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What is the Ensuring Integrity Bill, and how will it affect me?

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus (centre) speaks during a rally at Parliament House in Melbourne on September 28, 2017. McManus is set to give evidence at a Senate committee hearing into the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2017. (AAP Image/Alex Murray). Also pictured: Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (AAP)

The Ensuring Integrity Bill has been one piece of legislation that has divided politics and made headlines in the last few weeks.

But while politicians, unionists and human rights lawyers have been vocal about the issue, what is it exactly? Yahoo Finance breaks it down.

What is the Ensuring Integrity Bill?

In short, it’s a Bill that would tighten the rules around unions and their officials. One side of the political spectrum is saying the Bill will save taxpayers on “unnecessary costs” as a result of “unlawful union and industrial action”, while others are saying the proposed laws will make it even harder for, and even criminalise, unions for initiating legitimate industrial action.

The Bill, officially titled the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019, proposes a number of amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 that would crack down harder on union organisations and their officials acting unlawfully.

Specifically, the Bill proposes to make the following amendments:

  • Allow automatic disqualifications of registered organisations if it commits serious crimes punishable by 5+ years of imprisonment;

  • Introduce a public interest test for union mergers which would take into account matters such as each organisation’s compliance record;

  • Make it an offence for disqualified individuals to act as an official or in an influential way.

The Bill would also grant the Federal Court the power to do four things:

  • Establish a new regime that would allow the Federal Court the power to disqualify officials from holding office in certain circumstances (e.g. contravening laws);

  • Allow the Federal Court to cancel the registration of an organisation if the organisation acts unlawfully, improperly or criminally;

  • Broaden the Federal Court’s powers to order remedial action in dealing with governance issues in a union and give the Court power to appoint an administrator to an organisation.

Current state of play: Where is the Bill now?

The Bill is a piece of legislation that is being reintroduced into parliament after it was knocked back by the Senate in 2017. However, in June and July this year, calls for the leader of the Victorian CMMFEU John Setka to resign saw renewed interest in reviving the Bill with the government seeing a greater chance of having it passed.

As such, this Bill has passed the House of Representatives and is now before the Senate again. The Bill was referred to the Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry, and a series of public hearings have already been held, with the most recent one taking place in Sydney on Tuesday 24 September that was fronted by unions, business groups and human rights lawyers.

The final say on whether or not this legislation will pass into law will likely lie in the hands of crossbenchers like Jacqui Lambie, One Nation, and Centre Alliance.

Who’s against the Ensuring Integrity Bill?

Unsurprisingly, a swathe of Australia’s biggest unions have made submissions to the Bill. Here are just a handful of groups opposing the Bill, many of which labelled the Bill as “severe”, a “violation”, “contrary to international law and Australia’s commitments”, pursuing “ideological agenda” that is “hostile to the interests of working people”, and “an attack on all working people”:

  • Labor

  • Greens

  • ACTU

  • International Centre for Trade Union Rights

  • Community and Public Sector Union

  • Australian Institute of Employment Rights

  • Human Rights Law Centre

  • The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union

  • Australian Council of Trade Unions

  • Transport Workers Union

  • Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union

  • Public Services International

  • Maurice Blackburn

Who supports the Ensuring Integrity Bill?

A few groups that support the passing of the Bill are:

  • The Australian Industry Group

  • Coalition government

  • Business Council of Australia

  • NSW Business Chamber

These groups have said the Bill would “raise standards of conduct in the system”, puts forward “common sense” or “measured and necessary” amendments, and would enforce penalties against “recalcitrant organisations”.

For a full list of submissions into this inquiry, visit the Parliament website.

How will the bill actually impact Australian workers?

Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Employsure senior employment relations adviser Michael Wilkinson said the bill was about sending a “clear message” to unions and officials that misconduct would not be tolerated, and about creating ‘sign posts’ where lines crossed by unions would have consequences.

“Assuming most unions generally respect those ‘lines’ and do the right thing, these changes will have little impact on everyday working Australians,” he said.

“Although unions declare that working Australians will be left more vulnerable as a result, the jury is still out, with union membership and density figures on the steady decline across the board – casting scepticism on how significant the impact would be for the majority of working Australians.”

However, The Australia Institute Centre for Future Work has argued that the bill is “not about ‘rogue unionists’”.

“That’s just the propaganda the government is using to justify it,” Stanford told Yahoo Finance.

“Australia’s very restrictive labour laws have criminalised normal union activity that is perfectly legal in most other countries. That creates a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

He pointed to a case from earlier this week where the CFMMEU attempted to get enterprise agreements in place at a Brisbane tile supplier using leverage from the major construction company they deal with.

“In almost any other industrial country, that effort to use bargaining leverage to lift wages among supply firms is legitimate, normal and legal. In Australia it’s illegal. And hence the union, by definition, is ‘criminal,’” Stanford said.

“That’s the kind of thing that is used to justify Bills like this: but the problem is not the unions, the problem is a legal framework that criminalises normal, peaceful, legitimate union activity.”

However, he agreed with Wilkinson’s sentiments that the Bill’s impact on Australian workers.

“This Bill will have zero impact on Australian workers, other than decreasing their opportunities just a little bit more to build bargaining power and win better wages from their employers,” Stanford said.

“Already in the private sector, just 11 per cent of workers have the benefit of an enterprise agreement to win them higher wages and some decent protection.

“That’s precisely because of the restrictions on union activity, and the demonisation of unions. This Bill is a little more of the same.”

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