Smashing the Glass Ceiling: Senator Michaelia Cash’s Journey From Lawyer to Workplace Reformer

A long held dedication to employment law and workplace relations, both as a lawyer and politician, has given Senator Michaelia Cash deep insights into the triumphs and tribulations of the Australian industrial landscape.

Born in Perth, with a father who was in politics as a Minister and later President of the Legislative Council in Western Australia, Senator Cash was introduced to politics at a very early age and inspired by a strong work ethic.

“From an early age, I learnt that you can either talk about change or be part of the change process,” she said. “My parents brought my siblings and I up with a very simple philosophy – to achieve, you work hard, and to achieve more, you simply work harder. There were never any excuses made for me and to this day I am very glad that a strict work ethic was instilled in me at a very young age. I have been criticised by some who claim I am a workaholic but I would say that hard work and maximum effort has simply been a way of life – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Educated at Iona Presentation College in Mosman Park, Cash graduated from Curtin University with a Bachelor of Arts with a triple major in public relations, politics and journalism.

While studying, she became a member of the Liberal Party of Western Australia and was an executive member of the Curtin University Young Liberals from 1988 to 1990. She was then part of the Western Australian Young Liberal Movement, where she held numerous positions including State Vice-President. Cash was also a long-time member of the Liberal Party of Western Australia’s State Council, and was President of the Moore Division. She has also served on the Party’s State Executive.

With a keen interest in the law, Cash completed an Honours Degree at the University of London before completing a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from the University of Western Australia.

Prior to entering Federal Parliament, Senator Cash was a Senior Associate at the law firm Freehills in its Perth employment and industrial relations practice, where she worked from 1999 to 2008.

“I practiced in all areas of employment and industrial law including industrial relations, employee relations, occupational health and safety, equal opportunity, executive employment, and unfair dismissal,” she said. “In June 2001 I was seconded to the Freehills Melbourne office for 12 months where I gained valuable insight into the federal industrial relations system.”

Senator for Western Australia

In 2007, Cash won pre-selection for the Liberal Party Senate ticket and went on to be elected to the Federal Parliament at the 2007 federal election. Since entering Federal Parliament, Cash has served on many Senate Committees and in 2015 was promoted to Cabinet as Minister for Employment and Minister for Women in the Turnbull Government.

“I never take for granted the honour and responsibility that is part of being a Senator for Western Australia,” she said. “I also acknowledge that a person’s time in Parliament is finite and that keeps me focused on achieving what I can for my State and my country while I am fortunate to have the opportunity to do so.”

A leading female inspiration throughout her political career has been Margaret Thatcher.

“If there was a glass ceiling for women in politics, Margaret Thatcher smashed it,” she said. “In 1975 she achieved much of what the world is still trying today to achieve for women. She was a working mother. She was a professional – studying STEM [science, technology, engineering, and maths based education].”

“She was the object of scorn and vitriol from many on the left of politics and yet she did not wilt. She towered over her critics. She got on with the job, because she was a politician of action.”

When it comes to a key career highlight, Senator Cash said she has been truly proud to be part of a Government that has taken extensive and decisive action to address domestic violence in Australia.

“While there is much more work to be done to ensure domestic violence is significantly reduced and ultimately eradicated from Australian society, we can be proud to have made substantial progress in relation to bringing awareness to an issue that has for far too long remained behind closed doors,” she said. “I am honoured to be part of a Government that has elevated this issue to not just a national priority, but to an issue of social conscience across Australia.”

Another of Senator Cash’s career highlights, she said, has been to be part of a Government strongly focused on job creation.

“Since the Government came to office in September 2013, employment has risen by 425 800 (or 3.7%), to stand at a record high of 11 900 600 in November 2015,” she added. “In this calendar year, the Australian economy has created 231 700 jobs – the fastest 10 month calendar year growth since 2006.”

Senator Cash remains conscious that youth unemployment is a real issue across Australia and is keen to work with other ministers to help more young people into work through the Government’s new $331 million Youth Employment Strategy announced in the 2015-2016 Budget.

“Youth unemployment was an important topic raised at the recent G20 meeting in Turkey where it was agreed there was an international need for a renewed commitment to creating economic growth and job creations, especially for young people,” she said.

On an international level, Senator Cash stressed a key challenge is the need for Australia to improve its economic competitiveness, if we are to remain part of the global marketplace.

“We need to concentrate our efforts in areas that we have, or can create, a competitive advantage, if we are to increase individual prosperity and create more jobs as we seek to unlock our potential economic growth,” she explained.

Unlocking China Free Trade potential

Given the importance of the Chinese economy to our growing services sector, Senator Cash is also convinced that the passage of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement is vital to helping unlock the full potential of jobs growth driven by trade with China.

“The same applies to all Free Trade Agreements that we have signed since coming to office in September 2013,” she added. “Free trade equals jobs, growth, opportunity, and wealth generation. But I find it personally bemusing that in 2015, we still continue to have some small yet vocal minorities who remain stridently opposed to trade liberalisation.”

Challenging “militant unions”

Another pressing challenge, from Senator Cash’s perspective, is the growing influence of “militant unions”, who she sees as having an enormous sway over the policy direction of the Labor opposition.

“Ironically, as union membership numbers continue to fall, the influence of militant unions over the Labor Party increases,” she claimed. “Unions have a role to play in the national conversation, however, intransigent, insular, and damaging positions embraced by some radical unions are counter-productive to the best interests of their own members as well as to the national interest.”

“The fact that Bill Shorten is unable to defy the wishes of some radical unions is worrying for the Labor Party, but it also has consequences for the entire country in terms of our ability to capitalise on opportunities for growth and job creation.”

Cash cited a recent example of this was what she described as the misleading and nonsensical approach by elements of the union movement to the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The opposition of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Electrical Trades Union (ETU), and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to this free trade deal had a disproportionate influence on the national debate, she claimed.

“This is a direct results of the fact that today’s Labor Party is beholden to the unions,” which she described as “a toxic relationship”.

When it comes to the CFMEU, Senator Cash said there is no question that there has been a long list of appalling behaviour on the part of numerous high-ranking officials, and she noted there have been allegations of criminality.

“Such allegations clearly demonstrate the need for the Parliament to pass the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013,” she stressed. “In order to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission – the watchdog so badly needed in the construction industry. This Bill is in line with the commitments the Coalition made well in advance of the 2013 election.”

“Unfortunately, Labor and the Greens continue to obstruct it in the Senate. Obviously, any recommendations made as part of the findings of the Trade Union Royal Commission will be seriously considered by the Government.”

“Meaningful penalties” for illegal union conduct

With regards to reforms relating to the CFMEU, Senator Cash has called for “meaningful penalties” to be imposed on unions for illegal conduct.

“The Registered Organisations Bill introduces a suite of legislative measures designed to see governance of registered organisations lifted to a consistently high standard across the board,” she said. “A more robust compliance regime will deter wrongdoing and promote first class governance of registered organisations.”

According to Cash, the Commission will have stronger investigation and information gathering powers than those that currently apply. These will be modeled on those available to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

“Under the Coalition’s plan, if you are ripping off the union and union members, then you deserve to be found out and penalised appropriately. This applies whether you are a State secretary, local organiser, delegate, or volunteer. Your role does not give you the right to treat the union as a personal piggy bank.”

A partisan agenda?

Senator Cash firmly dismisses claims by the National Secretary of the CFMEU Construction Division, Dave Noonan, that the Fair Work Building Commission pursues a partisan agenda against the CFMEU, while systematically ignoring widespread illegal practices by employers in the building and construction industry.

“Mr Noonan’s comments are simply untrue and part of an ongoing and increasingly desperate campaign to distract from the CFMEU’s appalling track record,” she said. “I believe in the rule of law and do not support any group, be they unions, employers or employees, treating the Australian community with contempt by seeking to operate outside the law and thumbing their noses at their legal obligations.”

When it comes to the Productivity Commission review into the Workplace Relations Framework, Cash stressed that the Coalition gave an election commitment before the 2013 election to ask the independent Productivity Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the workplace relations system.

“The Productivity Commission has now provided its report to Government and the Government will carefully consider the final report,” she said. “If there is a good case for sensible and fair changes that will restore balance to the workplace system, those changes will be clearly outlined and taken to the next election to seek a mandate from the Australian people.”

In the coming years, there are a plethora of changes Senator Cash wants to see implemented to strengthen workplace relations in Australia, including the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). This, she sees as vital to ensuring that the rule of law is maintained in the construction industry.

“It should not be forgotten that the ABCC was established in its original form as a result of the findings of the Cole Royal Commission,” she stressed. “The Cole Royal Commission found evidence of extensive lawlessness, intimidation, and thuggery in the construction sector.”

“Unlawful practices in the building and construction industry results in higher infrastructure costs, delayed projects, and a culture of fear and intimidation. The social and economic importance to Australians of the building and construction industry functioning properly cannot be underestimated.”

According to Cash, the core benefits brought by the ABCC while it was in operation cannot be undervalued. This is because the ABCC upheld construction-specific laws, which in turn saw major economic benefits flow through to all Australians, she said.

“The building and construction industry is far too important to the national economy for us to see this happening,” she added. “Building and construction workers deserve to work in an industry that is free from thuggery, intimidation, and stand-over tactics. That is why the Turnbull Government stands by the reintroduction of the ABCC.”

Looking at the Fair Work Amendment Bill, Senator Cash said she was particularly pleased that the Government was able to reach an agreement in the Senate to include several sensible, reasonable amendments to the Act. These include measures to ensure there are no undue delays to large, job-generating projects.

“The measure in the Bill relating to Greenfield projects is particularly important and will ensure projects can get off the ground as soon as possible, delivering vital employment opportunities for Australians,” she said. “It is vital that Australia’s industrial relations framework is both balanced and conducive to growth. The closure of Labor’s ‘strike first, talk later’ loophole will encourage genuine negotiation and ensure costly industrial action is not taken prematurely – that benefits no one.”

No plans to remove penalty rates

In relation to penalty rates, Senator Cash highlighted that the Coalition appreciates the significance of penalty rates to workers, especially the low paid. But she stressed the Government’s position has always been that responsibility for setting award wages and conditions, including penalty rates, sits with the independent tribunal, the Fair Work Commission, not the Government.

“Any suggestion that the Government has altered penalty rates, or has plans to remove penalty rates, is simply incorrect,” she claimed. “There are currently very misleading and dishonest claims being made by the union movement in relation to penalty rates.”

“Unions have a responsibility to represent their members honestly and not to attempt to scare people through misinformation. I can again assure you that the Government has no plans to abolish penalty rates or change the way they are set.”

Moving forward, Cash predicts the focus for the Federal Government will be providing the policy framework that allows more people to get into stable, long-term employment.

“We know where the jobs will be created in the years ahead and so we are placing our energies and resources in backing these areas of growth,” she said. “That is why we have invested significantly into such programs as the $6.8 billion jobactive program which in its first three months of operation has been responsible for 69 000 job placements.”

“We are also backing small business – the largest employer in the country and the engine room of the economy – with a comprehensive $5.5 billion Small Business and Jobs Package encouraging enterprises to grow.”

Reducing the gender pay gap

Significantly, Senator Cash said she is committed to continuing to do all she can to boost women’s workforce participation and reduce the gender pay gap.

“We need to encourage more young women to pursue science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) based education as this will be where many of the jobs of the future exist and where there is currently an under-representation of women,” she said. “Such gender imbalance is not only a cause of the gender pay gap but it also guarantees these industries are not utilising some of the best talent that exists in the Australian workforce.”

by Azadeh Williams

Azadeh Williams is an international journalist and editor with over 500 articles published in over five continents including Reuters and The Times (UK). A former banking and finance solicitor, she holds an LLB, BA (Hons) from the University of Sydney and an MA from the City University London School of Journalism. Azadeh currently lectures in business and professional news practice at the Macleay College faculty of journalism.

Subscribe to Legal Insight

Discover best practice and keep up-to-date with insights on the latest industry trends.