The Morrison government recently reintroduced The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 into Parliament.
The Bill has passed in the House of Representatives and been referred to a Senate Inquiry, which is due to report later this month.
The Bill was first introduced in 2017 but was not passed because at the time it did not obtain a majority in the Senate. This time, however, there is a real risk that cross bench senators will allow the Bill to pass.
The ANMF remains extremely concerned about this piece of proposed legislation because of the threat it poses to all unions to campaign and act on behalf of members.
The Ensuring Integrity Bill gives broad powers to authorities to make applications to intervene in the operation of unions. It provides:
- The Federal Court must make orders on application to disqualify a union official convicted of an offence that is punishable by imprisonment for five years or more.
- The Federal Court can disqualify a person from holding office on a wide range of grounds, including the person is not a ‘fit and proper’ person or has breached certain industrial laws.
- Allows the Registered Organisation Commission (ROC), the Minister or a ‘person with sufficient interest’ to apply for orders deregistering unions, altering union rules or controlling the use of union funds and property, including appointing an administrator.
- Allows third parties to intervene in the process of unions applying to amalgamate and imposes significant hurdles for amalgamation, even where members are in favour of the amalgamation.
Above is only a brief summary of the range of powers that can be exercised against unions and officials. The concern is that this legislation goes too far, is too broad and does substantially more than is necessary to ensure proper union governance and regulated activity.
Australian unions are already one of the most highly regulated in the world. A range of academics and human rights organisations have pointed out the legislation is not compatible with the ILO Convention protecting the democratic rights of freedom of association and the protection of the right of workers to organise through their union.
Industrial relations minister Christian Porter said that ‘law abiding unions’ have nothing to fear from this legislation. But the ANMF is worried that the Bill is so broad in its application that it could capture some of the campaign activities of the ANMF.
For example, the ANMF has and continues to campaign extensively for ratios and skills mix in aged care and in the public sector to improve quality of care.
Campaigns have involved members taking part in activities such as wearing t-shirts and badges and even changing work patterns for short periods to highlight the risks inadequate staffing levels pose to aged care residents.
Under the Bill, these activities could be considered illegal industrial activity and would be grounds for an interested party, such as an employer, to make an application for orders against a union or union officials.
At the extreme, an application could be made to cancel the registration of the ANMF. If such an application was made, the ANMF would be forced into costly and time consuming legal proceedings and the ability to campaign for just causes that benefit the community would be seriously threatened.
Current legislation already provides that a person convicted of certain serious criminal offences is ineligible to be a union official. In conjunction with criminal law, this is an appropriate protection for union integrity.
Yet the Bill seeks to expand the sorts of offences that could result in ineligibility and includes non-criminal activity – for example a breach of work health and safety law.
Another significant concern with the Bill is that it provides grounds for disqualification of officials or cancellation of registration for relatively minor procedural errors, such as late filing of reporting documents. The current legislation already has serious deterrents for breaches. Thus, the ANMF believes there is no justification for harsher laws.
The ANMF in no way suggests that the law should be disregarded. The problem with this Bill is that it will impose disproportionate penalties, is harsher than other comparable legislation and seeks to prevent unions from pursuing rights on behalf of members and the community.
If passed, the Bill will result in a serious erosion of workers’ democratic rights to be represented by elected officials and to determine how their union is run. The ANMF is wholeheartedly opposed to the Ensuring Integrity Bill.