Ensuring integrity bill: officials contradict Christian Porter on union deregistration

Coalition bill would allow deregistration for single instances of unprotected industrial action, inquiry told

Departmental officials have contradicted Christian Porter’s claim the Coalition’s union penalty bill does not allow deregistration for single instances of unprotected industrial action or breaches of court orders.

Officials from the attorney general’s department told an inquiry on Wednesday that although the Ensuring Integrity Bill was similar to the existing law in that respect, it would expand the type of breaches courts can punish with the strictest penalties.

Also on Wednesday the controversial unionist John Setka doubled down on his war of words with the independent senator Jacqui Lambie – who has warned the bill will pass if he does not resign – accusing her of blackmail in a full-page ad in Melbourne’s Herald Sun.

“While the sideshow surrounding me and my personal life – fuelled by politicians, union officials and anonymous faceless men – continues, the real issue is the Ensuring Integrity Bill which will affect millions of Australians’ democratic rights,” Setka said in the letter.

He said the “last thing that Australian working families need is Jacqui Lambie’s personal attempts to blackmail myself, our members and 13 million other Australian workers”.

“No politician has the right to dictate who should lead a union. It is the democratic right of all union members to elect their leaders, just as it is the voting public’s right to elect their politicians.

“It’s crucial that neither I, nor any union, ever gives in to blackmail. At the end of the day our members want me to stay, so I stay.”

In two days of hearings at the Senate education and employment committee, union officials have urged senators to consider the bill’s impact beyond Setka, who has been suspended from the Labor party pending possible expulsion and asked to resign by the head of the union movement, Sally McManus.

On Wednesday the Labor senator Tony Sheldon – the former national secretary of the Transport Workers Union – challenged officials over Porter’s claims that deregistration would require repeated, systematic breaches of law.

Porter told the lower house on 31 July: “The idea that this bill, as it is drafted and presented to this parliament, would allow for deregistration for such minor or isolated instances of unprotected, unlawful industrial action is patently absurd. It’s untrue.”

The officials agreed that under section 28G of the bill one instance of unprotected “obstructive industrial action” could result in deregistration if it interfered with an employer’s activities, the provision of a public service or is likely to harm safety, health or welfare of part of the community.

Similarly, section 28F would only require one breach of a court or tribunal order to trigger potential deregistration.

The officials explained that those provisions were modelled on the existing law which already allowed for deregistration for single instances of failing to comply with orders in “very specific parts of the Fair Work Act or Registered Organisations Act”.

“Now these would apply to any failure to comply with any order or injunction made under the core workplace laws,” they said.

“There’s potentially more orders or failures to comply with injunctions that might be relevant.”

Sheldon told Guardian Australia the admission “raises questions about whether the government has misled the public and the parliament about the effect of this bill”.

He said the bill would help “rogue employers who want nothing less than to cripple the representatives of working people and tie them up in litigation”.

Earlier, departmental officials said the current law doesn’t allow deregistration as a penalty for breaches involving coercion, misrepresentation, freedom of association, and right of entry.

The evidence is significant as the majority of the legal breaches committed by the militant Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union relate to right of entry and coercing employers to enter union pay deals or exclude subcontractors who refuse to sign them.

The officials said the bill addressed the “shortcoming” of existing law by ensuring that unions which can afford to pay fines “as a cost of business cannot sustain [law-breaking] as an operating model”.

They noted that courts would still be required to consider the gravity of offences and the impact of deregistration on members when considering if it was an “unjust” penalty.

Earlier the Brickworks industrial relations manager, Wladyslaw Kluktewicz, said the legislation could prevent unions which “push the envelope” by talking to non-unionised workers.

“We don’t have an issue with non-union employees attending meetings … but they shouldn’t be intimidated,” he then clarified.

The Coalition is still at least one vote short of support for the bill with Lambie and Centre Alliance in the box seat.

The Centre Alliance’s Rex Patrick has been fiercely critical of Setka’s handling of the bill negotiations but insists he will not vote for it in its present form, and is seeking extensive amendments from Porter.


Paul Karp

The GuardianTramp

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