Queensland IR changes threaten free speech

Late last week, Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie introduced a new industrial relations bill into the Legislative Assembly of Queensland. According to the Attorney-General, the Industrial Relations (Transparency and Accountability of Industrial Organisations) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2013 will give members of unions and employer organisations more of a say in how their membership fees are used:

“These organisations occupy a unique and privileged position in the industrial relations system,” Mr Bleijie said.

“In light of that position, members deserve to know where and how their membership fees are being spent.”

Apart from the slightly patronising undertone of a statement like this, you might think these changes are pretty sensible.

Think again.

The bill is a thinly veiled attempt to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of political participation. If passed, the law would compel unions and employer groups to hold a ballot of their members to approve annual spending over $10,000 that goes towards a “political purpose”. The mandatory “expenditure ballot” would require at least 50% of members to vote, and approval from at least 50% of those that cast a vote in the ballot.

The changes will have an unacceptable impact on freedom of speech – the bill makes it much more difficult for an organisation to participate in political debate. This is campaign finance reform by stealth. Including the changes in a package ostensibly designed to reform industrial relations is a devious political move.

Andrew Norton has written some excellent analysis on this issue over on his blog. He notes:

The bill is supported by the minister with the usual rhetoric about transparency and accountability. But members of political organisations do not necessarily want to be involved in the detail of campaigns or activism. Joining is an act of delegation, paying others to sort out the detail of a cause or interest the member supports.

Political campaigns are normal business for unions and employer groups. If their members are unhappy with these campaigns they can say so, and vote out the leadership or leave the organisation if they are not satisfied with the leadership’s response. This is all the accountability that is required.

Norton’s observations are spot on.