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Speech: Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 2 Mar 2015

This speech was given in three parts. The full text of the speech appears here on one page.

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:11): This is ugly legislation. Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Australians on Monday that he was building good government. But good for whom? This bill answers that question. It is good for the Prime Minister's mates, for the constituency of the Liberal and National parties, for the big end of town. This bill is a reminder that nothing has changed under the Abbott government, nor would it change under a Turnbull government. Attacking the union movement to drive down wages and conditions, as set out in this bill, is integral to how the Liberals and Nationals operate. This is demand No. 1 from their constituency.

Senator Abetz, an expert in misleading statements, makes out that this bill puts corporations and unions on an even footing. This is so wide of the truth. Unions are required, under the Fair Work Act and other legislation, to be democratic organisations, which is as it should be. But corporations are not required to be democratic. Unions are required to publish their accounts and financial returns online every year, but proprietary limited companies are not. This bill is one of many shots that the Minister for Employment, Eric Abetz, has lined up against workers and their unions.

 

Senator Eric Abetz has likened the conservatives' quest on the industrial relations front to the Thirty Years War that plagued central Europe in the 1600s. While much of this analogy appears to be an in-joke with his colleague, Gerard Henderson, this comparison does provide an insight into the take-no-prisoners approach of Senator Abetz. Here he is, the general of all he surveys. As 'General Abetz' looks out over the industrial relations battleground, while his gaze could not avoid the smouldering remains of WorkChoices, he would be pleased that the big guns, the three Cs—the Royal Commission, the Productivity Commission and the Fair Work Commission—have taken up their positions beside him. He has locked in terms of reference for these commissions to direct their work so it favours the business constituency of the Liberal and National parties. But 'the General' has more battalions—or probably a better comparison would be shock troops—lining up to fire away. These are the true directors of this operation, who Senator Abetz serves loyally—big business, their peak bodies and various hangers-on.

 

Senator Abetz obviously presents his role quite differently. In his address to the Sydney Institute he explained that he sees himself as 'the Minister for Jobs' and is 'equally mindful of the legitimate aspirations of employers and employees'. The minister might get away with this deception in the Gerard Henderson bunker, but his mission to strip unions of their ability to work for and protect workers' rights is exposed when it comes to responding to serious workplace incidents.

 

Less than two months after Senator Abetz gave his 'After the Thirty Years War' speech to the Sydney Institute, a fire and crane collapse at the massive Barangaroo development brought Sydney to a standstill, causing traffic chaos and requiring the evacuation of thousands of people in the central CBD. This was the third major safety scare on a Sydney building site in 18 months. In November 2012 a crane caught fire at Broadway, shutting down the building site for a fortnight. In early 2014 three people were injured and a building site was evacuated when scaffolding collapsed near Sydney Airport. Lend Lease, the company responsible for the Barangaroo project, has donated more than $420,000 to the Liberal and National parties. All incidents caused massive traffic congestion, clearly impacting on productivity way beyond the construction industry. What did we hear from Minister Abetz? Not a word, even though many businesses suffered because of the poor standards at these construction sites.

 

The minister does not take job safety seriously. One of the big battles in the current IR war that the Liberal-National government is waging is to remove workers' rights to have a union health and safety representative on major construction sites and for unions to fight to protect job safety standards. Why is this? It is directly linked to businesses' push to boost their profits. The intent of the Liberals and Nationals when they take power is to weaken the power of unions, undermine collective bargaining, make it harder to strike—all with the intent of limiting wage rises, changing the law so that it is easier for employers to reduce wages and ignore longstanding job rights, including workplace safety. This is how Senator Abetz delivers on extensive workplace deregulation to help boost company profits.

 

Minister Abetz will fire back that his job is to clean up workplace crime, corruption and intimidation—he loves the word 'intimidation', linking it with alleged union activities at every opportunity. Yes, criminal behaviour should not occur in any workplaces. But we do not need a royal commission, a Productivity Commission and a Fair Work Commission to sort this out.

The front page of the Australian Financial Reviewon 12-13 October 2013 stated that industry groups in Australia are 'stepping up pressure on the government to accelerate workplace deregulation to lower the cost of doing business.' 'Lower the cost of doing business' means more profits. That is what it is about—boosting profits, lowering the cost of doing business, and that is where the link comes in with safety. This report was based on a call from the tourism and restaurant sectors for weekend and public holiday penalty rates to be cut. While Fair Work Australia rejected the claim, this industry sector had achieved their purpose— firing another round to hot up their 30-year war.

 

While employers are targeting conditions and penalty rates through the Fair Work Commission, the Abbott government is giving backup, using the Productivity Commission, with the same target in its sights. The Abbott government's terms of reference for the Productivity Commission inquiry into the Fair Work Act again deliver for the big end of town. The incredibly broad scope of this inquiry puts up in lights the real intent here. While the inquiry includes in its terms of reference language of apparent concern for working people—'fair and equitable pay and conditions for employees, including the maintenance of a relevant safety net', the overall thrust suggests this is laying the basis for Work Choices mark 2.

 

The third battalion the conservative government has lined up is the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Set up by the Abbott government, this body has been given terms of reference that will deliver months of public attacks on unions and those who stand up for workers' rights. It has been awarded a 12-month extension, which aligns it neatly with the coming federal election. At a time when money is supposed to be short, $53 million has already been allocated. Surely this is an abuse of public money to deliver a pre-determined outcome.

 

General Abetz's military style operation, with attacks on three fronts with these three commissions, would be welcome news for the coalition's constituency—the big end of town.

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:55): I am continuing my speech on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. Yesterday, when I began my speech, I detailed General Abetz's military style operation with attacks on three fronts and how this would be welcome news for the coalition's constituency, the big end of town. The loss of Work Choices and the ABCC would still cause the coalition pain. The coalition know it would still cause the big end of town pain and they know their coalition government has a lot of ground to make up.

 

Let us remember a bit about the ABCC. It was one of the most biased of the so-called independent agencies any Australian government has ever established. We knew it was bad under the Howard government, but the Abbott government wants it to be even more extreme. During the reign of the previous ABCC, deaths of construction workers increased. Now the current government wants the new ABCC to have wider powers and for there to be reduced union representation and fewer safety measures on the job. Under Abbott's ABCC, a union could be fined more for stopping over a workplace death than an employer would be if they—

 

Senator Ronaldson: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. That was the second time in a minute. First there was a reference to Minister Abetz, and now to the Prime Minister. The senator should know what the protocols of this place are. I ask that she observe them.

 

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Dastyari ): Senator Rhiannon, I remind you of the protocols of this place, to address people by their proper titles and to speak through the chair.

 

Senator RHIANNON: Under the current government's ABCC, a union could be fined more for stopping over a workplace death than an employer would be if they were ever convicted. It is interesting that it was at that point that the interjection came. So a unionist could be jailed but not the employer—and the Prime Minister tells us that he leads a good government and Senator Abetz makes out that he cares for people.

 

Interrogations under the ABCC would be conducted in secret. If you are interrogated, you cannot tell anyone about it, not even your partner or family, your fellow workers or your union representatives. If you will not attend the interrogation, you can be jailed for six months. There is nothing equal, in any aspect of the industrial relations work of this government, between unions and corporations.

 

Senator Abetz, in prosecuting his war, adopts his take-no-prisoners approach, even to the natural allies of the conservatives: many businesses. It was in January last year that the senator let fly in his Sydney Institute address, complaining about what he called 'weak-kneed employers' caving in to unreasonable union demands. Talk about arrogant and revealing!—arrogant as here is a senior Abbott government minister telling companies he knows their business better than they do with regard to what should be paid to their workers; and revealing as the minister highlights the government's intent to drive down wages and conditions that workers have a right to. What Minister Abetz and so many of his conservative colleagues cannot handle is that many employers recognise that their workforce has the right to join a union and that this is part of running a productive business.

 

Mates in Construction, now a nationwide organisation backed by the CFMEU and some key construction companies, is a suicide prevention program aimed at the Australian construction industry. A report on suicide in the Queensland commercial construction industry found that suicide rates in the industry were higher than the Australian average for men; alarmingly, youth suicide rates within the industry could be nearly 2.4 times higher compared with other young Australian men. In Western Australia, Multiplex, Mirvac and John Holland projects are at MATES accredited sites. That is a positive program—again, the sort of thing that Senator Abetz just ignores all the time—where unions and construction companies are working together.

 

When I was in state parliament, MPs were invited to work with a small business, and I found it enjoyable and informative. Something similar at a federal level would be useful, where MPs and senators could join a business workforce for a day. I think Senator Abetz would learn a lot from a day at a construction site like Barangaroo.

 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:17): This is the third instalment of my speech on this matter. This bill is a real reminder as to why this bill clearly should not be passed. This bill is designed to be the latest instalment in the considerable attacks that this government is running on the union movement. We have seen 'Colonel Abetz' roll out his ABCC—

 

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Gallacher ): Senator Rhiannon, you are reminded to address honourable senators by their correct title.

 

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for that assistance. This piece of legislation is the latest round in a whole wave of attacks we are seeing mounted on the union movement, from the Australian Building and Construction Commission to the problems with the royal commission. This legislation itself is very damaging.

 

One of my big concerns is that the attacks are aimed at unions, like the CFMEU, who are out there working with the workers on the job around the very important issue of occupational health and safety. This government so often attempts to limit the ability of unions and the workers on the job to defend adequate safety standards at work. Everybody has a right to expect that when their loved one goes to work that person will come home of an evening.

When the Howard government was in power, there was such a serious attack on unions that the number of deaths occurring on the job increased at that time. This is again a reminder as to why we need to not allow this legislation to pass.

 

There is the interesting case with regard to Boral. Boral Chief Executive, Mike Kane, has called on other construction companies to join him in attacking the CFMEU, which he asserts is driving down productivity. We all know those arguments; we hear them time and time again.

 

It is worth noting that Boral, between 1998 and 2008, donated more than $540,000 to the Liberals, the Nationals and the Labor Party; $300,000 of this went to the Liberals and Nationals alone. You see the money going to those political parties and in this place you see the Liberals and Nationals line up to amplify their attacks on the union movement.

 

While Boral have had an easy run in the media, increasing their accusations of blackmail and boycotts, what should have been hit in the headlines was the many safety breaches that this company has been involved in. Boral Construction Materials was fined $200,000 in 2004 following the death of a roadworker in Goulburn in New South Wales. In South Australia, Boral Masonry has been fined for serious workplace accidents.

 

This is where we need to be clear. The allegations from Minister Abetz about blackmail and boycotts are because the workers and their unions are calling on employers and the government to put workplace safety first, and because they are working for improved on-the-job conditions. The Greens strongly support workers' rights to take industrial action, and the right to strike is something set out in our policy.

 

I think what is also relevant in this debate is that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has taken out a case against a unionist and the CFMEU. The ACCC Chairman, Rod Sims, has publicly stated that they could face fines of up to $10 million for secondary boycotts taken against Boral, which was supplying concrete to Grocon, the company the CFMEU was in dispute with over major industry breaches—again, relevant detail to this debate. A subsidiary of Grocon was fined $250,000 in November last year for what the court called 'failing to ensure a safe workplace'. Three people died in a workplace accident.

 

Meanwhile, the CFMEU has been fined millions of dollars for trying to make the workplace safe. This union has already paid $1.25 million over its dispute with Grocon. So there we have it: three people die in workplace accidents and there is a $250,000 fine. The CFMEU was fined $1.25 million for fighting for a safe workplace. The dispute with Grocon and Boral is over the union's demand that union nominated health and safety representatives be employed on all construction sites.

 

Surely the minister, in his speech in reply, should detail what is wrong with that. Construction workers are facing an increasing risk of injury. We know when there is less regulation more workers die on these jobs. He should be setting out why he wants to limit those rights. To have a safe workplace, to reduce the chances of workers being killed and maimed at work, we do need the regulations, we need the standards and they need to be put in place very quickly.

 

Who is investigating the intimidation of workers ordered to work under unsafe conditions? That is a question that Senator Abetz needs to set out. Why are these incidents not investigated by his office or by the royal commission? Why do the terms of reference for the royal commission not allow it to investigate the corruption, the intimidation and the failure to ensure a safe workplace by companies?

 

Our generation cannot allow hard-fought-for workplace rights to be wound back. While the Abbott government prioritises the sectional interests of those whose concerns do not go beyond increasing their profits, the Abetz war will rage. He might win some battles but he is not going to make workplaces safer. 

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