By Andrew Watson
PERTH — West Australian Liberal Premier Richard Court has signalled a Jeff Kennett style of approach to industrial relations, aiming to introduce new anti-union legislation when parliament sits in May.
The proposed Essential Services Act will make it illegal for workers to strike or even stop work in a range of industries. It is aimed primarily at workers involved in "the production, supply or distribution of any form of energy, power or fuel ... or energy, power or fuel resources".
It will also affect workers in public transport, firefighting, health, ambulance, garbage, cleaning, sewerage and water supply services. It will also cover DSS and other welfare workers.
Besides this, "the Governor may declare any service to be an essential service for the purpose of this act". The purpose is "to protect the community from disruption to essential services". Because interpretation of an "essential service" rests with the government, this catch-all will allow it to ban industrial action in any area it deems "essential".
Disruption of essential services may invoke fines of $10,000 for individuals or $100,000 for unions. The act also enables the governor to declare a state of emergency if "an emergency situation exists ... in relation to the essential service" and "may apply ... throughout the whole or any part of the state".
The provisions for a state of emergency raise serious civil rights questions. The state of emergency powers used to crush the Queensland power strike in 1986 in effect outlawed the right to assembly and free speech.
To date there has been no response to these proposals from the West Australian Trades and Labour Council, which is still meeting monthly. But this and other anti-union moves, like continuous mining legislation, will surely necessitate a coordinated union response to protect workers' rights in the period ahead.