She said if workers or unions “want to be upset with anyone this week” it should be Labor and the Coalition government, who passed free trade agreements that would allow more foreign workers to come to Australia.
Senator Lambie, who has threatened to vote for the bill if Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union Victorian secretary John Setka did not resign, said she was “not prepared to throw every single union member in the country under the bus just because one bloke wants his job”.
She circulated amendments she said would ensure no union official could be disqualified, or union deregistered, for failing to lodge forms in time; that workers’ right to strike would be protected; and that no court could block a union merger.
“The scale of bad behaviour in the union movement should be reflected in the scale of the penalties the bill applies,” Senator Lambie said.
“The government’s bill treats all unions like they’re all the same part of the problem, and that’s just not the case. Teachers, nurses and firies aren’t the problem.”
It is understood Senator Lambie’s proposed amendments also raise the bar for union deregistration by requiring three serious breaches in three years, or a criminal conviction of at least 1500 penalty units.
Under government amendments negotiated with Centre Alliance, a demerit point system – allowing officials to be disqualified over up to three breaches – would operate, with accrued points calculated over 10 years.
Mr Porter said Senator Lambie’s proposed amendments were “not workable” and the government had spent weeks of “cooperatively” negotiating changes with Centre Alliance and One Nation.
He pointed to Senator Lambie’s promise to support the bill if John Setka remained in his position, saying Mr Setka “is still running the CFMMEU in Victoria”.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the bill was an attack on unions and would submit them to much tougher regulation than the big banks at “a time when wages are not keeping up with the cost of living”.
He told Sky News if unions were removed from construction sites “you’d see more industrial accidents … wage theft and the replacement of Australian workers with foreign workers being exploited”.
Mr Porter said in Parliament on Wednesday the bill was needed to tackle union militancy, thuggery and unlawfulness on construction sites, which was driving up the cost of building schools, hospitals and roads.
Labor’s leader in the Senate Penny Wong said the government was “trying to rip the fairness out of Australian workplaces” and the bill would mark a return to the era of John Howard’s WorkChoices industrial relations regime.
Labor senator Tony Sheldon, former secretary of the Transport Workers’ Unions, welcomed crossbench efforts to “take the sharper edges off” the bill, but said it would still have “the same chilling result” of stopping unions from advocating on workers’ behalf.
“If the demerit scheme is so good why is it not being applied to bank executives in the aftermath of the banking Royal Commission?” he said.
Labor senator Tim Ayres said the government was “punishing the whole union movement for the failures of one man”, referring to Mr Setka, who pleaded guilty in June to breaching a family violence order and sending abusive text messages to his wife.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.