Abbott's Fair Work Amendment, anything but

15 July 2014

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (19:58): This bill is about the regulation of unions, employer associations and their officers and officials. In common parlance, the word 'official' is taken to mean somebody who is elected or appointed to a full-time job within an organisation and who draws a salary for performing those functions. It belies the fact that the majority of officials, at least within unions, are volunteers who give up hundreds of hours of their time every year for a purpose and a cause that they believe in. For unions, the cause is the protection and the betterment of the wages and conditions of the people they representordinary Australian workers. They help them balance the cost of living with their income and they help them get a fair go at work.

Any debate about workplace relations in this place is always conducted on many levels. As the contributors to this debate have demonstrated, it is as much about the political contest between the conservative parties and us, the Labor Party, as it is about the subject matter of the bill. We have heard numerous contributions from those on the other side of the House and from those on this side of the House which give testament to that. It has been that way since Federation. Governments have risen and fallen on the question of industrial relations. It is an unfortunate fact that the objects of the legislation, by which I mean those for whom it purports to regulate, are often swept aside.

I would like to say a few words about a mate of mine to correct the balance. My friend's name is Kerry Edsall. She was a government employee who started work in the Department of Social Security, as it then was, in one of the first call centres that that department established, in Geelong in 1993. She was a strong woman with a great work ethic who was as respected by the workers in her workplace and nationally as she was by her employers. She joined the union soon after becoming an employee of the Department of Social Security and became deputy delegate in her workplace soon after. She represented the department and Centrelink on the union's section council from 2001 and became the union secretary in 2003, a position that she then held for over 10 yearsall on a voluntary basis. In 2013, in recognition of her many decades of service to the union, she was granted a life membership.

She was a key CPSU leader in Centrelink and the Department of Human Services and represented members through many agreement negotiations and in other national and international forums. She was well respected by management, by government and by union representatives because of her deep knowledge of the work of the department, the needs of the clients of the department, the operation of the union and the needs of their members. As well as supporting and engaging members in her workplace, Kerry mentored many young workers, including workplace delegates and section councillors, across the country. She was a courageous leader and a courageous worker who genuinely lived up to the cliche that you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. She never dodged difficult discussions with members, with management or with anyone who needed to hear the truth. She was a person who was very comfortable speaking truth to power.

Kerry understood that union strength comes from the work that you do in the workplacenot from acts of parliament, as important as they are and as influential as they can be in governing workers' rights, but from the strength within the workplace. Her commitment and passion for union and Labor values motivated many members throughout her workplace and around the country. Her commitment to union work was legendary, and I repeat: it was all done on a volunteer basis. It was not uncommon for her to rise before sun-up and take the long commute from Geelong to Canberra to be involved in negotiations with managementonly to turn around and go back again and be one of the first people at work the very next day.

You can only imagine the high regard in which she was held within the workplace and within the unionand you can only imagine the devastation people felt when, on 23 June this year, Kerry passed away after a relatively short battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband John and her daughters, Sheridan and Shea, whom she adored and was as proud of as they were of her. Kerry did more than just promote the values of the union; she lived them. So when I see members opposite and others around this parliament seeking to go about the task of demonising unions and union officials, I know they have a tough battle ahead of them if they want to demonise people like Kerry Edsall. She was someone who lived the values of the unionand she did it all for nothing. She was a great example and a great mentor to generations of young women.

When you are in government you have limited time, and how you spend that time is a statement of your priorities and your values. That is why I say that this bill before the House demonstrates the fact that this government has its priorities all wrong when it comes to workplace relations. They had the opportunity to correct an outrageous errorperhaps it was not an error; perhaps it was a deliberate actthey perpetrated during that great failed episode of 'Deregulation Day'. By the stroke of a pen on that day, they cut the wages of cleaners by somewhere between $172 and $225 per week. I am talking about some of the lowest paid people who work in this place. If you were to look at a diagram of who the highest paid and who the lowest paid people in this place are, you would find the Prime Minister and the Treasurer somewhere near the top of the pay pileand you would find the people who clean this place when we have gone home near the bottom. So you have to ask yourself: what was in the minds of the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and his parliamentary secretary when he tried to bury a provision, within over 50,000 pages of government regulation, to cut the wages of some of the lowest paid people in the parliament and within government employment. It is a statement of the government's priorities.

We could today be debating a bill that corrected that error. We could be debating, perhaps, amendments from government members effectively saying, 'We know we got it wrong when we cut the wages of some of the lowest paid people in the country.' Instead, they have used the limited resources and the limited time available to this parliament to debate a bill which does something completely different. I will get to what it does in a moment, but I think that speaks volumes about the priorities of this government.

I am a relatively new member, Deputy Speaker Mitchell. We came into this parliament at the same time, after the 2010 election. I remember an important debate that we had in this parliament when Labor introduced legislation regarding directors' salaries, and an important reform Labor introduced that gave ordinary shareholders some say in the outrageous salaries that many directors were awarding themselves, and a mechanism to correct those salaries.

When I heard the Prime Minister say before the election that one of his objectives in workplace reform was to ensure that we brought into line the obligations incumbent upon unions and union officials in the Workplace Relations Act so they more closely mirrored the obligations upon directors and companies within the Corporations Law, I thought I would find a provision in there that enabled that reciprocal flow of obligations. I can tell you thisand I have quite detailed knowledge about thisthere would not be a union in this country whose rules did not provide that if a meeting of the members properly constituted of that union, or the governing body of that union, passed a resolution that said the officials of that union shall afford themselves a particular salary or a particular form of remuneration, and no more or no less, then the officials of that union would have to comply with that resolution of the membership body. When the government says they want to align the obligations of unions and corporations, that is one they have overlookedbecause I remember very well, as you would remember very well, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, that they opposed tooth and nail those changes to the Corporations Law. They argued against them as 'excessive red tape'. If the government is truly interested in ensuring that the same obligations upon unions and employer associations apply to corporations, they would be rethinking their policies when it came to that particular issue around director salaries.

I listened with great interest to a number of the contributors to this debate when they talked about the genesis or the objectives of the legislation, and they invariably relied upon the great scandal concerning the Health Services Union. I am appalled by some of the revelations that have come to light about the expenditures and the use of members' money within the Health Services Union, but it is worth noting that the officials who have done the wrong thing within that union have had those malfeasances brought to light, they have been charged and have been prosecuted under the existing laws. If the motivation for bringing these laws before the parliament is to correct something that was going wrong in one or two organisations, I simply make the point that the reforms have already been implemented. In fact, the now Leader of the Opposition introduced those reforms when he was the government minister in relation to workplace relations. The reforms have created greater obligations for registered organisations and have ensured that there are greater penalties for non-compliance and greater obligations in relation to the use and reportage around members' funds, and other obligations.

For example, in 2012 he toughened the laws to improve the financial transparency, and the disclosure by registered organisations and their members. If the motivation is anything more than kicking the industrial question into the political debate, then you have to look at what has already been done and the remedies that are already available. We on this side of the House say that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those in the community who are appalled that the funds of any registered organisationor any community organisation, or any charity or any company, for that mattercould be used for any purpose other than the purpose for which they are contributed. We should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But we look at the legislation and at what is already there, and we cannot draw any other conclusion but the fact that this is just an opportunity for the government to kick the industrial question back into parliament to use it as a part of a concerted campaign to try to reintroduce laws they said they would never reintroduce and to try to muddy up those who are their political opponents, and in doing that give themselves some form of political advantage.

So we are all for looking at and introducing laws that ensure the highest standards are imposed upon employer and employee organisations, but we say that this legislation does not do that. We say that this legislation is not necessary, that we will be opposing the legislation, and that we will be doing it because we say it is introduced to the House for an entirely different purpose altogether.