Subjects: Unlawful Unions, CFMMEU, Religious freedoms.
JOHN STANLEY: In the meantime, I touched on this at the start of the program: the very significant shift that's happened over the last couple of months because, what, two months ago, we were expecting to see a change of government, but not only has the Morrison government been re-elected but the very significant part of that re-election is the numbers they now have in the Senate. Because they've got this tax change through - very significant and very long lasting tax change - but they've also now got the capacity to get other things through the Parliament, including what is described as their union-busting bill, which would give the government the power to prevent big union mergers like the one between the maritime, construction, mining, and forestry unions, who formed the CFMMEU. It would also allow the government to move for deregistration of unions that break the law and ban officials like the construction boss John Setka. Now the unions are saying this is a dangerous attack on democracy, but it is something that will be going through, presumably if it does go through, the Parliament with the numbers.
The Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter joins us now, he's also the Attorney-General. Good morning Minister.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Morning, John. How are you?
JOHN STANLEY: Good. Now, just explain to us what this bill would do?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah. I mean, I don't like particularly that description that some people have given it. What it does essentially is recalibrate the standards pursuant to which the Federal Court could deregister a union, or indeed prevent an official from a union from holding a position as an official. Now there are already standards in place, but what we've seen is that they have been ineffective to prevent unlawful behaviour.
And what's the most important thing here is to understand the starting point as to why this is necessary. The reason why is because there's a range of very credible estimates that unlawful behaviour by unions, particularly in the construction sector, costs money for the purchase of infrastructure. So the Master Builders Association of Australia, they've estimated that infrastructure projects such as schools, roads, hospitals cost up to 30 per cent more due to union militancy and unlawful behaviour on workplaces, construction workplaces. So that ultimately is a terrible waste of money for the taxpayer, who could be getting much more infrastructure for their tax dollar.
And there have been unions - the CFMMEU is the obvious example - who have just engaged in repeated unlawful activity. So right now, you know today, as of 4 July, there are 70 representatives of that union currently before the courts across 32 separate matters, facing a total of over 750 suspected offences. And the history of that union is just astonishingly unlawful: $16 million I believe it is worth of fines, $16.4 million in penalties awarded against that union and its representatives in over 2160 cases. So this is about providing more reasonable, fairer standards by which applications can be made to the court to deregister an organisation that behaves in that type of unlawfulness.
JOHN STANLEY: Are you able to give us a generic, because I know as the Attorney-General also you know I'll be talking about specific things, but a generic example of the kind of unlawful activity you're talking about?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Oh well, it's breaches of occupational health and safety acts. I mean, recently a member of the CFMMEU was the subject of a fine in the nature of a personal penalty order in the vicinity of about $40,000, and the type of behaviour that was engaged in is contrary not merely our industrial laws but occupational health and safety laws - going on to site, disrupting the site, going on without an entry permit. In the instance that I'm talking about they stopped a range of cranes on a site, and presumably to make some sort of point or to provide an intimidatory tactic, which they believed was to their own purposes and ends, but itself was endangering the health and safety of people on the work site.
And if I give you this one example of- with respect to the inadequacy of the present law, under the present law it's not currently an offence to act as an official while you've been disqualified from doing so. So try and wrap your head around that. The court can disqualify you as being an official, but that doesn't stop you from acting in an official capacity. I mean, you know, look, the standards have been inadequate to enforce the basic lawful conduct that we all want to see on construction sites.
JOHN STANLEY: You'd be aware of the sensitivity, particularly around Sydney, with a couple of very high profile cases of buildings that have been now, well, there's a scandal surrounding the construction of those buildings. Is there a sensitivity here in making sure, because unions would argue that they're in there trying to make sure things are done properly, and that if you do this, there's not going to be anyone? It's going to be easier to get away with dodgy building.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, and if that's what unions are doing - and it is what most unions are doing - there's no problem. But if you are going on without a right of entry permit, if you are breaking the law repeatedly, if you rack up $16 million worth of fines for 2160 instances of breaking the law, if your public officials are holding official positions in these registered organizations, unions - notwithstanding that they're not fit and proper people because they've got long criminal and civil penalty records - we wouldn't accept those standards in corporate Australia, why should we be accepting them for registered organisations and unions?
And look, overwhelmingly, unions do the right thing but there are some rogue elements of some unions which - particularly in sensitive industries such as construction - behave in a way that is unlawful, disruptive, and ultimately and massively disadvantages the taxpayer who are the purchasers of the construction that is delayed, disrupted by unlawful behaviour.
JOHN STANLEY: Alright so John Setka - if this legislation goes through - would you be applying in relation to him?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the legislation is not retrospective. So at the moment the CFMMEU is breaking three to four laws a week. Right? Three to four laws a week. If this legislation went through it would mean that there are fairer and better standards in place to prevent officials with long criminal histories from being in…
JOHN STANLEY: [Interrupts] [Indistinct]
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's right. And so it depends on the future behaviour of that union. Now they may reform their ways, that may seem something of a triumph of optimism over experience. But this is simply about ensuring that there are clear standards, that the court is empowered to take action, and ultimately, that is to the benefit of every Australian taxpayer.
And I'll give you one more example: The McKell Institute in 2016 said that a two lane undivided road in Australia cost 26 per cent more in Australia than the UK, 42 per cent more than in the United States, and 53 per cent more than in Canada. And some considerable part of that is unlawful, disruptive behaviour on a construction sites. So why should Australians pay 50 per cent more than Americans to have a road built?
JOHN STANLEY: Alright, so…
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's very inefficient.
JOHN STANLEY: Yeah. The legislation you think it will- when would you expect us to see it go back into the Senate?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well it has been introduced in the House of Representatives. The decision has been made by Labor to support it going to a Committee. Now, this legislation was introduced in the previous Parliament. It's already been to a Committee. We're unlikely to be able to prevent that from happening. But in fact many of the Committee recommendations which were designed to make this as consistent as possible with the standards in corporate law, we've already adopted.
The negotiations with the crossbench on tax have now occurred and concluded, so this will be one of the next bills that we start negotiating with. But I must say, rational government needs to be able to reasonably deregister unlawful organisations and I think that that is a very strong argument that can be made to the crossbench. So I'm hopeful that they'll see a lot of common sense in this legislation.
JOHN STANLEY: Alright. Pardon me asking this, but as a result of the election you've got yourself a tattoo, is that right?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah. Not the most sensible undertaking I've ever made. But, you know, I made an undertaking to my electorate and my team that if I got an increased margin I'd get a tattoo. And as soon as the results started rolling in on election night no one was letting me forget it, mate. So it…
JOHN STANLEY: [Interrupts] Which suggests, you could be honest enough to say that you're probably still a little bit surprised that you're not only backing government but that you've got a stronger legislative position in the Parliament to give in the Senate than you've had probably for the last six years?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well the legislative position for the Senate in the last Parliament was exceedingly difficult, there's no question about that. It's still a matter, and I've negotiated a number of bills through the Senate, to speak openly and frankly with the crossbench to make your case, treat everyone with respect, and you will win some but you won't win all of them. But yeah, I mean I think that that legislation like this bill, which is meant to save the taxpayer expense, has a very strong foundation in rationality and I think that it can be sold to the crossbench.
JOHN STANLEY: Alright. And the other one is the Religious Discrimination Act, you're talking to your backbenchers about this. When might we see something there?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So we'll have, sort of, several weeks leading into a few months worth of consultation first of all inside our party's - the National and Liberal Party - and then with key stakeholders, religious organisations and other groups, that want to contribute to it. But the foundational principle here is that we have bills that protect people from discriminatory behaviour which might be levied against them because of their age or because they've got a disability or because their sexual agenda. Why would we not offer the same protection to people in Australia of religion? And that's not- many of the states already do that. Why don't we do that at a Commonwealth level? There are not- it's not without its complexities in drafting but the foundational principle I think is one that most Australians would accept.
JOHN STANLEY: As Attorney-General you'd be aware of this - it's on the front page of The Australian newspaper - this decision by the British Court of Appeal over a Christian student who'd been banned from his university after posting anti-same sex marriage Bible verses on Facebook, and the courts now ordered he be reinstated.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: I've read the reports of it - even with my great love of the law I haven't been writing British Court of Appeal decisions overnight.
JOHN STANLEY: Really? You've got two jobs, so yeah alright.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Yeah. I mean at the essence of that decision is that reciting scripture if you like is not necessarily a discriminatory act. And that depends on its own circumstances of that case that was considered. But again I think that that's a common sense principle that many Australians would have empathy for.
JOHN STANLEY: Christian Porter who is the Attorney General and the Industrial Relations Minister. Thank you for your time.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Pleasure John. Cheers.
JOHN STANLEY: Talking to us there from Canberra, he is from Western Australia and I can say that he will be Prime Minister of Australia one day. He's outstanding, Christian Porter, and you can you can just put the tick against that prediction, that will come true.