Speaking out for building and construction workers

It is extraordinary, but not surprising, that the first serious piece of legislation that the government has chosen to bring before the House as we open the 2016 parliamentary year is this bill. 


This bill was introduced—and failed—last year and reintroduced this year. It deals with extraordinary powers aimed at the Australian trade union movement. I say 'not surprising' for this reason: it has been the single animating force of every Liberal conservative government from the spat-wearing Anglophile prime ministership of Stanley Melbourne Bruce through to Prime Minister Menzies and Prime Ministers Howard and Abbott to attack those they see as their political enemies—the Australian trade union movement. So it is not surprising that the government has decided to introduce this bill as its first act in the 2016 parliamentary year.

It is, however, extraordinary. I am mindful of some of the reasons that the minister representing the minister in this House used when he justified the introduction of this bill. He said that it is essential to job creation and dealing with the economic and social wellbeing of this country. When you look at the problems we are facing as a nation, you will see that we have a health system in crisis, driven by the decisions of this government, with $57 billion worth of funds ripped out of the hospital funding agreements that were negotiated in good faith with state governments. That money has been withdrawn, so you have Liberal and Labor premiers around the country screaming out, 'Our hospital system is in crisis and it will fall over if there is not corrective action.' You would have thought that that would have been a priority for the government to address as its first act in the 2016 parliamentary year.

If they were not moved by the crisis in our hospital system, then they may have been moved by the crisis in our education system. Next week university students will be walking through the gates of universities throughout the country not yet knowing how much they will be charged for their higher education degrees when they conclude their studies. The government has kicked the $100,000 university degree proposition down the road, presumably until after the next federal election, to spring that on those unsuspecting university students later. That is hanging over the heads of university students as they walk through the gates of their universities for the commencement of the study year.

With school education you have education ministers around the country, of both conservative and progressive ilk, screaming out for certainty around funding for their schools. They are saying, 'Gonski got it right and we need certainty and additional Commonwealth assistance for the funding of our schools to ensure they are funded on the basis of needs.' You might have thought it would be a priority for the government to introduce legislation and corrective measures in the first week of a new parliamentary year. But no, that is not on the agenda either.

A minister representing the employment minister might have thought that putting in place some measures to deal with the issue of jobs and job security for Australians—the problem we are having with offshoring, even of government work—or giving some certainty around penalty rates and take-home pay might have been a priority for the government as well. But no, that is not a priority. We have this false debate going on around tax reform. In question time yesterday we had the Prime Minister contradicting his Treasurer about what we are proposing to do in relation to tax reform. It is a debate without a purpose. You might have thought we would have some more clarity on that issue within the first parliamentary week of a legislative year. But we have had none of these things. These are not the priority for the government. It appears the priority for the government is the same priority that has animated every conservative government since the beginning of Federation, which is to stick the boot into those they perceive to be their political enemies—the Australian trade union movement.

We oppose this legislation. We oppose the motivation and we oppose the legislation. Whether or not all of those issues applied, there are some specific issues that would still move me to stand here at the dispatch box and oppose the bill that is before the House. Going to some of the specifics of the bill, we have had the shadow minister stand here and deal with some of the broad issues concerning the royal commission—the way it has been handled, even over the last week. The minister responsible in the other place seems to have created an issue over whether all sides of politics, all representatives, will have access to the full volumes of findings by the royal commission. Confusingly, surprisingly, that has become an issue over the last week. But I do not intend to make contributions in relation to those issues. I want to go, specifically, to some of the measures that are in the bill and talk about some of the issues that should be in legislation before the House but are not.

We oppose the bill because we stand—and I have stood, consistently, since my entry into parliament—opposing legislation that does not uphold the principle of equality before the law and proportionality between laws. I will confine my remarks, for this piece, in relation to these particular issues. If you look at the legislation and its explanatory memorandum you will see that chapter 6 sets out the intent of the legislation, which is to eliminate action that coerces a person by applying undue pressure or discrimination. A laudable intent—indeed, so laudable that it was at the heart of many of the reforms introduced by the, then, Labor government when it eradicated the Work Choices legislation and rewrote the Fair Work Act. Julia Gillard was the minister responsible for that legislation. There is no disagreement across the aisles on the need to remove coercive or discriminatory action within the workplace by whoever is applying such action.

If you thought that was the intent of the legislation and, then, moved to chapter 6, you would see hypocrisy within it. It is worth reading clause 62 in chapter 7 of the legislation. It goes to the powers of the ABC Commissioner. It is important to remember that the ABC Commissioner is appointed by the minister. He or she is not a judicial officer but has extraordinary powers granted to them if this bill succeeds. Clause 62 makes it quite clear that it will be an offence to fail to comply with a requirement, imposed by an examination notice, to produce documents or information. It will also be an offence to fail to take an oath or affirmation when required to do so and it will be an offence to fail to answer questions. These are extraordinary powers, and parliament should be very cautious before giving them to any arm of government.

We have been locked in debates, in this House, about whether it would be appropriate for the legislative arm of government to award these powers to the judicial arm of government, whether it would be appropriate to appoint these powers to a judicial officer, in a court of this land, to enable compelled evidence, in certain circumstances. I have heard many fine speeches that this is all about upholding the principle of the rule of law, but this proposition gives extraordinary power, to a Commonwealth officer, to compel people to give evidence.

Let us not forget that there are penalties associated with failing to comply with an information notice issued by the commissioner. You might think that a penalty would be constrained to a fine. Extraordinary powers? Maybe there are modest penalties associated with it. But no, there are not. Look at the detail of the legislation. I am sure that most of those who have stood on the government's benches and spoken in favour of this legislation have not turned themselves to the detail of it. The bill proposes that a maximum offence for failing to comply with compelled evidence is six months imprisonment. That is extraordinary. I mentioned at the outset that we on this side of the House believe it is incumbent on a responsible government to ensure that there is proportionality not only within the law and offences it must attend to but also between laws.

You are a Victorian, Deputy Speaker Broadbent. You may be familiar with a case that occurred within your jurisdiction and attracted a fair bit of attention a few weeks ago. A person received a custodial sentence for—what everybody in this House would agree was—an egregious set of events. This is a man who was high on ice, we are told, if the media reports are accurate. He was involved in a domestic argument with his partner who was trapped inside her vehicle—he could not coerce her out of the vehicle. So he attacked the car with a chainsaw. This was, clearly, an attempt to do grievous bodily harm to the person inside the car. We are not aware of the motivation. You might be surprised to learn, Deputy Speaker, that this person received a custodial sentence of six months. This is somebody who engaged in behaviour that every person in this parliament would agree deserves a stern punishment, a custodial sentence. It is absolutely appropriate.

Compare that to what coalition members are saying, in this legislation, is an appropriate penalty for refusing to incriminate themselves or somebody else: six months jail. You have to ask yourself: where is the proportionality? That is what they are seriously proposing. They are proposing six months jail for refusing to answer a question where the answer to that question might incriminate them. There is no proportionality. For over 200 years it has been an established principle, in common-law countries, that we do not support compelled evidence. And there is a very good reason for that. Usually the evidence is rubbish. Usually the evidence is unreliable. A person who is coerced into giving evidence, to whatever body it is, is probably not going to give the most reliable or truthful evidence. So, there is a very good reason that for over 200 years common law countries have put in place all sorts of structures to prevent these sorts of provisions within our statute book.

But here we have these so-called defenders of the rule of law, who want to stamp out lawlessness, seriously proposing that we enact legislation that will provide for coerced evidence and the failure of a person who is the subject of this coercion to give evidence under threat of a custodial sentence of up to six months. This is nothing short of extraordinary, yet those on the other side of the House are going to say that we are weak if we do not support it. Well, we do not support it, because we believe in proportionality. We do not support it because we do not have faith in compelled evidence, we believe in equality before the law, we believe in proportionality, and we believe in equality between laws, and this bill does not provide for that.

While we are on the subject of proportionality, let us look at the issues that they are not supporting: unpaid wages and coercion that occurs against employees in the workplace. These are the matters that should be within a bill before the House, not this rubbish that we are being asked to support.