"Where we Stand" - Address to the Workplace Relations Policy Forum

"Where we Stand"
Address to the Workplace Relations Policy Forum,
Victorian Liberal Party State Council

Workplace relations in Australia has been front and centre in the media in recent months. From Craig Thomson to Asciano and from Qantas to George Calombaris – with the problems of the Fair Work Act coming to the surface.

 I have no doubt that more problems will emerge in coming months.

Small business people are telling me about their difficulties with the new regime which is making their very tough retail environment so much worse.

Also, we have a number of cases going through the legal system. Just last week we had a decision in the JJ Richards case which interprets the Fair Work Act as allowing union bosses to 'strike first and talk later'.

This is despite the solemn promise from Labor before the 2007 election that this would not be the case.

Minister "everywhere" Shorten has been mysteriously missing in action and unable to correct the record on this one.

There are a number of other cases still before the courts, including the Barclay v. Bendigo TAFE case involving adverse action that seems to allow for union bosses to be above all other employees and allow them to do whatever they want without the threat of being penalised. And now we have a class action against Toyota. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with an employer confronting the need to downsize keeping their best employees.

Keeping their best employees will help the future viability of the enterprise and thus preserve jobs. For union bosses to be agitating otherwise is regrettably short-sighted and that is exactly what the union bosses are doing bringing an adverse action claim because some of the stood down are union officials.

We also have a review of the Fair Work Act which the Government has sponsored. We know it has panellists who are Labor sympathisers, and the Terms of Reference have been skewed, indeed the term 'productivity' has been left out of the Terms of Reference, much to the disappointment, we now find out, of the Department of Finance who advocated for productivity to be included. Something that was denied until we obtained the information through a Freedom of Information request.

Now, some people have suggested that we should, despite the reviews and despite the court cases come out with a workplace relations policy immediately. It would be wise I suggest to not rush out with a policy.

We will announce our policy in good time before the next election. It makes sense to await the outcomes of the courts and the review before announcing our policy.

This morning's announcement by our leader on accountability for Registered Organisations shows we have policy ready to go when needed and that we are providing practical solutions to the practical problems in workplaces.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission

The Australian Building and Construction Commission which was so ably led by John Lloyd was established by the Howard Government following the Cole Royal Commission.

It goes without saying that the ABCC has made an outstanding contribution to Australia's national productivity and has substantially reduced lawlessness and thuggery in the construction sector. Unfortunately, Labor with the support of the Greens passed legalisation to abolish that important body.

While Labor were debating the Bill, they moved a last-minute amendment which means we won't even have a toothless tiger but in fact a toothless mouse.

As three state Attorneys-General (including your own excellent Robert Clark) and the Law Council of Australia have observed, this legislation is so bad that it will actually undermine longstanding principles enshrined in our legal system. The Law Council of Australia, in an unprecedentedly strong statement, has condemned the legislation.

What necessitated this last-minute amendment to the legislation? We will never know. And we will never know because this bill was guillotined, by the Green-Labor Alliance who in the process of guillotining the changes did not consider the Law Council's protests worthy of any answer or investigation.

Allow me to give a very brief analogy of the import of this last-minute amendment. If somebody drives through a red light and collides with another motor vehicle, causing damage, under normal circumstances, the person driving through the red light would have to settle with the person whose property they had damaged. Irrespective of that payment and private settlement, one would expect the police to bring a charge for driving through the red light. That is the normal way our legal system operates. It is a proper way for our legal system to operate. It has always been thus; it should always be thus. Now under the Labor-Green change if you settle privately in the construction sector where an employer and a union are at loggerheads because a union is acting illegally, if they come to a private settlement between themselves, the union or the employer can no longer be prosecuted. We believe that as a matter of principle to be fundamentally wrong.

Let's not forget that it was Tony Abbott as Workplace Relations Minister who when faced with allegations of thuggery and intimidation in the construction sector commissioned the Cole Royal Commission which exposed just how damaging the behaviour of some union bosses and some employers were to the construction sector and to our national economy.

Decisive action worked in the past. It will work again. The Coalition will restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission with its former powers.

We believe workers and contractors have the inalienable right to go to work without the fear of a union thug rocking up using the worst kinds of tactics to get the result they want.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission was just one tool that we used to combat illegality in the construction sector. The Howard Government also in 1997, put in place a National Code of Practice for the Australian building and construction sector. In order to be eligible to work for or on Australian Government building and construction projects businesses needed to be compliant with our National Code of Practice. That Code encouraged a culture of best practice.

On coming to office, the then Minister Julia Gillard significantly weakened the code. This was the beginning of the very slippery slope to the position we are now in with the building and construction sector where the red carpet has been rolled out yet again for the union bosses.

Can I take the opportunity to congratulate the state Government and the work that's been done here in Victoria on implementing a Code of Practice for Victoria. I would encourage all states which are concerned with ensuring that government projects are achieved on time and on budget to follow the Victorian lead...

...and we know that the states are serious about some of these important issues because of course your own Premier Bailleu who went to COAG earlier this month and was able to walk away with an agreement from the architect of the Fair Work Act for the Productivity Commission to take a look at the increasing costs of construction in Australia.

I'm sure that the Productivity Commission will conduct a robust review but I say to all of you here today that you need not look any further than the construction of the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant to see what kinds of problems are being faced. It is a project where you can get paid a hell of a lot of money to not have to do very much at all for it.

The Australian Greens on Workplace Relations

We know the damage that the Australian Greens are doing to the economy with the Carbon Tax. But that is just the beginning.

In workplace relations, the Greens' radical policy would have employees walking out as they please and the union bosses running the place.

Their policy would take a wrecking ball to workplace productivity, job creation and the wider economy. What the Greens don't seem to understand is that without employers there are no employees and the more successful an enterprise, the higher paid the workforce.

The Greens led the charge to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which sought to restore the rule of law in the construction sector.

Apart from that gem the Greens’ workplace relations settings include:

  • a 35 hour working week
  • a mandatory minimum of five weeks paid annual leave for all employees
  • ‘Green bargaining’ between workers and employers
  • enshrining unions’ right to prosecute employers in national OH&S law
  • repealing the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act
  • protecting unions and workers from common law actions
  • abolishing the requirement for secret ballots
  • introducing national industrial manslaughter laws, and
  • allowing casual workers the right to challenge their termination

You may well ask where all this nonsense comes from? In recent years unions like the CFMEU, ETU and AMWU have given the Greens over $600,000 in campaign donations.  So now we have a battle between the Greens and the ALP as to who can be more hairy chested on workplace relations issues so they attract that large amount of union funding.

On the Greens, can I quickly divert and congratulate the Victorian Liberal Party on the very principled stand it took during the last state election. With the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Ballieu saying 'we won't preference the Greens', 'we won't do a deal with the Greens after the election because of their kooky policies', it really put John Brumby on the back foot because conservative Labor voters had to ask themselves the question 'why would my party preference the Greens, do a deal with the Greens when they have these kooky policies?'

I have been an advocate for our party putting the Greens last and I am delighted that the Victorian Division did that and the great success it was for our cause in this state.

Occupational Health and Safety

Turning to occupational health and safety, your government here in Victoria has led the way on a common sense approach on occupational health and safety – and that has been vindicated in recent weeks by a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report that shows the huge impact that would be placed on small and medium businesses in this state.

Despite Ms Gillard's suggestions that she had got the job done getting a unified and harmonised occupational health and safety system in Australia. The simple fact is it has not occurred and I doubt it will occur because of the extreme nature of the federal push. Many State Parliaments around Australia are balking at the legislation and I commend them for doing so.

This legislation is only ‘coat hanger’ legislation, in other words it's a Bill under which hang all these codes of conduct which become enforceable and are seen as being allegedly best practice.

Let me give you just one example that is a draft code. It's the draft code on bullying. We have a situation where an employer unintentionally bullies me, I don't consider it to be bullying but another sensitive employee has observed this and he actually interprets this behaviour as bullying – albeit it was unintentional and it wasn't taken as bullying but the sensitive employee did see it as bullying, he would be entitled to compensation, counselling and all the rest. It really is ludicrous and to overcome this difficult workplace scenario, what do you do?

Well the Code of Practice tells us that you've got to put posters up in the staff common room, and you've got to have a go-to person in your enterprise if you think you're being bullied. That's all very well until I asked the question at Senate Estimates 'how does this work for a plumber with two employees where the job-site is the house they happen to be working on that particular day where they don't have a staff room or a common room and indeed where the three of them work together all day, every day how are they going to get time out so that two can talk about the other one's bullying and that the go-to person could infact be the person who has undertaken the bullying. What we are seeing in Canberra is big government, big business and big unions putting together a regulatory framework that has no genuine application for small business but is tying up small business in a way that will be very, very difficult for them to comply with the law...

...and if all that isn't bad enough, I'm sure you've read of the recent Federal Court case about the worker injured on her work trip whilst engaging in some vigorous horizontal activity, if you understand my drift. Although she engaged in this activity after hours in her free time and she injured herself in that vigorous activity, she's entitled to workers compensation.

Indeed the Judge said words to the effect that if she was sitting in her hotel room playing cards and got a paper cut she would have been entitled to workers compensation. As a result, premiums go up. As a result, you have another statistic for workers compensation and a workplace injury to show how bad Australian workplaces are and how unsafe they are.

Union Bosses

In relation to union bosses, you have heard the announcement by our Leader this morning. A very robust policy that I won't seek to take you through this afternoon.

Suffice to say, it will clean up the union movement because hopefully the deterrent effect of that newly announced policy will be such that it won't be worth the risk. It seems, especially with the Health Services Union number 1 branch, and the Fair Work Australia report that's already come out on that, there will only be civil penalties applied that will be a couple of thousand dollars of penalty.

If you've been milking out tens of thousands of dollars, that's a pretty good risk. What we are proposing is a very tough, robust system whereby in effect if you are a member of a registered organisation, more particularly a trade union you will have the right that a shareholder does in a company to hold the directors accountable and the penalties will be commensurate.


In the "Forgotten People" speech by Robert Menzies, he spoke of the "salary earners, shopkeepers, skilled artisans, professional men and women, farmers and so on" –those mainstream Australians whose goals, needs and aspirations were being ignored by Labor. I think all this time later, Labor is doing it again and we as Liberals have the urgent task to represent those forgotten people and that is what Mr Abbott, our leader, announced today indicating that he had not forgotten all those tens of thousands health services workers that have been forgotten by Labor.

With your help, I look forward to doing just that – looking after the forgotten people in this space along with your excellent Senate team that I recognize, of Senators Michael Ronaldson, Mitch Fifield, Scott Ryan, Helen Kroger and our Coalition colleague Senator Bridget McKenzie.

Thank you very much.

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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