Opposition to Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017


October 24, 2017

I too rise to speak on the Fair Work Laws Amendment (Proper Use of Worker Benefits) Bill 2017. I cannot commence talking about this bill without making initial comments about the absolutely extraordinary attacks by this government on the union movement that played out this afternoon. We’ve seen outrageous raids on the offices of the Australian Workers’ Union in Sydney and Melbourne. On the same day that this parliament is told that Malcolm Turnbull’s cuts to the Australian Federal Police have meant serious crimes like drug smuggling cannot be properly investigated we see the extraordinary use of the AFP and taxpayer dollars to raid the offices of the Australian Workers’ Union in Sydney and Melbourne.

The Turnbull government has openly directed the commission to start this witch-hunt. It’s entirely responsible for this turn of events. It’s an alarming misuse of ministerial power. It’s an abuse of power, and it needs to be called out for that. The Liberals have wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on their witch-hunt into unions. Their visceral anger and hatred towards the union movement and towards workers and their rights is absolutely disgraceful. They will stop at nothing in attacking workers and their representatives. We’ve seen that play out this afternoon in these extraordinary raids on the AWU.

Of course, this is a bit of deja vu. It’s about the political incompetence and desperation of this government. We’re seeing the NBN raids play out all over again. What did that get us? Absolutely nothing but more wasted taxpayer dollars. I believe that the Australian people will see this for the desperate act it is. It’s an act of desperation by a desperate, pathetic government in the last throes of trying to figure out what to do with itself.

At the outset, we’re also extremely concerned that we’re debating this bill, given that it has five schedules, running to a total of 80 pages, and was introduced only last Thursday, 19 October. Barely five days, including the weekend, is hardly sufficient to get across an extremely dense and technical bill. I note, too, that the member for Gorton, as shadow minister for employment, received a departmental briefing on this bill only yesterday. Several questions put on notice to the head of the department have not yet been answered. The government is clearly attempting to avoid scrutiny of this bill. In everything they do they seek to avoid scrutiny, responsibility, accountability and transparency. It’s being rushed through this parliament and that is simply unacceptable. The government claims that this legislation’s purpose is to implement various recommendations of the Heydon royal commission. We remember that, don’t we? Tens of millions of dollars was wasted on that royal commission, on that witch-hunt. The Heydon royal commission, as many will remember, was presided over by an individual who attended Liberal Party fundraisers and whose sole aim was to do the political bidding of the then Abbott government.

The explanatory memorandum states that this bill amends five separate pieces of legislation, and it will: first, put additional requirements on the government’s financial reporting and financial disclosure requirements of ‘worker entitlement funds’; second, prohibit awards or enterprise agreements from requiring or permitting contributions to any fund other than a superannuation fund, a registered worker entitlement fund or a registered charity; third, prohibit awards or enterprise agreements from permitting or requiring employee contributions to a union election fund; fourth, prohibit coercion of employers to pay amounts to a particular worker entitlement fund, superannuation fund, training fund, welfare fund or employee insurance scheme; fifth, put additional financial management and disclosure obligations on registered organisations; and, sixth, introduce new penalties for registered organisations’ non-compliance with financial management disclosure and reporting requirements.

It is quite clear, even in this summary, that this bill has significant implications for both unions and employer groups. But it is entirely reasonable to say that a detailed examination of the technical provisions in the bill is essential in order to fully ascertain what the full impact of the bill is and which groups will be affected. On this basis I note that Labor has attempted to have the bill examined by the Senate employment committee—in my view an extremely appropriate approach, given the density of this particular bill. Regrettably, the government has joined with a group of senators, led by departing Senator Nick Xenophon, to block Labor’s efforts on that front. The inquiry the Senate is having on this bill will be forced to report on 10 November 2017, setting an almost impossible deadline for stakeholders to prepare submissions and evidence. This proposal represents yet another chapter in this government’s relentless attacks on unions. I know the media is focused on what we’re seeing play out at the AWU offices this afternoon; nonetheless, this is part of this government’s relentless attack against unions and it is no less important, given how they’re trying to rush this through the parliament.

Of course, we know why they are doing this—the Liberals have always loathed the trade union movement. They’ve always hated the trade union movement. That’s part of their DNA. Particularly disturbing is that those opposite remain obsessed with this ideologically driven antiworker agenda given the current environment of low wage growth and rising cost-of-living pressures. The latest Department of Employment Trends in federal enterprise bargaining report provides more evidence that the Turnbull government is presiding over record low wages growth and a 22-year low in approved enterprise agreements. According to the latest data, wages growth for enterprise agreements approved in the June quarter fell to 2.6 per cent from 2.7 per cent in March—a 26-year low. In addition to low wages growth, there were only 845 approved enterprise agreements in the June quarter—the lowest since 1995. It’s staggering, then, that the International Monetary Fund and the OECD have both warned that declining union density and collective bargaining are contributing to stagnant wages and growing inequality.

This government wants to further undermine workers and their unions. Cost-of-living pressures are a very real problem and are having a real impact on people’s lives, and those people demand real solutions. Instead we have this bill, hastily introduced by those opposite. They hope they can sneakily rush it through the parliament, probably while all these raids are occurring this afternoon on the TV screens, hoping that no-one fully understands what they’re actually doing because they haven’t had the time to assess the bill. It’s extremely telling that the government, in their disreputable attitude to this debate, are seeking to squeeze union-backed worker entitlement funds, such funds being defined as funds which are for the purpose of paying worker entitlements, including those in respect of leave, payments in lieu of leave, payments in relation to termination, other payments due contractually or under an award, and death benefits. These very funds were designed and set up by the unions to protect their workers and ensure that their lawful entitlements were paid by employers, something that we know does not always happen.

This bill seeks to limit when a worker entitlement fund can become or stay registered, including defining what sort of organisation can operate a fund. It prescribes what the make-up of the board can be and the way in which the assets of the fund can be used. The bill further establishes a subset of worker entitlement funds called single-employer funds, which are funds that are controlled by a single employer for the benefit of its own employees. It would appear that these single-employer funds essentially escape all of the regulations contained in the bill, other than the tax related ones, unless the operator of the fund elects for it to be a worker entitlement fund and applies to be registered. In reality, worker entitlement funds often operate in the interests of creating a source of finance for unions to provide training, OHS support and other services to their members, hence the bill’s very real potential to undermine the benefits that some workers receive through these funds.

The bill also contains provisions which we understand would operate to prohibit enterprise agreements specifying that employers have to pay into training funds. To reiterate the question posed by the member for Gorton earlier, during his remarks: what is the justification for this, given that enterprise agreements are completely transparent, voted on by the workers, and Heydon himself, even given his background, conceded that the training funds provide a public good? What is the justification?

Several stakeholders have raised concerns about the significant uncertainty as to whether worker entitlement funds can continue to provide safety training and wellbeing services such as suicide prevention support and mental health and drug and alcohol counselling. These are extremely significant issues. At this point there are just too many unanswered questions about this bill for Labor even to get close to supporting it. Despite the minister’s hot air in the media, where she laughably tried to cast unions as evil, profit-hungry entities, what the government is actually doing with this bill is limiting the legitimate activities of unions and limiting the legitimate sources of income for unions, which unions use, of course, to represent their members, as they are duty-bound to do. A press release issued by the Minister for Employment in September read:

Through cosy deals with big businesses, unions have become a big business in their own right, more focussed on making profits than representing people.

That is ridiculous. It shows the government’s ideological and visceral hatred of the union movement. It’s a slur. It’s rubbish. Worker entitlement funds—which, by the way, are jointly established by unions and employers—operate, firstly, to ensure that workers’ entitlements are protected and, secondly, to provide important services to workers: training, counselling support, suicide prevention and funding of OH&S officers, just to name a few. This government simply does not understand the genesis of worker entitlement funds and the important service that they provide. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t understand the basic needs of working Australians. That’s apparent in its attacks today and in this bill.

In recent months we have seen this government stand idly by while some 700,000 hospitality workers nationwide have suffered cuts to their penalty rates and cuts in their take-home pay. According to research I commissioned from the Parliamentary Library, informed by figures in the ABS labour force survey, as many as 3,046 people in my electorate of Wills will be adversely impacted by these cuts. Some of the lowest-paid workers suffered an arbitrary pay cut of up to $77 per week. That’s a lot of money for someone on a low income. It’s the difference between putting food on the table or not. It’s the difference between getting school clothes for your kids or not. It’s the difference between being able to afford public transport or not. It is money that they could not afford to lose, and this government stood by and did nothing about it. It could have acted but it failed to do so.

I commend the second reading amendment moved by my friend the member for Gorton, as it once again calls on this government to do something for the 700,000 workers nationally who have had their take-home pay cut and to legislate to stop this egregious and unfair decision of the Fair Work Commission from taking effect. This government has no plan to arrest wage stagnation and no desire to do anything to protect workers. In stark contrast, the Labor opposition is committed to the strong economic conditions and fair and equitable industrial relations framework that will deliver a better standard of living for ordinary Australians.

We believe that every working Australian deserves a good wage and decent working conditions. We know that the best way to tackle poverty and reduce inequality is to ensure that every Australian who can work is able to get a decent job, and that’s why Labor will always put jobs first. Labor is, of course, the party that works with the unions and union movement, business and industry. It’s a party that works with all of these groups to create and secure decent jobs.

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to hear Bill Kelty reflect on the role that he played as one of the authors of the accord between the trade union movement and the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating and the business community. This remarkably successful period in Australia’s history is testament to the fruits of a productive relationship between capital and labour and what’s potential and what’s possible. It should be a lesson on the perils of the needlessly adversarial approach to industrial relations that is taken by this government. In cooperation, pay rises were achieved during this period, entitlements were expanded for workers, inflation was contained, unemployment numbers fell and the then Labor government was given the electoral authority to establish important public services, such as Medicare. I reflect on this golden era of Australian politics with some regret and angst because I know that this type of harmony and productivity will never exist under this government and Australians will be quite literally the poorer for it.

While we’re not declining to give the bill a second reading in order for it to be subject to a Senate review—albeit an extremely short one—Labor do not support the proposition that is before the House. Labor will never support any measure which attacks workers and the unions who are so important to their livelihoods and, indeed, who are so important to the future of our nation.