HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
18 OCTOBER 2017
Labor is pleased that the government has dropped its attempts to raise the penalties on secondary boycotts.
The House has just heard the Treasurer suggest that this was a Labor measure in the Senate, and indeed it was Labor that moved not to have an increase in fines for sympathy strikes. But it wasn't just Labor. We were joined by the entire crossbench with the exception of One Nation senators. The vote in the Senate was 33 to 25, a resounding defeat of the coalition's attempt to raise the penalties on secondary boycotts. That reflects the strong view of the crossbench that this is a bad reform. The government should now formally announce that it is dropping plans to raise penalties on secondary boycotts, given the clear view of the Senate.
The Treasurer mentioned earlier Labor's support for tougher penalties for anticompetitive and anticonsumer conduct and sought to suggest to the House that if Labor support higher penalties for anticompetitive and anticonsumer conduct we should by rights support higher penalties for secondary boycotts. But the distinction here is international best practice. Australia's penalties for anticompetitive and anticonsumer conduct are below those elsewhere, and that's why Labor called for the penalties for anticonsumer conduct to be raised to $10 million. We took that policy to the election last year and we were pleased when the government adopted it in their budget this year. We are continuing to call on the government to adopt Labor's policies for tougher anticompetitive penalties in line with the European Union system. But in the case of secondary boycotts Australia's rules are out of step with international norms. International law—specifically International Labour Organization Convention 87—permits sympathy strikes provided the original strike is lawful.
There is, as the House would be aware, a long tradition of secondary boycotts moving in and out of competition law. It was the Fraser governments of 1977 and 1980 that introduced secondary boycotts into the Trade Practices Act with the intention of targeting trade unions. The Hawke government, in the 1980s, sought to remove those provisions from the Trade Practices Act but was defeated in the Senate. It was the Keating government, in 1993, that moved some secondary boycotts into the Industrial Relations Act, only for the Howard government to return them to the Trade Practices Act in 1996.
If enacted, the maximum penalty for a secondary boycott would have been nearly 800 times higher than the maximum penalty for unprotected industrial action. There can be no possible justification for unprotected industrial relations activity under the Fair Work Act 2009 to be subject to a penalty of 60 penalty units, $12,600, while the penalty for a secondary boycott is $10 million. Or we can look at the penalties for noncompliance with a section 155 order: 20 penalty units, $4,200. The measure that the government sought to sneak into this bill was a measure that would've been made it harder for workers to organise. At a time when the union membership share in the economy is falling, the last thing Australian workers need is a further attack on their right to collectively organise from a government that is supporting cuts to penalty rates and supporting attacks on unions, because we know that one of the reasons inequality has risen in Australia is the decline in union membership share. Work by Jeff Borland suggests that about a third of the rise in Australian inequality is due to the decline in union membership share in the economy. Attacking unions undermines Australian egalitarianism. Attacking unions makes Australia a less equal country. This attack on unions, attempted under the guise of competition and consumers amendments, would have increased inequality in Australia. With inequality at a 75-year high, the last thing Australians need is a government attacking unions and workers' right to bargain collectively. Labor, again, calls on the government to abandon these ill-conceived provisions that have nothing to do with competition law and everything to do with this government's ideological attack on unions and its attack on the Australian fair go.
Question agreed to.