Brandis adds another attack on unions

May 30, 2014
George Brandis' 'freedom inquiry' will focus on workplace relations, environmental regulation and commercial and corporate regul

While attacking pensioners, the unemployed, single parents and the marginalised, the Coalition government has stepped up its attack on the organised.

There are two inquiries aimed at unions underway — a Productivity Commission inquiry into the Fair Work Act and the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Both are designed to emasculate an already legislatively constrained union movement.

For good measure, Attorney-General George Brandis has now added a third.

In December last year, Brandis announced that an Orwellian-sounding “freedoms inquiry” would be conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC). The commission is required to identify and critically evaluate Commonwealth laws that encroach on “traditional rights, freedoms, and privileges”.

On the face of it, this could be a wide-ranging inquiry examining some important areas of legislation that affect people’s rights. The traditional rights of Aboriginal people come readily to mind.

So too do the rights that come from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23, for example, declares: “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”

It also declares: “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his (sic) interests.”

Australia was a founding member of the United Nations and took part in the drafting of the Universal Declaration. Successive Australian governments have undertaken to “reaffirm faith in fundamental rights” expressed in the UN Charter.

But these fundamental rights are far from what Brandis has in mind.

The terms of reference that were recently published require the ALRC to focus “in particular” on workplace relations, environmental regulation and commercial and corporate regulation.

The downtrodden corporate sector will no doubt welcome the opportunity to argue that it should be exempt from the burdensome legislation that fetters its freedom. Laws that prohibit companies from releasing hazardous chemicals detrimental to public health are prime examples of environmental regulation that adversely affect profitability and encroach on their freedom to pollute.

What will be attacked alongside the workplace rights to representation and to organise is the fundamental right of workers to strike.

Australian Council of Trade Unions assistant secretary Tim Lyons said the hypocrisy is inherent in the terms of reference for this latest inquiry. He said unions were concerned about laws that restrict traditional legal protections like the right to silence while “trying to force through the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation that abrogates those rights for building workers.”

The ALRC’s inquiry is due to report in December. This will allow for the Abbott government to release the results early next year and continue its anti-union political agenda before the next election. It will no doubt receive favourable comments and calls to action from its corporate and media mates.

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