the next day, and I saw him up there in the glassed-in control panel, pointing me out to my bosses as a troublemaker. So I got out of that union and joined the CFMEU because I could see that that union was not on my side; that union was on the side of the bosses.
That situation was really dangerous—extremely dangerous. If you stayed on the flue for more than a minute, your boots caught fire. Of course, once the flue started moving, it came at you at 60 miles an hour! You were wielding a big sledgehammer, with big heavy steelcapped work boots, and you had to jump on and off. I was also given a huge hopper full of lead dust. It got stuck, so I had to jump in with an airspear to get the hopper moving again. I kept hitting it with the airspear, and it started to move a little bit. My workmate was killing himself laughing, and I asked, 'What are you laughing for?' He said 'Because when that starts moving, you're going to be buried alive!' He shouldn't have been laughing, but I suppose he was laughing because he had to tell me. I scrambled up and grabbed it. I was supposed to put a belt on with a steel cable so that when it started to move I wouldn't be buried alive in deadly poisonous lead dust.
Those two examples are what is happening at the coalface. It's all right for you little people over here. You've come out of a law school, a law building, somewhere, and those people over there have come out of a university and got a little cushy job with some member of parliament. That's how all the careerists get in here, right? For those of us who live in the real world and have to go into a hopper and nearly get killed and then have to go onto a shaker, and then have the union we have representing us sell us out—
Well, that's how you arrive at supporting a union that stands up for you and tries to deliver safety to you. I went out in the real world. I had an awful lot of money, of course, as a lot of people here would be aware. But let me move on and talk about the coalminers' union. We were forced to take the construction workers and half the painters and dockers. There were murders everywhere. These people murdered people. I squealed, just as an ordinary union member. I said, 'We don't want those people in our union,' and they said, 'Hawkie said we've got to take them; the Prime Minister Bob Hawke said we've got to take them.' And I said, 'What was his logic there?' He said, 'You mob are commies, so you can look after them properly.' So, the logic in us taking construction workers with a terrible record and history was because we were commies and we could handle them!
I've got to pay the union some credit. The situation in construction may not be good now—and I'm not going to say that it's good or bad; I might say that it may not be good—but it's a thousand times better than when we, the CFMEU, took it over. We made a hell of a lot of progress, and I'm sure that we will make a lot more progress. But you've got to understand that this is always, of its very nature, a grey area. When Theodore, for the third time, went down a mine, when they refused to go down the pit, they were told to go down or they'd be sacked. So they went down, and yet again a number of people got killed, because it was extremely dangerous. They got up, formed a union and formed a political organisation, a political wing, and they took over Queensland and governed Queensland for 50 years straight. They won every single seat—outside of the south-east corner—in every single election for 50 years.
Kevin Rudd's family were strong Labor people, because they were dairymen and they cut up all the big runs and passed all the land out to dairymen. All the cane farmers—because they took all the land off the plantation owners and gave it out. They built the sugar mills, they built the meat works and they built the dairy factories, and we love them. That's a recipe that gets you elected for 50 straight years in Queensland.
When I was going to union meetings, the comrades took over the unions and squeezed through or people just walked. Again, Kevin Rudd's family and mine were good examples. We walked out of the Labor Party and we ended up in the Country Party. That was really what happened in Queensland. Then all of the seats outside of Brisbane were being run predominantly by the then Country Party. The great historian said nothing changes in Queensland—same people, same policies, just a different label. That was fundamentally true. Kevin Rudd's family were the dominant family in the Country Party north of Brisbane, in the Sunshine Coast area—and my family—and I suppose inland North Queensland, similarly. There would be 1,000 of us out there.
Arbitration—the reason that agriculture has collapsed in Australia—our cattle numbers are down 23 per cent, our dairy herd is down around nearly 20 per cent, our sugar cane is down 16-17 per cent and wool is down 70 per cent. Let me concentrate on wool for a moment. It was the biggest export item this country had. Mr Keating, the great free marketeer, the father of free marketism in this place—the Liberals like to think they are, but they're not; it was definitely Mr Keating—picked the wool industry as the first industry to be deregulated. When Anthony introduced the minimum price scheme for wool, the price went up 300 per cent over the subsequent three years. When Keating removed the minimum price scheme, the price went down 300 per cent in the subsequent three years. Anyone that says that there was any other mechanism operating except arbitration has absolutely no understanding or knowledge of Australian history or economic history.
We sold effectively as a single-desk seller under arbitration, and we had a very powerful selling unit. We were aggressive, nationalistic sellers of our product. When that power was taken away from us, we were torn to pieces. So 70 per cent of the Australian sheep herd has gone. There you are. There's the four great industries: dairy, beef, wool and sugar—four of the five—all destroyed by this place and the abolition of arbitration.
One thing that my life—74, 75 years on this planet—has taught me is that you must have a collective operation; you must have access to arbitration or the sharks will eat you, and the sharks are not Australians anymore. We've only got little fishes. Our big corporations in Australia are really little fishes. That just means the big foreign corporations are going to eat us all if we don't have arbitration. I tell you, the farmers need arbitration infinitely more than the workers. For the entire history of Queensland, they were in the same boat.
Opposition members interjecting—
You blokes got out of the boat. It was the ALP that got out of the boat, not us. It was the ALP that got out of the boat. You're the blokes that introduced free markets and abolished arbitration. Don't think it was just the farmers that got arbitration. Keating, the father of collective bargaining in this country, undermined a lot of your bargaining power, and well you know it.
Now I might mention the Anthony family. They are a very devout Christian family, the Anthonys. The grandad came from Sicily. Then there was Jack McEwen, who was brought up by his grandparents. His parents died when he was only eight. His grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. The founder of the AWU, which was the labour movement in Australia, was a Methodist minister. So there was a very strong strain of Christianity in demands for arbitration so that we could get a fair go. In Australia this is overlaid by the fact that we have only two people to sell food products to and the people of Australia have only two people to buy food from—Woolworths and Coles. When I went to university, that was called a duopoly or an oligopoly. And I was taught that that was very, very bad indeed—that someone was going to get screwed royally.
So I call upon the people on both sides of this House to understand that farmers need arbitration, a collective will to be able to bargain—not powerfully but to have some power. The employee is the aspirational class these days. There is the bludger class and there is the aspirational class. The aspirational class cut your cane, round up your cattle and work in your meatworks. These people, the aspirational classes in Australia, need both sides of this parliament to understand that the world is a very fierce place and, unless you pull together, you are going to be eaten alive. Some people don't understand the value of pulling together. I hope people understand the necessity of arbitration. (Time expired)
I thank all members for their contribution to the second reading stage of this bill. I say to the member for Kennedy that if our now long deceased shared and wonderful relative could see that I was following you in a second reading debate in the House of Representatives, I think she'd be very pleased. It is an unusual set of circumstances, to be sure.
Honourable members interjecting—
I've already been outed as a relative of the member for Kennedy, so there should be nothing! I do remember hearing that same speech in about 1993—around our kitchen table.
With respect to the second reading speech, what I thought I might usefully contribute is simply to look over and correct the record on a few of the technical arguments that have been put with respect to this bill. There have been a number of emotional arguments made with respect to it. But on the actual drafting of the bill, there have been a number of things said that I think are worthy of significant correction. The first of those goes to the issue of 'standing' under the bill. A number of members opposite have argued that the bill should be opposed because of the way in which standing to take proceedings to either disqualify a person from holding office in a registered organisation or deregister an organisation is defined—in particular, the use of the definition that appears at section 222, which is 'a person with a sufficient interest'. The three persons who can make these applications are the commissioner, the minister or 'a person with a sufficient interest'. There has been a lot of argument from members opposite that the definition of 'a person with a sufficient interest' is somehow novel, unusual or unfair.
The first point to make is that the rules pertaining to standing in the bill obviously ensure consistency across the various schedules of the bill as far as possible. With respect to the concept of the minister having standing, it is already the case, under the existing provisions of the Registered Organisations Act, that the minister has standing to make an application for cancellation of the registration of a registered organisation—and that surely accords with common sense. That has been a longstanding provision in this legislation dating back to 1977. So the use of that as a reason to oppose the bill is unfounded.
The 'person with a sufficient interest' formulation is also a longstanding feature of industrial relations legislation, and that includes in relation to standing to apply for the cancellation of an organisation's registration. In fact, that formulation dates all the way back to the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, which the member for Kennedy was talking about. So, again, using the idea that the standing definition of 'a person with a sufficient interest' as a reason to oppose this bill, when that has been in the industrial relations law of Australia going back to 1904, is unfounded.
I might note that Labor's own Fair Work Act continued with that formulation of words in 2009. 'Person with a sufficient interest' was a standard term used in that legislation. I might also note that 'sufficient interest' has been interpreted simply as an interest beyond that of an ordinary person. It would include those people whose rights, interests or legitimate expectations would be affected by the relevant decision. Those opposite now take great issue with this sufficient interest formulation as a basis for standing. It was in their own Fair Work Act and the formulation of that in 2009.
I might also note that when the then workplace relations minister, the member for Maribyrnong, sought to demonstrate in 2012 that the HSU East branch be put into administration, he did so arguing that he was a person with a sufficient interest in that action. The argument, and I think the words used by various members opposite, that that definition of 'person with a sufficient interest' would be weaponised is ridiculous. In any event, looking back into recent history, it was the member for Maribyrnong himself who used that basis of standing to try and argue in 2012 that the Health Services Union East branch should be put into administration. It has just been a longstanding rule in the bill.
The standing rules in the bill are based on provisions that already exist in the Fair Work Act and the registered organisations act. As a threshold issue, any applicant who is seeking an order for disqualification or deregistration is going to bear the legal onus of establishing that a relevant ground has been made out before a court can consider making an order. Merely an unsubstantiated allegation is not going to suffice. This idea that anyone can simply turn up to court, argue that they have a sufficient interest and not have a substantial case to argue before the court is absolutely absurd. First of all, that person would have to be a person whose rights, interests or legitimate expectations would be affected by the decision, like the former industrial relations minister, the member for Maribyrnong, in 2012. Then they'd have to be able to demonstrate a threshold issue. They'd have to have very good grounds and bear a legal onus of establishing a relevant ground to be made out before a court would consider making an order.
It's also the case that there are very strong existing protections against frivolous and vexatious claims in the Federal Court and the Fair Work Commission. They can both dismiss vexatious claims and order costs against any person who tries to bring them. The Federal Court has a wide range of powers with respect to vexatious litigant orders under the Federal Court Act. It is only the independent Fair Work Commission and the Federal Court who can exercise any of the powers under this bill. For disqualification or cancellation, the court is ultimately going to have to be satisfied that it would not be unjust in all the circumstances. This argument by absurdum that someone can wander in and utilise that longstanding provision in a way which weaponises the law is as untrue now as it has been for decades—indeed, since the very earliest usage of that definition back in 1904.
The second issue is with respect to disqualification, particularly automatic disqualification. There is a new ground in this bill for automatic disqualification under the trigger of a serious offence. A serious offence is if someone is convicted of an offence that carries a penalty of more than five years in prison. A ground for automatic disqualification would be if someone were convicted of a serious offence—that is, one that carries a penalty of more than five years in prison. Several members opposite, including the shadow minister himself, raised the example that someone who had twice driven without a licence could therefore be automatically disqualified from holding an official position in a registered organisation. That is simply untrue. The bill only extends automatic disqualification, as I've noted, to offences punishable by imprisonment for a period of five years or more. That drivers licence example is just absurd; it's not the case. There is no state or territory law in Australia that meets that threshold—that is, five years imprisonment—for twice driving without a licence. It's just untrue—said in here multiple times, but it's untrue. I might note that, even if someone had been automatically disqualified, they could still seek leave of the court under this bill to continue to hold office or stand for election.
One of the major problems we have at the moment, and one of the issues that this bill seeks to rectify, is that if someone is disqualified at the moment, which is a very high threshold, there is no offence that actually prevents them from still operating for all intents and purposes as an official in the union for which position they were previously disqualified. That is a ridiculous situation to let persist, and it is right at the heart of all of the problems we're experiencing trying to have a lawful culture in certain industries, particularly the construction industry.
Continuing from this point, a number of members opposite have argued that minor conduct can give rise to a ground for disqualification. Examples that have been given are of minor conduct such as mistakenly giving wrong notice under a workplace law—