OPINION: IR BILL TARGETS NURSES, NOT SETKAS
Scott Morrison would have you believe his latest worker-bashing bill is all about reining in one union – and one rogue official in particular.
Listening to the government’s rhetoric over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking the so-called Ensuring Integrity legislation is urgently needed to deal with the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union and John Setka.
But they are using Setka as a stalking horse – cover to ram through an extreme and dangerous bill that represents an unprecedented assault on freedom of association and will be weaponised against workers.
The government also wants you to believe that Setka is somehow typical of the modern union movement. That it’s still dominated by big, blue-collar bovver boys who want to make trouble.
That’s nonsense. The average union member today is a woman in her 40s who works in aged care.
These are the kinds of workers – whether they are members of a union or not – who will be hurt by this legislation.
That’s right – ultimately it won’t be Setka who is punished by these laws. It will be workers who just want a decent pay rise; workers who want to be protected from wage theft; workers who want a safe workplace.
We need industrial relations reform. We need it to address flat-lining wages so people can start spending again. We need it to restore and protect penalty rates. We need it to crack down on dodgy employers who exploit their workers. We need it to close the gender pay gap.
But this legislation does none of that.
In fact, it does the opposite – by attacking and degrading the organisations on the front line of those fights.
If this bill passes, it will give the government and business community unprecedented power to interfere in the operation of unions. They’ll be able to wrap unions in red tape and legal action that will waste their time, drain their resources, and distract them from their important work.
The bill allows anyone with a “sufficient interest” to seek the disqualification of a union official, request the deregistration of a union or ask for a union to be placed into administration.
What does “sufficient interest” mean? No one seems to know.
It could be the boss of a company – such prominent Liberal Party donor and industrial lawbreaker Gerry Hanssen, who is said to be driven by a “blind hatred of unions”. Or it could be a disgruntled customer, a lobby group, or a political enemy – or even the relevant minister.
It’s not hard to see how this could be weaponised.
And no – there’s no corporate equivalent to these powers.
Directors of companies that recklessly expose workers to risk of serious illness or injury or death, or that engage in systematic wage theft, are not exposed to disqualification. But union officials who take unauthorised action against those companies could be barred. Or their entire union could be deregistered.
Imagine this: a union official inspecting a dangerous work site or investigating wage theft might make an administrative error and fail to give proper notice, or be responsible for some other minor technical breach. An application can then be made by the very business that official was investigating to get them kicked out of their job.
Or if a group of nurses decide to take unauthorised industrial action by handing out leaflets explaining that they don't think the nurse-to-patient ratios are good enough, their entire union could be dissolved.
You might say a judge is unlikely to approve such a move. But even if that’s true, the action can still be launched by anyone of “sufficient interest”, ensuring the unions are tied up in the courts – an attempt to intimidate them in the future.
Perhaps the most undemocratic section relates to amalgamations.
If two unions want to amalgamate, they must conduct a ballot of members overseen by the Australian Electoral Commission. Under this bill even if both memberships overwhelmingly vote yes, the government can still intervene and stop the amalgamation going ahead.
This is an obvious assault on the fundamental principle of freedom of association.
Many Liberal MPs talk about the importance of freedom of speech, particularly in relation to the Racial Discrimination Act. But when it comes to freedom of the press and freedom of association, they go missing.
The government is trying to claim the bill gives unions the same treatment as corporations. I don’t accept there should be equivalence – unions are fundamentally different to corporations in both duty and structure – but if that’s the test the government has set for itself, it is obvious it has failed. There remain glaring double standards.
So Labor will oppose this bill. While the changes proposed by crossbenchers last week are positive, they cannot salvage what is fundamentally broken legislation.
It is irredeemable.