Senate debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Bills

Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019; Second Reading

10:12 am

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to oppose the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. This repressive piece of legislation is just the latest reminder that the fight to protect and advance the rights of working people is never over. It's a powerful reminder that, when Scott Morrison says he supports quiet Australians, what he really means is that he wants Australians facing injustice, stagnating wages and threats to their working conditions to stay silent.

Right now in our workplaces we are seeing the emergence of the fourth industrial revolution. We're seeing the rise of global surveillance capitalism and the gig economy. This new era of artificial intelligence and machine-learning brings enormous economic opportunities, but it threatens 150 years of work done by the union movement, hardworking Australians and civil society across the world to secure decent wages, safe workplaces and working conditions that allow individuals and families to thrive and make better lives.

Unions will be the front line that protects and defends these precious rights gained over the past century. We need unions more than ever, because, while technology driving a revolution in work is not new, the exploitation inherent in the business model is not new either. If this new era of work is not regulated, if working people are not properly represented and if unions are not restored to their role as a key pillar of our industrial relations system, we will see the widespread return to the insecure, underpaid piecework of the 19th century. Dressed up with corporate propaganda like 'flexibility' and 'convenience', the exploitation of working people that I see in the transport industry today, in ride-share, trucking and food delivery, will continue to migrate to the rest of the workforce, as we're now seeing in aged care and the NDIS services. The list goes on.

In my time as a union activist and as an official, I have seen wave after wave of anti-union laws. Since the Workplace Relations Act was brought in by John Howard's government in 1996, there have been more and more encroachments on the important job that unions have had in Australia, since Federation, to protect working people and represent their interests. Unions, like governments and companies, have a job to do, but conservative governments have never really recognised this role and have done everything they can to prevent them from doing it. The coalition like to spin their commitment to freedoms and Australian values—like the member for Goldstein taking himself off to Hong Kong to make a cameo appearance at the pro-democracy protests. This government likes to posture about democracy, rights and freedoms—and I say 'posture' because, quite clearly, this government has a different agenda in this country.

When it comes to defending the actual rights and freedoms of Australians, the coalition suddenly find themselves on the other side of the barricades and are all too happy to back the cause of dismantling those very same rights at home. You have the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, and his Orwellian threats to photograph peaceful protesters and deny them government benefits. You have a Liberal government in Tasmania that wants to outlaw protests altogether. You have the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who dresses up his authoritarianism with a baseball cap and a 'suburban dad' routine but who is quite prepared to have his government be known around the world as the worst advanced democracy in terms of crackdowns on journalists and whistleblowers. Then you have the Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter, who has pulled this flawed antiworker bill from 2017 out of the bottom drawer. It contains provisions that, if passed, will have no peer in the democratic world. Australia already has a highly regulated union sector, and now attacks on the freedom of workers to associate and elect their leaders mean that, if they want to advance their interests, they will be even more restricted. The government with no plan for the country has very quickly filled its policy vacuum with the crude politics of stifling dissent of all kinds—attacking peaceful protesters, attacking journalists and whistleblowers and, with a highly repressive piece of legislation, attacking working people and their representatives.

The government and some of the crossbench have devised a plan to expand the current penalty points system under the Fair Work Act. These fines and demerits would result in a double whammy of disqualification of union officials and deregistration of unions, leaving workers with no workplace advocates to represent their interests and their elected leaders undemocratically expelled from their positions. I welcome the efforts of the senators in this place to try to take the sharpest edges of this piece of legislation out, but the demerits scheme being offered up is a more bureaucratic way of achieving the same chilling result—tying unions in legal red tape and denying working people the right to representation that they elect democratically. If this demerits scheme is so good, why is it not applied to bank executives in the aftermath of the banking royal commission? Where was the disqualification and deregistration scheme to punish the fraudsters and schemers in the big four banks, which preyed on mums and dads, small businesses, the elderly and our farmers? How many demerit points would have been incurred for charging a fee without service? Where is a demerit applicable for charging fees to customers who are known to have died? The Fair Work Act already carries a model of penalty units to inform fines for breaches. Currently a union can incur 300 penalty units and a $63,000 fine for late paperwork, and 500 points and a $105,000 fine for not training a volunteer union official. That's $210 per penalty unit.

Under the government's demerits scheme, an organisation needs to reach a threshold of only 900 penalty units over 10 years before an application can be brought forward to disqualify an official. What irony for this government that, in the same week they want to pass a law where three breaches of paperwork offences could deregister a union, Scott Morrison is content that 23 million serious breaches of money-laundering and antiterror laws by Westpac are a matter for the board. Australia's oldest bank is apparently our most epic corporate law-breaker. It's the creepy uncle of the big four banks, facilitating the operation of paedophile rings. Where is the government's 'ensuring bank integrity' bill? It's nowhere to be found. Where is the proposed law that would disqualify the senior officers of these companies from ever holding office again?

If the government's demerit scheme were applied to the banks, how many points do you think they would have to apply for the compensation they owe to customers? Let's work this out. Let's use the same system that already applies for demerit points for working people and some proposals that have been floated with regard to the new system. After the banking royal commission, the Commonwealth Bank had to pay out a whopping $2.17 billion in compensation to customers who were ripped off. That works out, using the government's scheme for unions, at 10 million penalty points incurred, which would have seen the Commonwealth Bank breach the threshold on an application for deregistration brought forward 11,000 times. The NAB had to set aside some $1.18 billion in compensation. That's 5.6 million penalty points. That's a whopping 6,222 times the threshold for deregistration. What about Westpac and ANZ, where both paid out $1.1 billion each in compensation? This was before the latest paedophile ring and their facilitators were exposed, and the money laundering alleged against Westpac. On the present figures, that's roughly 5.2 million penalty points for both Westpac and ANZ. If you were debating the 'ensuring integrity of the banks' bill and the government's amendments applied to them, over 5,500 applications could be brought to disqualify the executives and deregister the banks. That is not an equal system. That's a system geared up against trade unions and the voice of the working people of this country.

But of course it's not just the banks. Where's the disqualification of executives of Bunnings, Dominos, 7-Eleven, Foodora or Woolworths after they were found to have taken millions from their workers? What about the bosses from companies that built unsafe apartment buildings or denied victims of asbestos their compensation? How many demerit points for the $6 billion of entitlements unpaid in the construction industry? Could the minister tell us how many demerit points there are for an employer who ignores safety standards and has a worker die on the site? How many points will they lose? How many demerit points is a worker's life worth? Well, by the standard of this government and those voting for a demerit-points system, nothing. If a single union ever did less than one per cent of what these banks and companies have done, the government would send in the AFP and have them deregistered immediately for standing up for working people's rights, not for ripping them off. But, when it comes to banks or companies that break the law, self-regulation is fine as far as the government is concerned.

This isn't a bill to improve the regulation of trade unions; it's a bill to stop trade unions from carrying out their work by burying them in costs and punishing them for minor breaches. Nowhere else is this more demonstrably true than in the parts of the bill which detail new grounds for the cancellation of the registration of an organisation. One such expanded ground is the proposed section 28C(1), which would see a union deregistered for actions that see it act contrary to all members' or an individual member's interests. Unions are democratic organisations made up with a diversity of views and opinions. The robust and democratic internal debate over strategies and priorities is part and parcel of how unions must operate. That's called democracy.

This legislation only adds greater weight to the conflict of interests for unions, between acting for their members individually and acting collectively—the fundamentals of democracy. Under this bill, in the allocation of resources between sections of the membership or choosing which matters to take to courts and which to settle—these everyday decisions that unions must juggle—a union may inadvertently run foul of costly applications brought on by cashed-up opponents with other agendas. This bill also outlines the grounds on which to disqualify a union, if there are multiple designated findings against a substantial number of members of the union, without a clear definition of the term 'substantial'.

Union members number in the hundreds of thousands into the millions. Their families rely on them, union or not, to lift the standards across this community. When one of their colleagues is unfairly sacked, stripped of their economic livelihood or, worse, dies—because the boss refused to listen to issues about safety on site—I can tell you that people get upset. If they want to walk off the job to stand in solidarity with their colleagues and get their bosses to listen to reason, we can understand why that happens. But under the government's legislation such action made in the heat of the moment could see a union deregistered, even if it tried to stop it.

Charles McKay, an Armaguard worker for 30 years, told a Senate inquiry about attacks against cash-in-transit workers, armoured-car drivers, in the middle 1990s and early 2000s. It led to unprotected action being taken by the members of the Transport Workers Union in August 1995. Charles said:

We had a lot of concern, certainly, from the workers and, more importantly, from their families. You've got to remember that if families see somebody killed they don't want their husband to go out there the next day and be the one who is delivering money and who comes home in a bag.

He went on to say:

… in my 25 years as a senior delegate with Armaguard we never ever took strike action for one dollar in wages; it was only over safety and security for our members.

The unprotected action of Charles and his colleagues worked, because an inquiry into the cash-in-transit industry, the armoured-car industry, was launched by Justice Russell Peterson of the Industrial Relations Commission as a result of that heavy weight, burden, put on the government and the commission. Now we see that the industry has never been safer.

I want to dispel this myth that unprotected action is somehow immoral or reckless. I as a union official supported that industrial action, regardless of the fact that it was unprotected. When you see people shot dead in the street, protecting those banks' money, you can't wait a month, a year, and ask the crime gangs to wait for an inspection from the Work Health Authority or the Fair Work Commission—you have to take action. I can assure the Senate that no member puts their wages at risk lightly, but, under this section of the bill, unions who engage in industrial action over issues of health and safety—not just for their members but for the general public—could find themselves before a deregistration order.

In my previous life as a union official, in the Transport Workers Union, there were many occasions when the members needed to take action to draw attention to ongoing health and safety issues that were being ignored by the government or employers. In 2016 a 29-year-old bus driver, Manmeet Alisher, was killed because a home-made bomb was thrown at him at a bus stop. The explosion killed him and saw 14 passengers trapped on the bus before they were able to escape. Workers in Brisbane took industrial action—illegal. Workers in New South Wales took action when similar and other attacks were made against bus drivers—illegal. I'm proud to say I supported that illegal action. I'm also proud to say that I would support it again as a politician, because I'm proud to say I'm a unionist and then a politician. I'm proud to turn around and stand up for hardworking Australians, unlike this mob and the fools who are, unfortunately, voting for a system that will turn around and allow them to get away with the sort of injustice that has incurred for so long. It will weaponise the employers in their capacity to turn around and victimise working people and their representatives.

This irresponsible bill also provides unnecessary and unfair new grounds for the administration of dysfunctional organisations. When serious corruption and maladministration was uncovered back in 2012, an internal committee of the HSU office worked swiftly to address these problems, which saw an administrator appointed and new elections held. The members made the decision. Funnily enough, they didn't vote for a corrupt leadership; they voted for a new leadership, which has grown that union from 27,000 people to 41,000 health workers in New South Wales, and Gerard Hayes and his team deserve to be congratulated. That's the difference—not because this bill's going to make something work; it's about making sure it actually doesn't work. To quote the HSU submission:

Had the Bill been enacted at the time, it is possible that the HSU would have had its registration cancelled all together, leaving its members without representation. The HSU story demonstrates the danger of the extreme expansion of the cancellation regime.

It is unnecessary, unwarranted, costly, antidemocratic and a system to make sure it doesn't work in the best interests of working people.

Finally, this bill also requires a new public interest test for the amalgamation of registered organisations, infringing on the democratic right to political association of members. If it's the will of members to join with a like-minded union, to pool resources and better approach the industrial issues of their shared membership, who is the government to stand in their way? Heaven forbid, the Liberal and National parties amalgamated in Queensland—talk about an injustice for many hardworking people that previously supported the National Party in regional Queensland. They've seen what the consequences are. You've only got to see that with the dairy bill propositions, and they're voting against it—all at the beck and call of the government. If it's the will of members to join like-minded unions, they should be allowed to.

This is a bill based on ideology, directed at the hardworking Australians who work together to lift the wages for all and at the resources it takes to do it. I oppose this bill and urge everyone in this place to do the same.

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