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Speech: Union-busting 'ensuring integrity' bills

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 26 Nov 2019

I rise on behalf of the Greens to speak to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019. The Greens strongly oppose this bill. This bill is nothing but a politically motivated attack on unions. It's laughable that the words 'ensuring integrity' form part of the name of the bill when we know that there is not an ounce of integrity in this government and their intentions with this bill. There is not a skerrick of integrity in you lot, and you have proven that again today by disrupting the business of the Senate, and for what? Because you want to push your narrow agenda—an agenda which is antiworker, antiunion and antidemocratic. Shame on you!

When workers and unions build their collective voice and power they have the capacity to change the way this country is run for the better, for everyone who lives here. The government find this prospect really frightening. To prevent this, they are bringing in these laws which are incompatible with Australia's ILO commitments and will impose standards to which there is no corporate or political equivalent. According to the minister, the bill is responding to community concern and the recommendations of the final report of the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption. The gall of this government to come in here and say that they are responding to community concern! What community concern? What I hear on the ground from the community is concern about corporations ripping off working people and having exclusive access to this government. Instead of addressing that, this bill will do the exact opposite by eroding the rights of working people to organise.

Let's not forget: this is the same government that has allowed penalty rates to be cut. They're out to get workers. That's pretty clear. We know that the coalition is in here to represent big business and look after its mates at the big end of town—and, yes, I am not afraid to use that phrase. You only care about big corporations and the big end of town. You don't care about workers at all. This bill is nothing but a blatant attack on workers—an attack on their unions and a direct attack on the rights of workers to organise. In a nutshell, this bill will basically allow employers to dictate how unions run their business. Unions could be deregistered at a whim. If nurses go on strike for better working conditions or to improve patient-to-nurse ratios, that can be seen as going against the public interest and they could be in danger of being deregistered. The same applies to transport workers and many others who work in the public sector. This is an antiunion bill; this is an antiworker bill; this is an antidemocratic bill. We know you hate unions, and this is just another of your goes at union-busting. We know very well what this government is capable of when it comes to its agenda against workers. They will go to any length to limit workers' rights to organise and to stop them from demanding better working conditions.

Australian labour laws have been systematically attacked. They have been rewritten to restrict people's rights to collectively stand up for themselves. They have undermined and cut away at awards, and wages growth is restricted. They will say this bill is about putting unions on the same footing as corporations, but it's not. Wouldn't that be the day—when we see corporations publicly reporting all their accounts and when people in corporations can cast a vote on who will be their managing director. Imagine that day. Let's see legislation like that. It was only a few weeks ago that Woolworths admitted to underpaying workers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Have you ever heard of an employer accidentally overpaying their workers by millions of dollars? I think not. Woolworths have admitted to underpaying nearly 6,000 employees over years, with the retail giant owing up to $300 million to its workers. Underpayment of staff has become endemic. It is a crisis. What's the government doing about that? I haven't heard much to date. It seems like there is a disclosure of underpayment every few weeks in big companies. The system is rigged against workers because the rewards of ripping off staff far outweigh the risks or any penalties the big corporations face over wage theft.

We know the Liberals are not in here to protect the rights of workers. They have been dragging their feet on any solid measures to prevent wage theft. This government is more interested in stopping our democratic rights to protest. They want to stop everyone from dissenting from their narrow, neoliberal, undemocratic agenda. They are more interested in supporting their mates in big corporations than the workers who are being screwed over by their friends.

It is internationally recognised that unions form an important part of any democracy and serve a vital function in fair and just societies, but this bill gives the government a free pass to interfere in their democratic workings. It completely overrides internationally accepted labour laws and human rights. While this government doesn't think twice about introducing legislation that breaches international law, the minimum wage has fallen to a point where it is no longer a guarantee of financial security. Big corporations are making record profits while the government helps employers use labour laws to cut wages, conditions and workplace rights.

I sat on the inquiry into this bill. A number of submissions to the inquiry pointed out the measures contained in the bill are significantly more onerous than anything that applies to corporations. The bill targets all unions. As the ACTU correctly points out in its submission:

Much of the commentary around the Bill suggests that the Bill only targets unions or union officers who repeatedly or deliberately act unlawfully, "where there is an ingrained culture of lawlessness".

And that commentary is completely unsubstantiated and not true. My union, the NTEU, say in their submission to the inquiry that the bill:

… could unintentionally provide employers with an incentive to formally prosecute technical breaches of the Fair Work Act as a pathway to disqualification of union officials that they consider difficult to deal with.

This means employers can target union representatives they don't like through these bills. How does that ensure integrity? It doesn't. But this bill is not about ensuring integrity, is it? This government doesn't have an ounce of integrity.

The International Centre for Trade Union rights says in its submission to the inquiry that there is:

… no precedent for the degree of state interference in the functioning and establishment of trade unions in comparable industrialised liberal democracies.

The ICTU is very clear about the aims of this bill, saying:

… the legislation is aimed at attacking and destroying particular organisations of workers.

Indeed, we know this bill is only about political gain and about one objective and one objective alone—excessive political, corporate and regulatory interference in the democratic functioning of unions. This is a tactic straight out of the conservative playbook.

Essentially what this bill is all about is preventing unions from doing their work, which is to represent workers and their interests in the face of giant corporations, in the face of precarious working conditions and in the face of declining wages. As a proud card-carrying and long-term union member, I can say from experience that unions are absolutely central to protecting the rights of workers, making sure they have fair and humane working conditions. With this government's continued war on workers, this bill sadly comes as no surprise. This is a government for the corporations, looking after the interests of big business, where workers rights are merely an inconvenience in that process and outcome. What is this government doing about the 23 million breaches by Westpac of anti-money-laundering laws? Why aren't you falling over yourselves to ensure integrity for banks? You resisted the Greens' and the community's calls for a royal commission for years before you were forced and dragged to the table.

The bill in front of us expands the grounds over which unions can be deregistered under the registered organisations act. This would essentially allow the government to seek the shutdown of any union on a whim. By expanding the grounds upon which unions can be deregistered or suspended, this bill seriously limits the right of freedom of association and the rights of workers to organise. The proposed disqualification scheme for union officials could disqualify a person from holding office in a registered organisation simply on the basis that they have organised industrial action.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights expressed serious concerns that provisions in this bill will impact on a number of human rights, such as the right to join trade unions, the right to freedom of association and the right to just and favourable conditions of work. These rights are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which have been ratified by Australia. The committee has also expressed concern that the proposed disqualification regime for union officials would limit the right of worker organisations to freely elect their own representatives. The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that the bill be amended to make cancellation of registration a last-resort option, and the government has completely ignored the concerns raised by the committee. Even the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills raised multiple concerns about the bill, including pointing out that the proposed disqualification powers were insufficiently defined and there could be a reversal of the evidential burden of proof in some circumstances.

A number of submissions rightly point out that the measures contained in the bill would result in significantly more onerous and stringent laws applying to unions when compared to corporations. For example, the requirement for union amalgamations to be in the public interest is considerably more restrictive than the requirement for corporate mergers, which are not required to take into account the interests of workers or a broader public interest test. This is clearly an attack on unions.

The most appalling part of this whole debate is that this government is pretending that it is somehow all about integrity. If this government were serious about integrity, it would establish a national ICAC. In the New South Wales parliament, where I sat in the upper house for five years, we have seen how effective an anticorruption body can be. We have a laundry list of both Labor and Liberal politicians that have had to face corruption charges and have been prosecuted. Let's not forget this government voted against the Greens' bill to establish a national anticorruption body just a couple of months ago. One is compelled to question why it is refusing a national anticorruption body that looks into government conduct if there is nothing to hide. And then this government comes in here and talks about integrity. What a joke. What a complete farce this is. Not a week goes by in Australian politics without the case mounting further for a national anticorruption watchdog.

Allegations this week of potential interference in Australia's democracy is further evidence of this. Again, there was a long laundry list of issues highlighted just recently. The Crown casino scandal showed how corporate greed and politics can work hand in hand in Australia when it suits. We know our so-called donations systems are criminally broken when stories break about political parties accepting ALDI bags stuffed with cash and then feigning ignorance. Our Murray-Darling Basin and river system has been killed by political and corporate corruption. The revolving door between politics and lobby groups has got to be closed once and for all.

We know that the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Mr Angus Taylor, is now under investigation by the New South Wales police. We know this is in relation to attacks launched by Mr Taylor on the City of Sydney over the council's carbon footprint. Where was the integrity shown there? There wasn't any. There was 'no integrity' there. There is report after report of misconduct, of allegations and of revolving doors between ministers and lobbyists. Where is the integrity in all of that? What are you doing about that? This government should really hang its head in shame for it has not an ounce of integrity left in it. There is nothing even remotely in the vicinity of integrity in this anti-union, antiworker, antidemocratic bill.

The Greens have been introducing bills for a national ICAC for almost a decade. I want to commend and thank the former Greens senator for New South Wales, Lee Rhiannon, for her work, passion and commitment to democracy and for pushing so hard to establish a national ICAC.

Finally, this work came to bear fruit in September this year when the Greens bill passed this chamber. That bill would finally have introduced long-lasting reform to our laws to deal with corruption and integrity, but what did this government—a government that purports to have integrity—do? They blocked the bill from becoming law. That's the integrity that you have—none whatsoever.

During the debate on this bill, we actually have a chance to get a national ICAC. I will be moving Greens amendments to this bill. These amendments will have the effect that this bill cannot take effect until a national integrity commission has been established by this parliament. A federal ICAC is essential to restoring public faith in democracy. People who sit on the crossbench know that that is absolutely vital for our democracy. Our democracy belongs to the people of Australia, who desperately want us and our system to be transparent and accountable. I don't like this bill one bit. But if it is going to pass then it should not come into effect until parliament has also established a proper watchdog to oversee politicians and public officials. I will be moving an amendment to that effect, and I hope the crossbenchers and the Labor Party, who support a federal ICAC, can support that amendment.

The sad bit is that what we should be doing here today—if we really were interested in ensuring integrity and if we really were interested in a workplace—is reaffirming the right to be a member of a union. We should be reaffirming the right to collectively bargain. We should be reaffirming the right to collectively withhold labour and to collectively organise in the workplace to achieve a sustainable and democratic future for all of us. But here we are. The government are stopping all other business of the Senate to ram through a bill which does the exact opposite. Let's be clear: this is a rubbish bill, this is a rubbish government and they should both be put in the bin.

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