Government legislation – widely condemned as part of an ongoing attack on unions – was voted down for a second time in the Senate on Monday night.
The Coalition is seeking to introduce higher penalties for the misuse of union members’ funds and to introduce a new union watchdog separate from the Fair Work Commission.
It says the moves are a sensible reaction to the scandals over misappropriated funds that have rocked the Health Services Union (HSU) over recent years.
The Liberal Party stated in 2013 policy documents that “Australians have lost the trust and faith needed” in the General Manager of the Fair Work Commission, who is currently responsible for policing union compliance.
But Labor, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and The Greens have all dismissed the move as part of the government’s ‘anti-union agenda’.
A spokesperson for Shadow Employment Minister, Brendan O’Connor, said the Bill was a “complete waste of the Senate’s time” because Labor had already introduced reforms in the last parliament to respond to the HSU scandal.
Opponents of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill say the biggest impact would actually have been on union volunteers.
“This Bill would have applied the same penalties and requirements that exist for CEOs of multi-billion dollar organisations to ordinary people who choose to volunteer their time to their union or employer association,” Ged Kearney, President of the ACTU said.
The Labor party has also expressed significant concern that the laws would dissuade ordinary people from taking on official union responsibilities.
But the Employment Minister, Eric Abetz, accused Labor of remaining “the party of Michael Williamson, Craig Thomson and Bruce Wilson”.
“Today’s vote has shown that there is only one major party in Parliament that supports an honest and clean union movement,” Abetz said.
“Regrettably, it is not the Australian Labor Party.”
However, Labor was joined by four crossbenchers and the Greens to defeat the legislation.
“I very much doubt that, apart from perhaps the odd member of the AMA, anyone on the government's side of the benches has ever been a member of a union,” The Greens’ Industrial Relations Spokesperson Adam Bandt said when debating the Bill last year.
He said that union and employer associations are already highly regulated and that they are fundamentally different to companies because they’re democratically elected and operate to advance the interests of their members, rather than for profit.
"This bill was just one part of a broader Coalition attack on people’s rights at work and nothing to do with holding unions to the same standards as companies,” Bandt told New Matilda.
"The day that the Coalition forces all companies to publish their accounts online and democratically elect their CEOs in a secret ballot is the day I’ll believe they want to treat trade unions and corporations equally,” he said.
Far from believing the Coalition wants to protect workers’ rights, the Greens and unionists are concerned the government intends to attack basic entitlements.
Despite Abetz’ promise not to touch penalty rates or minimum wages without seeking a mandate, the Greens will move in the senate today to “test” this commitment.
They will introduce a motion calling on the government to direct the Productivity Commission to leave penalty rates and minimum wages out of the sweeping review of the workplace relations framework it is currently undertaking.
In a further mark of distrust, also today, Australian Unions will hold a national day of action with protests against the “attack from the Abbott Government and employers” in all major cities.
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