Monday, 18 March 2013
Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2013; Second Reading
If the opposition's tenor could be summed up in one act, it would be this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2013. That is because it completely ignores the policy debate, and fact, and focuses solely on the stunt. We could have a mature debate on productivity and industrial relations in this chamber, but not with this opposition. We could discuss industrial relations and the other drivers of productivity, like technological advancements, but we cannot even engage in a proper debate on this issue.
That is despite the far-from-secret desire of some on the Leader of the Opposition's back bench to reinstate draconian workplace measures on false premises, such as productivity improvements. There is none of the future-looking policy that—in the words of Google—recognises that Australia's future productivity, competitiveness and wealth creation relies on world-class infrastructure and that, in this global economy, no infrastructure is more crucial than advanced communications networks. There is no mention of driving wealth for all through investing in the biggest advanced communications network Australia has ever witnessed, in the form of the NBN. No: in this debate, productivity, competitiveness and wealth creation are not about such partnerships; they are about conflict and stunts, and that is all this bill is about.
The Leader of the Opposition would have us believe that this bill is necessary to improve how registered organisations operate. So urgent were the reforms being touted by the Leader of the Opposition that he made an announcement to this effect on 28 April 2012—nearly a year ago. Then, on 26 November 2012, he announced he would suspend standing orders and move his proposal urgently, but nothing happened. Let's be clear from the outset. This government does not condone officers of any regulated organisation, officers of corporations, for that matter, or anyone in a position of trust or fiduciary duty acting inappropriately and misusing funds they are entrusted to manage or taking benefits they are not entitled to.
We support appropriate regulation for registered organisations, including a properly empowered regulator, and consequences for those who do not follow the rules. That is why the amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 were moved and passed by this parliament under this government. The financial accountability standards under registered organisations have in fact never been higher, and the powers of the Fair Work Commission have never been stronger, nor the penalties tougher.
There are requirements in the legislation governing regulated registered organisations for officers to act with care and diligence, in good faith, and not to improperly use their position or improperly use information they have obtained through acting as an officer of an organisation. The registered organisations act already prohibits members' money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns, and the government amended the registered organisations act last year to triple penalties for breaches of the legislation. And, importantly, there is nothing in the registered organisations act that prevents criminal proceedings being initiated where funds are stolen or someone engages in fraud.
An important point to note is that trade unions are not corporations. Again, we see the politics of simplicity and negativity clouding those opposite. There are many similarities between the regulations of corporations and the regulations of registered organisations. Officers of organisations, like those of corporations, are subject to serious duties and obligations. For example, they must exercise care and diligence, they must act with good faith and they must not improperly use their position for personal advantage. If they are engaged in fraud, they will be subject to criminal sanction.
The financial regulation of entities is also similar. They are required to undertake regular reporting of their financial accounts and auditors are required to sign off on their books in accordance with accounting standards. They are subject to regulatory oversight, and the general powers of Fair Work Australia and ASIC are similar. In addition, the registered organisations legislation and the amendments that were made last year by this government to improve transparency and accountability use corporation like concepts such as related party transactions.
In summary, the government has made significant amendments to registered organisations under the act to require officers to disclose personal interests and to require disclosure of payments made to related parties. There are new detailed rules about record keeping, there is the tripling of penalties for breaches of the Registered Organisations Act and giving the Fair Work Commission more powers and more resources to investigate breaches including: to compel more people to give information and documents; to require the commission to follow up on breaches after 12 months; to require investigations to be conducted soon as practicable; and powers to deal with state law enforcement agencies.
Changes including higher standards of accountability and the tripling of penalties were endorsed by unions and employer associations alike through the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council. The drafting of model rules was done through the National Workplace Relations Consultative Subcommittee and in consultation with the Fair Work Commission. Those rules have now been finalised and are publicly available.
I would now like to turn to the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee's report into the bill, which recommended this bill not be passed. The committee received seven submissions, of which only two supported the bill: from the New South Wales Liberal government and the Institute of Public Affairs. In fact, even the employer groups including the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry believed this bill should not be supported.
What does it say about this attempt by the Leader of the Opposition when he cannot even get employer groups to support his bill? I give them credit for noting that, as stated in the Senate committee report, they would be supportive of further amendments to the registered organisations act only if it became apparent that the existing regulatory regime as amended was deficient, which they determined was not the case. I think it appropriate that we have a look at these two stakeholders who have supported this bill and their track records on this issue.
In my home state of New South Wales, we have seen the O'Farrell government destroy the rights of working people in some of the most sweeping changes to the industrial relations system ever seen. By amending the Industrial Relations Act, the O'Farrell government has passed disgraceful Work Choices style laws through the New South Wales parliament which will end the independent role of the New South Wales Industrial Commission, cut the pay and conditions of public sector workers in New South Wales, undermine the ability of public sector unions to represent their members and cut services to the community generally. This legislation is an affront to the hardworking people of New South Wales—the nurses, firefighters, bus drivers and train drivers who are committed to serving their community.
For over 100 years New South Wales public servants had access to an independent umpire. The disgraceful decision by the O'Farrell government overturned 110 years of precedent by removing the arbitration powers of the New South Wales Industrial Relations Commission in relation to the setting of wages and conditions for all cases before the commission and all future cases before it. Now, the New South Wales IRC will no longer be an independent umpire protecting workers' rights in New South Wales.
Let me turn to the Institute of Public Affairs—the coalition's brains trust—the only other institution to support this bill. I think it is important that we look at the IPA's credibility on this issue. The IPA has long championed the return of Work Choices. They recently revealed some of the savage cuts the coalition is considering if they are ever elected. The list of possible cuts has been prepared in consultation with the Liberals. As Alan Moran from the IPA told The Australian on March 16, 2013:
Some items have been discussed with Coalition politicians, many of whom are in agreement with the principles against which the list has been developed.
Let us have a look at the list. The cuts being considered by the Liberals to make so-called savings of $23.5 billion include: cancelling the NDIS; abolishing Fair Work and Safe Work Australia; cutting the general research budget by 40 per cent; cutting all Commonwealth housing programs; cutting all non-emergency foreign aid; sacking 23,500 public servants; abolishing all agriculture, forestry and fisheries programs; and privatising the ABC and SBS. Savage cuts to health, education and welfare would clearly also be on the cards, as would be a planned return to Work Choices with the abolition of Fair Work Australia.
After all that, a few things are for certain. I will not take tutorials in workplace relations from a person who was a member of a government which brought balaclavas and alsatians to a worksite and called it 'reform', who in effect responded that stay-at-home mums who wanted to benefit from his version of a paid maternity leave scheme should 'get a job'; from someone who calls himself, 'the workers' friend' and is the same person who laid the foundation for Work Choices when he was the responsible minister and who on 13 August 2009 said in this place:
Let me begin my contribution to this debate by reminding members that workplace reform was one of the greatest achievements of the Howard government.
You have to ask, when has the Leader of the Opposition ever stood up for workers?
In August 2003, in the wake of the Ansett airlines collapse, when employees of the doomed airline faced losing hundreds of millions of dollars of their own entitlements, the Leader of the Opposition wrote an article which attacked the Ansett redundancy agreements as too generous and saying the award maximum of eight weeks was enough. It is no wonder, then, that recently in this parliament, those opposite voted against the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Bill, the legislation which helps workers recover entitlements including up to three months unpaid wages, long-service leave, annual leave, up to five weeks pay in lieu of notice and redundancy pay.
Against the backdrop where the opposition would have us believe that the industrial relations system in Australia today is broken, the latest data shows the opposite. Australia has recorded its lowest level of industrial disputation in almost two years, with working days lost to industrial disputes the lowest recorded since the March quarter 2011. Latest labour force figures released from the ABS show that seasonally adjusted employment surged by 71,500 in February, exceeding all market expectations, to stand at a record high of 11,628,300. This is the strongest monthly increase in jobs growth since July 2000. The unemployment rate in Australia remained steady at 5.4 per cent in February.
What about the wider economy and growth? This Leader of the Opposition is out there promising what he calls 'a return to economic growth'. The only problem is the fact that Australia has actually not stopped growing for the past two decades. There have been 21 years of consecutive growth under Labor's watch, under Labor's workplace relations framework.
When it comes to industrial relations policy, like most policy areas, it is very apparent that this opposition leader is completely lost. He knows he cannot reveal his plans for Australian workers, because he knows how hated Work Choices is by all Australians. We should not be in any doubt as to what an Abbott government would do with industrial relations. You do not have to take my word for it because, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, there are some on the opposition benches who do have the ticker to outline their industrial relations plans. As detailed in the Australian on 9 January 2013:
Tony Abbott is being urged by his allies to commit to major workplace reform and encourage the use of individual agreements, as the Coalition's internal debate on the key election issue escalates despite fears of a political backlash.
The article goes on to quote the member for Kooyong, who declared that 'now is the opportunity for the coalition to go on the front foot' on ways to lift productivity, and the article goes on:
Mr Frydenberg is also backing changes to limit unfair dismissal claims against the smallest employers.
The member for Kooyong continues and highlights all things that do not exist as his rationale to reintroduce Work Choices-style legislation, saying:
…the Coalition will be dealing with the 'militancy, flexibility and productivity' challenges facing Australian workplaces…
The member for Kooyong's foray into the industrial relations debate follows those of the member for Mayo and the member for Moncrieff and Senator Sinodinos's calls for industrial relations changes. The majority of these Liberal MPs share the common thread of being former Howard government advisers and their passion for Work Choices style laws in the main. Again, there is no understanding of how productivity and how benefits for both businesses and workers in the 21st century are driven by factors other than bashing the latter.
This bill should be rejected in its entirety. It is not a reflection on how Australians need to govern themselves. It is not a reflection on how this government should treat Australian workers. It is not a reflection on how the future of this country can only be driven by advances in productivity, by advances that are delivered by things other than simply conflict and other than confected militancy. This is not a bill which about improving Australia. This bill is nothing more than a stunt designed for the Leader of the Opposition to show his back bench that he actually agrees with all these proposals, that this is exactly what he is proposing to inflict on the workers of Australia if he ever gets the opportunity.