Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker, since 2007 the unions in this country have donated $100 million to the Australian Labor Party.
Today in this Bill the government repays them in spades.
Mr Speaker – industrial relations affects every Australian worker, every business operator, and industry sector.
All in this place have a genuine desire to improve our industrial relations system.
But what has been put forward by this government, in this Bill, will take our system backwards.
The Bill is as much a missed opportunity as Labor’s first budget.
It doesn’t improve the lives of Australians.
The inane rhetoric about the Coalition being against wage increases or improved conditions is of course absurd, Mr Speaker.
The government said it would support workers and that it would work to support all Australians and businesses.
Instead, it will sacrifice them at the altar of unionism.
Once again, Labor has sidelined the national interest in favour of its niche interests.
Peter Strong, the former CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia, summed it up when he said, and I quote:
‘The government’s approach to the modern workplace is nothing but ideology and cronyism becoming policy… The legislation is a trojan horse… for the empowerment of unions in every workplace in Australia.’
If this Bill passes Mr Speaker in its current form, it will impose the most radical changes on Australia’s industrial relations systems in decades.
Changes which will complicate the system, create conflict in workplaces, and cause delays.
Changes which will undermine the autonomy of businesses in favour of agenda-driven collectivism at the behest of unions.
Changes which will usher in economy-wide strikes the like of which we have not seen in recent memory.
And changes, Mr Speaker, which will kill productivity at a time when increasing productivity is needed to contend with high inflation, rising interest rates, and low unemployment.
The overlay of this legislation on top of that high inflation and dramatically increasing cost of living pressures under this government makes for a potential economic powder keg.
Make no mistake about it – it is Whitlam-esque in nature.
Mr Speaker, for Australians struggling with cost-of-living pressures, the changes to multi-employer bargaining proposed in this Bill will increase their cost-of-living further.
Strikes will cripple supply chains.
Crippled supply chains will lead to shortages, including of essential goods.
Shortages will drive up the price of groceries and other products.
And Mr Speaker – this Bill again shows Labor’s inconsistency.
On the 21st of November last year, the ABC’s David Speers asked the Treasurer whether industry-wide bargaining was ‘a yes, or a no, or a maybe?’
Now, the Treasurer responded in this way very definitively; ‘It’s not part of our policy, David.’
Now Mr Speaker – this legislation is bad for Australians, it’s bad for the nation and it’s bad for our future.
Mr Speaker – before addressing the Bill specifically, let me say something on the manner in which it has been brought into this Parliament.
With this Bill proposing such drastic changes to our industrial relations system, one would expect the government to afford adequate time to consider its details.
Not just for this Parliament, but for Australian industry sectors and businesses – large and small.
Instead, we have been given just a few weeks to scrutinise a 250-page Bill with an additional 260-page explanatory memorandum.
Many of those opposite have little or no experience in running a business.
If they did, they would appreciate that most business owners – especially with a head count of one to 30 employees – are running operations themselves.
Typically, they’re working 14 hour days.
When they’re not working, they’re managing the family household and caring for their children.
I don’t know when the government expects small business to examine over 500 pages of this legislation to truly gauge the impact on their businesses and on their families and on their employees.
And as the independents have pointed out in their contributions earlier in this debate – neither have they had reasonable time to examine what it is the government is proposing here.
Now on top of this, the Labor government, has done a deal with the Greens, to force through a three-week Senate Inquiry on one of the most significant pieces of legislation in our country’s history.
Time and again, this government sanctimoniously lectures us on how it’s the embodiment of integrity, of transparency and of accountability.
Time and again, its actions betray its words.
Labor’s recalcitrance surrounding this Bill exposes its true dishonesty and its obsession with pleasing its union masters.
In its desire to push the Bill through the Parliament at warp speed, the government shows its utter disrespect for Australian workers, for Australian businesses and industries.
It thinks Australian’s lives and livelihoods can be toyed with.
Just as we are right to question Labor’s methods, we’re right to question its motives.
The Bill is not about consensus – as Labor would have you believe from the charade which its Jobs and Skills Summit – which deceived Australians – now turns out to be.
It’s about control.
It’s about Labor handing over control of our industrial relations system to the unions.
It’s about Labor reimbursing their union paymasters for the millions-of-dollars that the unions have put into political campaigns.
Mr Speaker – the Coalition wants to see wages increase. We want to see workers’ wages rise.
Of course, we do.
Particularly to help Australians deal with cost-of-living pressures inflicted on them by this government’s catastrophic energy policy decisions – among many other bad decisions that they’ve already made just in the last 5-months.
But there’s no evidence that this Bill will bring about rises in wages.
In fact, it will lead to job losses.
Now, let’s get back to first principles.
Employers in industry and business create the vast majority of jobs in Australia – not the government.
If employers are forced to pay unsustainable wages, their employees will soon find themselves without a job when their employer’s business goes bust.
A balance has to be struck; between what an employee wants and what an employer is able to afford so that the business can survive.
And that’s best negotiated between employees and an employer – at the enterprise or workplace level.
But that fundamental tenement is still in jeopardy under this Bill.
In fact, it’s trashed.
The negotiation of wages and conditions will be taken out of the hands of individual businesses and their workers under Labor’s proposed changes to multi-employer bargaining.
Mr Speaker – under current legislation, multiple employers can apply to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the Fair Work Commission to bargain together.
They do this knowing that they expose themselves to industrial action which could affect the parties alike.
Importantly, this process is voluntary.
As it stands, multi-employer bargaining is a choice for employers.
It’s an opt-in arrangement.
But changes under the proposed legislation will compel employers to bargain together.
Specifically, where ‘common interests’ can be established.
And here’s the inane thing: the ‘common interest’ criteria is so broad – the equivalent of vague generalisations – that it will be satisfied on almost every occasion.
And that is a deliberate measure within this Bill.
Let me illustrate this absurdity.
Let’s say you’ve got five businesses – a restaurant, a café, a clothing retailer, a supermarket and hairdresser – they are located in the same area, for example, in the same shopping centre.
In this case, the ‘common interest’ test under this legislation is met.
Despite each businesses’ vast differences, the geographic location is used as the justification for multi-employer bargaining.
So, here’s another example. Let’s say you have two pharmacies.
But one is in Queensland and the other in New South Wales.
In this case too, the ‘common interest’ test is met.
Despite operating in different jurisdictions and localities, the service offer is used as a justification for multi-employer bargaining.
Such is the elasticity of the ‘common interest’ test.
Yet we all know that businesses – even within industries – are unique.
They have workers with different qualifications, different experiences, different skills who work different hours, in different locations with different conditions.
These niceties will count for absolutely nothing under Labor’s revised legislation.
In fact, the ‘common interest’ test is designed to trivialise the identity of individual businesses in favour of group identity.
As the Bill is currently drafted, employers will also be compelled to bargain where it’s in the desire of the majority of employees across affected workplaces – but critically, not within an individual business or workplace.
But so rushed is this Bill, that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has already agreed to amend this part of the legislation even before it came into this chamber.
Now, under those proposed changes, a majority vote would be required in each individual workplace before industrial action or multi-employer bargaining agreements can proceed.
But even with this amendment, a small business can still be compelled to bargain against the wishes of an employer.
And the door will be flung open to non-unionised worksites being forced to bargain.
So, when Labor says its proposed legislation will preserve the ability for businesses to opt-in to multi-employer bargaining, it’s an absolute lie.
At the multi-employer negotiation table, the autonomy of businesses and the aspirations of workers will be crushed as they are coerced into a ‘one size fits all’ agreement.
And what about an employee’s flexible working arrangements?
Well, under the Fair Work Act currently, an employee can request them, and an employer can refuse them on ‘reasonable business grounds.’
Labor’s legislative changes will instead see disputes managed by the Fair Work Commission, including arbitration.
Now this is absolutely unprecedented in Australia’s workplace relations history.
It gives the Fair Work Commission the right to determine how an employer manages their workplace.
Changes to multi-employer bargaining amount to Labor’s intent to kill off enterprise bargaining.
And in its place, install a new centralised wage-fixing system and umpire.
But Mr Speaker – don’t take our word for it.
Consider what the Productivity Commission has said.
In its interim report into labour market productivity released last month, the Productivity Commission highlighted concerns with multi-employer bargaining.
It outlined the risk of diminished productivity when wages and conditions are set for a group of firms in a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
It said that businesses would have to compromise their requirements and flexibilities.
And it even noted that multi-employer bargaining could give rise to anti-competitive behaviours which would impact consumers through increased prices and reduced quality.
Mr Speaker – let’s be under no apprehension about the underlying agenda of this Bill.
Union membership in this country has been in decline for decades.
Indeed, union membership across Australia’s private sector workforce today is less than 10 per cent.
And we strongly support choice. If people decide to join a union that is their right to do so, and we respect and honour that decision.
Since the federal election, the Labor government has been resurrecting and empowering union leaders.
And multi-employer bargaining is the mechanism through which union leaders can assert their movement’s relevance in the 21st century.
Under the proposed changes in this Bill, the bargaining process will be heavily influenced by union leaders.
Many businesses will have to contend with the union machine and its mob-like intimidation and extortion for the first time.
That’s exactly what the union leaders want and it’s exactly what this government is delivering on a platter to them.
Multi-employer bargaining will allow union leaders to cannibalise businesses.
And right now, they’re licking their lips at the prospect.
Here’s a hypothetical situation: Five businesses from a shopping centre are at the multi-employer negotiating table.
Three are small businesses, three of them – each with 15 employees, half full-time, half part-time.
Two are larger employers or businesses – each with more than 50 full-time employees, including HR and legal specialists.
Some employees within those two larger businesses have union representation.
Now, what hope do the three small businesses have in securing favourable terms?
They have neither the time, nor can they afford the legal expertise or resources, to ensure their interests are best represented in a joint bargaining position.
Terms will effectively be dictated to these employers – such as adopting unaffordable wages.
From there, these employers’ operations will be constrained, and the viability of their small businesses put at risk.
If you ever wanted to see what the Monopoly board game looks like in real life, Australian businesses will experience it under multi-employer bargaining.
And here’s something even more perverse: Multi-employer agreements cannot be voted on by employees without the permission of bargaining representatives.
In other words, the unions will have a right of veto, believe it or not.
Now, the Government and unions would have you believe that this Bill is about increasing wages and making bargaining more accessible to more people.
If that were the case, well why did Labor and the unions fight tooth and nail against the Coalition Government’s reforms to improve and streamline enterprise agreement-making which sought to balance the needs of both employers and employees?
If that were the case, why did Labor and the unions not support our changes to the Better Off Overall Test when we were in Government?
Today, Mr Speaker – all their rhetoric about wanting to drive higher wages and reduce bargaining complexity is nothing more than a smokescreen.
Beneath their words is an insidious agenda.
This Bill flagrantly seeks to shift power from employers and employees to the unions.
If you think this isn’t about union empowerment and control, consider Labor’s intent in abolishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
The industry watchdog has an exemplary track-record in cracking down on union intimidation, thuggery and criminal behaviour in the construction sector – especially the harassment and abuse of women on job sites.
Labor’s move will mean that the CFMEU will no longer have to pay millions of dollars in civil penalties.
No wonder bullies like John Setka have been ‘impressed’, as he says, by Labor’s decision to adopt this Bill.
The ABCC’s abolition will see economic activity decline by an estimated $47.5 billion dollars across the economy by 2030.
That’s the cost to the economy Labor is happy to bear to appease its own paymasters.
Now Mr Speaker – there’s two important features of this Bill which proposes changes that must be mentioned.
First, it will expand the size and scope of employees who are compelled to bargain.
And secondly, it introduces new sector strike rights.
Both elements vastly increase the risk of industry-wide industrial action.
Any business with a headcount of 15 or more staff – be they full-timers, part-timers or casuals – will be able to stop work and strike.
That’s tens-of-thousands of businesses across the country.
We know that empowered union leaders will make unreasonable pay demands which employers and the economy simply cannot afford.
When those wage ultimatums are not met, it will be ‘tools down’ and ‘take it to the streets.’
Multi-employer bargaining will engender stoppages, shutdowns, walkouts and protests on an unprecedented scale.
Go back and have a look at some of the footage from the 1970s and 1980s under the Whitlam government.
That is a taste of what we are about to experience in our country.
It will revive the crippling economy-wide strikes of the 1970s and 1980s.
And it has the potential to make the disruption and economic damage of those decades look like we were on easy street.
Mr Speaker – we should be sceptical about union commitments to conciliation.
Indeed, union assurances that industrial action will be ‘a last resort’ are of course vacuous.
There’s no shortage of strike action right now.
For example, the rail union protesting for months in Sydney, causing disruption after disruption for commuters.
If this legislation is passed in its current form, we risk normalising that sort of strike action.
Here’s a pertinent question: why are union leaders so much demanding worker strike powers under multi-employer bargaining, including the right to strike simultaneously and in sympathy?
It’s not because they intend to use those powers sparingly.
Rather, because they intend to exercise them readily and at every opportunity.
Mr Speaker, the government may not heed our warnings or like what we are saying but perhaps they should pay attention to the views of many others who have made comment in this debate.
Across Australia business groups, industry groups, and employers – small, medium and large – are united in their opposition to Labor’s industrial relations overhaul.
Now remember, these are the same groups that went to the Jobs Summit in good faith.
They met with the Prime Minister, the incoming Prime Minister and the new government and said that they were willing to negotiate, to be part of a conversation and they have been betrayed.
Those at the coal-face understand the inherent risks and damage which will come from Labor’s proposed changes to multi-employer arrangements and bargaining.
Let’s consider what they’ve said.
Andrew McKellar, the CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, described multi-employer bargaining as, and I quote: ‘Seismic shifts to Australia’s workplace relations system… reversing decades of tripartite consensus.’
Innes Willox, Chief Executive of the AIG, labelled the Bill as ‘fundamentally flawed’ and needed to be ‘rethought and reworked’.
He went on to say: ‘The proposed changes… risk taking the country down a path of more strikes, fewer jobs, centralised decision-making and less trust within our enterprises.’
‘We must avoid extreme changes that risk imposing damaging strikes and harm on the community and businesses…
We urge the government to take a breath and avoid rushing to introduce such extreme changes to our workplace relations system.’
And then Jennifer Westacott, Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, who has literally bent over backwards to deal with the government, to negotiate with them in good faith – again a participant at the Jobs Summit – has spoken at length publicly and in private with the government about their desire to see a reasonable arrangement arrived at and that they would support that arrangement.
But he’s what Ms Westacott has had to say: ‘We want wages to go up, but that won’t be achieved by creating more complexity, more strikes and higher unemployment.’
‘We are deeply concerned that the new system could see small businesses swept up in a complex system dominated by unions and lawyers, currently one large workplace could vote to pull smaller workplaces into an agreement…
… we are staring down the barrel of a more complex system that runs the risk of stifling innovation and fossilising the economy.’
Now they’re not words from a Liberal Party frontbench member or one of our impassioned local members really concerned about small businesses in their electorate.
Mr Speaker, they’re the words of somebody who is leading the Business Council of Australia on a bipartisan basis.
This side of politics often can have some critical words about what we think is a fairly passive approach by some within the business community toward this particular issue, particularly around industrial relations.
But this Labor government has managed to unify them in one voice.
Has managed to bring them together to condemn this Bill.
So, when we see in subsequent years Mr Speaker, the impact of this Bill on workplaces, on small businesses, on employees, on an increase in the unemployment rate, there should be no surprise.
And the Australian public, has not in our living lifetime experienced what we believe will be delivered by this Bill.
Enterprise bargaining, Mr Speaker, must remain the cornerstone of our workplace relations system.
Our industrial relations system is far from perfect.
But this Bill and its proposed reforms to multi-employer bargaining will be a throwback to an industrial relations system of a bygone era.
A system which clearly is not fit-for-purpose in modern day Australia.
A system which will add to, not alleviate the cost-of-living pressures.
A system which forsakes Australians, businesses and industry, in favour of unions.
And a system which will cause catastrophic economic damage at a time when we can least afford it.
This Bill must be defeated.
And failing that, it must be significantly amended.
Many of the independents in this place and in the other place were elected on a platform of integrity and accountability.
And the Coalition seeks their support on that basis.
This is their opportunity to stand for their values.
Values clearly absent from this Labor government, as the independents – to their credit – have pointed out in this chamber only today.
A government which has haphazardly put forward one of the most unprincipled and damaging pieces of legislation in the history of the Australian Parliament.
And so Mr Speaker, I move an amendment in relation to this Bill.
It’s an amendment which has been given great consideration…
It provides balance.
It attempts to do some good where the Labor Party at the moment seek to only do harm to businesses and to the relationship between businesses and employees across the country.
The unprecedented preferment on the union movement through this Bill is something that is not in our country’s best interest.
I said in my opening remarks that this Bill delivers a very significant dividend to the union masters who have paid $100 million to the Labor Party since 2007.
Now, they would have considered that to be a large amount of money, in anyone’s terms $100 million is a lot of money, but the dividend on that $100 million investment is going to be felt everyday by way of benefit to the union movement at the cost of workplaces and the viability of businesses across the economy.
Don’t be expressing any surprise about this Mr Speaker, because that is the reality of what we are debating here today.
So, Mr Speaker, in relation to this Bill, I move the following amendment:
That all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
‘The House declines to give the Bill a second reading and calls on the Government to;
- give the Australian Parliament three months to review these significant changes rather than trying to force through the legislation this year;
- amend the legislation to exclude changes to multi-employer bargaining which will lead to more strikes and fewer jobs without increasing productivity or wages;
- admit to the Australian people that these extreme industrial relations changes will result in significant red tape and higher costs for small, family and medium businesses;
- work with the Opposition, crossbench and other stakeholders to make improvements to the Better Off Overall Test and changes to Enterprise Bargaining as outlined in the former Coalition Government’s legislation, introduced in 2020;
- abandon the move to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission;
- redraft this legislation to ensure matters are dealt with separately rather than as an all or nothing’ approach; and
- in the event the Bill is passed, an independent review to be conducted of the operation of the amendments made by this Act as soon as practical but 12 months after the Bill receives Royal Assent and cause a copy of the report to be tabled in each House of Parliament.’
Mr Speaker, there is no more urgent matter that requires the attention of this chamber and the other place.
There are businesses that will face viability questions within a short period of time of this Bill being passed
The impact on employees and their families if they lose jobs because those businesses close will be significant.
It will be felt by them, not just in small businesses, but in medium and larger sized businesses across the economy.
The government in terms of their process should be condemned. They stand condemned and by any reasonable commentator in this place or who has contributed to the public debate on this Bill has been at one in condemning the government for their course of action and the intent within this Bill.
The House should vote down this bad Bill.