Senate debates

Monday, 17 August 2015


Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]; Second Reading

5:03 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

We have seen this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2], many times before, and what that tells us is that the Abbott government are in trouble, because we know that when they are in trouble they turn on trade unions. They turn on working Australians. They had a shocker of a week last week. Firstly, they had a six-hour caucus meeting on marriage equality and came out with exactly the same position as they went in with—except that now they have got a few more disgruntled backbenchers and, indeed, frontbenchers.

Then at the end of the week we found that the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party had invited the commissioner from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption to a Liberal Party fundraiser. No matter which way they dress it up, that is what it is. It is a Liberal Party fundraiser and the commissioner of the royal commission into unions—which is nothing more and nothing less than a witch-hunt—has been invited to give the keynote address. Again, it demonstrates how out of touch the Abbott government are.

They seem to think that if they keep saying that it is not a Liberal fundraiser, that someone, somewhere in the Australian community might believe them. But everybody has seen the invitation; everyone is able to read for themselves that it is clearly a Liberal Party fundraiser. The other question that came out today in question time is that, given the Attorney-General obviously received an invitation, did he pay his $80? Perhaps we will get to the truth of that.

The other clear issue with the Abbott government is that there are actions and there are words. Despite their words, it is their actions that really count. We heard the Prime Minister say that WorkChoices was dead, buried and cremated, yet bill after bill in this place resurrects WorkChoices in one way or another. As Senator Ludwig just pointed out, there have been a whole raft of issues—an attack on penalty rates, superannuation, cleaners' pay and the clothing trade industry to try to reform that industry. On and on it goes. There have been attacks on low-income super. The public sector has been bargaining in good faith, yet the Abbott government refuse to move unless public servants choose to take a significant reduction in their conditions, then they might get a few more cents in their pocket. But nobody is fooled by this—it is only the Abbott government that remain fooled by their own rhetoric. They need to have a good, hard look at themselves.

We know that the leadership rumblings have started again. We were promised after the last leadership vote that good government would start from then on, but we are yet to see it. The debacle on marriage equality, the debacle on their hand-picked royal commissioner—on and on the scandal, dysfunction and chaos continue. This registered organisations bill is just one of many attacks on workers—on those who put their hand up for voluntary positions within trade unions and, indeed, within employer organisations. They are under attack again. I think this is, at least, the third time this bill has come before the Senate, with barely a change to the intent of the bill. Let's look at the background.

I heard today those opposite going on and on about the Health Services Union and it was a disgrace—there is no getting away from that—but Labor in government acted. We changed the way that registered organisations had to operate and those changes are still working their way through the system. Of course, the Abbott government would pretend that nothing changed, when in fact significant changes were made to that bill, which were opposed by the ACTU and by employer organisations. Nevertheless, Labor went ahead, when in government, and put those changes in place. As I said, many of those changes are still working their way through the system.

We had a couple of public inquiries into this bill. It did not matter whether it was the Senate legislation committee where the government has the numbers or the references committee where the government does not have the numbers, the conclusions were the same. Nobody believed that this legislation was necessary—no-one. In all of the submissions, whether they were from employer organisations or from employee organisations, no-one thought this was necessary. Indeed, I heard today in this place a government senator saying that most unions go over and above what is required under the registered organisation proposals before us today. That is true; we heard that in evidence.

The MUA goes out with its financial statements and has meetings of its members right across the country. It explains to members exactly what is and what is not in the financial statements of that union, but it still does not stop them from saying that somehow some other group needs to be legislated for. Even when we have the premier registered organisation employer organisations across the country saying that this legislation is completely unnecessary, the Abbott government nevertheless continues on and why? Because it gives them the opportunity to beat up on unions. I am not really a betting person but I bet you any money you like that, as we lead towards the Canning by-election, guess what will happen? There will be union bashing, there will be questions, dorothy dixers to ministers about trade unions. There will be speeches in here about the evils of trade unions because the government thinks that beating up on trade unions and on workers somehow increases their popularity.

You only have to look at the opinion polls to see that the Abbott government is deeply unpopular. In fact, on the sorts of issues that people would normally look to their government for support, they have lost the trust of Australian voters. Despite Canning being a relatively safe seat for the Liberals, the Canning bi-election will be a good test. We will see a swing against the government. I would love to unseat the government in that seat, but watch this space. We will see a full-on attack on trade unions over the next few weeks.

Today in this place, just as he did when he first spoke on registered organisations, Senator Back at least did not go as far as he did last time because in the interim I corrected him. He gave us a story of a member of the Health Services Union in Western Australia, a carer who was a member of her trade union. Senator Back thought that trade union was the Health Services Union and he went on about how the money was spent. But of course in a subsequent speech I pointed out to Senator Back that the union in Western Australia is United Voice; it is not the Health Services Union. Today, Senator Back told the same story again about the Eastern European member, implying that she had wasted her union contributions on this dud union, but this time he did not situate the example in Perth and he did not mention the Health Services Union. So he has learnt something.

We are seeing again this kind of rhetoric. It does not matter if it is not true, it does not matter if it is the wrong union; obviously all unions are the same. They all look the same. If you are a carer in Victoria and a member of the Health Services Union, without checking his facts he suddenly thinks it is the same union in Western Australia, which of course it is not. For a senator who prides himself on Western Australia, we often hear the Western Australian stories. He seems to know so much. He certainly could not get it right on which union carers who work in nursing homes in Western Australia belong to. It is United Voice. That story, discredited the first time, then I corrected the record, is still used a second time to somehow paint unions and low-income workers in a bad light. That story is completely wrong—and I listened very carefully today.

Between now and the last time this bill was presented, we now have the disgraceful Commissioner Heydon affair. If anybody needs checking, it is those opposite in whom they appoint, how they get there and how royal commissions are being used as nothing but witch hunts. To allow the commissioner to continue in that role is an absolute disgrace and nobody could take seriously either the interim report of the royal commission or any future reports when it is presided over by a royal commissioner who thought it was okay to attend a Liberal fundraiser.

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill is exactly the same as a bill presented a few months ago. The explanatory memorandum to the current bill does not materially differ from the explanatory memorandum of the previous bill and it does not contain any additional information provided by the minister in relation to the matters raised by the Labor senators of the committee—again, the arrogance of those opposite. Even though in our report to the Labor senators raised particular concerns, did the minister or the government bother to take the couple of months between the presentation of the bill and today to try to address those concerns? No—of course they did not. In their usual arrogance they rolled up here and again tried to say to the Senate, 'Yep—same bill. We just want you to vote a different way this time.'

What do they think? What has changed? I have not heard employer organisations out there saying, 'Oh, we've got to have this bill. We've got to have this legislation in place. We've got to be held even more accountable. We have to be compared to a corporation when we're not.' There are fundamental differences there. Again, this demonstrates that the Abbott government certainly do not understand trade unions. But even more so they do not understand registered organisations.

In the main, most of the office-bearers in trade unions and in registered organisations are volunteers. In the case of my union, United Voice, very few of the elected positions are paid positions. Most of them—the branch councillors, the treasurers, the presidents, the deputy presidents and so on—are all volunteers who give up their time, away from their families, and who sometimes take time off work to attend union meetings to be part of the running of the trade union. And that applies to all trade unions. Very few of the positions within trade unions are paid. And it is the same with registered organisations, as we heard in evidence. In fact we heard that it was perhaps much more difficult for them when they are running a regional group.

You would think that the National Party would try to look after them, but we know that the National Party have well and truly deserted the bush with all of the things that they have agreed to in this place. It certainly shows that if they ever were a party of the bush that they have well and truly left that behind. You might have the secretary, the president and the committee of an employer organisation all as voluntary positions. And yet, without blinking, the Abbott government just wants to apply extremely onerous reporting obligations to organisations. Further to that, it wants to fine them if they get it wrong.

I would suspect, as the employer organisations told us in evidence, that in future—if this registered organisations legislation gets through—they will have trouble filling those positions. Employer organisations, along with unions, fill a really important role in our community. They can moderate the behaviour of some employers who go beyond the pale, because usually they can be impartial and have the facts and figures at their disposal. But, no—the Abbott government just want to tear that to shreds.

Again, we have seen this blatant disregard by the Abbott government for those who volunteer in our community. We have seen that whether it is in the environment, with our environment groups which have just been run over by the Green Army, or with this legislation, where we just want to bowl over all volunteers in our community and put such onerous obligations onto them that they will simply not put their hands up. They will be too scared to.

Perhaps that is part of the Abbott government's agenda—to scare these volunteers so that they do not put their hands up for trade union work or to be volunteers for employer organisations. That is where this legislation is heading. It is treating employer organisations and unions as corporations which, of course, they are not. They are not making profits and they are not returning a dividend to shareholders. That is not what either of those groups do, and yet that is how the Abbott government want to treat these groups, which do a really valuable job in the community.

The Scrutiny of Bills Committee raised issues to do with this bill too. In its fifth report of 2015 it drew attention to a number of issues that it believed were insufficiently dealt with in the explanatory memorandum. In particular, the Scrutiny Bills Committee noted its disappointment with the minister's failure to address these issues for a third time. We have to ask ourselves: are the government genuine when they say they want to listen and to respond? If a bill does not get up the first time you might think, 'Well, okay, we'll have another go.' But when it does not get up the second time and it is presented a third time, and the government have made no changes at all and do not even respond to issues raised either by the Labor senators' report or the Scrutiny of Bills Committee report then, seriously, you have to question the motives of the Abbott government in pursuing legislation like this. You would really have to question what their motives are.

And their motives are that they want to continue to bash unions. The government want to be able to stand up and say, 'Despite Labor moving legislation which already covers off on employer organisations and unions which requires officers to be trained and for there to be a lot more reporting and transparency, this goes way too far.' Again, they say, 'We think you're all guilty and that is why we need this legislation—to hold you all to account.' We have legislation in place at the moment which is perfectly adequate.

Did the Abbott government do any kind of review of that legislation? No, of course they did not. Again, their arrogance got in the way and they thought, 'No, let's just put this on our list of how to demonise trade unions.' And it is not working for them. It is not working for them. They only have to look at the polls, the disunity and the chaos in their own party to see that these types of bills are not working for them. Again, Labor will not support this bill because the government simply have not listened. They have not listened to one single word we have said in opposition to this bill.

We put the first lot of legislation in place. You might think that it stands to reason that perhaps they might be prepared to have a look and to say, 'Oh yes, we missed that. Yes, that is a good reform.' But, of course, no, they have not done that. They have not taken on one single suggestion made by Labor and they have certainly ignored the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. Why is this government continuing along this way? Because their actions speak louder than their words. We know that Work Choices is far from dead and buried. This is all Work Choices under another name. It is Work Choices by stealth—by putting this bill up, by putting up the ABCC, by putting up the low-income super, by knocking off cleaners' pay, by refusing to bargain in good faith in the public sector—on and on it goes. They are not giving one skerrick of compassion to the Hutchison Ports workers who perhaps are still facing the sack come 31 August.

This government has clearly shown it does not care one bit about workers; it certainly does not support trade unions; and it does not even support employer organisations. Labor will continue to speak out against bills like this, and we will continue to oppose them in this place. Thank you.


Jacob Mulquin
Posted on 18 Aug 2015 9:06 pm (Report this comment)

- Current bill has been seen multiple times previously
- Outlines suspicions of the government's bias
- Questions whether the government's rhetoric and actions are in sync
- Notes that previous Labor government changed the way that registered organisations had to operate; Changes still working through the system
- Changes were opposed by the ACTU and employer organisations
- Senate legislation committe and the references committee concluded that this legislation was not necessary
- Overheard current government senator mention that most unions go over and above what is required under current registered organisation proposals
- Speculates on government rhetoric before the Canning by-election
- Questions Senator Back's motives when discussing unions
- Questions the government's reputation
- Believes that the government does not understand unions or registered organisations
- Most office-bearers in trade unions and in registered organisations are volunteers; Few are paid positions
- Questions the National Party's commitment to rural Australia
- Employer organisations as said that they would have trouble filling various volunteer positions if there is administrative overhead
- Speculates that the government's agenda is to incite fear in volunteers
- Scrutiny of Bills committee raised issues regarding this bill
- Questions whether the government reviewed the legislation

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