Address to the Australian Industry Group PIR Conference

It’s always good to attend these PIR conferences which have become a cornerstone event in the workplace relations space. As I read through the programme I noted that as always you have a very balanced attendee list with representatives like Mr Shorten and myself but also union bosses.

It’s a true shame that this isn’t a two way street. That unions refuse to invite the other side of politics represents a regrettable mindset. That said, when you have unions like the Maritime Union celebrating 140 years of union militancy – read illegality and thuggery – I’m not sure that’s something that anyone would seek to be involved in.

Mr Shorten as Minister had no such hesitation. He spent 10 hours in the air to make a 45 minute address to the conference praising their so-called ‘spirit’, and what spirit may that be, you ask? Well WA MUA Secretary Chris Cain told delegates just hours before Mr Shorten’s address that laws needed to be broken in pursuit of industrial goals.

Call me old fashioned, but laws should not be broken. And for a Minister of the Crown to attend and seemingly praise such activities undermines the rule of law and is of great concern to any Australian who believes in a society free of anarchy.

Sweetheart Deals

The revelations, in recent times, of the Australian Workers Union, Transport Workers Union and more recently the CFMEU slush-funds established under the ruse of other purposes are unacceptable and to be condemned.

Sadly, many of these funds have been established to ostensibly support worthwhile endeavours such as safety initiatives, drug and alcohol rehabilitation schemes.. Union bosses and others who have been involved in misusing members’ funds, set aside for safety initiatives are to be condemned in the strongest terms.

Governments cannot fix all of these problems; it is also up to employers to stand united against these kinds of schemes and industrial blackmail. I always find it interesting when employers knock on my door to complain of the industrial tactics of a trade union, to find that the same employer has made very generous donations to union “slush funds”. People are right to want to stamp out go-away money in the unfair dismissal space. But it’s up to employers to stamp out go-away money being paid to trade union bosses for industrial harmony. Often the source of the slush funds is the employers money – which in turn is ‘shareholder’ money.

It’s also important to report to the appropriate authorities any instances where trade union bosses are demanding bribes or payments for such outfits. It’s important for employers to resist. It’s the only way that we can clean up workplace relations.

That said, the strongest authority in your sector – the Australian Building and Construction Commission – is gone, but it is now up to Police in particular but also the Fair Work Commission to pick up some of the slack and put a stop to these kinds of activities.

Recently, I noticed a decision from the Fair Work Commission where a significant penalty was awarded against an employer who told a potential employee that they would have been hired but for the fact that they were not members of a union, namely the Maritime Union of Australia.

Let me be very clear: I think it is deeply regrettable that members of the business community including employer organisations have failed to publically and loudly condemn such sweetheart deals.

While Government should and has – rightly – taken steps to try and stop these kinds of activities, employers need to band together and stamp these kinds of activities out as well.

Union workplace access

Let me turn to workplace access. Most people would question the fairness of the union access laws - laws that we were promised would not be changed, a promise made on the life of the Prime Minister’s own mother[1] just across the way from where we are right now at the National Press Club.

Labor's Forward with Fairness document prior to the 2007 election contained an express commitment to retain existing right of entry provisions. Indeed, the then Shadow Minister Julia Gillard told us:

“We will make sure that current right of entry provisions stay. We understand that entering on the premises of an employer needs to happen in an orderly way. We will keep the right of entry provisions.”[2]

Based on these promises, it was rightly expected by all involved that the existing right of entry provisions would be maintained.  However, as we know, this was simply just not the case.

As you know, since the Fair Work Act came into effect which dramatically expanded the union access laws, we have seen an onslaught of visits. It was recently reported that the Australian Workers Union made 156 site visits to BHP’s Worsely Aluminium site in 2012 and a further 175 in 2011 and the Pluto project experienced more than 200 union site visits in the first 90 days of the Act…

…and just in case you were wondering, that is the same Australian Workers Union whose former National Secretary was your first speaker this morning. Oh and yes, that is the very same AWU who the esteemed Minister gave full marks to at their recent national conference.

Make no mistake, the vast majority of these visits are either a blatant membership fishing expedition or designed to intimidate.

If the initial broken promise isn’t bad enough, we now have before the Parliament a bill that would even further expand the right of entry laws.

Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013

The Bill contains a proposal that would make the default location for union officials to meet with employees – where an employer and a union cannot agree – the lunch-room. This will force the 87% of Australian private sector workers who actively choose not to join a union to be constantly badgered by union bosses to sign-up for membership. And guess how many union bosses would agree to a room other than the lunch room.

This change would simply send a green-light for a lunch room invasion by union bosses right around the country.

And Minister Shorten cannot tell us why this is necessary or so pressing. It’s pretty clear, it’s just yet another favour at the bottom of a very long list of demands from his union boss mates.

I pose the simple question to the Minister: why can’t Australian workers enjoy their lunch in peace?

The Coalition believes that reasonable entry rules for union access should apply but not just so the union bosses can run rampant. It should be seen as a privilege that requires special treatment, not something to be bargained with to threaten and disrupt workplaces.

But if the lunch-room invasion isn’t bad enough, this Bill provides a legislative union boss joy-ride scheme.

Employers will become responsible for the costs of transportation where access to the work-site is remote.

The Australian Metals and Mining Association has pointed out that the costs of transportation to some regional and off-shore projects in the mining sector could cost in excess of $30,000 in transport plus the costs of accommodation and on-site escorts.

These sites are not tourist sites or playthings for union salespeople. They are a place for highly specialised operational workers who have undertaken weeks of intensive safety training, including underwater helicopter evacuation procedures.

Again, we ask why? And there is no answer forthcoming.

These two provisions dramatically expand union boss rights and do nothing for individual workers, their employers, productivity or attractiveness for investment.

Despite Mr Shorten’s comments to both union and industry stakeholders that this would be the final change on workplace relations – he has since indicated that he is minded to introduce compulsory arbitration – something that has long been pushed for by the union bosses and something that was ruled out absolutely by Ms Gillard both as Opposition spokesman and as Workplace Relations Minister.

You’ve got to wonder, if it was so important that compulsory arbitration not be a hallmark of the Fair Work regime in 2007 and 2008, what’s changed?

I’ll tell you what has changed, the union bosses have been threatening to withdraw election funding unless this extra change is fast-tracked. This demand needs to be rejected by the Minister. To leave it hanging simply creates uncertainty.

Make no mistake. Any change to reintroduce compulsory arbitration would be a breach of promise on the scale of the No Carbon Tax or the best thing we can do for working families is bring in a surplus. To reiterate what I’ve said previously, such a breach would also unleash a pit bull of uncertainty about the whole Fair Work Act due to legal concerns about such provisions.

Our Plan

So, what would a Coalition deliver to the Australian people?

We would get back to the basics – to the core business of what the people expect us to do: delivering a strong and prosperous economy and a safe and secure Australia.

We would do this by:

  • Living within our means and getting the budget back into surplus and start paying down the debt incurred in the middle of a mining boom.
  • Protecting our borders and stopping the boats.
  • And lots more.

You can read all about it in Our Plan – 50 pages outlining real solutions along with the Coalition’s values, directions and policy priorities.

In short, we will deliver united, stable government that restores genuine accountability.

In workplace relations, we have already announced that we would reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

It was established in direct response to the findings of the Cole Royal Commission that exposed blackmail, thuggery, bullying and illegality on a grand scale.

And not only by the unions, might I add.

It is no coincidence that the ugly scenes of police horses being punched in Melbourne courtesy of the CFMEU occurred shortly after the ABCC was abolished.

When workers, who are actually paid-up members of the union have to plead with their union bosses in paid advertisements to stop the intimidation you know something is terribly out of balance.

We will restore the balance by restoring the ABCC.

When trade union bosses can rip off their members to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and the maximum penalty is a $10,000 fine whereas a company director can go to jail for 5 years and face a fine of $220,000 you know something is seriously out of balance.

We will restore the balance by creating a Registered Organisations Commission.

And let me be very clear. Yes, I am highly critical of some union bosses and the union movement’s attitude towards corruption and militancy.

Can I add, I’m similarly disgusted by employer organisations that remain silent when employers do sweet-heart deals, buying industrial peace, give 30% wage increases without productivity increases and denying employment opportunities to workers because they are not union members.

So we’ve announced two policies already.

We will soon be announcing policies designed to provide balance through practical problem solving measures in 3 broad areas that we have already identified in militancy, productivity and flexibility.

It is unacceptable to have the sorts of ugliness that was the Grocon Myer Emporium dispute. It is unacceptable to have a doubling of working days lost due to industrial disputes.

Everyone supports a fair days wage for a fair days work. But when unions show contempt for Supreme Court injunctions it undermines the rule of law that makes us a civilized society.

Turning to productivity.

Productivity is achieving a win/win.

The more productive the enterprise, the greater the job security and the greater is the capacity for wage increases. Having job security clauses in enterprise agreements sounds good but they are absolutely worthless if the enterprise fails.

The review of the Fair Work Act recently undertaken provided a golden opportunity to actually ask the tough questions. Rather than appoint friendlies to conduct the review with a skewed terms of reference, we believed that the Productivity Commission should have been tasked with this important endeavour.

Flexibility is the key in a modern economy that needs to adjust with the changing lifestyles and unforseen developments.

The one size fits all approach stifles innovation and the spirit of the entrepreneur. It stifles the aspirations of individual workers as well.

Why shouldn’t we have greater flexibility if the worker is going to be better off overall?

Labor’s Individual Flexibility Agreements were designed to fail. The provisions that allow either party to unilaterally provide 28 days’ notice of termination provide no certainty.

A mother wanting certainty for the school year for childcare arrangements will need to live month to month. Good luck getting childcare arrangements with four weeks’ notice.

Labor’s own example of Josh wanting to coach the school footy team would want certainty for the whole season and not month by month.

Labor’s own review panel recommended the 28 day period be extended to 90. Yet Mr Shorten can’t bring himself to make this, the most simple of changes. He claims he needs to consult. With whom I ask? Who could be opposed?

I hope that this gives you an insight into our thinking and approach.

Allow me to conclude by reflecting on the second tranche of amendments to the Fair Work Act – which will bring the changes to over 400 pages since Labor enacted the Fair Work Act. Just three years ago, Labor said the Act was working well and no changes were needed.


This forthcoming election is important.

Whilst the ACTU is busily levying its members to run a campaign – well – against whatever we announce, the Australian people – workers and employers alike – can be assured that the Coalition will act not in the sectional interests of a few elite but in their and the national interest.

Thank you.

[1] "If you'd like me to pledge to resign, to sign a contract in blood, take a polygraph, bet my house on it, give you my mother as a hostage, whatever you like." Julia Gillard, National Press Club debate,  8 November 2007

[2] Julia Gillard, 28  August 2007, Press Conference

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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