The Importance of Trade Unions, Parliament House

Full transcript below:

Mr PERRETT (Moreton—Opposition Whip) (13:10): I rise to speak on the motion moved by the member for Fairfax referring to unions. I declare an interest. I am a member of two unions—the AMWU and the Independent Education Union. I would also point out that, as a solicitor, I have worked in private practice and for the Queensland minerals council. So I have worked in unions but also in small business, as an adviser and for mining companies.

The working lives of all Australians, as any one who knows history can attest, would be completely different if not for the advocacy of our unions. The first unions formed in Australia in the early 19th century, as 'craft unions', to increase the low wages of highly skilled urban workers and improve their workplace conditions. Midway through the 19th century, stonemasons won the right to an eight-hour day when their 'society' forced the issue by giving an ultimatum to employers. It was not until 1920 that most remaining Australian workers enjoyed that right.

Queensland, especially, has a proud history of unions fighting for workers' rights. The 1894 shearers' strike, although unsuccessful, was a turning point for the union movement in Queensland. In fact, the very livelihood of shearers was under threat in 1894. Shearers had been organising the unions for a few years already by 1894, in order to protect their rights. In response, graziers formed their own union, the Pastoralists Employers Association. In 1890 the pastoralists agreed that they would lower the wages of shearers, extend their working hours and retain the right to withhold their wages until the end of the shearing season—conditions that would, no doubt, be rejected by the shearers' union.

The shearers took strike action, but the conservative colonial government at the time supported the pastoralists, by sending in more than 1,000 armed soldiers and special constables, some armed with Nordenfelt machine guns. After some of the strike leaders were arrested, and with the very real threat of bloodshed, the unions called an end to the strike. But this was a turning point for unions and the working class—the point at which they realised that they needed a voice; they needed to have the worker's voice heard in politics so that Australian laws reflected not only the pastoralists' interests but the interests of everyday Australians. So there would be capitalists represented but also everyday working Australians. Five years later Queensland actually had the world's first ever Labor government.

Unions are still vitally important for all Australian workers. Even non-union members benefit from the conditions fought for by those who pay their dues. Unions obtained annual leave, sick pay, workers' compensation, and health and safety standards. I think I can safely say that no gain has ever been spontaneously offered by an employer. Through the prism of the great achievements that unions have made for Australian workers, the $80 million trade union royal commission looks even more like the political witch-hunt it was.

Labor has always said that it will not stand for wrongdoing or corruption in unions, and I restate that. When there is wrongdoing, it should be investigated and punished. Crooks and thugs should be rooted out and brought before the courts. There have been 34 referrals of alleged criminal breaches from the royal commission. Those alleged breaches should be investigated, and the full force of the law should be applied where criminal acts are proven. Labor will always believe in the rule of law.

In Queensland, which was a major focus of the commission, only one union official, out of several hundred officials and organisers working in Queensland, was referred for prosecution. I am sure the member for Fairfax, as a former police officer, would understand that. One single Queensland referral is a long way from the widespread and deep-seated misconduct in the union movement that Justice Heydon referred to in his report. Of course, even one referral of a union official is one too many. It is a disgrace and cannot be ignored. But the member for Fairfax might also note that in Queensland the Heydon royal commission actually recommended more charges be laid against building industry executives than against anyone else. To put the number of referrals from the Abbott-Turnbull trade union royal commission into perspective: there were a total of 93 referrals, across Australia, relating to 45 persons or entities. Contrast that with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which has made 1,950 referrals—and increasing—to authorities. That is a royal commission that we absolutely needed to have, and I am very proud that Julia Gillard and Labor made it happen.

The Trade Union Joint Police Taskforce has been set up by the Turnbull government supposedly to 'bring union thugs to justice and protect hardworking Queenslanders'. After spending $80 million on a royal commission, which only referred one Queensland union official for prosecution, how can the Prime Minister justify millions more dollars of taxpayers' money being spent on continuing this political witch-hunt? It is especially disingenuous for a member of the Queensland LNP.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.