Much depends on how the crossbench will vote on the Coalition's union-busting legislation, writes William Olson.
AS THE VOTE on the Ensuring Integrity (EI) and Workers Benefits (WB) bills edges closer in the Federal Parliament, representatives from each of the factions have simultaneously weighed in to state their cases for and against the pending legislation.
The destiny of these bills – widely viewed as anti-union and anti-worker in their language – will likely be determined at Parliament’s next joint sitting by the end of November.
Until then, rhetoric from all sides affecting the votes and their outcomes will get louder and louder.
Spoiler alert: it’s already started to happen.
Last Friday, the Senate Education and Employment Committee reports into the EI Bill and the WB Bill recommended their passage, on a provisional basis. Which is not surprising, seeing that the Coalition holds a numerical advantage in each branch of the Federal Parliament.
However, both Labor and the Coalition are courting the support of crossbench senators to help get the bills to victory or defeat – and perhaps in a much more feverish manner than with other pieces of recent legislation.
With that competition, and Labor’s push to defeat the measures at the opening hurdle hanging in the balance, the signal-to-noise ratios are getting more and more deafening.
The question also remains as to who has the support of the cross-bench senators, because both the Liberal party and the Labor party are claiming they have won the support of a majority among the Australian Greens, the Centre Alliance, One Nation, the Jacqui Lambie Network party, and independent senator Cory Bernardi.
That’s votes from 15 senators that are up for grabs.
So who has won the attention of their votes?
A defeat of the bills would be the best result possible for the union movement, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). Labor – given its nine-senator disparity in the Lower House – would need to win the votes of ten of the 15 senators from minor parties to make that happen. That’s the support of two out of every three possible swing voters, provided that all Labor senators vote against the bills and no Coalition senators are convinced to cross the floor.
In short, the Ensuring Integrity Bill would give the power to the Federal Court to dictate the viability of unions and who could be “a fit and proper person” to lead them, even deregistering unions and union leaders on the spot.
And if passed, the Workers Benefits Bill would dictate that funds for accounts such as superannuation funds or related accounts are used for their intended purposes, or otherwise dictate whatever other financial benefits would they be used for.
Both would be made as amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 if passed.
Tony Burke, the Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, maintains that there are great incentives for crossbench senators to vote against the bills, incentives that will be of great benefit to their constituents.
Regarding the Ensuring Integrity Bill, widely considered the more damaging of the two pieces of legislation, Burke says:
This is a Bill that is fundamentally flawed and extremely dangerous. It will be weaponised against unions and by extension Australian workers who need a pay rise.
It will be used to hobble the organisations that fight wage theft and worker exploitation, and ensure safer workplaces.
Labor has contributed a dissenting report that sets out our many problems with this Bill – and makes it clear we will not support this legislation under any circumstances.
Meanwhile, Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter, in welcoming the endorsement of the Senate Committee report, claims that the legislation is necessary to aid in keeping the cost of nation-building infrastructure projects down and guaranteeing that trade unions are kept within the law.
Porter cites that fines accrued by building unions such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU) have been factored into the cost of projects, such as court-ordered penalties of $276,500 over the three months since the EI and WB bills were first introduced.
That is on top of the more than $16 million in penalties the CFMMEU has been hit with in recent years for over 2160 contraventions of the law, including conduct involving coercion, intimidation and harassment.
This repeated lawbreaking hurts us all by inflating the cost of vital infrastructure projects like roads, schools and hospitals.
Moreover, Porter claims that he has already won the support of key crossbench senator Rex Patrick, from the Centre Alliance, to get the bills across the line.
Porter claims that:
"I have been engaging with Senator Rex Patrick and, on the face of it, his suggested changes appear largely workable and a resolution is now much closer."
Burke disputes those claims of Patrick’s support, insisting that he and other Labor senators are still working on earning his vote, among others.
“We call on the Senate crossbench to stand with Labor to protect workers’ rights, wages and conditions."
The Australian Greens have gone on record to oppose the bills. If all nine of their members in the Senate vote against them, then that will bring Labor into parity to enhance their chances to defeat the proposed legislation. And that may be enough to claim a political victory if Labor can get three of the remaining six crossbench votes remaining.
As the race for those votes remains close, Jacqui Lambie exists as an X-factor in the equation. Currently, she has vowed to vote in favour of the bills if CFMMEU figure John Setka, who has been lobbying for senators’ votes against the measures – even by some questionable means – does not resign from his leadership post before the vote.
The ACTU – in leading the way in non-political party organisations opposing the bills – have termed the bills as being the most severe of anti-union legislation in any democratic society.
Citing an independent international review, as well as a variety of opinions sought by the Senate Education and Employment Committee of union members, academics, religious leaders and human rights lawyers, the ACTU alleges that the bills’ potential impact being “only comparable to laws passed by fascist dictatorships”.
Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s President, declared:
This union-busting bill is an ideological attack on working people from a Government obsessed with eroding their rights and bowing to the whims of big business.
The senators involved in this inquiry heard from ordinary working people who know that the EI bill will result in unions being shut down and silenced, leaving workers exposed to increased exploitation, wage theft and dangerous workplaces.
To persist with these bills in the face of that evidence from ordinary Australians is a demonstration of the blind, ideological hatred for unions which drives this Government.
If the voices and passions of those in Parliament and their vested interests appear to be quite loud now, the volume is only going to get pumped up louder in the weeks to go before the official vote, as political powerplays will play a larger role than the party rooms’ reliance on the normal readings of tea leaves and form guides.
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