Federal penalties bill blocked

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Federal penalties bill blocked

A Bill allowing the federal Workplace Relations Minister to seek financial penalties for non-compliance with orders or directions of the AIRC or the Court was blocked by the Senate this week

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A Bill allowing the federal Workplace Relations Minister to seek financial penalties for non-compliance with orders or directions of the AIRC or the Court was blocked by the Senate this week.

The Greens, the Democrats and the ALP joined forces to prevent the passage of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Compliance with Court and Tribunal Orders) Bill 2003.

However, the Government was adamant the Bill was fair and should pass.

Greens IR spokesperson Senator Kerry Nettle said in Parliament this week that allowing the Minister, in addition to the industrial registrar, a union or an employer, to apply for a penalty politicized the Bill.

‘This would mean that even if only a minor breach of an order has occurred and even if the employer and the registrar do not wish to pursue the issue because the dispute has been resolved or the issue is too minor, the minister can step in and apply for a penalty and bring about the automatic disqualification of a union official,’ she said.

‘This is the crux of the government's agenda of not ensuring the resolution of disputes through negotiation and bargaining, but rather the relentless pursuit of unions and union officials regardless of the consequence for the work, the workers and the members of the union.’

The Bill also seeks to disqualify office holders and employees of registered organisations from holding office for five years if they are fined for non-compliance with a court or AIRC order.

‘The disqualification provisions in this bill are much more far-reaching than those in the Corporations Act for directors, as was pointed out by the ACTU in their submission to the Senate committee that looked at this piece of legislation,’ Nettle said.

‘The ACTU concluded their evidence by highlighting the even greater inconsistency between the proposals in this bill and the disqualification provisions for federal parliamentarians.

‘The act already has adequate penalties for breaches of orders, so the provisions in this bill are aimed at heightening the pressure on unions.

‘The increased threat of imprisonment for taking industrial action is particularly concerning.’

Liberal Senator Eric Abetz told Parliament Nettles assertions were incorrect. ‘The bill simply obliges officers and employees of registered organisations to refrain from taking action that would frustrate the operation of a court or AIRC order which applies to their organisation or to its officials, employees or members,’ he said.

‘No penalty can be imposed until those engaging in unlawful conduct have first been warned by either the AIRC or the Federal Court that what they are doing is unlawful. It is only after a stop order has been defied that penalties provided for under this bill have any relevance.’

He said that in relation to the Minister applying for penalties, they were pecuniary in nature only; there were no criminal sanctions. ‘An official who is subsequently penalised by a court for breaching an order is also disqualified from holding office for a period of five years. Any such disqualification is subject to a right of appeal.’

He rejected the notion that the provisions of the Bill were somehow more severe than those of the Corporations Act. ‘We as a government say: if it is good enough for Corporations Law, chances are it is also good enough for industrial or workplace relations laws,’ he said.

‘In some cases where the unlawful conduct of an official of a registered organisation damages that organisation, the bill provides that the organisation may recover the losses from the official.'

In a statement, the Democrats IR spokesperson Senator Andrew Murray said the provisions were a concern because they automatically barred union officials subject to civil penalty provisions. They also affected a union officials capacity to represent his/her members – ‘if they fear disqualification without good cause’.

In Parliament, Liberal Senator Abetz rejected the notion that disqualification from office was not automatic.’ In those instances where an official contravenes an order, the court still retains the option of not imposing a pecuniary penalty. Where no such penalty is imposed there can be no disqualification.’

However, if a penalty is applied disqualification is automatic.

Abetz said Murray was wrong when it came to a union officers capacity to do their job. ‘The bill ought to have no impact whatever on the ability of union officials to perform their job adequately and represent employees, unless he believes that to do that you have to breach the orders of the Industrial Relations Commission.’

According to Abetz, ‘Parties can still engage in protected action and no official, member or employee of an organisation is penalised under this bill for taking lawful industrial action.’

In an earlier Senate Committee Inquiry, the ALP said the Bills were ‘unbalanced’, and were more likely to increase conflict than reduce it (see previous story).

See: the Bill online and related stories.

 

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