Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 - Second reading


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:20): I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014. Hearing Senator Johnston with some of those case examples emphasises why it is important that we bring some rationality, fairness and balance to our industrial relations and to our fair work arrangements within Australia. As Senator Johnston has so graphically pointed out, some of the actions of some of these unionists, allowed for under legislation of the previous government, is just disgraceful and entirely un-Australian. I know without doubt that I can say that 98 per cent of all Australians would find the examples given by Senator Johnston appalling and a good reason for why something needs to be done.

This piece of legislation actually follows a commitment the coalition made prior to the 2013 election, where we said that we were committed to addressing a range of key problems with the fair work laws. This bill continues to implement the commitments that the coalition made prior to the last election. We are a party that makes promises and we intend to keep our promises. That is why this legislation is being introduced. There are some other parties in this chamber who make promises, like 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead', and then the first piece of legislation that comes in actually breaches that promise. We want to be recognised as a government that has made promises and tries its best to implement those promises with legislation at the earliest possible time, and that is what this bill is all about.

The bill will amend the Fair Work Act to provide for a more balanced workplace relations system, while safeguarding workers' conditions and protections, and that is important. The measures in the bill will help encourage investment in new projects that are important to our national economy and will help encourage those investments by preventing unions from vetoing greenfields agreements. This bill strongly signals to investors that Australia is open for business.

Unions certainly have a place in our society and always have done. In years gone by, perhaps even centuries gone by, unions performed a wonderful role in protecting, enhancing and building conditions for all people, whether they were workers, employers or those who depended on those people. I have always thought that unions have a real place in our society. However, the legislation that previous Labor governments have introduced give unions an undue influence over workers' conditions and pay and more influence over workers' conditions and pay than workers themselves need or want. Very often workers in this day and age do not need a union standing over their shoulders saying, 'This is what's good for you, so we're going to get it.' Most workers in Australia can work that out for themselves and can make deals with their employers that allow for flexibility, family arrangements and other things that are important to workers and their families.

Unfortunately, Labor governments tend to overemphasise the importance of unions in discussions relating to workplace conditions and arrangements. I can understand why Labor governments do that. It is because most people in Labor governments have a union background. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But when this sort of legislation, introduced by a Labor government, comes before the parliament there is a bit of an imbalance, because most of the ministers in Labor governments have a union background. They owe their very existence in this parliament to the unions and very often they owe their positions as ministers to deals that the unions do amongst themselves and with the Labor Party, who they control. They work out which member or senator is going to be a minister. The unions make those sorts of arrangements.

That would be okay—well, perhaps you could excuse it—if the unions actually represented Australian workers. But the Australian Bureau of Statistics has some interesting figures on just who does and who does not represent Australian workers. According to the ABS, 88 per cent of all Australian workers in the private sector choose not to join a union. Twelve per cent do; 88 per cent choose not to. So how can the unions say that they speak for Australia's workers, when 88 per cent of Australian workers say, 'Sorry, mate, we don't want you to represent us. We are quite happy to represent or make arrangements for ourselves. We are not dills. We are not incapable of making arrangements and conditions. We will do that ourselves, thanks very much. We do not need you to do it for us'? Twelve per cent of Australian workers feel that they are incapable or that, for some other reason, they want a union there—and that is their right. If that is what they want, they can do that in Australia.

It should be remembered that 88 per cent of all Australian workers in the private sector choose not to join a union and choose not to have the unions acting and speaking for them. Yet the bills introduced by the Labor Party—which this bill seeks to amend and make fairer—are not bills that were introduced for the workers' benefit; they were introduced for the unions' benefit, so that the unions can continue to have a reason to exist when 88 per cent of workers in the private sector do not want them.

Those ABS figures are instructive. If you take the total Australian workforce—that is, the public and private sectors—then only 17 per cent of all workers in Australia have chosen to join a union. Again, that means that 83 per cent of workers across Australia have made a rational decision that they do not want the unions to speak for them. They feel that they are capable of speaking for themselves and of dealing with their own workplace relations in the way they want and not in the way some paid union official might think is good for them. The workers have voted with their feet and have chosen not to have unions representing them.

So why do Labor governments come in here and continue to pass legislation that give the unions all the power and authority and take it away from the workers who are capable and who have expressed their desire not to have the unions working for them? I repeat: if people do want to join a union and want the unions to speak for them, then in Australia they are perfectly able to do that. They do that with my support and I know with the support of all parliamentarians. But workers should not be forced to have the union making the rules, when the workers themselves do not want the unions there. This bill puts a bit of balance, fairness and flexibility back into the arrangements.

I said that I know why Labor governments pass legislation that increases enormously the power of unions, not the power of workers in negotiating but increases the power of unions when workers do not want them. I understand that, and I mentioned that most minsters in Labor governments owe their very being to the union movement. You only have to look around this chamber. Of all the Labor senators, and I do not have the exact figures these days, at least 80 per cent—and I think that is probably a generous estimate—of the senators in this chamber are former union officials. They are here because their union did a deal within the Labor Party to make sure these particular union members received preselection and therefore were voted into the Senate. As a result, a number of them are shadow ministers—for example, the shadow minister for trade, who is also the opposition leader in the Senate, Senator Penny Wong, is a former CFMEU employee. I do not want to speak ill of Senator Wong when she is not here, and she can no doubt speak for herself, but you would wonder why Senator Wong has not roundly condemned some of the activity that the previous speaker, Senator Johnson, was talking about—CFMEU officials being absolutely vile, foul-mouthed and intimidatory to government officials, in many cases women. You would have thought that people like Senator Wong would have been on their feet condemning that in the strongest and loudest words, but we have heard barely a 'boo' from Senator Wong. Perhaps the fact that she was employed by the CFMEU, got to her position in the Senate because of the CFMEU and got to her position as Leader of the Opposition in the Senate because of the CFMEU is why she has not loudly condemned some of the thuggish and sexist behaviour that we have seen from the CFMEU.

This bill, as I said, puts back some flexibility and I want to talk about some elements of the bill. My colleagues on this side have gone through some of the elements very carefully and I will not repeat a lot of those. This bill does one thing that I particularly like: it removes the strike-first talk-later loophole under the Fair Work Act that has been in that bill. The Labor Party, prior to the 2007 election, promised they would do something about that. I quote the then Labor Party leader who said:

… industrial disputes are serious. They hurt workers, they hurt businesses, they can hurt families and communities, and they certainly hurt the economy.

Further, he said, 'They'—the employees—'will not be able to strike unless there has been genuine good faith bargaining.' That is what the Labor leader said prior to the 2007 election. Unfortunately, that was not the case under Labor's Fair Work Act, where employees were allowed to strike before the bargaining process had even commenced. This bill will amend the Fair Work Act to provide that protected industrial action can only be taken if bargaining for a proposed agreement has actually commenced. This amendment will mean that industrial action cannot be the first step in the bargaining process and that restores a balanced and harmonious approach to enterprise bargaining.

This bill is helping the Labor Party fulfil a promise it made prior to the 2007 election. For that reason, wouldn't you think that all of the Labor Party senators in this chamber would be supporting this bill, because by supporting it they are actually supporting the coalition government honouring a commitment of the Labor Party made prior to the 2007 election. I do not know of course how Labor senators are going to vote when this bill comes for a vote. If they are not going to support it, I would like some of them to explain why, prior to the 2007 election, they supported this particular proposal, yet here they are opposing a proposal which they introduced. This bill does a lot of things like that where fairness and flexibility is brought back into the system of enterprise bargaining and into industrial relations generally.

Senator Johnston very graphically indicated the right of entry of union officials, without rhyme or reason, to enter lunch rooms and harangue workers about particular issues which are important to the unions—not important to the workers but important to the unions. Again, I emphasise—because I think this is just so important—that this right of entry under Labor Party legislation, which allows union officials to go into places and to talk to employees when the employees are not interested in talking to them, simply becomes ridiculous when you understand that of the employees they are talking to, on average, 87 per cent do not want the union there. And yet the 87 per cent who choose not to join the union, who choose not to have the union talk to them, have to sit there and be subjected to this unfettered right of union officials to wander around their place of work, to wander into their lunchroom and to harangue them with, as I say, issues that may be important to union officials but are clearly not important to the workers themselves.

The former government, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, also introduced obligations on employers at remote worksites to provide union officials with transport and accommodation to enable them to access those sites. Again this is ridiculous when you take into account that these sites in remote areas are nearly always private sector, and 87 per cent of private sector employees do not want the union. And yet the employer has to provide the unions with transport and accommodation to come out and harangue 100 per cent of the workers, when only 12 per cent of them want the union to be there. This is a very costly and onerous obligation on the employers. It does not help the employees, most of whom have demonstrated that they do not want the unions talking for them, and it just adds to the cost of doing business in Australia.

In the end result, when you make the cost of doing business in Australia prohibitively expensive, investors go elsewhere. Australia is a lucky country, but it is not the only one with resources and know-how for doing things. Investors simply say, 'It's too expensive in Australia; we'll go somewhere else.' What is the result of that? As we are seeing in Queensland at the moment, another 500 jobs in the mining industry have been lost because Australia has become uncompetitive. Part of that uncompetitiveness was the ridiculous mining tax which the Labor Party introduced on the miners. It meant that investment in mining in Australia stopped for a considerable period of time, and it has meant that jobs have been lost. Don't the Labor Party—who are here because of the unions who put them here—understand that they are costing real workers their jobs because of some of this stupidity? This bill will go a long way to fixing a lot of that stupidity, and I urge its support in this chamber.

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