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

Time after time I find myself frustrated, bemused and quite often angry about the range of legislation that comes before this chamber when those opposite are in government. I spent my first term at the end of the Howard era among the infamous industrial relations changes around Work Choices. Quite rightly, there was not only a union driven campaign but also a community supported campaign rejecting that dog-eat-dog view of how industrial relations should be managed and regulated in this country. But we now see, under both the Abbott and Turnbull prime ministerships, continuing, ongoing—time and time again—pieces of legislation that, at their heart, are about one thing, and that is destroying the capacity of workers to unite through a formalised union in order to raise issues in a workplace where they don't have the balance of power.

At the heart of it is what sits at the heart of the Liberal and Nationals parties: a belief that only those who can break through that dog-eat-dog world and make good for themselves are deserving of decent pay conditions and a decent lifestyle and that if somehow you can't do it on your own then that's a reflection of you individually, rather than having an understanding of the way our society is structured. It often means that power is enormously twisted to one side of the equation. We have known for generations that those who own the workplaces, those who are putting the money into those workplaces, have an enormously stronger capacity for power than the workers who work in those workplaces.

It's a very simple function of a decent society that those people are able to organise, to elect union representatives to represent them and to work in a concerted, united manner not only to improve their pay and conditions but on issues such as health and safety. We supposedly don't have a conservative party in the Liberal Party. They're supposed to be a 'liberal party'. They're not supposed to be out there on the far-right-wing fringes of the political spectrum. But on some of these issues—to be honest, on so many issues in general in recent times—they're taking themselves off to that far right wing.

Like many of my colleagues, I meet regularly with my local unions. I meet regularly with the South Coast Labor Council. I also meet with my business chamber. I meet with other peak bodies around the electorate that represent a variety of views. I would be very surprised if any of those opposite had regular meetings with trade unions in their local area. I would never consider ignoring the views and issues of my local business chambers. I wouldn't even consider it. I wouldn't consider spending all my time in this place attacking their right to be peak groups representing the views of their memberships. Yet so often those opposite do exactly that with the trade union movement. Of course we'll have policy differences. We are born out of the trade union movement. We were born out of the fact that trade unions realised they had to have a political voice as well as an industrial voice. Those opposite, according to how often they say, 'Put your hand up if you've been in business,' have obviously been born out of the view that business and investment sectors need a voice in parliament too. That's fine. But if those opposite want to be effective they should make sure they're engaging with and respecting the role of all those institutions in our society.

We are seeing growing inequality. We are seeing stagnant wages. We are seeing greater exploitation in the workplace. We are seeing an increasing number of deaths in workplaces. There are real challenges for us in what's going on in our economy and in the workplaces of Australia. If we were serious about creating a society that shared wealth fairly, that understood that the people getting their fair share weren't just workers but also consumers—and that's what our great social experiment in Australia for over 100 years has been about, the fact that we've built up a middle class who have gained the capacity to be effective consumers because they've had good pay and conditions and safe workplaces; these things complement each other—we would be addressing these issues. We would be looking at why these things are going astray in our current environment. But, no, we're back here with another bill that's about micromanaging the unions, about trying to put handcuffs not only on their capacity to represent, advocate, negotiate and be political but even, in this case, on their capacity to work cooperatively with employers on the sorts of things one would think they both had a common interest in. Employers obviously think they've got a common interest in these areas, because they've often jointly funded, with the unions, things like counselling, preventing suicide in workplaces, and the health and wellbeing of workers. I'm absolutely bemused at the ideology of those opposite, that they could go to this level of attack on unions simply to handcuff their capacity to work effectively on behalf of working people—in this case, as I said, a type of activity that unions undertake in partnership with employers because both see the value in these sorts of programs.

In the Minister for Employment's press release on this bill, what did she say? She said:

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

If I ever believed she was the least bit interested in unions' capacity to represent people, I might have some sympathy for what she was trying to say. She doesn't. She never does. She has no respect for the trade union movement's capacity to represent people. It is a constant ongoing attack. I can't even imagine what those opposite would be doing. They certainly wouldn't be completely absent from the debating list, as is the case with this debate. Other than the minister's speech, I think there have been hardly any contributions from those opposite. But I can imagine what would be happening in this place if we were in government, introducing bill after bill like this, trying to hobble the capacity of peak employer organisations to prosecute a case, run campaigns, implement programs, raise funding in order to progress the wellbeing of their members. Forget calling us socialists—they'd be calling us communists and dictators. That's the sort of reality we'd be facing if we tried this sort of stunt on people who form organisations and peak bodies in order to advocate and represent for employers, whether they're big business like the Business Council of Australia, particular industry sectors like the Australian Industry Group or small businesses like COSBOA. If we were trying this sort of stunt and treating those organisations with the arrogance and disrespect that this government shows to the trade union movement, there would be a riot on the other side of this place. I personally am sick and tired of the double standards that this government has about the capacity of people in our civil society to form membership based organisations and advocate on their own behalf. They would not tolerate it if we did that sort of thing, nor will we tolerate it when they decide they're going to do it to trade unions.

The other problem I have with this bill before us, as is too often the case, is that it appeared last Thursday on the list. It's an extensive piece of legislation—five schedules going to 80 pages. It will amend five different pieces of legislation. One would think that something this significant should be given the respect of a proper and considered debate in this place. It has very significant implications, as I've outlined, not only for unions but, as I indicated, also for employer groups. It's something where you would think they would want to be able to have some say and some input into this process.

I actually think that the sort of work that this bill attacks is some of the best stuff that I've seen in workplaces. I've spent time with things like MATES in Construction—a fantastic organisation that works with unions and employers around suicide prevention. Some of the best things that happen in our workplaces are the things that employers and unions do together, because often they're going to the heart of very challenging social issues, things we're facing as a society, that are coming into workplaces and really need serious addressing. That's often when employers and unions come together and say, 'We have a common interest in this, so let's jointly fund and organise and run these sorts of programs.' It is true, sadly, that mental health challenges are a serious matter for workplaces now. I remember talking to a peak body of hairdressers when we were in government and I had responsibility for skills. For hairdressers the one big issue they wanted to talk to me about was mental health—young apprentices coming in with complex anxiety and depression issues. This is not a one-off. It's a really common challenge for this generation. As employers, they were worried about that, not just as a productivity issue, not just about the fact that they had concerns about how it was impacting on the work in their workplace and that young person's capacity to finish their apprenticeship, but also just because, as the vast majority of employers are, they were deeply concerned about these young people and wanted to know what they could do as an employer to help in those circumstances. This is the reality of workplaces in the modern world. These sorts of programs should be supported.

Employers who engage in them should be lauded for doing that; unions that engage in them should be lauded for doing that. It is astonishing to me that the government is so hide-bound in its hatred of unions that it can adopt the sorts of measures that we see before us in this bill, and do so in a rushed and hurried manner without proper consideration. I'm very disappointed that the Nick Xenophon Team didn't support our proposal to have a Senate committee inquiry, because I think these really important issues should be teased out and considered.

In the couple minutes I've got left to me, I just want to touch on some of the matters that are playing out in my local area that, if the government was really interested in workplaces, they could be spending a lot more time on. I want to touch firstly on the issue of penalty rates. It has been a big issue in my electorate. I recently surveyed my electorate on issues of importance to them and had a very strong response back on the issue of penalty rates. While the vast majority of people who responded to my survey didn't actually work in an environment where they received penalty rates, 80 per cent of them supported people getting Sunday penalty rates. Even people who weren't getting these rates themselves saw fairness and justice in people who lose their Sundays being recompensed, getting that additional support, yet the government flat-out refused to take any action to ensure that people continued to get decent pay—even though, apparently, they've now discovered there is a problem with pays and incomes and perhaps we should have higher pay rates.

Finally, I want to give an example of why unions are so important at the local level. In my area, the South Coast Labour Council for quite a while has been running a campaign around the exploitation of young workers. A young woman from the University of Wollongong had put up a post on her Facebook about a very exploitative experience she'd had in the workplace and was just blown away by the massive number of young people who went on her Facebook and commented, having had very similar experiences—not being paid, being underpaid, being exploited in terms of their work conditions. It was quite shocking. The South Coast Labour Council became aware of this and then worked with these young people—Ashleigh Mounser was the young woman from the university—to start a campaign to raise awareness. It is true that some of the employers didn't intentionally get things wrong, but it was so unregulated and so unchecked that terrible exploitation went on. If the government wants to spend its time on something useful, I suggest it could spend it in this space.

Watch my speech here.