One could be forgiven for thinking that we have done some sort of time travel, because the bill before the House, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019, has been debated here before. The 45th Parliament rejected it, on the grounds that it had no place in Australian law, and saw the bill exactly for what it was—an attack on the trade union movement by a government who are obsessed, as we have just heard, and who will stop at nothing in their senseless pursuit to rid Australians of the opportunity to become members of unions and to have their voices heard.
We have seen this bill introduced before, and it was rejected because it was excessive and it was dangerous. It was dangerous because it aimed to strike at every Australian's right to belong to a union and to be represented by a union. I always have to say: the same people who bang on about freedom of voice, freedom of speech and freedom of association don't want people to be members of trade unions. This bill, whilst slightly amended by the government from the 2017 version that we originally saw in the 45th Parliament, remains a blatant political attack on unions. It is designed to crush the power of working people in this country and—as we know, as those opposite never, ever discuss—continue the wage suppression and stagnation that this government seems to be completely proud of. Without Australia's great history of the trade union movement, that is exactly what we would have seen.
For decades, unions have provided a voice for working Australians and have led the way in fighting for introducing initiatives that we simply take for granted today. They are things like maternity leave, penalty rates—before this government got their hands on them—and safety protections for workers in high-risk situations in industries, and standing up to ensure Australians are paid what is rightly theirs. We're not hearing anything tonight about wage theft. We're not hearing anything about penalty rates being cut. We're not hearing anything tonight about wages flatlining. They're all the things you would think a modern Liberal government would want to be talking about. But we know why. It's because they have an appalling record on industrial relations.
This bill goes even further than what was originally applied and impinges on every Australian's right to freedom of association and will only lead to a greater suppression of workers' rights and, more than that, basic human rights. You don't need to listen to me or anyone on this side. It's stated in the explanatory memorandum of the bill itself. Under the section titled 'Human rights implication' it goes so far as to say how this bill will impact different sections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to freedom of association, the right to form and join trade unions, and the right of trade unions to function freely.
The International Centre for Trade Union Rights has described this bill as harmful to workers, undemocratic and inconsistent with international law. When it needs to explain itself on such serious matters, the explanatory memorandum goes further to discuss the implications this bill will have on the right to take part in public affairs and elections, the right to the presumption of innocence, the right to privacy and the right not to be subject to unlawful attacks on a person's reputation. This is an extraordinary attack by this government on unions and workers, perhaps like we've never seen before.
The fact that this legislation in its analysis, the explanatory memorandum, has to address these very significant human rights is just an indicator of how potentially dangerous this piece of legislation is. We know the government is following a long line of conservative governments who are absolutely obsessed about crushing the unions in this country and will stop at nothing to see unions' and workers' rights eroded. We know that. We know on this side of the chamber the disdain they have for working people in this country. We see it in the way they treat workers. We see it in the way they deride people. Who could ever forget the former Prime Minister of this country saying that aged-care workers needed to get a better job, time and time again?
A research paper released by the International Centre for Trade Union Rights says, 'There is no other precedent for the degree of punitive government interference in union activity in comparable democracies,' and that the proposed 'ensuring integrity' bill is 'incompatible with Australia's commitments under the ILO's Freedom of Association and Protection of the Rights to Organise Convention, and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention'. This is a bill that appears to be on the cusp of breaking international law. There are, no doubt, some very serious flaws in this bill, so much so that it's already been referred to a Senate committee for further investigation, which is due to report in October this year.
This bill goes as far as to place a two-tier playing field for registered organisations and the corporate world. Currently, the Corporations Act empowers the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, not a minister, to disqualify company directors. However, under this bill, the Registered Organisations Commissioner, the minister and any person with a 'sufficient interest' would have the power to apply to the Federal Court for the disqualification of a union official.
So my question to the government, through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, is: why the double standards? If we have laws that are sufficient laws for company directors and people in the private sector, we should have some equity in the terms of what is being applied to this sector. Because of this government's utter obsession with destroying the union sector, they tell us that there is a different standard. In addition to that, the penalty in this bill for an offence of a disqualified person holding their office through a union, as such, is double that of equivalent provision in a corporation act. In terms of the public interest test for union mergers, that's not even equivalent to the competition test for company mergers.
The government will tell you that you should support this legislation, because they want the same standards that are there for company directors to apply to union officials. But the legislation being put forward doesn't even do that. There are a series of examples where the benchmark they are setting for union officials is way beyond what they would ever dare apply to a company director, and that's before you even get to the rules of amalgamations.
The rules on amalgamations that they're putting forward are simply gobsmacking. Here you have a process where two unions, two voluntary associations, have a ballot of their members on whether they want to join together as one organisation. The ballot is conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission. Even if a majority in both unions voted yes to the amalgamation, there is a pathway there for a national interest test to apply as to whether or not they are objectively allowed to form a single organisation. This bill goes even further than that. Employer groups would be able to apply for unions to be deregistered. Let's just walk through that for a sec. Unions democratically having the freedom to amalgamate, going through the Electoral Commission in this country, could have that ballot overturned.
Some of these examples of what would make unions liable for deregistration are extraordinary. For example, if a group of nurses in the nurses union wanted to campaign on better staff ratios and their campaign was not registered lawful industrial action—they were simply concerned about the issues of the patients and they had unprotected industrial action—the entire nurses union could be deregistered for an action like that. That action could be brought by anyone deemed to have a sufficient interest. I just heard the government say that that's their intent. That's their direct intent. Why would the government introduce a bill like this? I've got my suspicions. I suspect they're doing this because at every level they are pathologically driven by their hatred of unions and they want to make it more difficult to organise.
If we look at the key challenges in Australia at the moment, which were referred to in the second reading amendment which the shadow minister moved—wage theft, flatlining wages growth and deaths in unsafe workplaces—for the response to be, 'Well, we need to give the workers' organisations less power,' is unbelievable in its transparency and doesn't reflect well on the government. This government isn't interested, as we know, in standing up for workers' rights, but I will tell you what it is interested in: cutting and suppressing wages. You only need to look at today's wage growth figures, which show workers' share of income is at a 50-year low.
What's worse, as another sign of this government's attacks on unions and workers, is that we know that this is the direct result they are seeking to achieve. Ultra-low wage growth isn't accidental. As we know, it's the intended outcome of government policies. That's what Senator Cormann said when he was interviewed just a few short months ago. He said that it was a deliberate design feature of the government's economic architecture. That's right: low wage growth and suppression is what this government is actually trying to achieve. Who can forget that wonderful interview by Senator Linda Reynolds, who said that that wasn't the intent but, when it was pointed out that that was Minister Cormann's intent, said, 'Oh, well, I actually agree with him now,' live on television? You couldn't make this stuff up. That's right: low wage growth and suppression is what this government is actually trying to achieve. No wonder the national economy is struggling.
In fact, as the Treasurer and now Prime Minister, the Prime Minister has presided over the lowest wages growth since records began. Let's just put that in context: the lowest wages growth in our history, not to mention, as the shadow minister indicated in his second reading amendment, the issue of cutting penalty rates, the largest pay cut since the Great Depression. I heard the Treasurer say today, 'Well, that's not our plan; that's not what we want to do.' Is he in some alternative universe? Is he not walking around the streets, listening to people who understand that when you cut penalty rates you give people a pay cut?
That is not to mention all of the mystical jobs that were going to be created by cutting penalty rates—a big fat zero. If I am wrong, and if the government have some advice or information to say that by cutting penalty rates we see a dramatic increase in employment in this country, the statistics don't bear that out. I know that from speaking to my own local businesses in the community. I know that from speaking to some of the cleaners, some of the pharmacists and some of the retail workers who had a cut of $51 for one shift on a Sunday. Now, 200 bucks for those opposite mightn't be a lot of money, but tell that to a retail worker who is trying to put food on the table, who's trying to make ends meet with spiralling electricity prices—the highest that our country has ever seen, under this government's watch—and rising costs in living. And this government thinks it's okay to give some of the lowest-paid workers, including some 12,500 people in my electorate alone, a pay cut because their penalty rates have been cut. How is that good for the economy? How is that actually growing employment? I tell you what: it's not; it's absolutely not. So the response by this government is not to deal with wage theft or cutting wages; it's actually to begin this assault on people organising in their workplace.
We know around 700,000 low-paid workers across the country have faced that axe in their take-home pay and some workers will be up to $26,000 worse off by the time these cuts are fully implemented by 1 July next year. So, all up, under this government's watch, workers will lose an estimated $2.9 billion. So, we know on this side of the chamber that penalty rates are not a luxury. They help people. They make ends meet. We know that the costs are rising for things like child care and education under this government, but the government told us these cuts would supposedly create jobs. But two years on with cuts to public holiday penalty rates fully implemented and Sundays still being cut back, how many jobs have been created? Research shows none—zero, absolutely none—as a result of their obsession with cutting wages, supressing wages, and now, in this bill tonight, they are denying workers having a real say in their future in their workplaces. Well, I say that's a sham by this government and now they want to go even further on the attack.
Some have suggested this bill has been put forward as a bit of a distraction because we are seeing problems in the national economy. But we know that, with debt doubling under this government, the national economy has gone, since 2013, from the eight-fastest-growing economy to the 20th. Productivity has fallen for four consecutive quarters. Household spending is weak and living standards are growing slower under the Liberals than the previous Labor government. We know that we are only a few short months into this government. They are failing the national economy. They are failing people on low incomes, and tonight they are failing workers.
The truth is that this bill could leave workers without the representatives that protect them from wage theft, superannuation theft and dangerous workplaces, and it's something that neither I nor my colleagues on this side of the House support. We will continue to defend the rights of workers to organise. We will continue to defend the rights of workers to ensure that they get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.