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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2006 Week 9 Hansard (21 September) . . Page.. 3071..

MR GENTLEMAN (continuing):

OECD reported that the Scandinavian model produced a more equal society with less of a gap between the rich and poor. Furthermore, Australia is the only country in the developed world where an employer is not obliged to negotiate with a representative union.

In October, the ACTU congress will consider the finding from its recent delegation to North America and Europe that argues in favour of a system where an employer or union or the employees themselves will have equal rights to initiate a collective bargaining progress. Combet pointed out the need to adhere to democratic rights and principles and internationally recognised labour rights. Article 1 of the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention states:

Workers shall enjoy adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of their employment.

Clearly, the IR laws are in violation of international obligations. Under the new laws, union representatives can face fines of up to $33,000 if they make claims on behalf of workers for unfair dismissal protection, seek a role for the union in dispute settlement or ask for employees to attend a union training course. Furthermore, if the government wants to prosecute a union, individuals are not afforded the most basic legal rights. The federal government can secretly interrogate workers and imprison them for contempt if they fail to attend the interrogation, refuse to answer questions or provide documents and/or if they disclose the content of the interrogation to others.

Combet rightly pointed out that democratic societies do not hold a secret interrogation of ordinary workers who defend their union delegate or stop work for a meeting. We have already seen the effects of this decline of the power of unions. In Western Australia, 107 workers face fines of up to $28,000 for taking industrial action to defend a sacked union delegate.

Greg Combet not only outlined the iniquitous aspects of the WorkChoices legislation but also offered his own vision for a better way forward with positive changes to industrial relations. The ACTU is fighting for a fairer and more just society where economic disparity is more evenly distributed and enjoyed. The ACTU's positive alternative would ensure a decent safety net of pay and conditions in awards and/or legislation, a system of collective bargaining over and above the safety net in which all parties are encouraged to bargain in good faith and uphold democratic values, the protection of workers against individual contracts, the abolition of AWAs, and an independent tribunal to hear industrial disputes.

The government's rhetoric that an unregulated IR system will be more beneficial to the economy is simply false. Combet rejected the claim that economic competitiveness can be achieved only at the expense of people's rights at work. Combet's assertion is supported by a report by the OECD in June this year that found that the level of minimum wages had no significant impact on unemployment levels, that moderate employment protection policies such as unfair dismissal do not hurt an employer, and that countries with collective bargaining systems tend to have low unemployment. Combet is committed to improving the quality of our democracy and society. The ACTU supports a more egalitarian policy that laws like WorkChoices erode.

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