Barnaby Joyce and the Bullying Bill


Senator Barnaby Joyce teased the electorate for months in the lead up to the Howard Government’s changes to IR legislation, with statements of principle about States’ rights and workers’ conditions. When it came to the crunch, however, the Senator’s principles turned out to be rather less noble.

Joyce’s early statements were mainly about the protection of States’ rights. He told the ABC in July last year: ‘It would be a peculiar Senator that would stand up straight away and say well, the first thing I want to talk about is how I divest [the States]of further rights ‘

It is not clear how the legislation, rammed through Federal Parliament without due scrutiny, has satisfied Joyce’s concerns for protecting Queensland’s ‘rights’ to its own IR legislation. The Commonwealth legislation still overrides State IR laws Section 3(b) of the Bill still maintains the objective of ‘establishing and maintaining a simplified national system of workplace relations.’

A number of months ago, Senator Joyce recognised that individual workers lacked bargaining power, and dismissed Government propaganda ‘that a job was more important than having adequate safeguards against exploitation’ as ‘very militant and mercenary’ (The Australian, 28 November 2005).

Nothing changed in the legislation to satisfy Senator Joyce’s stated concerns, yet he finally unreservedly supported the Bill.

Thanks to Paul Batey

Joyce has promoted his saving of ‘iconic’ public holidays, yet even this minor concession from the Government still rides on workers’ ability to negotiate hours and adequate compensation in penalties. And an employer can still fall back on the catch-all ‘operations provision’ in forcing an employee to work on Christmas Day.

(The Work Choices legislation gives employers an almost unlimited scope to make arbitrary management decisions affecting employees for ‘operational reasons’. Defined in the Act as having an ‘economic, technological, structural or similar nature’, operational decisions could be applied to just about any decision, including whether or not an employee will work on public holidays.)

The Government adjusted the proposed  legislation in response to Senator Joyce’s concerns that large firms would be able to restructure to get around unfair dismissal laws,  but the operational reasons for termination remain.

Senator Joyce let his true feelings about the legislation show in his speech in the Senate on 30  November: ‘The unrepresentative and bullying days of the unions are over, and it is the end of the funding mechanism of the Australian Labor Party’. It’s apparent to many observers that the Howard Government’s intention is to undermine the financial basis of the Labor Party. Here we have Senator Joyce’s dissent revealed for what it is: mainstream support for Government legislation which is designed to kill off the unions and destroy the opposition.

While Greens Senator, Bob Brown, called Joyce a ‘Christmas turkey,’ the Government has pursued this legislation with the morals of a pit-bull terrier. Far from being about ‘choices,’ Howard’s legislation should have been called the ‘Bullying Bill’ the Government bullied the Parliament with a tokenistic inquiry in the Senate, gagged debate in both Houses, and refused to address questions asked in the House of Representatives.

The new legislation will give those employers who are not committed to democracy in the workplace an open hand in bullying employees into signing away their conditions and even their rights. Not all employers will do this, of course, but the legislation will encourage those who think democracy stops at the reception desk or the factory gate to exercise the ‘right to contract’ or, in American terms, ‘contract at will.’

The Government already demonstrated its authoritarian and undemocratic ethos by forcing universities to present staff with AWAs or lose funding, even though the majority of academics have demonstrated a preference for a collective and democratic approach to managing industrial relations on campuses.

But the Liberal and National Parties do not apply the ideology of individualism universally. In the same year that the Coalition rammed through legislation that facilitates individual contracts and impedes collective bargaining in workplaces, it facilitated collective bargaining for small primary producers and small business, to take account of the poor bargaining position of these individual businesses.

The Government would have us believe the incredible: that small businesses don’t have individual bargaining power but that individual workers do.

Its position on Australian workers is one of bald-faced hypocrisy, and workers in the real world have no doubt about the true intentions of John Howard’s long march against trade unions in Australia. Barnaby Joyce left all of us quite certain of it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.