Mr BUCHHOLZ (Wright—Government Whip) (19:12): It is a pleasure to be able to stand in this House once again speaking to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014.
I remind the House that in the last parliament I put forward a private member's motion to bring into line some of the concerns that were raised by the previous speaker—that is, making unions accountable under the Corporations Act, and the penalties that would apply the same as those that already exist under the Corporations Act. It will not surprise those in this House that that private member's motion was not successful, because those on the other side of this House mostly owe their seats, their position in this parliament, either through direct or indirect funding, to a union movement. At the last election, the front bench of the previous government—I think it was 10 out of 12 of them—had some direct linkage to union movements.
The previous speaker also talked about how on this side of government we have a hatred for unions. That is just farcical. My operations in the transport sector work very closely with unions. I have found that the union reps that I deal with are always accommodating, because I put forward a logical, succinct argument about why some of the decisions I made would be for the greater benefit of my employees. So to come into this place and say that this side of that House has a hatred for unions is predominantly flawed.
The amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 contained in this bill are important items of the coalition's Fair Work policy that we took to the election. We did not say one thing before the election and another after, which has been the mantra of those opposite as they have come into the chamber to debate this. That has been the thread or flavour of their debate. They have been making that claim. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are actually doing what we said we were going to do before the election, and we are doing it consistent with an eminent panel.
In particular, this bill responds to a number of outstanding recommendations included in the Towards more productive and equitable workplaces: an evaluation of the Fair Work legislation review conducted in June 2012 when it was commissioned by the now Leader of the Opposition. The very capable review panel of eminent Australians—comprising of the Reserve Bank board member John Edwards, the former Federal Court judge Hon. Michael Moore and the noted legal and workplace relations academic Professor Ron McCallum AO—were asked to provide recommendations on areas where the operation of the act could be improved. They provided 53 proposals to tackle a range of issues and inspired many of the amendments contained in this bill. Do those on the other side of the chamber suggest that those eminent gentlemen who I just mentioned are also union haters? That is not the truth. It is unfair to come in and cast those aspersions in this House.
An interesting conclusion drawn from the review relates to the economic aspects of the Fair Work Act. The panel determined that since the Fair Work Act came into force important outcomes such as wages growth, industrial disputes, the responsiveness of wages to supply and demand, the rate of employment growth and the flexibility of work patterns have been favourable to Australia's continuing prosperity.
The exception has been productivity growth. That is what is missing. As a government—
Ms Butler interjecting—
Mr BUCHHOLZ: I sat here for the last three speakers and heard your speakers in silence, so do not come in here with your union intimidatory tactics and yell and shout. Just sit. The expectation has been for productivity growth. It has been disappointing in the Fair Work Act framework and in the two preceding frameworks over the last decade. It is this which has motivated the coalition's amendments. If you were not yapping, you would have just heard that. It is this which has motivated the coalition's amendments to the Fair Work Act. The coalition is dedicated to making Australia a more prosperous nation in which productivity growth plays an instrumental role. In order to achieve productivity growth, several of the amendments contain in this bill seek to eradicate loopholes, negatively geared systemic problems and prohibiting factors preventing Australian employers and employees from getting on with the job of growing their Australian economic pie.
One of the proposed amendments which the coalition has adopted from the Fair Work panel review relates to offering additional support to new greenfield industrial agreements. When reading it, I was quite surprised that the Fair Work Act review recommended:
greenfields agreement provisions be made consistent with the general enterprise bargaining stream by applying suitably modified good faith bargaining rules to negotiations for proposed agreements. Given the national significance of some greenfields projects and the need for assurance in project design and investment, the Panel also recommends a form of arbitration be available if the parties are unable to reach agreement within a suitable time frame
Under Labor, the Fair Work laws effectively gave unions the power to veto new projects by requiring an employer to always negotiate a greenfield agreement with a union. To date, unions have exploited this veto power by deliberately causing delays and setbacks, while others have used it as a tool to demand exorbitant conditions. In addition, these irresponsible actions are responsible for the perceived doubt surrounding many important new projects which have failed to receive adequate investment as a result. The coalition wants to ensure that enterprise agreements for greenfield agreements can be negotiated quickly to ensure that infrastructure projects are not delayed and to encourage investment for everyone's benefit.
This bill also addresses the imbalance in union workplace access rules currently impeding the productivity of many workplaces. The Fair Work panel review expressed the need for changes to the right-of-entry provisions to unions as a means of encouraging productivity and fairness in our work environments. I have a real-life example on entry provisions. I took the opportunity to reach out to one of the processors where a number of people in my electorate are employed. It is in a neighbouring electorate. They turn over around $365 million, with a workforce of around 1,800. In spite of the employees voting in favour of working under a new EBA to secure the future of the plant and 1,000 jobs, the union has continued to run legal action through Fair Work Australia and now the Federal Court because it has lost its privileges. The union has lost privileges that do not matter to the workforce. The workforce said in this particular case that they were quite happy with the EBA. But the union has still taken the company to court. This has been ongoing for 10 months, causing great uncertainty and threatening the viability of the business. The union has already delayed the first wage increase of three per cent for employees. Fancy that—a union delaying an increase in employees' entitlements! It has extended the life of the new EBA by six months. If the union is successful, 70 per cent of the employees will suffer a wage decrease, which means they will come off the three per cent that they have agreed to in the workplace to receive a lesser amount. Groundbreaking, profit-sharing bonuses will be at risk—$3,000 to $5,000 per employee. It is about sharing the profits and sharing the productivity gains with the employees. The union would not have anything to do with that.
The new EBA is classic win-win: improved productivity, wage increases and profit share. The IR system has allowed this farcical situation to occur and flourish. In their email to me, this business went on to say that these government's amendments are only the start of much-needed reform if we are going to have any chance of running successful manufacturing and processing in this country.
Furthermore, the unlawful practices and inappropriate behaviour conducted by unions are well documented. For example, the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry of 2001 identified no fewer than 392 separate instances of unlawful conduct—
Ms Butler: There were no charges.
Mr BUCHHOLZ: 25 different types of unlawfulness and 90 different types of inappropriate behaviour, as well as referring 31 individuals who had possibly breached criminal laws. I take the interjection from the member opposite. The royal commission was back in 2001. I state for the record that the member indicated that there were no charges.
The changes included in this bill fairly and sensibly balance the right of employees to be represented in the workplace if they wish to be with the right of employers to go about their business without unnecessary disruption. There is clear evidence of union representatives abusing their right of entry, with excessive workplace visits recorded at a number of sites. For example, the Pluto LNG project received over 200 right-of-entry visits in a period of only three months. BHP Billiton's Worsley alumina plant faced 676 right-of-entry visits in a single year. There is no doubt that this sort of blatant interference on a work site by union representatives is hindering workers' ability to just get on with their jobs. There is no doubting the motivations behind such excessive visitation and access. Unions are fighting for representation of members and they are targeting workers in the workplace as a means of getting them signed up.
Given the union movement has a long reputation of intimidation in the workplace—people who do not wish to become members, employers and each other—I think it is fair to recommend that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable. Intimidatory tactics in the workplace to force people to sign up are not acceptable. We heard those opposite say that corruption is not acceptable. I take it one step further: intimidation in the workplace should never be seen as an acceptable workplace practice by the union movement.
Importantly, we will repeal the amendments which make the meal room or break room at the premises the default location for discussions between unions and workers and which require employers to provide transport and accommodation for unions seeking to access remote worksites. We will restore the arrangements that were in place previously, including that union officials must comply with any reasonable request by the employer to hold discussions in a particular location. Our changes will also mean that occupiers at remote work sites do not have to facilitate accommodation and transport for union officials to visit their workplace, reducing unnecessary and costly regulation for affected employers.
To be clear, these amendments will enact Labor's publicly stated position prior to the 2007 election—a promise that was not honoured. Given that the Labor Party in opposition, with the strong support of the union movement, supported this 2007 policy platform, we expect that these amendments will not be contentious and will go through. However, in the vein of what speakers before me have said, I would suggest that we may be going to a vote on this.
An additional aspect of this bill amends a significant loophole in the current system of strike first, talk later, which is costing our economy millions. The ABS reports that the number of work days lost as a result of industrial action is at an eight-year high. The member for Shortland mentioned that the union movement's strikes in this country are low when compared with those globally. I suggest that when 293,100 days are being lost annually, that is not a figure to crow about.
Under the existing Fair Work Act industrial action is able to commence before any bargaining has commenced. This has resulted in more frequent strikes occurring and on a larger scale. We are seeking to remove this loophole in the interests of small business and the economy. The bill will amend the Fair Work Act to provide that protected industrial action can only be taken if bargaining for a proposed agreement has commenced. This means that costly and productivity-hindering industrial action cannot be the first step in the bargaining process, which will restore order and balance to the enterprise bargaining approach. So that is not a bad amendment to have.
In conclusion, I would like to commend this bill to the House. It cements the coalition government's commitment to help make Australian workplaces even better, by improving the Fair Work laws to provide a stable, fair and prosperous future. We on this side of the House do not hate unions. I have worked closely with them and I will continue to work closely with them. If those on the other side want some advice, they should ask themselves: why has union membership in Australia fallen dramatically over the past 30 years? These amendments are not going to affect future union membership. If you want to build a successful union, if you want a union that members can find value in, support this bill and these amendments. Make the same conditions apply to the union movement that apply under the Corporations Act.