Opposing the Ensuring Integrity Bill

The Ensuring Integrity Bill quite clearly represents the biggest attack on unions, union members, and working people since the introduction of WorkChoices in 2005 under the Howard Government.

In fact, this is the most extreme bit of employment legislation ever seen in the western world. The consequences are that unions could be punished for defending their members and their representatives could be sent to jail on spurious charges (some of them unrelated to their actual union activities). One could reasonably consider this bill to be little more than a vicious attack on workers and their unions.

The Integrity Bill will:

  • “allow the Federal Court to cancel the registration of an organisation on a range of grounds”
  • “allow the Federal Court to disqualify officials from holding office in certain circumstances or if they are otherwise not a fit and proper person”
  • “establish an offence for a disqualified person to continue to act as an official or in a way that influences the affairs of an organisation”

Should this Bill become law, it will apply only to ‘registered organisations’ (in essence, unions). It won’t apply to anyone else – whether it be the banks, big corporations, governments, councils, political parties or NGOs.

There is staggering hypocrisy in how our government describes unions in this country: as a kind of corrupt cut-price legal service a worker might use if necessary. In reality unions are democratic communities of workers standing up for what is right and what is fair. Your elected union officials, they tell us, are only in it for themselves; they don’t represent your interests. While union democracy is not perfect, the great majority of union officials are hardworking and deeply committed workers prepared to take a stand for their colleagues. By contrast, the interests of Australian’s big political parties, the interests of Australia’s big political parties are inextricably tied to the interests of the top end of town and business in general and the needs of the voters come a distant second to the dictates of this powerful group.

It scarcely matters what Australians say about climate change and how vast the majority calling for serious action when the rich and powerful ask for new sources of wealth via coal mines etc., they tend to get their way more often than not. Workers, especially those who put their necks on the line and seek to influence politics to make the system fairer, continue to be crushed by this sort of politically motivated and deeply unfair legislation. 

The facts remain the facts: when unions are weak, workers lose their only real source of power — solidarity. As collective action becomes less effective, wage growth stagnates or retreats, inequality increases and corporate profits boom. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the middle class in Australia is shrinking. Dr Christopher Sheil from the University of NSW said last year that “Our biggest concern is not rich and poor…The top 10 and particularly the top 1 per cent keep increasing their share and diminishing or rolling back the Australian middle class.” So the very rich become mega-rich, the thinning layer of upper middle-class workers receive tax-complicated tax-perks and legitimised benefits denied the rest of us. The growing masses of wage workers do it harder and harder. 

So, let’s paint a picture of how this legislation could work in practice.

This legislation could allow the Registered Organisations Commission, the Minister, or any other person with a ‘significant interest’ to apply for a wide range of orders through the courts – including disqualification of union officials, deregistration of a union, alteration of a union’s eligibility rules and restrictions on how unions can use their funds or property.

Consider for a moment who a person with a ‘significant interest’ could be. Not just the CEO of a corporation or law enforcement – but can extend to managers or anyone else who deals with unions on behalf of any employer in bargaining. That could also mean rabid politicians, Pauline Hanson, or other far right MPs and senators.  

If VAHPA was to reject an enterprise agreement on the basis that it contained a reduction in personal leave for workers – management could, for example, apply to have VAHPA’s officials sacked, to alter VAHPA’s eligibility rules so as to exclude the professions or workplace/s that the proposed agreement would cover, and/or to determine that VAHPA can’t use its funds or resources to promote how members should vote in an Agreement ballot.

As you can no doubt imagine – this completely dismantles the ability of unions to operate and additionally, puts a greater burden on union members and restricts what union members can do as a collective.

The attacks against unions by pro-business and conservative interests has been deliberate. It has been deliberate in its attempt to delegitimise the union movement in the eyes of workers and has been just as blatant in that respect as well. These same interests have made no secret their desire to see the complete destruction of the union movement.

Under this sweeping and ill-defined legislation (thus broadly applicable) union officials could, for example, be dismissed from their position if those officials are found not to be “fit and proper persons”, whatever that might mean. It appears that elements of the fit and proper person test will be retrospective – it includes any long past indiscretions from before the Bill was introduced and indeed before they may have taken up a union position.

There are many examples of how this might play out in a politically charged environment. The union official who endorses unprotected industrial action (asks workers to withdraw their labour) in protest against workplace deaths may be denied access to their elected office and indeed, charged with criminal offences for even offering advice to their committee of management, while the worksite manager overseeing the death of workers faces no such penalty or any parallel legal scheme. 

And what of the union official, a volunteer member of the committee (and it is worth noting that the vast majority of union officials are volunteers) who works part-time with stroke victims and who is raising paying a mortgage and raising a family on just her income? What if she was caught smoking marijuana as a university student? Since the legislation is retrospective, the union official could face serious jail time, loss of her elected position and public disgrace. No such penalties would apply to our great political leaders despite a wealth of evidence that demonstrates rorting of their entitlements, perverting the immigration system at the behest of their friends, drink driving charges, and their past indiscretion.

Union members are not the “thugs” that the media portrays them to be. Union members are workers. They are people who simply want to ensure their safety and rights at work are maintained and advanced, and to ensure they are paid a fair wage that keeps up with ever increasing costs of living.

We must ensure that when the Ensuring Integrity Bill hits the Senate, that it is voted down.

Key to the outcome of this bill will be the two Centre Alliance Senators; Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick. It must be noted that Centre Alliance supported the bill in the House of Representatives. Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, who has, as of writing, still yet to take a position on the bill, is also key to defeating this draconian legislation.

We encourage all VAHPA members and anyone else with an interest to email the above three politicians and tell them why you oppose this bill. We aren’t going to give you a template or pro forma letter, as we believe that letters that are unique and personal have the greatest chance of influencing the positions these politicians will ultimately take. In writing to these Senators, tell them about yourself, who you are and why you are a union member. Tell them how your union has helped or has assisted you.

The interests supporting this bill have deep pockets and are a big influence on our politicians and you can bet your bottom line that they will be in the ears of the aforementioned crossbench senators. We, however, have the numbers. We must take a stand, and we must ensure the defeat of this bill for not only our sake, but for the sake of the entire union movement and what it stands for.