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Speech : Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 : Second Reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 23 Nov 2016

Monday, 21 November 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (10:22): The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 should be defeated. It has already been defeated twice in the Senate, and the right thing to do would be to vote it down again.

In trying to understand this bill, we need to examine it in the context of what the Liberal-National party stand for and to understand why they are so obsessed with attacking the union movement, why they really go after collective action that workers engage in to improve wages and conditions, and why they effectively, therefore, are taking a stand against those working for a fair society. The registered organisations bill is not just some simple piece of legislation to get some conditions in place; it is legislation about tying up how unions fundamentally work.

Again, why are Liberals and Nationals so obsessed with laws that weaken unions? The coalition's key purpose is to deliver for its constituents, and its constituents are corporate Australia. And what is the key demand of corporate Australia? Why corporations are on the planet is to increase their profits. It is what CEOs are legally required to do: to do the best thing by their shareholders. The best thing by their shareholders is increasing profits. How do you increase profits? You limit the role of unions, and that is what is going on here with the registered organisations bill we are dealing with today and with the ABCC bill, which this government is also obsessed with pushing through.

So that is why they are doing it. That is why the Liberals and Nationals, under Prime Minister Turnbull, are pushing so hard in this last two weeks of parliament to get through this legislation. But they cannot go out there and say: 'We have to pass this legislation because our main backers, corporate Australia, want it through. We want to make it harder for workers to get out there to defend and improve their conditions, gain higher wages and improve safety on the job—all issues that will cut, to some extent, into the profits. Corporate Australia want to have a free hand, with more deregulation, and want to go in there hard.' Mr Turnbull cannot go out there and say, 'We get big donations from corporate Australia, and their key demand is to weaken unions.' Senator Cash, as the responsible minister, cannot go out there and tell the truth about why they are introducing this legislation. So what do they come up with? The big lie, the deception about why this legislation is being introduced.

Apparently, if you listen to them and believe them, it is about getting registered organisations and corporations on a level playing field so that they will be bound up with the same laws, requirements and standards. Again, when you look at it, that is just not the case. The starting point here needs to be that unions and corporations are not the same. Again, let's remind ourselves: corporations have a legal obligation to get out there and make profits for their shareholders. What is the job of unions? Unions are organisations where workers—the members—come together collectively to work for improved wages and conditions.

Let's also remember what this has meant for Australia. It is why we have the type of fair society that we have—a society where we need to work to improve fairness and reduce inequality. What workers have achieved, organised collectively and coming together in unions, is fantastic: holiday pay, sick pay and penalty rates. Why do we have penalty rates? Because we value our weekends. We value time in our communities with our families and friends. Therefore, if you are in one of those jobs where you have to work at weekends, you should get that extra assistance—that extra pay. All these conditions, and much more, have been won by unions in well over a century of struggle. But, if corporate Australia could get its way, so much of that would be stripped away. That goes to the heart of what we are dealing with here today, and it is a reminder that the role of unions is not similar to, and cannot be equated to, the role of corporate Australia, which is how the government are trying to present their argument, because they have this dilemma. They cannot justify what they are doing by being honest, so they are coming up with this huge misinformation about what is going on here.

It is really worth expanding on this issue of what the union movement has achieved for Australia, at a time when all you hear from the Turnbull government and from most of the media outlets is attacks on unions, as though they are all out there feathering their own nests and doing the wrong thing. If people do the wrong thing, there are a raft of laws in Australia, as the government knows. If criminal activities are undertaken, you have a responsibility to go and report them, and they can be taken up immediately. That is not a problem. Again, the fact that those laws are so rarely acted on demonstrates what is really going on here.

I have detailed just some of the huge achievements of the union movement. These huge achievements are at the core of a fair society, and again they were not given to us because our forebears in this place came and sat on the red benches and the green benches one day, had a good idea and thought, 'Okay, let's pass some legislation so there'll be holiday pay, sick pay and penalty rates.' They did not happen because earlier MPs arrived at work and decided to pass that bill; they came about because workers collectively came together to struggle, campaign, go on strike and engage with their communities to win those rights—something that is so fundamental to the type of society we have today. It has been that big battle all along. If these proposed laws go through, the red tape—and remember that this is also a government that is always telling us how it wants to cut red tape, but not when it comes to the union movement; it wants to tie the union movement up—will make it much harder to continue those important campaigns that make such a difference to the lives of so many.

CEOs, bosses and corporate heads have their lobbyists in here pushing hard for laws that restrict union activities. That is why in the last two weeks, when there is so much important work that should be undertaken, we are being subjected to these two proposed laws, which should have been binned long ago.

It is easier to run a profit-making company unencumbered by unions saying workers deserve higher wages, calling for occupational health and safety inspections or campaigning for overtime to include full penalty rates. The boss sees all these demands as financial burdens. We cannot emphasise this enough, because this is what the government is refusing to acknowledge. Why do they do that? Why do they want to cut corners? Why do they not want to grant those very reasonable demands for safety on the job?

You heard the previous speaker, Senator Cameron, give that tragic example of the young German backpacker killed early on in her work here. She had no experience on the job, she was not given proper inductions, and she lost her life when she was travelling around the world trying to get some experience and to see different countries. There was the absolutely criminal activity in Queensland just recently. I will come back to this in the ABCC debate, but it is worth repeating many times: two workers were in a huge pit with big concrete slabs being moved above them. They see one slab starting to topple, and they are able to scramble up a ladder to get away from it. They start to stabilise it, but they cannot stop the next big concrete slab from toppling and they get squashed. They are killed between two concrete slabs. These are the sorts of incidents that are going on at building sites all the time. And if you wonder why it is a rough and tumble industry, it has a lot to do with the rotten working conditions that are becoming, tragically, more common because of the weakening of unions in this country, who find it much harder to get out there and take up these issues.

A couple of years back it was the Abbott government that was doing something similar to what the Turnbull government is doing today—that is, trying to push through these anti-union laws. This is common when you have conservative governments in power; this is what they do. One of their primary roles is to get this type of legislation through. We are seeing it from the Turnbull government; we have seen it with the Abbott government. Not too long ago it was the Howard government and Work Choices. And then you go back to the Menzies government and the penal sections of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act that set down heavy fines and jail sentences for union officials and rank-and-file members who engaged in any action contrary to an order of the arbitration court. And unionists were jailed under that act.

Again, this is a reminder that the coalition understand what their core business is. They get into power and what is their job? To weaken how unions operate. And we have seen it successively with different governments, and that is what Minister Cash has been spending all her time on—to continue that history of how coalition governments work. And with that brief history that I just ran through of what previous conservative governments have done, it shows it is not that dissimilar to the registered organisations bill that we are now dealing with. The same intent is there: it is designed to tie up unions and limit their ability to work for improved wages and conditions.

An examination of current laws reveal why this legislation is not needed. Currently unions are required under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 and other legislation to be democratic organisations. Remember there is no similar requirement for corporations. Unions are required to publish their accounts and financial returns every year online, but proprietary limited companies are not. The companies do not have to do that. That highlights the big lie that is coming from the government in how they are promoting what this bill is about. They are not being truthful with what is going on here.

Current laws prevent officers of registered organisations from using their positions for their own personal benefit. If an officer did abuse his or her position they could be prosecuted. And then there are all of the criminal laws: if there is corruption or if there is rorting in any form, it can be dealt with right now. That is possible. This bill is not needed in any form. The bill allows the government to intervene and control unions in a way that is not in place for private companies. Private companies, corporate Australia, can get away with it. The laws have been successively weakened on their accountability, whereas for unions it is getting much tougher.

If the Turnbull government were serious about putting unions and corporations on an even footing, they could extend the current democratic and reporting requirements demanded of unions to corporations. But instead the government are saying to organisations that represent Australian workers that they will impose the same penalties as apply to a publicly listed company. This legislation, by tying unions up in red tape, will reduce their ability to continue to work for the interests of workers. Those on very low pay and poor conditions need unions.

Again, when you look at the way Australian society has developed, what you see, for well over the last century, is that, when you have stronger unions fighting for and winning good wages and conditions, that flows through to workers who are not in that same position, may not be represented by a union and may not have the industrial muscle to be able to achieve those changes. In time it flows through to them. Cleaners, child-care and aged-care workers, and all workers with little ability to organise benefit when unions that cover workers in other sectors have wins with improved wages and conditions. We really need to remember that. It has been a very significant part of how our society has developed.

But now our society is at the crossroads. To pass this legislation will further exacerbate the inequality that is becoming the hallmark of 21st century Australia. Workplaces will become more unsafe, and wages for many will hover around the poverty level as the government does everything possible to make it easier for companies to undercut wages, avoid penalty rates, and have more workers on casual rates while some work 50 or even more hours a week or attempt to survive by taking on one, two, three or more jobs. On those conditions, what meaning does family life have? How would people have time to go to a P&C meeting at their local school and attend their children's sporting events, and how would they pay for their children's school excursions? These are real questions. If you are committed to Australia being a fair society, a fair society means people are not in constant struggle to pay the rent, put food on the table, dress their kids and help them with their recreational activities. There are people who are struggling so hard at the moment, and the backup that so many families and so many people have is that there is a union movement there that is working for decency. What people are facing now, in the low-wage, no-job-security society that the Turnbull government is overseeing, is that life is going to get harder for them—again, because of bills like this that should in no way become laws.

This bill is the latest attack by this coalition government on the union movement—again, representing a long history of what coalition governments do when they get into power. They deliver for their constituency, corporate Australia, which donates millions of dollars to the Liberal and National parties to try to get them elected. The registered organisations bill should not pass. It is one more brick in the wall of inequality the Turnbull government is constructing. The intent is ugly, ruthless and cruel. It is a bad bill and it should be voted down.

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