Senate debates

Tuesday, 29 November 2022


Fair Work Legislation Amendment (Secure Jobs, Better Pay) Bill 2022; Second Reading

8:09 pm

Photo of Matt O'SullivanMatt O'Sullivan (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

You were on it, Senator McGrath. That's right. You were the chair, and we were absolutely hauled over the coals for it. This lot gave us 22 days. The first two public hearings occurred even before the date that submissions were due. We had this ludicrous situation where we were—I'm the deputy chair of this committee, so I followed it all the way through—sitting there having people in front of us that actually hadn't had time to put in a submission. I don't blame them, because it was this government that gave them that ridiculous time frame. The fifth hearing was held—would you believe it?—on the day that the committee had to table its report. For anyone that follows this—and I don't expect people at home would necessarily get this—you can't use the evidence from a hearing until it's on Hansard. We don't get the transcript of the Hansard for a couple of days after. Thankfully, Hansard were very efficient. Thank you, Hansard. You got it to us the next day, which was fantastic. Thank you very much. We got it the next day, but that was after the report had to be in. So I just want to foreshadow at the end of my remarks here I'll actually be seeking leave to table some additional comments.

Compare this, as I said, to the previous government. We gave four months for the Fair Work Amendment (Supporting Australia's Jobs and Economic Recovery) Bill and over three months for the ensuring integrity bill. What we've seen here is not proper process. They're avoiding scrutiny on this bill. They're trying to rush it through before Christmas, just so they can return to their paymasters in the unions and show that they did a good job. This is what it's about. It's about giving the unions a very large Christmas present. It was such a rushed process that, when the bill was presented in the House of Representatives, the minister who presented the bill also moved 155 amendments. Unbelievable. Has this happened? I haven't been around long enough to know, but I'm sure it has been a very long time since we've seen something as ridiculous as that. That's how rushed this has been. It's disorganised. It's haphazard. 'Anything to avoid scrutiny' sums up the process we've seen with this bill.

During the first couple of EEC public hearings it quickly became apparent that, since the introduction of enterprise bargaining 30 years ago, we've seen fewer and fewer strikes. This is a good thing. It's good for productivity. However, I'm not convinced that those on the other side or those within the union movement think there have been enough strikes in at that time, and that's the core of what this bill aims to do. It's re-energising the strike capability of unions. It has been interesting to read some of the recent comments of Paul Keating and Bill Kelty, two of the architects of enterprise bargaining in the late 1990s, on why the framework they devised has been failing to increase productivity and overall wages growth. They lay the blame squarely at the feet of the Gillard government. In fact they believe it was that government which made enterprise bargaining much harder.

Even more fascinating is that, because of the freefall in union membership over the past three decades—which is currently around 14 per cent, according to the ABS—Mr Kelty thinks we may see an uplift in union militancy if there are not enough ordinary workers to counterbalance militant leadership, and I quote Mr Kelty right now:

I would be seen as some right-wing crank in some of these unions because the Trots run them.

This brings me to my second point on what the bill is actually about. This is about growing union membership by stealth. Unsurprisingly this has set off alarm bells in many sectors of the community, because they do not want to see a repeat of the 1970s, when unions were out of control and ran rampant through Australian workplaces. Protected strike action was a strong theme of the 1970s, reaching a peak in 1974 during the incompetent Whitlam government.

Without doubt one of the sectors that will be worse off under the bill is the very and all important small business sector. According to the Small Business Development Corporation, from my home state of Western Australia, 97 per cent of businesses are classified as small. So how will this bill be good for small business—or, more to the point, is it about giving unions a foothold in a sector they've never had access to before? During the second hearing I asked one stakeholder, the Franchise Council of Australia—mostly small businesses in that sector—whether this bill will lead to an increase in wages for employees or an increase in union involvement in small business. Ms Aldred said:

We would suggest that union involvement in small businesses may ultimately undermine the sustainability and viability of many small businesses, which undermines the viability of jobs, so we have grave concerns on that basis.

Small businesses don't have HR departments and legal departments to shield them from union meddling and fend away applications being filed against them by organisations who do not respect the law and have in fact stated they believe it's okay to break the law.

Small business operators and mums and dads who work long hours and often seven days a week just want to get on with running their business, not examining the reams of complex legislation and keeping unions at bay. I'm very concerned that small businesses could be compelled into bargaining processes involuntarily and that they could be swamped by larger employers in the same sector under the majority vote support proposition. We could have a crazy situation in a shopping centre where Coles and Woolworths are dragged to bargain together. These guys are competitors. We know that. They'll be dragged in with smaller businesses who don't have the same scale or ability to deal with it. There are serious impacts on small businesses through this bill.

On the point of serious impact, this bill abolishes the ABCC and the ROC. The Albanese government's animosity towards this important regulator is well known; we hear it a lot. As recently as 27 July 2022, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said of the ABCC:

This has not been a good regulator. This is a regulator that has simply increased conflict and that has got in the way where agreements exist and where agreements are possible.

The reasons for their dislike are hardly surprising. The ABCC was actually very good at its job. Time and again the ABCC prosecuted terrible recidivist behaviour of the Labor Party's union allies, which included verbal abuse and threats against inspectors and outright breaking of the law. Its success rate was commendably high. The union transgressions are too many to name here.

We know what the minister thinks of the ABCC, but this is what the Master Builders said of the same regulator that the Minister has labelled as simply increasing conflict:

The ABCC has made a significant difference in ensuring building industry participants comply with the rule of law and it has driven much needed positive industry cultural change … The work of the ABCC is not yet done and its removal will undo the significant improvements it has delivered for our building and construction industry.

Tasking the Fair Work Ombudsman is not a like-for-like comparison. This bill removes the Building Code. The ombudsman does not have the same powers that the ABCC has.

The government will say this bill doesn't apply to the CFMMEU because the bill provisions exclude general building and construction work. Thankfully, it will now include civil as well as commercial construction, but the bill does include some contractors, such as electricians, plumbers and metalworkers in multi-employer bargaining. We sure know the CFMMEU is going to find a way around any exclusions. Why would they do that? Because they're very well versed in breaking the law. Is it any wonder the CFMMEU thinks Christmas has come early—even before December.

Never mind the inflation crisis that's unfolding under the watch of this government. This is the priority of this government: bringing on this bill. The RBA forecasts that we're going to see inflation hit eight per cent by Christmas. There's no talk of tackling this crisis that we've got right now. Instead, they're introducing bills like this.

At the request of Senator Cash, I move:

Omit all words after "That", substitute "the bill be withdrawn and the Senate calls on the Albanese Government to:

(a) give the Australian Parliament three months to review these significant changes rather than trying to force through the legislation this year;

(b) amend the legislation to exclude changes to multi-employer bargaining which will lead to more strikes and fewer jobs without increasing productivity or wages;

(c) admit to the Australian people that these extreme industrial relations changes will result in significant red tape and higher costs for small, family and medium businesses;

(d) work with the Opposition, crossbench and other stakeholders to make improvements to the better off overall test and changes to enterprise bargaining as outlined in the former Coalition Government's legislation, introduced in 2020;

(e) abandon the move to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission;

(f) redraft this legislation to ensure matters are dealt with separately rather than as an 'all or nothing' approach; and

(g) in the event the Bill is passed, cause an independent review to be conducted of the operation of the amendments made by the Act as soon as practical 12 months after the Bill receives Royal Assent and cause a copy of the report to be tabled in each House of Parliament".

I seek leave to table additional comments.

Leave granted.


No comments