House debates

Monday, 11 February 2013


Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2013; First Reading

10:50 am

Photo of Tony AbbottTony Abbott (Warringah, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2013 is important legislation because it is vital for our country that we have clean unions. It is absolutely important for the workers and, indeed, for the businesses of Australia that the unions, which are so significant in many workplaces, are properly and honestly run. This legislation strengthens the requirements upon union officials to act honestly and in good faith, and it is so obvious right now that this is absolutely necessary. We have seen many scandals in a number of unions. We have many investigations going on right now into possible improper conduct. It is absolutely vital that we strengthen the requirement on union officials to act honestly and in good faith. The other thing this bill does is increase penalties on union officials who do not act honestly and in good faith. It is absolutely obvious that right now penalties are manifestly inadequate. They have, to give credit where it is due, recently been increased by the government in response to issues particularly in respect of Health Services Union, but the government's increases only raised the penalties on individuals to $6,600 and on organisations to $33,000. Under the government's increases, they are still simply civil penalties.

So my private member's bill proposes to increase penalties to $340,000 to provide for criminal as well as civil sanctions, including imprisonment of up to five years. Lest anyone think that this is in some way anomalous or in some way singling out unions, I want to make it crystal clear that what this bill seeks to do is to put exactly the same regime, as far as we can, in place for unions and those running unions as applies to companies and those running companies. If a union official or a company official does the wrong thing, they should face the same penalty for the same wrongdoing. This is what my proposed private member's bill seeks to do.

What the coalition seeks to do above all else is ensure that the rule of law operates in our workplaces. This is our fundamental commitment: to the rule of law everywhere but particularly in the workplaces of Australia. There are three major elements in the coalition's declared policies to ensure that the rule of law operates in our workplaces. The first, which this bill gives expression to, is to ensure that we have reasonable requirements and appropriate penalties on union officials. The second is to establish a registered organisation commission. This will separate the conciliation and arbitration functions of the Fair Work Commission from its law enforcement functions. The bill seeks to ensure that the law enforcement functions are pursued diligently, professionally and expeditiously. The third, and very important, element in the coalition's policy commitment to establishing the rule of law in our workplaces is the full re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, with full power, full authority and full funding.

We have seen a very sorry state of affairs in a number of unions, but in particular the Health Services Union. I know that there would be many people on both sides of this House who lament the state to which this union has been reduced. We have seen the national president of this union face criminal charges alleging, amongst other things, that millions of dollars of low-paid union members' money have been wrongly directed into businesses associated with the family of the gentleman in question. We have seen the former national secretary of that union, now a member of this place, subject to civil and, more recently, criminal charges arising from claims that hundreds of thousands of dollars have been misdirected into electoral activities and tens of thousand dollars have been misdirected into matters that can only be described as personal indulgences. According to the report of Mr Ian Temby QC, some 20 millions of dollars of low-paid union members' money may have been improperly used in this union alone. We have also seen very credible claims of private slush funds in the 1990s in the Australian Workers Union. I commend the member for Barton for the way he has raised this subject.

Fair Work Australia currently has eight major investigations underway into possible improper conduct in unions. At least four large unions are involved: the Communication Workers Union, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Nursing Federation and United Voice. These are large unions currently the subject of Fair Work investigations.

There is a serious problem of governance in our unions. There is a serious problem of malfeasance inside the union movement and it is incumbent upon this parliament to do what it can to give this country the clean, well-run, honestly-run unions that the workers of Australia deserve.

It will, if I may say so, be quite a test for this government in considering this bill. We know that more than 50 per cent of the parliamentary members of the Labor caucus are former union officials. The challenge for members opposite will be: do they back the interests of members, of workers; or do they back the interests of officials? This is a very serious challenge for members opposite: to resist the pull of the mates network and stand up for the interests of the ordinary workers of our country. We know how powerful members of the mates network are. Michael Williamson, the former boss of the Health Services Union, was not only the National President of the Australian Labor Party at the time when the Prime Minister assumed her high office and he was not only one of the faceless men referred to by the current head of the Australian Workers Union in his notorious Lateline interview on the night of the change of Labor leadership; Michael Williamson has obviously been a godfather figure to many members opposite. We had the Assistant Treasurer, the member for Lindsay, even cite this gentleman in his maiden speech as someone who has made such an extraordinary contribution to his career.

I say to members opposite: it is high time that we put the ordinary working people of Australia first. It is high time that we put the interests of workers ahead of the interests of union officials, and that is what the coalition intends to do.

I know members opposite like to characterise the political debate as pitting the friends of the workers on one side of the parliament against the friends of the bosses on the other side of the parliament. Well, unless the government is prepared to show it is serious by entertaining the bill that I am putting before the parliament, what will be exposed is that the real friends of the workers of this country are on this side of the parliament. The people who want to see a fair go for the workers of this country and to see honest unionism are the people on this side of the parliament. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (Robertson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In accordance with standing order 41(c), the second reading will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.