Coalition moves to improve fair work laws

The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2014 makes amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 to implement parts of the coalition’s policy to improve fair work laws. In particular, the bill responds to a number of outstanding recommendations from the ‘Towards more productive and equitable workplaces: an evaluation of the Fair Work legislation’ review of June 2012 into the operation of the Fair Work Act by the Fair Work Review Panel.

It seeks to curb the most outrageous abuses that can be perpetrated by union bosses.

One of the most beneficial changes for Western Australia in particular will be to support new greenfields industrial agreements. The existing Labor Fair Work Act gives the unions the ability to undermine new projects worth billions of dollars by dragging out agreements. This has effectively legislated doubt into complex industrial agreements and delayed investment decisions.

Removing this doubt will be good for the resources and construction industries of Western Australia in particular. These industries, as we all know in this place, are critical to the growth and development of the south-west of Western Australia and the entire nation. They are also the industries that have seen the worst of union behaviour across the nation.

The often illegal behaviour has been an embarrassment to the nation and to the good and honest workers who often were betrayed by the power hungry, greedy union leaders.

It was this type of behaviour in the building industry that in 2001 resulted in the establishment of the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. The report of the royal commission identified 392 separate instances of unlawful conduct, 25 different types of unlawfulness and 90 different types of inappropriate behaviour.

These included unlawful strikes, unlawful payments, abuse of union rights of entry, fabrication of safety issues, compulsory unionism, coercion to pay wages and meet conditions demanded by unions, disregard of contracts and agreements and disregard of court and tribunal orders, workplace rorts, threats, intimidation, inadequate attention to health and safety and interference in commercial tendering for industrial purposes.

The report referred 31 individuals who had possibly breached criminal laws. Twelve of those 31 individuals came from Western Australia. It identified 230 separate incidences of unlawful conduct.

Given this sort of performance, it is not surprising that the bill before the House today will also amend the right of entry framework of the Fair Work Act by repealing amendments made by the Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 that required an employer or occupier to facilitate transport and accommodation arrangements for permit holders exercising entry rights at worksites in remote locations and providing for new eligibility criteria that determine when a permit holder may enter premises for the purposes of holding discussions or conducting interviews with one or more employees or textile, clothing and footwear award workers and repealing amendments made by the Fair Work Amendment Act 2013 relating to the default location of interviews and discussions and reinstating pre-existing rules and expanding the Fair Work Commission’s capacity to deal with disputes about the frequency of visits to premises for discussion purposes.

There is no doubt that this so-called right of entry is today used as a weapon by militant unions to intimidate both businesses and the people they employ.

What started off as a quite legitimate attempt to ensure the right to representation has unfortunately been usurped by the unscrupulous into a badgering technique designed to disrupt legitimate businesses and activities and pressure them to cave in.

It happens regularly, often when the workers at a site do not want the union there. For evidence of this we only have to look at the submission of BHP to the Fair Work Act review instigated by the previous Labor government when it was reported that during the construction phase of BHP Billiton’s Worsley alumina plant in my electorate of Forrest visits by union officials increased from zero in 2007 to 676 visits in 2010 alone during its expansion phase.

Having 676 site visits in one year equates to 1.85 site visits every day seven days a week for the year. What a blatant abuse of the right of entry provisions and obviously a campaign of intimidation.

A Fair Work Commission that did its job properly would have addressed such a misuse of industrial power but that was not possible under Labor. The situation is so grim that even former Labor minister Martin Ferguson came out with the truth that Labor’s old industrial relations model has broken down. He told ABC Radio in Western Australia that unions like the Maritime Union in Western Australia were off the rails, undermining the development of the state and putting jobs at risk. This misuse of a piece of poorly worded Labor legislation must be changed and it must be stopped.

An additional aspect of this bill is the repair of the strike first, negotiate later rip-off. Under the existing Fair Work Act employees are allowed to take industrial action before any bargaining has commenced. This is despite previous Labor Party promises to change it and is in contrast to the recommendations of the Fair Work Review Panel. It makes no sense to strike before there have even been discussions.

The coalition will ensure that proper debate precedes strike action.

The Fair Work Amendment Bill also addresses the need for flexibility in the workplace. Individual flexibility arrangements have been a part of the Fair Work Act since its inception but have failed to provide the flexibility needed in the modern Australian workplace. In their 2007 election campaign Labor promised flexibility on matters such as rostering and flexible hours. When it came down to actually delivering, as we knew with Labor, it maintained its very poor performance.

Once again it needed the election of a coalition government to make changes to get this country moving and make sure that everybody knows Australia is open for business.

The reason for our legislation is probably supported by the previous industry minister, Martin Ferguson. I quote an article from the Australian Financial Review on 28 February in which he said:

Strength will come through policy and reform that makes it easier for businesses to invest with certainty. Therefore, we must reduce red and green tape, commit to market-based policy and re-evaluate how our workplace relations framework influences access to labour and how it affects the economic viability of new projects. … Less intrusive regulation will stimulate business activity and increase revenues from tax and royalties without diminishing environmental standards.

He had a number of other things to say too. I note today, again from the Financial Review, in relation to union activity that the ACCC is now looking at an investigation over Boral allegations. The article reads:

The industry leaders have been urging the ACCC to act. Commissioner Simms is quoted as saying, ‘It has been very visible behaviour. We have had a number of people ask us what we are doing about behaviour they think they can see.’

The article goes on to say that he would not specify the exact nature of the claims or put a time line on the investigation but he said that it was a high priority for the ACCC.

When you look at what preceded my comments in beginning this particular part of the discussion, when you look at the 2007 election campaign Labor promised all sorts of wonderful things, including flexibility on matters such as rostering and flexible hours.

When it came down to delivering, however, Labor maintained that poor performance that leaves us in the current position we are in with the budget and debt and deficit. Once again it needed the election of a coalition government to make the changes, as we are through this legislation, to get this country moving.

There is no doubt that the delivery of flexible workplaces must look after the interests of employees as well as employers and it is possible to create a mutually beneficial workplace where the needs of both employers and employees are met.

We do know, however, that Australia is a high-cost place to do business and we can see the result of that everywhere, particularly in Western Australia. If you try to get a project off the ground it can be anything from (debate interrupted)