House debates

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bills

Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading

7:12 pm

Photo of Natasha GriggsNatasha Griggs (Solomon, Country Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 is about ensuring that the working people of Australia, more specifically the hardworking union members of this nation, have adequate protections when they pay their dues to whichever organisation it is that they are registered with. This is a really serious matter and it comes down to trust and the appropriate use of money provided to unions by their membership on the basis of trust. When it comes down to it, it is all about trust. It is about the certainty that money paid in good faith to a union is being used for the purpose for which it was intended to be used and is not being plundered by greedy, criminal-minded union officials to be spent on private property deals or prostitutes, and that union figures as unsavoury in nature and character such as Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson are not allowed to plunder the money and betray the trust invested in them by honest, decent, hardworking people.

I am prepared to acknowledge that there are a large number of trade union officials who do a good job looking after the interests of their membership and who provide a valuable service when it comes to wage negotiations, employer-employee liaison, workplace advocacy and the other functions that unions perform

But there is plenty of evidence going around at the moment that tells us that unions are becoming increasingly irrelevant to a modern, aspirational society and that the embodiment of the collective can create a significant drag on individual potential and personal fulfilment. Beyond that, there is also the capacity for overreach. By that, I mean the unwarranted and often pernicious intervention of unions in the implementation of government programs and policies and the stymieing of reform designed to bring about change. Unions are more than entitled to enter the debate and be part of the process. In fact, on most occasions, a legitimate contribution is more than welcome. But the spectacle of unions trying to bully governments into shifting policy frankly leaves me cold.

By way of example, the Australian Education Union in the Northern Territory has been riding roughshod in recent months, flailing wildly at government plans to boost resourcing to early education in the Territory. Rather than negotiating in good faith, it has used industrial action as a weapon to dictate to the Giles government how it should implement staffing policy. This is completely unacceptable. To make matters worse, a union official then nominated as an Independent candidate at a recent Territory by-election, a grotesque misuse of resources that even provoked fury among the AEU national organisation. Teachers themselves, who were in the process of negotiating a wage claim and had lost thousands of dollars throughout the process, were scratching their heads and asking, 'What on earth is going on?' For the record, the official lost the election and no longer heads the union.

But all this pales into insignificance when compared to the activities being conducted by some unions—in particular, those representing workers in the building and construction sector—and representatives from the Health Services Union. The activities of Thomson and Williamson have shone a light on corruption within unions, and the compelling Four Corners account of evidence linking biker gangs and construction sector unions points to organisations that have seriously lost their moral compass.

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill is a response to the rorts, the rackets and the rip-offs that have seriously eroded community confidence in existing union structures, not to mention the faith that a substantial number of union members have that their money is being well spent. In the Northern Territory, only about 35 per cent of public servants, for example, are members of the Community and Public Sector Union. Given the sort of behaviour that the nation has witnessed from leading union bosses in recent times, it would surprise me not one jot if the number were to fall even further.

Let me provide a recap on the behaviour of Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson. Mr Thomson was arrested in respect of more than 150 fraud related criminal charges and is facing allegations that his 2007 Labor Party federal election campaign was partly funded by siphoning union money without authorisation. Mr Williamson has pleaded guilty to misusing almost $1 million of Health Services Union members' funds. Both of these men had extremely strong links with the Australian Labor Party, Mr Thomson in his capacity as the federal member for Dobell and Williamson as a former national president.

This is an enormous black mark against the Australian Labor Party, a stain that will not be easily removed. It was extremely interesting that, at a recent hearing of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, the Leader of the Opposition was singled out for mention.

The Northern Territory has had its own scandal involving the Territory Labor Party and the union movement over recent months, resulting in an extremely damning finding against the Labor Party; its party leader in the Territory, Delia Lawrie; and her deputy, Gerry McCarthy. I want to say from the outset that the allegations levelled against the Territory chapter of the Labor Party are in a completely different league to the crimes of Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson and others facing the royal commission.

However, the Labor Party's links with unions cannot help but raise questions about whose interests they over there actually represent. Are they for all Australians, or are they just looking out for their union mates?

The Country Liberals government in the Northern Territory last year initiated a commission of inquiry to investigate claims that due process had not been followed when the previous Territory Labor government handed a lease to the old Stella Maris building to Unions NT. The report, which was released last week, is critical of both Delia Lawrie and Gerry McCarthy and found that the lease was offered to Unions NT on the day before the former government entered into caretaker mode in August 2012.

The NT News, reporting on the inquiry findings, writes:

Mr Lawler found that: "In all the circumstances and particularly given there is no statutory definition of corrupt conduct in the Northern Territory, it would be inappropriate for me to make a finding of corrupt conduct against any person as a result of the inquiry's work."

In other words, a technicality. Instead, according to the NT News, Commissioner Lawler suggested that the Country Liberals party should now consider whether they refer the matter to the parliamentary privileges committee. Mr Lawler found that the lease was offered to Unions NT on the day before the former government entered caretaker mode in August 2012. The article continues:

Mr McCarthy, who was lands minister at the time, acted in accordance with the provisions of the Crown Lands Act in granting the lease.

But … the offer was "arguably unreasonable—

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