Labor will not support the Ensuring Integrity Bill under any circumstances, writes William Olson.
CITING “the public has a right to know”, Tony Burke has criticised Attorney-General Christian Porter’s refusal to reveal the details of additional amendments to the controversial Ensuring Integrity Bill.
Burke, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, made his comments on Tuesday 19 November since it was revealed that the Parliamentary vote on the Bill has been delayed due to the amendments being made to it as the result of the process of consultations between Porter and crossbench senator Rex Patrick from the Centre Alliance Party.
Burke has sought details on those amendments to no avail, saying that the public deserves to know the added information for the Bill that will be voted upon in due course.
And for good reason: in asking for that information about a Bill that has been described as being potentially destructive to the union movement and working people in Australia, Burke is seeking to protect the rights of those people.
If the Bill is passed, it could have a dire impact on how trade unions in Australia operate and may lead to the deregistration of those unions viewed as militant bodies by the Morrison government.
So if the suppression of details is being viewed as a game of keep-away via the Coalition brand of politics as applied by Porter, Burke has been left to wonder about that game’s real-life consequences – and the consequences upon real everyday people.
“If this Bill is about ‘integrity’, why is it shrouded in so much secrecy?”
“This is a Government obsessed with secrecy. A Government that has no respect for the public’s right to know,” he added.
Burke’s queries and attacks on Porter and the Morrison Government came approximately 24 hours after he also appeared on the “RN Breakfast” show on the ABC’s Radio National service on Monday 18 November, calling upon the Government to come clean on the behind-closed-doors machinations over the Bill.
Burke told the ABC’s Hamish MacDonald:
“If the Government’s position on the legislation that’s in front of the Parliament has now changed and they now want different words to be voted on, the Australian people have an absolute right to know what that new legislation would look like.”
In taking on a knowledge-is-power approach, Burke said that he just wants the public beyond his mere constituents to know the absolute latest about the Bill and what it would mean to them should it get passed, or even what is being debated in the Houses of Parliament.
“After the event,” Burke stated to MacDonald, “it's a little bit late for people to be able to point out flaws and errors.”
Essentially, what Burke is wanting clarification on with the new amendments is whether a union can be shut down for the misfilings or the tardiness of simple paperwork, or deregistered for taking minor industrial actions.
“That of itself makes the case that these amendments cannot continue to be kept secret. The Australian people do have a right to know what is being planned and if paperwork breaches are going to result in the deregistration of an entire organisation, we have a right to know that."
Burke also cited a hypothetical example that could come into scrutiny if the EI Bill passes.
Burke told MacDonald:
“If the nurses’ union, for example, held protests and took industrial action over staff-patient ratios and that could result in the entire nurses’ federation being deregistered that should be part of the public debate.”
And Burke is seeking general transparency and accountability from the likes of Porter and other ministers and parliamentarians responsible for the Bill’s amendments.
“If the Government was confident of its arguments, they would be allowing these amendments, which apparently have been finished, to be in the public eye. If they had nothing to hide, this would be public already.”
Porter recently admitted that a demerit-points system to adjudicate union behaviour and discipline within the rules and regulations of the Fair Work Act – to be constantly maintained on a rolling ten-year cycle – would be introduced as a part of the Bill. While that exists as one such amendment to sweeten the deal for the Coalition to attract backbench support for the Bill, a cloak of secrecy exists around whatever other amendments will also be introduced.
While the reasons for delaying the initial Parliamentary vote in the Lower House are quite clear, as the details within those reasons aren’t, the approximate revised date for the vote remains another point of conjecture and debate.
According to Michele O’Neil, the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), meeting in Canberra with crossbench senators to recruit their votes to defeat the Bill, the vote could be coming in a fortnight, as she advised union members in an e-mail on Monday evening. However, Burke cited that the Coalition may need until the end of the year in order to secure their amendments, and then the vote in the Senate would occur accordingly.
Ultimately, Porter has previously stated that he will commence to push for the Senate vote as soon as he is assured that the Government is convinced that it has the numbers to pass the legislation.
Nonetheless, regardless of the number or quality of amendments to the Bill, Burke remains steadfast in Labor opposing it, saying that no amount of amendments can lessen or remove the legislation’s danger to unions or working people.
“This Bill will be weaponised against unions and by extension workers who need a pay rise at a time of record-low wages growth. It will be used to hobble the very organisations that fight wage theft and worker exploitation, and ensure safer workplaces.”
“Labor will not support this legislation under any circumstances,” he reiterated.
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