House debates

Monday, 14 July 2014


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

6:04 pm

Photo of Adam BandtAdam Bandt (Melbourne, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I was making the point when this matter was last before the House that the government, when you look at the various pieces of legislation that they are putting forward and what is in the budget, is coming for people's rights at work indirectly this time around. They have learnt the lesson from the John Howard era of WorkChoices that if you come and attack people's rights at work they will fight back and they will turf you out. So now, this time, the government is coming at it in a far more sly fashion. As I mentioned last time, we are seeing legislation that will enable people who work to be paid in kind by the businesses that they work for. If you work at the fish and chips shop, expect now to be paid partly in fish and chips. You cannot pay your rent with that, you cannot pay your electricity bill with that, but that is no concern of the Prime Minister's.

And then we see this bill. It is said by the minister and by those who support it that this bill is about putting corporations and unions on an even footing and saying that organisations of workers should be treated in the same way as organisations that exist to make a profit. I will come back in a moment to the functions of registered organisations that make them very, very different from corporations. But let us just take that suggestion at face value for a moment. If the government was serious about saying that we are now going to regulate corporations in the same way as unions, then what flows from that? Firstly, I can tell you that unions are required under the Fair Work Act and other legislation to be democratic organisations, which means that the people who run those organisations have to be elected to those positions.

So, assuming that the government is right that now corporations are going to be treated the same way, it is going to come as a shock to most CEOs who have been appointed by their board to find out that now they are going to have to be elected, because presumably that is what this government thinks is fair. It is also going to come as a shock to everyone who has a proprietary limited company to learn that their accounts and their financial returns for every year are now going to be published on the internet, because that is what happens with registered organisations and unions at the moment. The standard of scrutiny over their accounts is well above that of someone who sets up a Pty Ltd company.

So if the government is truly serious about this, they will be requiring everyone who incorporates their small business to now not only elect the people who run it but also publish all of their information and their financial affairs on the internet. You understand that the government, of course, is not interested in that. The government is quite happy to let companies run their own race, but feels completely legitimate about coming in and saying to organisations that represent workers, 'We deserve the right to micromanage you in a way that we would never dream of doing to a private company, but we will impose the same penalties on you as we might on a publicly listed company.'

What the government fails completely to understand is that organisations of workers do not exist for the same purposes as businesses. That is where the whole argument behind this legislation falls down. Businesses exist for a purpose. They exist to make a profit. That is what they do and they are judged on that basis. Corporations law requires directors to act in the best interests of their shareholders and continue to make a profit. They are judged accordingly. Unions do not exist that reason. Unions exist to advance the interests of the people they represent.

I very much doubt that, apart from perhaps the odd member of the AMA, anyone on the government's side of the benches has ever been a member of a union. Had they been in a union, actually been involved in a union and understood what unions do, they would not be pursuing this bill. What they would understand is that there are many, many people who work in this country who do not know their rights. There are many people who work in this country who rely on someone to advise them about what they are entitled to, and who then rely on someone to go in and enforce that basic entitlement. That is the role of a union.

Before I came to this place, I worked for many years representing some of the lowest paid workers in this country and their unions. There are people in Melbourne working in garages, sheds or their own rooms who are making the clothes that you will find being sold on Bourke Street or Swanston Street for $200 or $300 and they are getting paid $3 an hour for it. These people do not have sick pay and they do not get annual leave. They are required to look after their own workers' compensation. They usually do not speak English as a first language. If they get injured, they have to look after themselves. They are so-called independent contractors, even though they are doing all the work of employees and of workers.

The only reason that these people are able to enjoy something approaching a decent income and quality of life—which most of us would take for granted—is because they have had a union that has gone in there and told them what their rights are and then gone out and advocated for them. They have had a union that has gone out and fought for changes to our workplace laws. The unions do not do that for their own benefit. They do it for the benefit of others, and they do not get a direct financial benefit from it. That is where unions—and employer organisations as well, because they participate in the industrial sphere with the aim of advancing the conditions of others—are fundamentally different from profit-making companies such as your BHP or your corner shop. It is why they should be treated differently.

I think anyone who has been in a union or has been involved in a union would condemn any union official who breaches that fundamental principle and who starts getting involved in union activity for their own personal benefit. The government is using that as a justification for this law, but I would say two things about that. Firstly, we have seen very clearly that the current laws work when it comes to finding those people and prosecuting them. If the current laws did not work, we would not have people now facing jail sentences. The current laws do work. Secondly, the suggestion that somehow the imposition of new penalties is somehow going to make life better for the people who these organisations are supposedly representing is just fanciful, because if this were a charity the government would be getting up and saying, 'This is red tape.' In fact, that is exactly what the government is saying when it comes to the charities regulator.

With the charities regulator, you have organisations saying, 'We would much rather have a one-stop shop so that we do not have to go to multiple places of regulation and so that everyone can be assured that we are doing the right thing.' The government says, 'No, no. We are going to take that away, because it is too much red tape.' Yet when it comes to unions, they are prepared to put the kinds of regulations and oversight on them that they would never dream of doing to businesses and that they are trying to unwind for charities. So why is the government doing it? It cannot be about better regulation or better governance. They are doing it simply because they know one fundamental fact: for many, many workers and for many people who do not have the time themselves to go out and defend their own interests, because they are just too busy making ends meet or living their own lives, they know that they have unions out there in this country that look after them.

The unions have fought for shorter working weeks in this country and have helped bring us the weekend. It is thanks to unions that we have the penalty rates in this country that mean that people who work unsociable hours get to have a decent income, in recognition of the fact that their family members and their friends might be out having a good time, catching up on the weekend, and yet the workers are stuck at work. Many people know that when they see annual leave loading on their pay slip it is not there because an employer decided, 'What a good idea, I will give it to you.' It was there because it was fought for.

That is why the government is introducing this legislation. It is to tie up workers and their unions in red tape so that they do not have time to go and advance the interests of the people that they are looking after. It is a transparent piece of legislation. The day that the government comes in and says, 'Yes, we are willing to make every private company and every public company subject to the same level of scrutiny, disclosure and democracy as a trade union,' is when I will start taking them seriously that they are interested in levelling the playing field. But they are not interested in that. This is just the wind-up for the attack on people's rights at work. We, on behalf of the Greens, will be having none of that. If someone breaches the law and if someone breaches fundamental principles and starts getting involved in a union for their own personal financial benefit, they deserve to have the book thrown at them. What we are seeing every day is that they will have the book thrown at them. There is no need for this legislation.

6:15 pm

Photo of Karen McNamaraKaren McNamara (Dobell, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This government is committed to improving the fair work laws so we can build a more stable, fair and prosperous future for Australian workers, businesses and the economy. The measures in the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill are a key election commitment and deliver our pre-election policy for better accountability and transparency of registered organisations. There is no doubting the public's support for these measures, particularly in light of recent findings following the Fair Work investigation into the Health Services Union and the current royal commission into registered organisations. This government is determined to improve protection for members of registered organisations through the implementation of a comprehensive plan to enhance the government's accountability of registered organisations. Never again should the hardworking members of an organisation such as the HSU experience misappropriation of their funds towards an individual's personal gain. This is why we are reintroducing the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill.

When Labor and the Greens combined to vote down this legislation, they demonstrated a refusal to support greater accountability and transparency for registered organisations. They have voted against improved protection for union members and have given the green light to further exploitation of honest union members by dishonest union officials. They have also voted against a clearer and simpler reporting framework that would assist both unions and employer associations to comply. While members opposite champion themselves as the defenders of Australian workers, they will be judged by their actions, not their rhetoric. The shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, the member for Gorton, said during his contribution to the original debate in the House:

… the opposition has no tolerance for corruption—none whatsoever—whether it be by union officials or officers of employer bodies. We support tough penalties for those who break the law. We support appropriate regulation for registered organisations, including a properly empowered regulator and consequences for those who do not follow the rules.

Yet the member for Gorton opposed this legislation and went as far as moving an amendment to deny a second reading on the grounds that the House would be ill advised to continue, having regard to the adverse impact of the creation of the Registered Organisations Commission on registered organisations, including unions and employer and employee groups.

There should be absolutely no question about the importance of this legislation. Until this parliament acts and supports this legislation, Australia will be denied a sufficiently robust system to tackle corruption within registered organisations. It is no longer tenable to argue that the present system is adequate to deal with or discourage the sort of behaviour brought to light by the investigation into the HSU. By rejecting this legislation the unholy Labor-Green alliance has given the green light to more of the same behaviour as demonstrated by the HSU, Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson.

This bill replicates the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013, which was rejected by the Senate on 14 May 2014. However, the previous government's amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012 demonstrated that there was a need to increase financial accountability of registered organisations, strengthen investigative powers and increase penalties. But these changes were not adequate. In a submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations inquiry into the registered organisations amendment legislation, the Australian Mines and Metals Association advised in reference to the former Labor government:

… the changes the government has proposed are not tough enough to deliver the accountability that the members of those organisations are seeking

The Institute of Public Affairs commented:

Further measures should be taken to strengthen the financial management and regulation of registered organisations, commensurate with their considerable financial resources.

This government agrees that the Labor government's amendments did not go far enough. This is why this bill strengthens reporting and disclosure obligations to align more closely with the Corporations Act, moves obligations from the rules of registered organisations to the face of the legislation, and provides the new Registered Organisations Commission greater scope to ensure that officers are complying with their obligations and greater powers to investigate when a member makes a complaint about a registered organisation. It is this government's view that registered organisations should be as accountable to their members as company directors are to their shareholders. Like companies, many registered organisations control assets worth millions of dollars, and we have seen members from the other side access these funds to aid their election campaigns. We want to see that these assets are administered properly and used to benefit members.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in August 2012 1.8 million people were members of trade unions. As of 17 October 2013, there were 112 registered organisations listed with the Fair Work Commission. The majority of these registered organisations are not-for-profit and operate to serve the interests of their members. Some have additional arms or subsidiaries to the organisation that are not related to their status as a registered organisation, such as a for-profit training arm.

For the purpose of this debate, it is important that we acknowledge the financial strength of these registered organisations and demonstrate the level of responsibility assigned to their office bearers. Forty-five per cent of employer organisations and 73 per cent of employee organisations have net assets valued at over $2 million. These assets, and the functions of Registered Organisations, are to protect their members' interests by representing members in industrial matters and campaigning on policies that affect them, such as taxation, workplace relations and broader government policies. Naturally, in order to achieve their aims, registered organisations require funds to cover their direct operating costs, such as advertising and legal matters. These funds are obtained from membership fees, donations and other investments. Therefore, the trust placed in the officials of these registered organisations is high, and the membership deserves appropriate protections and recourse when their funds are misused.

Importantly, this bill introduces higher penalties for beaches of civil penalty provisions, some criminal penalties and stricter reporting and disclosure obligations that compare with those under the Corporations Act 2001. This bill increases penalties for a wide range of civil offences in order to create a real deterrence for wrongdoing by registered organisations and their officers. Serious breaches of an officer's duty, such as where an officer uses their position to obtain benefit for themselves or someone else, are criminal offences. The maximum penalty for these offences is $340,000 or five years imprisonment, or both. The civil penalties for serious contraventions will be $204,000 for an individual or $1,020,000 for a body corporate. Currently maximum penalties for serious offences are only $10,200 for individuals. These offences relate to officers and employees of registered organisations who fail to discharge duties in good faith and for a proper purpose. Criminal sanctions will also apply where an officer does not comply with the commissioner's new investigative powers.

A strong message needs to be sent to discourage wrongdoing by officers and to rebuild the confidence of members and the community. Stronger requirements for registered organisations and stronger penalties will only successfully combat corruption with a tough cop on the beat. This bill establishes the Registered Organisations Commission headed by the Registered Organisations Commissioner. The Registered Organisations Commission will be established within the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman. Importantly, the commissioner will have independence in the exercise of their functions and powers to direct the staff of the commission. Significantly, the activities of the commission will be subject to the same oversight by the Commonwealth Ombudsman as Commonwealth agencies. This will ensure the appropriate level of transparency and public accountability.

Whilst members opposite oppose these measures, members of the government have not forgotten why these measures are absolutely necessary. The limitations of the Fair Work Ombudsman were exposed through the investigation into the HSU. Members opposite defended the Fair Work Ombudsman, but it took far too long between the allegations first being raised and the eventual findings by the justice system—in total five years. It is clear that the investigations into the HSU by the Fair Work Commission took too long and questioned the Fair Work Commission's capacity to be an effective regulator of registered organisations.

The Registered Organisations Commission will ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are investigated quickly and efficiently. Its sole focus will be on rules relating to the accountability and transparency of registered organisations. Importantly this bill ensures a strong interaction between the Registered Organisations Commission and the Fair Work Commission. Transitional arrangements are included in the bill to ensure any ongoing matters being dealt with by the Fair Work Commission relating to registered organisations can be dealt with by the newly established Registered Organisations Commission. It is absolutely essential that the Registered Organisations Commissioner be able to share information with law enforcement agencies if they reasonably believe it is to appropriate to do so in the course of conducting their role.

This is in direct response to the recent investigation into the HSU, which exposed shortcomings when dealing with possible breaches of criminal laws. My electorate of Dobell, more than any other electorate, has witnessed firsthand the stench of this corruption within the trade union movement. The charges and allegations against the former Labor-turned-independent member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, along with ALP national president, Michael Williamson, exposed the vulnerability of the current registered organisation arrangements. So serious were the allegations stemming from the systemic rorting in the HSU, the breaches were investigated by both the Fair Work Commission and the Victorian Police.

The Fair Work Commission investigation into the HSU identified a total of 181 contraventions of the Registered Organisations Act and HSU rules by union officials and others. The claim against Mr Thomson included 37 alleged breaches of general duties imposed on officers of registered organisations and a further 25 alleged breaches of HSU rules. In addition to these findings, Mr Thomson was arrested in relation to more than 150 fraud related criminal charges, including allegations that his 2007 federal election campaign was partly funded by union money without authorisation. The magistrate found Mr Thomson guilty of using credit cards issued to him in his role as national secretary of the HSU between 2002 and 2007. Mr Thomson was found guilty of stealing HSU funds and obtaining a financial advantage by deception when he used the HSU credit card to pay for escort services, cigarettes, firewood, travel expenses for his previous wife and withdrawing nearly $10,000 in cash from ATMs.

The hard-working, honest members of registered organisations, such as the HSU, deserve better treatment from the people elected to represent their interests. They also deserve government support to stand by their side, and not by the side of dishonest union officials. If it was not for Mr Thomson and Mr Williams' high-profile involvement in the Australian Labor Party, one wonders if the truth of the matter would ever have been exposed. This government is of the firm belief that corruption and poor governance within Australia's trade union movement should be identified and stopped. This government's determination to stand up for honest union members is exemplified through the establishment of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. It is clear that the Australian people have become increasingly concerned about a range of revelations and allegations involving officials of industrial organisations benefiting from certain funds, which have been set up for purposes that are often unknown. In the words of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard:

It's common practice, indeed every union has what it refers to as a re-election fund, slush fund …

The royal commission will ensure that wrongdoing in the union movement is exposed and those responsible for illegal actions are held to account.

This government is serious about protecting workers and tackling a culture riddled with allegations of corruption, dodgy deals and secret funds. The time has come for this legislation to be supported; the rorts, the rackets and the rip-offs must end. Members of registered organisations must have their interests protected, and the community must have faith in our institutions. The only people who have anything to fear by these amendments are those who do the wrong thing. Members of registered organisations and the community have everything to gain. It is time for members opposite to stand with the government to ensure honest workers are not ripped off by dishonest union bosses. I commend this legislation to the House and I call on members opposite to do likewise.

6:29 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business) Share this | | Hansard source

I will start by commenting on a couple of the things the member for Dobell covered in her speech on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. Firstly, at the very beginning of her speech, she said that the fact that the opposition was not supporting the bill was an indication that the opposition supported some of the worst behaviour of a small number of union officials. That of course is not the truth. For the benefit of the member for Dobell: sometimes two people can see the same problem—and can even have equivalent views about the seriousness of the problem—but can disagree on the answer. I think that is what is happening in this House at the moment. I do not think there is anyone in this House, on either side, who believes that officials of registered organisations—be they representatives of unions or employers—should be able to get away with the kinds of behaviour we have seen in recent months from some people who had been elected or appointed to represent the interests of their members.

When we on this side look at the problem, however, we disagree with the answer the government has put forward. We disagree for a number of reasons. Firstly, the member for Dobell herself said that she was seeking to ensure that officials of registered organisations were held to account in the same way those in corporations were. But this bill goes much further than that. The penalties imposed on officials of registered organisations exceed those imposed for equivalent corporate crimes. So this bill does not match the penalties for registered organisations with those for corporations; it in fact goes further for registered organisations—much further.

The other interesting part of the member for Dobell's speech was when she listed the outcomes of the inquiries into the HSU case involving Mr Thomson. She talked about the Fair Work inquiry. She talked about the 181 breaches of registered organisation rules and HSU rules—and about the penalties imposed. In doing so, she in fact she described how effective the current regime was in dealing with the HSU case. While she was putting all that forward as an indication of why you should change the rules, it actually demonstrates that those rules worked. A person has been appropriately investigated, breaches have been found and penalties have been applied—a jail sentence has been handed down. That demonstrates an extremely effective piece of regulation that did its job very well.

It is not really necessary to state this, because I think everybody in this House would agree, but none of us have any tolerance for corrupt union officials or for corrupt officers of employer bodies. Nobody in this House has a tolerance for that. I have no tolerance for people who offer bribes to union officials or for those who receive them. I do not make the distinction that one side is better than the other. When the government talks about corrupt union officials, I would feel more comfortable if it also occasionally mentioned the people who offered or received the bribes—or the businesses that engaged bikie gangs to collect their debts or to bully union officials. There are many aspects surrounding this issue of union corruption that we are not talking about. Again, I would feel more confident that the government was seriously concerned about corruption if the debate dealt also with those who interact with union officials.

Unlike many of those on the other side, I am a great supporter of the union movement, although I do not myself come from the union movement. I did work for a registered organisation, but it was an employer body. I ran the Australian Independent Record Labels Association for nearly seven years. It represented almost all—about 80 per cent by the end of my time there—of the independent labels in Australia. We worked to level the playing field. We did the kinds of deals and bulk agreements needed to level the playing field between the small end of the industry and the very large players. It was a great occupation to have. It was one of the best jobs in the country.

So my background, my perspective, is that of a person who represented employers, not workers. Yet I have been a union member all of my life—because I think they are incredibly important organisations. In many ways the work the union movement has done for over a century has helped to create a ballast in our economy that perhaps those on the opposite side of this chamber do not appreciate—the permanent secure work that so many people enjoyed for so long and the working conditions in our public service, in our public hospitals and in our fire brigades. Secure, stable jobs create a ballast. As a result of the efforts of the union movement, when there is great volatility in the economy, there remains a substantial group of workers who feel secure. That group is less likely to stop spending as quickly as others stop spending and they are more likely to start spending again a little earlier. That helps to smooth out some of the bumps, some of the volatility, in the economy.

For over a century, unions have worked to help provide real opportunities for family life—the 38-hour week, weekends, days off, extra rostered days off, four weeks annual leave, family leave et cetera. These things allow people to spend time with their family. Even more importantly than that, perhaps, unions have helped ensure that work requirements are planned in advance—so families can know what time they will be able to spend together. All of these things help create ballast in our economy as well. They help to create stable families, families who have savings, who plan, who accumulate assets and who have a greater chance of staying together.

So behind all the to-and-fro in this House about whether unions are good or bad—and we know the government do not like any worker who belongs to a union; they do not like the maritime workers, they do not like the construction workers and they do not like manufacturing workers, because they are unionised—

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: the standing orders do not allow a member to impugn the motives of other members. That includes impugning the motives of all members of the government. For the member for Parramatta to say, 'The government does not like any worker', is impugning our motives and should be withdrawn.

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw.

Photo of Russell BroadbentRussell Broadbent (McMillan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member has withdrawn.

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business) Share this | | Hansard source

It is interesting to watch the government's lack of support for industries such as the manufacturing sector, the construction sector, the maritime sector; to see the extraordinary lack of support for those areas of work. But underneath that to and fro, I think there really should be a recognition in this House that over many, many years the union movement has done an extraordinary job in providing a way of life that in many ways Australians have now take for granted. An incredible effort over many decades went into that.

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 is a reintroduction of a previous bill with some amendments that came from the Senate legislative committee report, but there are still a number of problems with it from this side of the House. It establishes the Registered Organisations Commission and amends the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. The Registered Organisations Commission will be headed by a registered organisations commissioner with greater investigative powers than those available to the general manager of the Fair Work Commission. It also modifies disclosure requirements to make them more onerous, no doubt, including higher penalties for civil contraventions, and it introduces criminal offences in respect of officers' duties that are modelled on but also exceed those found in the Corporations Act. So it increases the red tape burden, makes the disclosure requirements considerably more onerous and raises the penalties to a higher level than those found in the Corporations Act. While one of the rationales for this bill is to make those penalties even, it actually increases the penalties beyond those of the Corporations Act.

Registered organisations play a fundamental role in Australia's workplace relations systems, whether they be registered organisations that represent employers or employees. They also represent their members before industrial tribunals and courts and work with governments on policy matters ranging from employment issues to economic and social policy. They are incredibly important, but they are not corporations—they are elected in many cases, and appointed in some others. People in various positions are not remunerated in the same way that corporations are, and they are often volunteers, as well. They are not corporations, and to impose penalties that are higher than those for for-profit organisations is quite extraordinary, and we cannot support that.

We do support appropriate regulation for registered organisations, including properly empowered regulators and consequences for those who do not follow the rules. This side of the House is committed to ensuring financial accountability by unions and employer organisations, and that is why in 2012 we toughened the laws to improve financial transparency and disclosure by registered organisations to their members. That original law was enacted by Tony Abbott, but we strengthened that in 2012. The regulation of trade unions in Australia has never been stronger than it is now, and accountability has never been higher. The powers of the Fair Work Commission to investigate and prosecute for breaches have never been broader than they already are, and while in government we tripled penalties, which means they have never been tougher. Much of the work that the government is now trying to do was already done in 2012, and resulted in the comprehensive pursuit of wrongdoers in the HSU case and in serious criminal penalties.

The minister consistently uses the HSU matters, having often inappropriately commented on matters before the judiciary, to justify the government's changes. But they are ignoring the fact that the Registered Organisations Act already prohibits members' money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns. The Registered Organisations Act already allows for criminal proceedings to be initiated where funds are stolen or obtained by fraud. It already ensures that the Fair Work Commission can share information with police as appropriate, as we saw in the HSU case, and it already provides for statutory civil penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly contravenes an order or direction made by the federal court or the Fair Work Commission under the Registered Organisations Act or the Fair Work Act.

When unions and industry representatives agree with each other that something is not a good idea, then perhaps a government should listen. Usually in government one side or the other will support you and the other will not, but in this case both sides of the argument believe that this is a bad deal. The new criminal provisions, if enacted, mean that registered organisations, employer unions and bodies are likely to have difficulty in persuading people often in a voluntary capacity, to take on official responsibilities. The AI Group states:

If the proposed criminal penalties and proposed massive financial penalties for breaches of duties are included in the RO Act, this would operate as a major disincentive to existing voluntary officers of registered organisations continuing in their roles, and would deter other people from holding office.

These are genuine concerns expressed by both unions and industry representatives, and these concerns have not been addressed by the government, in spite of the amendments that were made in this most recent version of the bill. Unions have also raised quite legitimate concerns about the impacts of the proposed laws. Usually when you have industry bodies and unions lining up together on a unity ticket against a government proposition, the government may be well served to realise that something is very wrong. That is certainly the case here.

Of all the concerns with this bill, the biggest concern is that the penalties the government seeks to impose on officers of registered organisations quite substantially exceed those that are imposed through the Corporations Act, and again, the arguments the government makes is that they are trying to make those penalties even—this bill does not do that. It fails in that, and we will not be supporting it.

6:44 pm

Photo of Dennis JensenDennis Jensen (Tangney, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 seeks to address the foolish and bungled amendments that Labor passed in 2012, led by none other than the current Leader of the Opposition. The issues in this bill are core to the promises we gave at the last election, and we intend to deliver on our promise to help the Australian people and the economy. This bill seeks to cut the large amount of unnecessary red tape, especially relating to the unjustifiable power and position that unions can impose on the workplace. It seeks to minimise the huge amount of inefficiency that unions bring to business, whilst ensuring and entitling that the rights and integrity of workers are preserved. These amendments hope to engage unions and the workplace in fairer dealing. It essentially puts the 'fair' back into 'fair work'.

The current policy imposes a large amount of red tape and gives inexcusable powers to unions to frustrate and inconvenience businesses in their day-to-day operations. These common sense amendments will aid businesses; however, at the same time, they will limit but not cease union powers. Unions do have their place in society, but let us make some distinction here with how businesses and the economy take the centre role. It is Australian businesses and the economy, not unions, which line the pockets of workers. It is Australian businesses and the economy, not unions, that put bread on the table. And it is Australian businesses and the economy, not unions, that bring prosperity to the Australian people.

These amendments address the disgraceful extent to which unions are impinging on Australian businesses. For example, BHP recorded 676 right-of-entry visits to the Worsley alumina plant in 2010 alone. These visits require employers to set aside time and resources to attend to entry requests, and they must also allocate resources to escorting permit holders on the premises. The current legislation allows union representatives to enter the workplace and to enter into discussions with employees, even though the workplace may have no members of the union in question.

These amendments follow on from the Fair Work Act Review Panel's recommendations, which the previous government failed to implement during their term. The review set out some common sense, practical recommendations, which are reflected in these amendments. The Leader of the Opposition, who was then the responsible minister, pushed through rushed reforms, without understanding or anticipating how his solutions would be worked. Labor rushed them through, without thinking how they would affect other parts of Australia's society; instead, they were just thinking about how to appease their union mates. Unions, under Labor's misguided modifications, advance the notion that unions can enter into a workplace, even though no employee has sought their presence. So, if the unions are claiming to represent the workers, why are they entering into workplaces without the permission of those workers they claim to represent? This is a fantastic demonstration of how Labor failed to take a macro perspective on the Fair Work Act, just as it has done with so many other areas of policy.

The fair work amendments rebalance the powers of unions with the efficiency of businesses. This policy ought to have the support of both sides of the House, because this amendment aims to put the 'fair' back into 'fair work'. It aims to rebalance the personal liberties of Australian workers, whilst supporting the prosperity of Australian businesses and thus the prosperity of Australia's economy. It aims to rebalance the fairness of the act and to cut red tape which intrudes unnecessarily on Australian commercial interests, whilst ensuring transparency, accountability and responsibility of those commercial interests. This policy reflects the coalition's central philosophies of ensuring and instilling personal liberty and choice to the Australia people. It releases the shackles that the unions have imposed upon Australia, whilst allowing them, the unions, to fulfil a role in society that does not dominate or damage the liberty of Australian workers or does not dominate or damage the Australian economy.

It is false to assume that workers' rights cannot hang in harmony with that of economic prosperity. These two fundamental parts of a workplace should not, and will not, be at odds with these amendments. Industrial action hurts employers, employees, customers and families. It is the aim of these amendments to settle industrial disputes in a peaceful manner that prevents undue action, without an extensive bargaining stage. Labor's loophole in the current bill allows unions to 'strike first, talk later'. This must be stopped! The loophole must be closed and unions need to know that negotiation is the first step in settling an industrial dispute. Ironically, Labor's promise from 2007 will actually be legislated.

The only reason why these recommendations were not legislated during the terms of previous Labor governments is that they just could not get their act together. These amendments are fair and balanced. The government is now introducing policy which will make sure that, if an employee of the Commonwealth is for some apparent reason owed money by the Commonwealth, that employee will retain the value of that money by introducing interest payments. These interest payments will retain the value of the money owed, with the payment being calculated in line with the consumer price index.

The amendments will also address the growing need in Australian workplaces for flexibility. The bill at inception has seen the need for flexibility. However, just like many other policy areas, Labor identified but failed to address this very important area of Australia's modern workplace. This government is determined not to impose decisions about industrial action on the people of Australia. Rather, we will enforce the power of choice to the Australian people. We, on this side of the House, give the choice to Australia and Australians. We, on this side of the House, give prosperity to Australia and all Australians. We on this side of the House give liberty.

The amendments to the Fair Work Act not only give fairness to workers and business but are a sign that Australia is prepared and well equipped to handle future problems. They are a sign to investors that Australia is open for business. They give business and investors confidence through knowing that Australia is mature in handling industrial disputes. Investment in Australia will ensure the future success of all Australian business and thus the prosperity of workers and the prosperity of all Australians.

I am speaking today on the Fair Work amendment bill, because I want to bring the issue of fairness to the Fair Work debate. I note that the Labor party has an undying adherence to the mantra of fairness. In particular, Labor fancies philosophers such as the American John Rawls to justify their attempts at redistributive fairness. How ironic is it that Fair Work as Labor knows it, sees it and wants it is so unfair. Fairness by definition and practice is entwined with personal liberty. No matter whether it is a positive or negative view of personal liberty or is the freedom from or freedom to, fairness and liberty are related. How unfair is it then that unions can so entrust themselves in the Australian workplace in their own every inefficient way? How unfair is it then that unions take from the productive to line the pockets of the unproductive? How unfair is it then that Labor used legislation when it was in government to try to protect the position of the unions? Labor knew that the concept, need and purpose of the unions was dead. Membership is going in one direction only, to the grave. It is going to zero. The union movement in my experience has been a parasitic beast tormenting small and medium businesses in the electorate of Tangney. I need not remind members opposite of the names of disgraced ex-union officials. Names like Jackson and Thompson ring around the homes of this nation, as unwanted as the names Ben and Jerry are wanted.

This debate and this government are all about productivity and adding value. This debate should be about protecting those who add value, not those who only take and, most insidiously, are on the take. Do not just take my word for it. Former AWU National Secretary Paul Howes said in 2013, in relation to union dishonesty and corruption, 'If we ignore any pocket of dishonesty it will grow like a cancer'. This legislation and these amendments have the strong support of those members of the union movement who share the same discouragement, disillusionment and disappointment.

Let me educate the good members who oppose what we are doing. We are acting because we said we would. We are keeping our promises, something Labor will never understand. Our plan, the fully costed policy document we took to the last election, spelt out clearly how we felt about unions. It also spelt out how we were going to make unions work for workers again, not for unions. We promised the Australian public 'better transparency and accountability of registered organisations'. It is the coalition's belief that Australians joining trade unions deserve to have confidence in the conduct and administration of these organisations. Let me say also that this debate takes place in the context of the ongoing inquiry by the royal commission into union corruption. Unions and corruption seem to go together like bread and butter—Wilson, Blewitt, Gillard. The Liberal Party has been the law and order party ever since the days of Menzies. How could I not support this bill? How could I not be happy about this bill, as it increases the penalties for breaches of current civil penalty provisions and even criminal penalties in some cases.

In sum, being light on union heavies is no longer possible. The economy and our global competitiveness position demand that we get more innovative and more competitive. Our future prosperity demands that we get the heavy hand of union mobs off the economic tillers. If we do not act now then, due to union greed and myopia, Australia will become what Singapore's former and first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, predicted: 'The poor white trash of Asia'.

6:57 pm

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find the previous speaker's contribution to this debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014really incredible. He finished by saying that the government is keeping its promises. Each and every day in this House we hear how the government is breaking its promises. Before the last election it promised that there would be no cuts to health and education. Over $80 billion has been taken out of health and education. It promised that pensioners would not have their pensions cut. Legislation that will lead to a direct reduction in the rates of pensions has passed through this House. It promised that there would be no cuts to the ABC. There have been cuts to the ABC. So for the member for Tangney to stand up in this place and say, 'This government is keeping its promises,' shows just how much we can trust members on the other side of this House.

The member for Tangney spent a lot of time talking about individual liberty, about the right of people to make decisions of their own—basically, about how it was liberating for people to be able to do as they wish. He talked ad nauseam about personal liberty and at the same time was very critical of any form of what I would call mutual obligation. According to him, the power of choice is tantamount to everything; it is about an individuals right, about liberty. The member for Tangney would be quite happy to see the liberty of one group transcend the rights of another group. He is very much of the view that unions should have a zero membership—and those words passed through his mouth when he was speaking of this. He referred to unions as 'heavy-handed'. He referred to 'a mature handling of industrial relations'—I think a mature handling of industrial relations as far as the member for Tangney is concerned would be to have an industrial relations system where there were no unions whatsoever.

When I was sitting down preparing this speech, I really struggled to understand this government's approach to unions and to workers. I feel that it has adopted a position where it will not rest until unions do not exist. To hear the member for Tangney's contribution, I really believe that that is the situation. There is an ideological hatred of unions, and I ask: why? The member for Tangney pointed out that he wanted to bring fairness to the debate. Well, I think unions bring fairness to the equation. Any study of history will show that unions have actually brought fairness to the equation—unions provide protection for workers, just as employer groups provide a voice for employers. I will put on the record now that I appreciate what employers do in our community. I went to a small business awards ceremony in my electorate on Saturday night, and I was so proud of each and every one of those small-business people who were there and of the enormous contributions that they have made to my local area—just as I am really proud of the way unions stand up for workers, the way unions move to create some fairness in the equation, and the way unions protect workers. There is an imbalance of power, if you have a very strong employer group and a very weak union group. The idea is to have a balance.

When I hear members, like the member for Tangney—putting forward his extreme, right-wing, harsh, uncaring, unbalanced contribution to this debate—I can see why this legislation is before us in the House. I do not think that all members on the other side of this House could possibly share the extreme views that were expressed a moment ago. I do not see how people could accept a situation where personal liberty—the right to choose whatever you wish to do, over anything else—is paramount. I am sure there are members on the other side of the House who can see that there is a strong role for unions, just as there is for employers—because workers deserve protection. It is about balance and it is about fairness.

I look at this legislation before us today, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014, and I ask, how is it fair to impose on unions requirements and penalties that are more onerous than those in the Corporations Act? And for once, we have a unity ticket here between employer groups and union groups—both of those groups believe this legislation is flawed. The government is reintroducing legislation that came before this House in November. We did not support it then, and we certainly won't be supporting it this time. Even with the proposed amendments, employer and employee organisations still have significant concerns about the bill. As I said, employers and unions are on a unity ticket. Even with the proposed amendments, the penalties in this bill still exceed the penalties in the Corporations Act 2001. The government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations—well, it certainly is not doing that in this legislation. If this bill is passed, the legislation implemented will place much harsher requirements on registered organisations. This is just another broken promise, by a government that comes in each day and breaks promises. The Australian people know that. And the Australian people are very suspicious about this kind of legislation. They know that those on the other side of this House—the large majority of them—have an ideological hatred of unions. The Australian people know that those opposite would like a situation where there were no unions; where workers were at the mercy of employers. But to have a good industrial relations system, you need balance; you need a system where you have strong employers and strong employee organisations—strong unions.

Now a bit of history: this bill has come through the Senate. The committee tabled its report in December 2013, and on 27 March this year the senate committee's report was actually tabled. That report did not support the legislation, and in March the amendments recommended by the Senate legislative committee were put in the Senate, and the bill was negated.

As I have already mentioned, the bill also modifies disclosure requirements, making them more onerous. It includes higher penalties for civil contraventions, and it introduces criminal offences, in respect of officers' duties, which are modelled on, but also exceed, those found in the Corporations Act.

Registered organisations—and this is where we come from—play a fundamental role in the Australian workplace relations system. The organisations are created and registered for the purpose of representing Australian employers and employees, giving them a voice—that is what it is about. Unfortunately, this bill seeks to take that voice away from them. Registered organisations represent members before industrial relations tribunals and courts. On a regular basis I have people come to my office who need that sort of assistance and are in a position where, even if they seek to exercise their individual rights and freedom, they do not have the ability or the knowledge to be able to do that without the assistance of their unions. Therein lies the answer to the question. Many of those on the other side do not believe that the people who find themselves in that situation should have a voice.

While we have problems with this legislation, we have absolutely no tolerance for corruption by union officials or officers in employer bodies, just as we have no sympathy for any corruption within corporations. We support tough penalties for breaking the law. I would argue that those tough penalties are already available. We support appropriate regulation for registered organisations, including a properly empowered regulator. The Leader of the Opposition, when he was minister, toughened the laws to include financial transparency and disclosure by registered organisations. As a result, the regulations for trade unions in Australia have never been stronger. Listening to those on the other side of this House, you would think that the regulations are weak and that the country is controlled by trade unions. Australia has one of the lowest levels of industrial disputes in the world. Accountability has never been higher. The power of the Fair Work Commission to investigate and prosecute for breaches has never been broader. We tripled the penalties, which means that they have never been tougher. But this government thinks that—even given those facts—the regulations should be tougher. The government wants to take away all power from the trade unions. It wants to create a situation where workers have no voice or ability to protect themselves. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 already prohibits members' money being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections. It already allows for criminal proceedings to be initiated. It already ensures that the Fair Work Commission shares information with police. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act already provides statutory civil penalties.

Under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act, registered organisations have a fiduciary duty akin to directors of corporations. It requires them to disclose their personal interests. A friend of mine told me about the level of disclosure he has to make in relation to his own personal interests—which includes disclosing payments made to relative parties and exercising care and diligence.

It is a really unusual situation when you have industry bodies and unions lining up on a unity ticket against the proposition. There is something very wrong with legislation that creates that situation. The opposition sought to engage with the government to ensure that the penalties did not exceed those in the Corporations Act, but the government was not willing. There are a number of issues, not the least of which is that this bill does not cover and regulate a range of entities and bodies, which are those that have been seen in New South Wales—bodies that have come before ICAC and that have put the honesty and integrity of organisations in that state into question.

This is flawed legislation. This is legislation that should not be passed. It is ill conceived and is another example of this government's broken promises saying one thing before the election and another thing after the election.

7:12 pm

Photo of Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz (Wright, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to be able to stand in this House once again speaking to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014.

I remind the House that in the last parliament I put forward a private member's motion to bring into line some of the concerns that were raised by the previous speaker—that is, making unions accountable under the Corporations Act, and the penalties that would apply the same as those that already exist under the Corporations Act. It will not surprise those in this House that that private member's motion was not successful, because those on the other side of this House mostly owe their seats, their position in this parliament, either through direct or indirect funding, to a union movement. At the last election, the front bench of the previous government—I think it was 10 out of 12 of them—had some direct linkage to union movements.

The previous speaker also talked about how on this side of government we have a hatred for unions. That is just farcical. My operations in the transport sector work very closely with unions. I have found that the union reps that I deal with are always accommodating, because I put forward a logical, succinct argument about why some of the decisions I made would be for the greater benefit of my employees. So to come into this place and say that this side of that House has a hatred for unions is predominantly flawed.

The amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 contained in this bill are important items of the coalition's Fair Work policy that we took to the election. We did not say one thing before the election and another after, which has been the mantra of those opposite as they have come into the chamber to debate this. That has been the thread or flavour of their debate. They have been making that claim. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are actually doing what we said we were going to do before the election, and we are doing it consistent with an eminent panel.

In particular, this bill responds to a number of outstanding recommendations included in the Towards more productive and equitable workplaces: an evaluation of the Fair Work legislation review conducted in June 2012 when it was commissioned by the now Leader of the Opposition. The very capable review panel of eminent Australians—comprising of the Reserve Bank board member John Edwards, the former Federal Court judge Hon. Michael Moore and the noted legal and workplace relations academic Professor Ron McCallum AO—were asked to provide recommendations on areas where the operation of the act could be improved. They provided 53 proposals to tackle a range of issues and inspired many of the amendments contained in this bill. Do those on the other side of the chamber suggest that those eminent gentlemen who I just mentioned are also union haters? That is not the truth. It is unfair to come in and cast those aspersions in this House.

An interesting conclusion drawn from the review relates to the economic aspects of the Fair Work Act. The panel determined that since the Fair Work Act came into force important outcomes such as wages growth, industrial disputes, the responsiveness of wages to supply and demand, the rate of employment growth and the flexibility of work patterns have been favourable to Australia's continuing prosperity.

The exception has been productivity growth. That is what is missing. As a government—

Ms Butler interjecting

I sat here for the last three speakers and heard your speakers in silence, so do not come in here with your union intimidatory tactics and yell and shout. Just sit. The expectation has been for productivity growth. It has been disappointing in the Fair Work Act framework and in the two preceding frameworks over the last decade. It is this which has motivated the coalition's amendments. If you were not yapping, you would have just heard that. It is this which has motivated the coalition's amendments to the Fair Work Act. The coalition is dedicated to making Australia a more prosperous nation in which productivity growth plays an instrumental role. In order to achieve productivity growth, several of the amendments contain in this bill seek to eradicate loopholes, negatively geared systemic problems and prohibiting factors preventing Australian employers and employees from getting on with the job of growing their Australian economic pie.

One of the proposed amendments which the coalition has adopted from the Fair Work panel review relates to offering additional support to new greenfield industrial agreements. When reading it, I was quite surprised that the Fair Work Act review recommended:

    Under Labor, the Fair Work laws effectively gave unions the power to veto new projects by requiring an employer to always negotiate a greenfield agreement with a union. To date, unions have exploited this veto power by deliberately causing delays and setbacks, while others have used it as a tool to demand exorbitant conditions. In addition, these irresponsible actions are responsible for the perceived doubt surrounding many important new projects which have failed to receive adequate investment as a result. The coalition wants to ensure that enterprise agreements for greenfield agreements can be negotiated quickly to ensure that infrastructure projects are not delayed and to encourage investment for everyone's benefit.

    This bill also addresses the imbalance in union workplace access rules currently impeding the productivity of many workplaces. The Fair Work panel review expressed the need for changes to the right-of-entry provisions to unions as a means of encouraging productivity and fairness in our work environments. I have a real-life example on entry provisions. I took the opportunity to reach out to one of the processors where a number of people in my electorate are employed. It is in a neighbouring electorate. They turn over around $365 million, with a workforce of around 1,800. In spite of the employees voting in favour of working under a new EBA to secure the future of the plant and 1,000 jobs, the union has continued to run legal action through Fair Work Australia and now the Federal Court because it has lost its privileges. The union has lost privileges that do not matter to the workforce. The workforce said in this particular case that they were quite happy with the EBA. But the union has still taken the company to court. This has been ongoing for 10 months, causing great uncertainty and threatening the viability of the business. The union has already delayed the first wage increase of three per cent for employees. Fancy that—a union delaying an increase in employees' entitlements! It has extended the life of the new EBA by six months. If the union is successful, 70 per cent of the employees will suffer a wage decrease, which means they will come off the three per cent that they have agreed to in the workplace to receive a lesser amount. Groundbreaking, profit-sharing bonuses will be at risk—$3,000 to $5,000 per employee. It is about sharing the profits and sharing the productivity gains with the employees. The union would not have anything to do with that.

    The new EBA is classic win-win: improved productivity, wage increases and profit share. The IR system has allowed this farcical situation to occur and flourish. In their email to me, this business went on to say that these government's amendments are only the start of much-needed reform if we are going to have any chance of running successful manufacturing and processing in this country.

    Furthermore, the unlawful practices and inappropriate behaviour conducted by unions are well documented. For example, the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry of 2001 identified no fewer than 392 separate instances of unlawful conduct—

    Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    There were no charges.

    Photo of Scott BuchholzScott Buchholz (Wright, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    25 different types of unlawfulness and 90 different types of inappropriate behaviour, as well as referring 31 individuals who had possibly breached criminal laws. I take the interjection from the member opposite. The royal commission was back in 2001. I state for the record that the member indicated that there were no charges.

    The changes included in this bill fairly and sensibly balance the right of employees to be represented in the workplace if they wish to be with the right of employers to go about their business without unnecessary disruption. There is clear evidence of union representatives abusing their right of entry, with excessive workplace visits recorded at a number of sites.    For example, the Pluto LNG project received over 200 right-of-entry visits in a period of only three months. BHP Billiton's Worsley alumina plant faced 676 right-of-entry visits in a single year. There is no doubt that this sort of blatant interference on a work site by union representatives is hindering workers' ability to just get on with their jobs. There is no doubting the motivations behind such excessive visitation and access. Unions are fighting for representation of members and they are targeting workers in the workplace as a means of getting them signed up.

    Given the union movement has a long reputation of intimidation in the workplace—people who do not wish to become members, employers and each other—I think it is fair to recommend that this sort of behaviour is not acceptable. Intimidatory tactics in the workplace to force people to sign up are not acceptable. We heard those opposite say that corruption is not acceptable. I take it one step further: intimidation in the workplace should never be seen as an acceptable workplace practice by the union movement.

    Importantly, we will repeal the amendments which make the meal room or break room at the premises the default location for discussions between unions and workers and which require employers to provide transport and accommodation for unions seeking to access remote worksites. We will restore the arrangements that were in place previously, including that union officials must comply with any reasonable request by the employer to hold discussions in a particular location. Our changes will also mean that occupiers at remote work sites do not have to facilitate accommodation and transport for union officials to visit their workplace, reducing unnecessary and costly regulation for affected employers.

    To be clear, these amendments will enact Labor's publicly stated position prior to the 2007 election—a promise that was not honoured. Given that the Labor Party in opposition, with the strong support of the union movement, supported this 2007 policy platform, we expect that these amendments will not be contentious and will go through. However, in the vein of what speakers before me have said, I would suggest that we may be going to a vote on this.

    An additional aspect of this bill amends a significant loophole in the current system of strike first, talk later, which is costing our economy millions. The ABS reports that the number of work days lost as a result of industrial action is at an eight-year high. The member for Shortland mentioned that the union movement's strikes in this country are low when compared with those globally. I suggest that when 293,100 days are being lost annually, that is not a figure to crow about.

    Under the existing Fair Work Act industrial action is able to commence before any bargaining has commenced. This has resulted in more frequent strikes occurring and on a larger scale. We are seeking to remove this loophole in the interests of small business and the economy. The bill will amend the Fair Work Act to provide that protected industrial action can only be taken if bargaining for a proposed agreement has commenced. This means that costly and productivity-hindering industrial action cannot be the first step in the bargaining process, which will restore order and balance to the enterprise bargaining approach. So that is not a bad amendment to have.

    In conclusion, I would like to commend this bill to the House. It cements the coalition government's commitment to help make Australian workplaces even better, by improving the Fair Work laws to provide a stable, fair and prosperous future. We on this side of the House do not hate unions. I have worked closely with them and I will continue to work closely with them. If those on the other side want some advice, they should ask themselves: why has union membership in Australia fallen dramatically over the past 30 years? These amendments are not going to affect future union membership. If you want to build a successful union, if you want a union that members can find value in, support this bill and these amendments. Make the same conditions apply to the union movement that apply under the Corporations Act.

    7:28 pm

    Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I rise to oppose the government's Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 and the circulated amendments. This bill ignores all advice from stakeholders and represents yet more broken promises from this government.

    This bill will establish the Registered Organisations Commission, the ROC, and amends the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. The ROC will be headed by a Registered Organisations Commissioner, with greater investigative powers than those available to the General Manager of the Fair Work Commission. The bill also modifies disclosure requirements, includes higher penalties for civil contraventions and introduces criminal offences in respect of officers' duties, which are modelled on, but also in some cases exceed, those found in the Corporations Act 2001.

    We all know that the reason we are debating this bill tonight is that, as we have seen in recent weeks, this government would like to talk about anything but its toxic budget. It is a budget that takes money out of the pockets of the very people who trusted this Prime Minister before the election. As is the hallmark of this government, this bill represents yet another broken promise from a Prime Minister and a government that are watching their trust and support slip away like sand between their fingers. It is hardly surprising that when a Liberal-National government is in trouble, they run towards what they know best, which is attacking workers and attacking representative organisations. This bill is about registered organisations, which are employer and employee organisations registered under the Fair Work regime

    They play an important role in Australia's workplace relations system. They are registered organisations that this bill seeks to further regulate.

    I listened to the previous speaker, the member for Wright, with interest, and I wish to offer to him in good faith a conversation about the effect of the Fair Work laws, because, as he might have noticed, there were quite a few things that he mentioned in his speech with which I disagree. One of them is this idea about greenfields agreements. The previous speaker said that somehow it was a problem that greenfields agreements were to be negotiated with unions. But I ask: who else would a greenfields agreement be negotiated with? The definition of the greenfields agreement is that there are no employees with whom to negotiate. If the employer is not negotiating with the future employee's representative organisation, then with whom would they negotiate? Would we really want to go back to WorkChoices? That is the alternative. The alternative is to go back to the WorkChoices regime for greenfields agreements.

    Let us think about that WorkChoices regime for a second. An employer could make a greenfields agreement called an employer greenfields agreement. Who were the parties to that employer greenfields agreement? They were the employer and itself. In other words, the employer called a meeting with itself. It went into a room and said: 'Hello, employer. I'd like to give them no wage increase in the next three years. How do you feel about that?' 'Well, employer, that seems pretty fair to me. Let's shake on it.' That is ridiculous. That is why greenfields agreements need to be negotiated with representative organisations that are acting in the interests of the future employees, because, frankly, there is nothing more than a glaring conflict of interest when an employer negotiates with itself, as occurred under the WorkChoices regime of the federal government under Mr Howard. That is the sort of thing the previous speaker was talking about: going back to that WorkChoices regime, where there were no protections for future employees of greenfields projects.

    But coming back to this bill, let us talk about registered organisations. The previous person who spoke to this bill was at pains to say that the coalition is not against unions. Well, I beg to differ. The trade unions royal commission that we see at the moment is an exercise in de-legitimising the union movement. That is what it is an attempt to do. It is to make the union movement seem like it is not legitimate. And why? We have seen things like the HSU scandal, a scandal in which the HSU was the victim of white-collar crime from unscrupulous, unethical persons who committed crimes against that union and its membership. But that does not mean that we should accept that unions in and of themselves are illegitimate, and unfortunately that is what this bill is aimed at giving the impression of. When we talk about registered organisations we are talking about employer organisations like the Australian Industry Group, like the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and about trade unions, like the CFMEU and other unions we have heard spoken about. These are organisations that are registered under the Fair Work legislation with an obligation to represent their members, both in the workplace and before industrial tribunals and courts. And they play a broader role. Unions and employer associations are part of a civil society, they are part of the fabric of Australian democracy, and they provide support to people individually but they also contribute to the sort of society that we want to live in.

    If you want to know about the importance of unions in this country and in democracies, you might want to consider the case of CFMEU v North Goonyella Coal Mine Pty Ltd [2013 FCA 1444]. It is a case very close to my heart, because my former colleagues at Maurice Blackburn—Emma Thornton and Kelly Thomas—did such a great job working in that case, where an employer was being pursued for its contraventions of the Fair Work Act for adverse action against members of unions. It was a really important decision, and it was one in which His Honour Justice Logan spoke at length about the importance of unions in our democracy. He said that the case:

    … provides a very useful occasion to recall why in our country, for so many years, trade unions have been regarded as lawful and why it is that those who take what is called these days adverse action against persons because of trade union activity are amenable to penalty.

    To understand that, one has to go back almost 200 years to a case which was passed into history as the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Case, but which is known in the law reports as R v Lovelass and Others (1834) 172 ER 1380. That case was decided in England against the background of a group of farm workers … who wished to form a union to prevent reduction of their wages. … The farm workers concerned met in the home of a Thomas Standfield. They there took an oath to combine together and to seek to prevent the reduction of their wages. They formed what was known as the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. They were prosecuted under an Act, the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797 (UK). That Act had been passed by the British parliament in response to a threat of mutinies following the French Revolution. It made it illegal to make an oath and an offence to not reveal the oath in particular contexts. The workers concerned were convicted and sentenced to transportation to Australia. Such was the outpouring of popular outrage in respect of that prosecution and its sequel that the British government decided to return the workers concerned from Australia. Some later migrated to Canada. One remained here.

    It is that case which is generally regarded as providing the inception of a movement which gradually throughout the 19th century led to the recognition by the British parliament and then by colonial parliaments here of trade unions as lawful organisations. The history of the progression from the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Case, through the 19th Century, to the recognition under the Trade Union Act 1871 (UK) and the Trade Disputes Act 1906 (UK), which have Australian equivalents, is set out, notably, in a work by Sidney Webb (later Baron Passfield) and his wife, Martha Beatrice Webb, The History of Trade Unionism (Revised Edition, 1920).

    In Australia, drawing on that heritage, ever since we have had a federal industrial relations statute, trade unions have been recognised expressly by our parliament upon registration as lawful organisations, having a recognised representational role in our industrial relations system. The history of the provisions proscribing adverse action in the Fair Work Act is as long as federal industrial regulation in Australia.

    The case that His Honour was dealing with involved an employer taking adverse action against people for their union involvement. His Honour said:

    The long and the short of it is that this case displays a blatant, deliberate, concerted and fulfilled endeavour on the part of an employer to subvert a deeply rooted feature—

    and this is the important part for our purposes today—

    not just of our industrial relations system, but of our democracy itself.

    He was there talking about trade unions and their importance to our democracy, and he said:

    I cannot overemphasise the seriousness of the conduct concerned. It is no new subject that trade unions are regarded as lawful and that those who seek to take adverse actions against person on the basis of trade union activity are subject to penalty.

    Equally as important for the purposes of our consideration of this bill tonight, His Honour went on to say:

    Of course, with the benefit of recognition as lawful organisations comes great responsibility for trade unions and those who hold office in trade unions. Over time, a number of commissions of inquiry, State and Federal, have exposed practices where the privilege of recognition of trade unions has been abused, or where those who hold office within unions have abused a privileged position.

    With the greatest of respect to His Honour, I most humbly agree with him. It is very important that the seriousness of the role of the representation of working people be conducted absolutely without any corruption and without any unlawful behaviour. It is a role of great trust and great responsibility. Labor knows that and that is why we have no tolerance for corruption by union officials or officers of employer bodies, who equally share that sacred obligation as a representative and as a person to whom their membership look to represent their best interests.

    The Labor Party has always supported tough penalties for those that break the law. We have always supported appropriate regulation for registered organisations, unions and employer associations, including a properly empowered regulator and consequences for those who break the rules. That is because we know better than anyone how important that position of trust is, not just to the individual members and to the members as a whole, but to our democracy and our society. It is fundamental to our democracy and society that we have a union movement that is held in high esteem. That is why we have always been committed to ensuring financial accountability by unions and employer organisations. So much so that the now Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, as a minister, strengthened the laws around transparency and disclosure by registered organisations to their members.

    Yet here we have those opposite standing here to talk about unions in a negative way, just like their counterparts in my home state of Queensland. That is where we saw anti-union legislation. Wasn't that a success! It was such a success that the Queensland LNP had to rush into the parliament to repeal their own transparency laws, because they knew that they were not going to survive an upcoming High Court challenge. Those rushed through anti-union laws did not survive and were so poorly written and so poorly put together. The facts though, from Labor's perspective, speak for themselves.

    As a result of Bill Shorten's work, the regulation of trade unions in Australia has never been stronger, accountability has never been greater, the powers of the Fair Work Commission to investigate and prosecute for breaches have never been broader and penalties for breaches have never been tougher. Labor tripled the penalties when we were in government. Yet we now hear those opposite coming in here to try to manufacture a basis to justify their changes. They refer to things like the HSU, which, as I have said, was a victim of white collar crime but unscrupulous officials.

    Let us have a look at the Registered Organisations Act as it now stands. Does the act prohibit members' money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns? Yes, as it has been a longstanding principle of industrial law in this country that members' money cannot be spent on electing particular candidates in union election campaigns.

    Photo of Steven CioboSteven Ciobo (Moncrieff, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

    Someone should have told Craig Thomson.

    Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I will take the interjection. Craig Thomson has just been raised. As we know, he broke the law and he should suffer the full consequences of a breach of the law. But the fact is that the union was the victim of that crime. Just as if a director of a company defrauds that company, that does not make that company illegitimate; so if an official of a union defrauds a union, that is not a basis to claim that unions are illegitimate. Does the act allow for criminal proceedings to be initiated where funds are stolen or are obtained by fraud? Yes, it does. Does the act already ensure that the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police as appropriate? Yes, it does. The Registered Organisations Act already provides for statutory civil penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly contravenes an order or direction made by the Federal Court or the Fair Work Commission under the Registered Organisations Act or the Fair Work Act.

    Officers of registered organisations already have fiduciary duties akin to those for directors under the Corporations Law and there are corresponding statutory obligations. The Registered Organisations Act already requires officers to disclose their personal interests, already requires officers to disclose when payments are made to related parties and already requires officers to exercise care and diligence, act with good faith and not improperly use their position for advantage. Given all of this, we cannot help but question the motives of this government in introducing this bill.

    Why is the government rushing to impose this new regime, which includes some penalties that exceed the Corporations Act? It is just yet another attack on unions, because they do not want to talk about their budget. They are looking for something—anything—to talk about other than their toxic budget, which is the budget that has been rejected so comprehensively by the Australian people and that breaches those pre-election commitments of no cuts to health, no cuts to education, no changes to the pension and no new taxes. What have we seen? We have seen the GP tax, the tax when you go and get an x-ray, the tax when you get a blood test, the deregulation of higher education, the cuts to education, the changes to the pension indexation that will leave pensioners worse off and the petrol tax. It is a litany of broken promises and twisted priorities. (Time expired)

    7:43 pm

    Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I also rise to speak in opposition to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014, for the second time in this term of parliament. Still the government has not done their homework on the bill before us. They have not improved their work at all. It is still a failure. It is still a poorly conceived bill that is badly motivated and entirely unnecessary, because this issue was dealt with by the 43rd parliament. Nobody is denying that if there is criminal behaviour and if it occurs in any organisation, then it should be dealt with properly by the Criminal Code Act.

    That is exactly what we have seen happen, whether it be Craig Thomson or whether it be Geoff Shaw. If there is somebody who breaks the law, they will be dealt with appropriately. That is why this bill is not the right place for this. The Fair Work Act and this bill seek to impose penalties that are tougher than we have seen anywhere else in any part of our acts, including the Corporations Act.

    Nobody is excusing the behaviour of one or two individuals, but, as we have said repeatedly, you cannot punish the entire institution of registered organisations for the actions of one or two individuals. If we were to adopt the government's logic, we would be punishing every MP in the Victorian parliament because of the actions of one, Jeff Shaw. But we have not seen that happen. All this bill seeks to do is to union bash—to bash up the natural foe of the conservatives, our trade union movement. Along their way, in their frantic push to bash the trade union movement, the government have caught up a few of their traditional supporters, their own organisations—the employer groups.

    The burden of this extra regulation will fall not just on the full-time, salaried union officials that they seek to punish but also on the volunteers of the trade unions or registered organisations such as the Australian Industry Group. These groups have been quite vocal in their opposition to this bill, not once or twice but a number of times, whether it be to individual members of parliament or whether it be to Senate inquiries, but the government still ignores their words and their pleas. The government has wrongly claimed that these reforms will protect union members' interests and give greater democracy to union members. Again, it is just another attempt by a desperate government to distort the facts. This bill will achieve the exact opposite. It will impose tough and rigid regulations on the largely rank and file members who run our trade unions. The government seek to impose large fines on those rank and file members.

    I know those opposite struggle to understand what a trade union looks like. As an example, the executive, the council, of United Voice in the state of Victoria, like in every state, is made up of rank and file members. There are only a couple of people who are paid officials. Take, for example, Marie Angrilli, who works for Spotless as a part-time school cleaner. She gives up her spare time as a volunteer to be president of United Voice in Victoria. Why should she be treated any differently from the president of a school council, who is also a volunteer, or the president of a sporting club? That is exactly the distinction this bill tries to make. The government has wrongly labelled Marie, who is a volunteer rank and file member on the union executive, as one of the union bosses and union heavies, and seeks to impose on her, as well as on all the other members who are rank and file members elected to their trade union state councils or executives, very tough penalties. The other union I wish to mention is the rail division of the RTBU. Bob Bassett is a full-time conductor for V/Line—another hardworking person who this government seek to victimise, demonise, call a union boss and vilify in the way they are trying to do in this bill. The government suggest that these people are union bosses and union heavies, but nothing could be further from the truth.

    There are still two million people in Australia who are members of a trade union, making the trade union movement one of the largest community based rank and file organisations in this country. Yet this government is dead set scared of them. I can understand why. When working people are active, when they get together, when they organise around their working rights, when they stand up, when they have a voice, they become a broadbased movement that can speak directly against what this government is trying to do. It is no wonder that upon being elected one of the first things that this government did was try to tear down the union movement—because they, unlike the rest of Australia, knew about that horror budget, that shocker budget, that they were about to bring down. That budget did one thing, and that was to tear at our working people. It attacked their children, whether they be in school or trying to get a university education, and it attacked working people's parents, whether they be self-funded retirees or on a pension, or in an aged care facility, possibly victims of the government's latest cut to the dementia supplement. It is no wonder that the government has brought forward this bill to try and attack unions, to distract their members from the real battle that is going on outside of the workplace, whether it be in their homes, whether it be in their children's schools, whether it be with their parents and their pension. The government is no fan of working people. They are not the great saviours of the working people that they like to champion. Whether it be on this version of the debate or a previous version of the debate, speaker after speaker from the government side have claimed that they are the best friend of working people.

    As I have mentioned, it is not only trade unions that are opposed to this bill but also a number of employer organisations. I note the submission of the Australian Industry Group to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee. When I was first elected I never thought I would be standing up in the parliament saying that I agreed with the Australian Industry Group on the matter of workplace relations. But here I am in this House doing that. It just shows how far to the right the government has gone when employer groups are saying that their proposal concerning part of the Fair Work Act is too radical and too draconian. Just as our union delegates come from the rank and file, the Australian Industry Group also have rank and file not delegates but councillors that run their incorporated organisations in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland—in fact, 85 people from their rank and file membership based organisations.

    Like many of our union delegates who work on state councils and state executives running their unions, these officers for the Australian Industry Group are volunteers. They give up their time without payment for their role. This bill seeks to make their job harder by imposing new regulations on volunteers who make sure their organisation is run properly. Yet, all it will do will is increase the amount of time, regulation and red tape for these volunteer based organisations. This means these organisations, like our trade union movement, would have less time to spend on their businesses, less time to spend on policy, and potentially some of them would have to give up their role as volunteers in a registered organisation.

    This is what the government seeks to do with this bill. It is an example of how poorly-conceived and rushed the government is in their desperate attempt to union bash and distract the community from their real agenda, which is to attack working people in every aspect of their lives. I quote from the Australian Industry Group's submission to the Senate inquiry on this bill. They state:

    Unlawful conduct within one organisation must not be used as an excuse to impose unfair laws or an excessive compliance burden upon all registered organisations.

    I also note that they cite the ILO's Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948. When you have the Australian Industry Group in a submission to an inquiry talking about protection of the freedom of association, you know the government is on the wrong path. They, like their workers, seek to organise—seek to have a collective voice. From time to time, bosses and workers do disagree, but nobody should deny their right to organise. Yet this government seeks to do that; it seeks to tear at that basic convention—that of freedom of association.

    As I have said, this bill is poorly-conceived, badly-motivated and entirely unnecessary. It should be rejected in its entirety. It creates a large volume of new regulation without evidence that it is necessary. The work was already done in the former parliament. This bill also creates a new Commonwealth regulator, where one already exists. This is from a government that claims that it wants to get rid of red tape—yet, it is introducing more. This bill creates a large volume of new regulation that will not just increase the burden for registered trade unions, but it will also increase the burden on employer organisations. As I have said, it should be rejected in its entirety.

    The problem with this debate is that, once again, it is centred around the rhetoric of union bashing. Why on earth does the government continue with its union bashing? Why does it seek to perpetuate this myth? Perhaps it is for their own purposes—they need an enemy. So let's create one from working people. Let's remind ourselves who unions are: they are men and women in a workplace who get together; they organise to have a say about their workplace rights. And they are very good at it; they have had a lot of influence. In some sectors they have organised well—they have good working conditions. Yet this government, we know, in other bills seeks to tear those down. We also know that in a number of new industries unions are still doing the hard work of ensuring that their members have good workplace conditions. The cleaners here in Parliament House and the cleaners who work for the government are some of the latest victims of this government's budget shocker. In their determination to cut costs, they have cut the wages of their own cleaners. I would like to cite a comment from an editorial in the Herald Sun, challenging the psychology of the government's IR minister: what sort of psyche does a man have if he cuts the wages by up to $5 an hour of the person who cleans his toilet? To me that statement says it all: if you cut the wages of your own cleaners—the people who clean your toilets—you are not a friend of hard-working people. It does not matter how many times you say in front of the mirror that you are the worker's friend, it is simply not true.

    The government's actions when they were previously in government demonstrate that they are not the fans or supporters of working people. When the Prime Minister was the workplace relations minister, he showed very little regard for working people. He said that the Howard government's legacy would be WorkChoices; he said it was one of their proudest achievements. It is simply not true. WorkChoices, as we know, is not 'dead, buried and cremated', as the Prime Minister has continued to say. In fact, it could not be further from the truth. We have seen through their attempt to try to amend the IFA and their other bill on the Fair Work Act that they are seeking to bring it back. That is why they have to demonise the very organisations that stand up against them. Let us not forget what the government did when they changed unfair dismissal, when they went after penalty rates, when they attacked people's retirement income and when they made sure that working people would have less access to their union representatives. Let's be clear about this bill: it seeks to demonise unions and hard-working union officials. (Time expired)

    7:58 pm

    Photo of Stephen JonesStephen Jones (Throsby, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Infrastructure) Share this | | Hansard source

    This bill is about the regulation of unions, employer associations and their officers and officials. In common parlance, the word 'official' is taken to mean somebody who is elected or appointed to a full-time job within an organisation and who draws a salary for performing those functions. It belies the fact that the majority of officials, at least within unions, are volunteers who give up hundreds of hours of their time every year for a purpose and a cause that they believe in. For unions, the cause is the protection and the betterment of the wages and conditions of the people they represent—ordinary Australian workers. They help them balance the cost of living with their income and they help them get a fair go at work.

    Any debate about workplace relations in this place is always conducted on many levels. As the contributors to this debate have demonstrated, it is as much about the political contest between the conservative parties and us, the Labor Party, as it is about the subject matter of the bill. We have heard numerous contributions from those on the other side of the House and from those on this side of the House which give testament to that. It has been that way since Federation. Governments have risen and fallen on the question of industrial relations. It is an unfortunate fact that the objects of the legislation, by which I mean those for whom it purports to regulate, are often swept aside.

    I would like to say a few words about a mate of mine to correct the balance. My friend's name is Kerry Edsall. She was a government employee who started work in the Department of Social Security, as it then was, in one of the first call centres that that department established, in Geelong in 1993. She was a strong woman with a great work ethic who was as respected by the workers in her workplace and nationally as she was by her employers. She joined the union soon after becoming an employee of the Department of Social Security and became deputy delegate in her workplace soon after. She represented the department and Centrelink on the union's section council from 2001 and became the union secretary in 2003, a position that she then held for over 10 years—all on a voluntary basis. In 2013, in recognition of her many decades of service to the union, she was granted a life membership.

    She was a key CPSU leader in Centrelink and the Department of Human Services and represented members through many agreement negotiations and in other national and international forums. She was well respected by management, by government and by union representatives because of her deep knowledge of the work of the department, the needs of the clients of the department, the operation of the union and the needs of their members. As well as supporting and engaging members in her workplace, Kerry mentored many young workers, including workplace delegates and section councillors, across the country. She was a courageous leader and a courageous worker who genuinely lived up to the cliche that you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. She never dodged difficult discussions with members, with management or with anyone who needed to hear the truth. She was a person who was very comfortable speaking truth to power.

    Kerry understood that union strength comes from the work that you do in the workplace—not from acts of parliament, as important as they are and as influential as they can be in governing workers' rights, but from the strength within the workplace. Her commitment and passion for union and Labor values motivated many members throughout her workplace and around the country. Her commitment to union work was legendary, and I repeat: it was all done on a volunteer basis. It was not uncommon for her to rise before sun-up and take the long commute from Geelong to Canberra to be involved in negotiations with management—only to turn around and go back again and be one of the first people at work the very next day.

    You can only imagine the high regard in which she was held within the workplace and within the union—and you can only imagine the devastation people felt when, on 23 June this year, Kerry passed away after a relatively short battle with cancer. She is survived by her husband John and her daughters, Sheridan and Shea, whom she adored and was as proud of as they were of her. Kerry did more than just promote the values of the union; she lived them. So when I see members opposite and others around this parliament seeking to go about the task of demonising unions and union officials, I know they have a tough battle ahead of them if they want to demonise people like Kerry Edsall. She was someone who lived the values of the union—and she did it all for nothing. She was a great example and a great mentor to generations of young women.

    When you are in government you have limited time, and how you spend that time is a statement of your priorities and your values. That is why I say that this bill before the House demonstrates the fact that this government has its priorities all wrong when it comes to workplace relations. They had the opportunity to correct an outrageous error—perhaps it was not an error; perhaps it was a deliberate act—they perpetrated during that great failed episode of 'Deregulation Day'. By the stroke of a pen on that day, they cut the wages of cleaners by somewhere between $172 and $225 per week. I am talking about some of the lowest paid people who work in this place. If you were to look at a diagram of who the highest paid and who the lowest paid people in this place are, you would find the Prime Minister and the Treasurer somewhere near the top of the pay pile—and you would find the people who clean this place when we have gone home near the bottom. So you have to ask yourself: what was in the minds of the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and his parliamentary secretary when he tried to bury a provision, within over 50,000 pages of government regulation, to cut the wages of some of the lowest paid people in the parliament and within government employment. It is a statement of the government's priorities.

    We could today be debating a bill that corrected that error. We could be debating, perhaps, amendments from government members effectively saying, 'We know we got it wrong when we cut the wages of some of the lowest paid people in the country.' Instead, they have used the limited resources and the limited time available to this parliament to debate a bill which does something completely different. I will get to what it does in a moment, but I think that speaks volumes about the priorities of this government.

    I am a relatively new member, Deputy Speaker Mitchell. We came into this parliament at the same time, after the 2010 election. I remember an important debate that we had in this parliament when Labor introduced legislation regarding directors' salaries, and an important reform Labor introduced that gave ordinary shareholders some say in the outrageous salaries that many directors were awarding themselves, and a mechanism to correct those salaries.

    When I heard the Prime Minister say before the election that one of his objectives in workplace reform was to ensure that we brought into line the obligations incumbent upon unions and union officials in the Workplace Relations Act so they more closely mirrored the obligations upon directors and companies within the Corporations Law, I thought I would find a provision in there that enabled that reciprocal flow of obligations. I can tell you this—and I have quite detailed knowledge about this—there would not be a union in this country whose rules did not provide that if a meeting of the members properly constituted of that union, or the governing body of that union, passed a resolution that said the officials of that union shall afford themselves a particular salary or a particular form of remuneration, and no more or no less, then the officials of that union would have to comply with that resolution of the membership body. When the government says they want to align the obligations of unions and corporations, that is one they have overlooked—because I remember very well, as you would remember very well, Deputy Speaker Mitchell, that they opposed tooth and nail those changes to the Corporations Law. They argued against them as 'excessive red tape'. If the government is truly interested in ensuring that the same obligations upon unions and employer associations apply to corporations, they would be rethinking their policies when it came to that particular issue around director salaries.

    I listened with great interest to a number of the contributors to this debate when they talked about the genesis or the objectives of the legislation, and they invariably relied upon the great scandal concerning the Health Services Union. I am appalled by some of the revelations that have come to light about the expenditures and the use of members' money within the Health Services Union, but it is worth noting that the officials who have done the wrong thing within that union have had those malfeasances brought to light, they have been charged and have been prosecuted under the existing laws. If the motivation for bringing these laws before the parliament is to correct something that was going wrong in one or two organisations, I simply make the point that the reforms have already been implemented. In fact, the now Leader of the Opposition introduced those reforms when he was the government minister in relation to workplace relations. The reforms have created greater obligations for registered organisations and have ensured that there are greater penalties for non-compliance and greater obligations in relation to the use and reportage around members' funds, and other obligations.

    For example, in 2012 he toughened the laws to improve the financial transparency, and the disclosure by registered organisations and their members. If the motivation is anything more than kicking the industrial question into the political debate, then you have to look at what has already been done and the remedies that are already available. We on this side of the House say that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those in the community who are appalled that the funds of any registered organisation—or any community organisation, or any charity or any company, for that matter—could be used for any purpose other than the purpose for which they are contributed. We should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But we look at the legislation and at what is already there, and we cannot draw any other conclusion but the fact that this is just an opportunity for the government to kick the industrial question back into parliament to use it as a part of a concerted campaign to try to reintroduce laws they said they would never reintroduce and to try to muddy up those who are their political opponents, and in doing that give themselves some form of political advantage.

    So we are all for looking at and introducing laws that ensure the highest standards are imposed upon employer and employee organisations, but we say that this legislation does not do that. We say that this legislation is not necessary, that we will be opposing the legislation, and that we will be doing it because we say it is introduced to the House for an entirely different purpose altogether.

    8:13 pm

    Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

    I speak in relation to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 to express my opposition to it. The government has reintroduced legislation before the chamber—a bill they have submitted earlier in this term of parliament, back in November. We did not support it then and we will not support it now. The whole purpose of this legislation is driven by rank right-wing ideology. This is not about registered organisations and their best interests, or the best interests of industrial relations, and fairer, simpler and decent workplaces—this is motivated by ideology.

    In some countries the division between the major political parties is driven by religion, in some it is driven by geography and in others it is driven by language. In Australia, the divide between the major political parties is on industrial relations, and it has been for decades. Labor on this side has stood up for working people; on the other side, they have stood up for the interests of capital. Labor believe that employers and employees can work productively and constructively in the workplace, without coercive, investigative and onerous powers being put on by bodies created for the purpose of imposing ideology in the workplace. We saw that when those opposite were in government back before 2007, and we are seeing it resurrected yet again. It is in their DNA. They just cannot help it. It is reflexive. It is what they believe in their blood and bones, and that is to prosecute and persecute workers in the workplace. So we will not support this legislation.

    We believe the bill exceeds the penalties that are necessary in the workplace to make sure that registered organisations do the right thing. The bill exceeds penalties in the Corporations Act, which governs so much of corporate Australia. The government promised it would regulate registered organisations in the same way that companies, directors and shareholders are dealt with, but that is not what is happening here. What this bill actually does, as it has done before when it was introduced previously and when we opposed it, is establish a registered organisations commission; it amends the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. That registered organisations commission, headed by a registered organisations commissioner, will have more investigative and coercive powers than those available to the general manager of the Fair Work Commission. There are some more onerous disclosure provisions and, of course, greater penalties in terms of civil contraventions. There is also some criminality introduced in terms of criminal offences with respect to officer's duties which are discharged in the exercise of the work for those registered organisations.

    Registered organisations are absolutely crucial to Australia's workplace relations system. They play a very important role in the maintenance of productive, flexible and fair workplaces. Australian employers and their employees are entitled to representation in their workplaces. They are entitled to representation before the courts and before tribunals which deal with areas of disputation, whether it is internal within one state or across state and territory borders. They are entitled to that representation to advance their concerns and their interests. When governments consider policies in relation to industrial relations, employers and employees are also interested in how it affects their rights, their interests and their obligations. They are entitled to that representation free of corruption by employers, by employees and also by the bodies that represent those interests. They are entitled to know that their membership fees are not being misspent. As the Australian Industry Group stated in their submission to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill:

    Overwhelmingly the officials and staff of registered organisations of employers and employees are dedicated and ethical people who work very hard for the benefit of their Members, their industries and the broader community.

    This is absolutely accurate and correct.

    In my time as a federal member of parliament and in my days before that, as an employer and as someone who has lived in the Ipswich and West Moreton community all my life, I must say that I have had very productive and genuine dealings with representatives of both employer and employee registered organisations. However, we must acknowledge that, although corruption is rare, it does occur in business, in government and in the community. I want to make it plain that Labor will not tolerate corruption by union officials or by officers of employer bodies. We support appropriate regulation of registered organisations in Australia's workplaces. We support a properly empowered regulator. We support appropriate and tough penalties for those who do not follow the rules and for those who break the law. It does not and should not matter if the registered organisation found to be breaking the rules represents employers or their employees. We demonstrated this when in government.

    In 2012, Labor in government then toughened the rules for registered organisations. We made their finances more transparent to their members. We dramatically increased the disclosure responsibilities. When the now Leader of the Opposition was the minister in charge of workplace relations he achieved this with legislation that he initiated in this place. The then Labor government acted to strengthen the regulation of registered organisations, whether trade union or employer organisations. That regulation, which currently governs the workplaces of this country, is the strongest it has ever been.

    As I said, the background to this this bill is really important. We made it a requirement that officers of a registered organisation disclose to that organisation the remuneration paid to them by the organisation, by a related party to the organisation or because the officer is a member of a board due to being an officer of the organisation. We made it a requirement that officers of a registered organisation disclose to that organisation any material personal interest that they or their relatives—spouse, parent, child, grandchild, grandparent, brother or sister—have or acquire relating to the affairs of that particular organisation. We made it a requirement that the registered organisation disclose to their members and to the Fair Work Commission by 31 December 2014 and every year thereafter the remuneration which the five highest paid organisational officers and the two highest branch officers had been paid in that previous year, the material personal interest which the officers had disclosed and all payments to related parties of the organisation, including payments to entities controlled by officers of the organisation. It is through the Labor government's actions that members of registered organisations now know more than they ever did before and can have confidence in the organisations which seek to represent them in the workplace. We acted to broaden the Fair Work Commission's power to investigate suspected rule breaking by those registered organisations or individuals associated with them. When this rule breaking was proved, we acted to broaden the Fair Work Commission's powers to prosecute that breach.

    The minister is a regular commentator on the Health Services Union, even when the matter is before the judiciary. He justifies this bill and changes made previously through constant references to the HSU. He says that this bill will sort it all out. What he will not admit is that the current legislation—the Fair Work Act and the registered organisations act—already contains the powers to deal with HSU matters. We already have in the registered organisations act prohibitions on members' money being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns and provisions in relation to criminal proceedings being initiated where funds are stolen or are obtained by fraud. The current legislation ensures that the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police when appropriate for an investigation. The legislation currently provides for statutory penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly contravenes an order or direction made by the Federal Court or the Fair Work Commission under the registered organisations act or the Fair Work Act. These things exist already; they are already in place. There is no need for the legislation before the chamber to be brought before the House again.

    The Fair Work Act already places on officers of a registered organisation a fiduciary duty that is very much similar and akin to the obligations that a director has under the Corporations Law in relation to the disclosure of personal interests, the disclosure of payments to related parties, being required to exercise a responsibility with care and diligence, acting in good faith and not acting improperly to use their position for political advantage. These are already obligations in the law. If you breach those obligations the Fair Work Commission has broad powers to investigate and if necessary prosecute. If officers are found guilty they face a range of serious penalties. This is not fancy. This is not fiction. This is what the law is currently. All of that would occur under the Fair Work Act and the registered organisations act as they currently exist. So why is the government trying to do this? As I said before, this is about ideology. There is no rhyme or reason, other than pure ideology, for these changes. The penalties are draconian. They are not supported by industry. The Australian Industry Group said of what the government is trying to do:

    If the proposed criminal penalties and proposed massive financial penalties for breaches of duties are included in the RO Act, this would operate as a major disincentive to existing voluntary officers of registered organisations continuing in their roles, and would deter other people from holding office.

    The penalties in this legislation are punitive. When you consider what a person can face in civil and criminal prosecution under this legislation for a failure to disclose or for reckless use of their position you can see that these penalties would act as a disincentive, as the Australian Industry Group has said. Who would volunteer if there are massive penalties for a mistake? Why does this bill seek to introduce criminal penalties for behaviour that is already covered by and subject to criminal law in other legislation? This is not about the government being concerned for registered organisations. This is part of an agenda. It is irrational. The government is not interested in good policy or empirical evidence. This is about the government's DNA and their blood and bone. They hate unions and they hate those who represent workers in the workplace.

    We have always remained open to the government's discussing good industrial relations policy and the concerns they may have about defects in the system and about deficiencies that could be remedied, but we cannot support this legislation. If the government were fair dinkum about tackling corruption, regardless of the type of organisation involved, they would not have this legislation before the chamber. Why is the bill silent on non-registered organisations? The bill is not about good governance at all. I believe that Australians will see the bill for what it is, yet another ideological attack on Australia's unions and Australian workers. They have established the royal commissions into the trade union movement. They have done so many things since they have been in power, as the member for Throsby said in relation to cleaners and elsewhere. They just cannot help themselves. This legislation is not about good governance or better workplace relations. It is not about reducing red tape. It is simply about ideology. We will oppose this bill. It is another broken promise like their budget of betrayal and broken promises. We will not stand for it. Australians should oppose it; they will see the bill before the chamber for what it is, another attack by a government that has no regard for Australian workers.

    8:28 pm

    Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

    I thank the member for Blair for his contribution and say how well it elucidated the issues before the chamber. I was particularly struck by his description of the coalition and what is contained within their DNA. I participate in this debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 as someone who has been here longer than anyone else on our side of the chamber and only one other person—

    Photo of Jim ChalmersJim Chalmers (Rankin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

    A hundred years!

    Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

    A bloody long time! One other person—Deputy Speaker Scott—has been here a lot longer than me. You still have hair, Deputy Speaker, I have little.

    Photo of Luke HartsuykerLuke Hartsuyker (Cowper, National Party, Assistant Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

    That wouldn't be hard, to have more hair than you!

    Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

    That is true. I have to tell you that I have not lost that hair worrying about trade unions. I have lost that hair worrying about this government, and about what the conservatives and the far Right in this country are wanting to do to the people of this country. This bill, as the member for Blair rightly pointed out, is a really good lesson as to this government's political agenda and how much it replicates—across the board—their own ideological self-interest, and their lack of recognition of the proper place of unions in this country and of the rights of Australian workers to be represented by those unions. I remember being on a building site at age 15 and labouring—I won't tell you how successful I was at that job; I was not that flash, I have to tell you—

    Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

    In the Boer War intervention!

    Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

    In the Boer War intervention. But I had a very close friendship with the local BWIU organiser—someone who I was able to talk to about the job I was in; someone who was able to give me some guidance about occupational health and safety issues in that workplace; someone who was able to talk to me about my rights, as a young man earning adult wages at 15 and labouring on a building site, here at the university which my friend here, the member for Rankin, has just—well, relatively recently, as far as I am concerned!—received his PhD from: working in that workplace was very instructive. It taught me—as if I had not been told by others, including my family—about the importance of joining a union. From then on, throughout my whole working life, I have been and remain a member of the union. I organised as a union representative—I was a shop steward, effectively—in my workplace. I was an elected official in a trade union; not a paid official but an elected representative of my peers. By being in that organisation, I found out how important it is to understand the intrinsic value of organising workers in this country, the role of trade unions, and their historical importance and their validity, not only historically but also today. This bill demonstrates to us the government's disguised and absolute disdain for and abhorrence of unions and their historically critical role in representing Australian workers—

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

    Craig Thomson did a good job!

    Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

    I will come to you later; just don’t go out of here! The role of the unions in winning pay and conditions from capital, by dint of their organisational ability, their capacity as individuals, their advocacy, and their professionalism—that is what it is about; understanding the proper role of trade unions. In this country, we all know—even the blue bloods opposite know; those with the silver spoon know this, and they have got that silver-spoon privilege not by dint of their own work but by the work of hardworking Australian men and women—that those people doing the hard yakka in the workplace: in the coalfields; on the building sites; in the financial sector; in the hospitals; those are the people doing the work. These are the people who create value for us. It might well be thought that you would recognise that even if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, as many of the other side seem to have been. I have a great deal of respect for some—not all, but some—members of the government. I know them to be fair and genuine people—yourself included, Mr Deputy Speaker. Not that I want to malign you—

    Photo of Mark ButlerMark Butler (Port Adelaide, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

    Or damn with faint praise!

    Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for External Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

    Or damn you with faint praise! But nevertheless, this government, as the member for Blair has rightly said, has form. Since I first came here a long time ago, at every opportunity the coalition, whether in government or in opposition, has sought to undermine the rights of Australian working men and women by attacking their trade unions. It is absolutely true: the historical record speaks for itself . It is in their DNA to vilify, attack and undermine the role of unions in the workforce and the rights of their members. And I, among many in this place, lived through the Work Choices debacle, and what followed: we all remember the dogs on the wharf; we all remember those things. That is what is in the DNA of this government. That is what this bill represents. It is, as the member for Blair rightly said, irrational. It is superfluous. There is no need for this legislation. We need to comprehend for a moment what it in fact seeks to do. This bill, as you know Mr Deputy Speaker, would establish the Registered Organisations Commission, or ROC, and would amend the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. The ROC would be headed by a Registered Organisations Commissioner with greater investigative powers than those available to the General Manager of the Fair Work Commission.

    This same bill was first introduced in November of last year. It was defeated in the Senate; earlier this year, the amendments recommended by the senate legislative committee were circulated in the House. Now we have got the same piece of legislation again. As the member for Blair has said, we will not be supporting this government's Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014, or the circulated amendments. As I pointed out earlier, these registered organisations—these trade unions—play a fundamental role in Australia's workplace relations system. They are created and registered for the purpose of representing Australian employers and employees at work. Registered organisations also represent their members before industrial tribunals and courts, and work with government on policy matters ranging from employment issues to economic and social policy. I want to refer to other contributions about union officials who acted inappropriately and corruptly: there is no place for them. We in the Labor Party have no tolerance for corruption by union officials or anyone else, including officers of employer bodies. We support tough penalties for those who break the law. As the member for Blair so eloquently pointed out, there are existing legislative frameworks which deal with those matters and make this piece of legislation redundant.

    We support appropriate regulation for registered organisations, including a properly empowered regulator and consequences for those who do not follow the rules. We support—and are committed to ensuring—financial accountability for unions and employer organisations alike. That is why the now Leader of the Opposition, as minister, toughened the laws in 2012 to improve financial transparency and disclosure to their members by registered organisations, that Tony Abbott had enacted.As a result, the regulation of trade unions in Australia has never been stronger, accountability has never been higher, and the powers of the Fair Work Commission to investigate and prosecute for breaches have never been broader.

    The minister consistently uses the HSU matters, of which we are all aware. We say that those matters can be fairly and properly dealt with by other areas of the law. Under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act, officers of registered organisations already have fiduciary duties akin to those for directors under the Corporations Act. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act already requires officers to disclose their personal interests. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act already requires officers to disclose when payments are being made to related parties. It already requires officers to exercise care and diligence, to act with good faith and not to use their position improperly for political advantage. The government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations and as you would expect—and I am sure you would not have to admit to this—they have broken that commitment. This bill places higher penalties and a more onerous regime on officers of registered organisations than those imposed on company directors. The Australian Industry Group suggests that the alignment of disclosure requirements for registered organisations with company directors under the Corporation Act was inappropriate.

    Let us be very clear. The Australian community needs to understand—and I am sure it does—that we on this side of the House will not tolerate criminal or corrupt behaviour by anyone, least of all those people who are in charge of these registered organisations. The member for Solomon had the good grace to intervene a little earlier. I noticed that she had a contribution to make in an earlier discussion on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill. She made some observations which, as we have come to understand, were quite wrong. She railed against the Australian Education Union's Northern Territory branch, and attempted to discredit the union and its members by referring to that union's former president standing as a candidate in the recent Northern Territory by-election. It is true that the union president contested this election, and a union president moving from the industrial to the political arena is not on—even more so when it is without reference to the union he works for. The member's statement about this being a grotesque misuse of resources is factually incorrect. It is just plain wrong. It is my understanding that both the AEU and the candidate himself made it very clear from the outset of his misplaced and unacceptable campaign. For the public record, I, as a union member, criticise his decisions and the way he was operating as a president of the union. I made it very clear that neither I nor his members supported what he was up to. But it is very clear that not one cent of AEU funds or members' funds went on his campaign expenditure. The member for Solomon got it wrong again. Ignorance is no excuse for her willingness to mislead the parliament in the way that she has done. In fact, all of her contributions fitted that description: ignorant and misleading.

    Had the member for Solomon wanted to genuinely address corruption in the Northern Territory, she needed only to look at the Northern Territory government. That was all she had to do. The CLP government in the Northern Territory have set the standard for corrupt behaviour in Australia—at worst, a standard for corrupt behaviour in practicing Australian politics for many years. Their latest slush fund, Foundation 51, has replaced its discredited precursor, the Carpentaria trust proprietary limited company. A former director of Foundation 51, Mr Peter Maley, now a magistrate, retired from the position once his involvement was publicly exposed. The conflict of interest was obvious, but it goes deeper. Just look at the facts. The corrupt behaviour of the CLP government in the Northern Territory needs to be properly and clearly understood by the people of the Northern Territory and the people of Australia—and I am sure they will come to understand it. They know it already. The CLP government is deeply unpopular—almost as unpopular as the member for Solomon. Let me be fairly clear, we will not be supporting this legislation. We will stand up for the rights of unions and union members, and we will make sure that those people who act corruptly are dealt with properly by the law.

    8:43 pm

    Photo of Andrew GilesAndrew Giles (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I rise in opposition to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. Deputy Speaker, I hope you will forgive me for saying that I am not pleased to do so, because I am not. This is an unnecessary debate concerning unnecessary legislation.

    As other contributions in this debate have already noted, this is not the first time this place has considered those matters that are the substance of the bill which is before us. Last year, I spoke in opposition to an identical bill, as I believe many of my colleagues did. I fear to some extent that I may be going over old ground, but this is worth repeating—or so it would seem. Perhaps this time the members opposite will listen. I note that the few of them that participated certainly did not have much to say in this debate.

    The other place, wisely, in my opinion, rejected this bill. The government dominated Senate committee made a series of amendments to the original bill which the government agreed to. Then that bill was also negatived by the Senate in May. Bizarrely, the government, having accepted the recommendations for amendments from that Senate committee, has now introduced the bill essentially in its original form and has reintroduced the amendments instead of redrafting the current bill to incorporate those amendments. Surely this is just another sign of this government's dysfunction? This is a long way from what could be described as situation normal. This is incompetence and it cannot—although I suspect that it will—be blamed on everyone else.

    But it is a bit more than dysfunction and incompetence; it is also a sign of this government's desperation. As the member for Griffith put it so well earlier in this debate, we see here before us a government determined to talk about everything but their cruel, unfair budget of broken promises. At one level, it is hard to blame them for that. The budget is toxic and it has caused a reversion to their basic DNA and make-up for members opposite—their ideologically driven aversion to collective action and unionism.

    This debate today is another example of this government's twisted priorities. In this case, it is a distraction from debating the substance of the budget that people in my constituency—and I am sure people in the member for Lalor's constituency—want to talk about and want to hold members opposite accountable for. Whatever else this government is, this government is not, as the minister stated in his second reading contribution, 'staunchly committed to improving protections for members of registered organisations'. Rather, it is simply reverting to type, breaking yet more election promises while attacking not just unionism but ordinary working people. I think about the people spoken of by the member for Throsby and the member for Bendigo in their excellent contributions to this debate—ordinary working people taking voluntary roles to oversee the management of the organisations they are proud to be members of, people who are a long way from the boardroom, decent people who should be supported in these important voluntary roles. The rhetoric of the minister suggests that that is his concern, but his actions fly in the face of those statements.

    Regardless of the government's confusion in this space, Labor's position is clear: we have zero tolerance for corrupt much less criminal practice, as the member for Lingiari just said, and support proper accountability of registered organisations for their members and the community. So we oppose this bill and its associated amendments.

    I will turn very briefly to the structure and substance, such as it is, of the legislation which is before us. The current bill, like the previous bill, seeks to create a registered organisations commissioner and a registered organisations commission within the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman. This commissioner would supervise the conduct of employer and employee organisations that are registered under the Fair Work Act 2009. Interestingly, as the member for Gorton has noted, it would pay no heed to those unregistered organisations that are amongst the very few cheerleaders of this legislation. The bill also provides for: increased disclosure requirements for registered organisations and officers; stronger coercive investigatory powers—they have been described as 'draconian'—for the commissioner, with very limited restrictions on their use; and also increased penalties, including criminal penalties.

    I note that, even with the proposed amendments, employer and employee organisations alike still have significant concerns with the bill—and rightly so. I also note the concerns of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills in this regard, concerns the minister has done little to allay. The government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations. However, like many other promises, the coalition has broken this one as well, because those provisions which are contained within this bill exceed those penalties contained in the Corporations Act. This is unnecessary legislation. It contains extensive duplication. I am reminded of being in this place when the member for Kooyong and other members opposite celebrated with their little tea party red tape repeal day. It is astonishing that a government that took such pleasure in a deregulatory agenda could be putting forward legislation such as this. I note in this regard that, moreover, regulation of registered organisations has never been stronger. Last year in December and today we heard much sensationalism in this debate from the very few members inclined to participate on the opposite side but with very little grounding in the substance of those matters which are contained within the bill that is before us.

    I am reminded that in 2012, before I was here, the 43rd Parliament considered all of those substantive matters that are the subject of this bill before enacting into law the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012. So I ask myself: why are rushing into this new regime? It is proposed, in effect, that we discard one regime, an evidence based regime, before it has had a chance to do its work and for that work to be appropriately scrutinised. I said last year that the government was proceeding with this bill with undue haste to remedy a problem it has been unable to properly articulate. Save to recite a predictable list of failings and breaches—including certainly some very serious matters but which are irrelevant to the present debate—the government is still yet to justify this legislation.

    I say again: Labor takes a zero tolerance approach to union corruption and criminality and remains committed to ensuring accountability of all registered organisations—those representing employers and those representing employees. That is we properly toughened the legislative regime as well as making it more open and transparent. We enacted properly what this minister talked about disingenuously. I asked last year and I ask again: where is the evidence that these present arrangements have not worked? What specific aspect, if any, can the government point to that is not working today? If there is something specific that is not working as best it can then why not take the time to work with the system to ameliorate any problems? The government have not made the case. In fact, they have not even tried to engage with these questions.

    Eight months on from that debate, I am concerned that members opposite do not seem to appreciate that registered organisations, be they reflecting the concerns of employers or employees, are fundamentally different from for-profit corporations. This difference is about purpose as well as structure. So we say to the avid deregulators opposite that regulation must be fit for purpose. Before us in this debate I can see a lot of unnecessary red tape.

    I am reminded that in his original second reading speech, the Minister for Education stated:

    Many registered organisations control assets worth millions of dollars. They are effectively dealing with cash flow and investments similar to those of large businesses.

    I take this opportunity once more to remind him that this is a misleading assertion. Usually, the biggest asset that a union might have would be its premises, so to compare this to the investment of a large business is, at best, meaningless. And I also note that the proposed increased penalties are, to say the least, vastly disproportionate to the assets of most registered organisations, particularly those representing the concerns of employees. What may be right in relation to the regulation of large companies is unlikely to suit these types of not-for-profits. In this regard I again refer to the concerns of the Australian Industry Group, who say, 'It is unfair to subject non-profit organisations to the same disclosure rules applying to listed company executives. Much less, of course, more onerous obligations.' And it is unfair. It is as simple as that for anyone without ideological blinkers firmly affixed or for someone who is not desperate for a distraction.

    I note in this regard that that bastion of the sensible centre beloved of the former workplace relations minister, now Prime Minister, the Institute of Public Affairs, gets star billing as one of the very few strong supporters of the bill before us. What a surprise that is! The IPA, according to the explanatory memorandum, believes that 'further measures should be taken to strengthen the financial management and regulation of registered organisations, commensurate with their considerable financial resources'—repeating that canard of the minister's. Maybe the IPA is where he got it from. It is one thing to support this principle—a principle, I remind members opposite, that is presently enacted in law. Regulation is currently fit for purpose. But it is quite another to use it to attempt to justify these onerous, unnecessary provisions. And, of course, it is just wrong as a matter of fact.

    I spoke last year about what I hoped might be unintended consequences of the legislation before us. I note that non-registered organisations continue to be, unsurprisingly, much keener on this bill than registered ones. It creates a real disincentive against office-holding and a powerful incentive for those registered organisations that can—that is not employee organisations—cease their registration under the act. And so I say that surely we should be encouraging democratic participation in the governance of registered organisations, if we are sincere in our concern for their members. We should be, if the words of the minister are more than just words, if our actions in this place are to match our rhetoric here and outside. But instead we see, in the words of the socialist sect the Australian Industry Group, this 'unfair' commitment, that will, I am sure, push ordinary members—those people spoken of so movingly by the member for Bendigo and the member for Throsby—away from involvement in governance, involvement in being a meaningful check and balance on the operation of those who act on their behalf, and from a meaningful role in organisations that are at the core of our democratic system, in trade unions.

    It is worth remembering that the current regulatory regime for registered organisations already provides for obligations and duties very similar to those applying to corporate directors, as many previous speakers on this side have noted, but it is a fact which seems to elude members opposite. Financial disclosure and transparency rules for registered organisations have been dramatically improved under the process Labor embarked upon in 2012 and that I spoke of earlier. Training has been underway for some time since that legislation passed. It has been improving the operation and accountability of registered organisations. So it is, to say the least, disappointing that, in having this unnecessary debate again, we cannot have regard to the efficacy of the regime which is presently in place. We are not considering the lived experience of those presently subject to it after only a very short amount of time. I noted in December that some of the provisions we were proposing to repeal had not yet become operative. That is the contempt which this government has for the process of this place and for evidence based decision making.

    We have already provided under the 2012 legislation for the disclosure of remuneration, including board fees, of high-paid officials of registered organisations, and these are aligned with the usual reporting periods for annual reports and the filing of financial returns. Again, this is creating a system of obligations and duties very much like those applying under the Corporations Act. Labor has recognised and acted upon appropriately the seriousness of complying with workplace laws, of looking after members' interests, and so increased penalties but kept those penalties proportional to the distinct nature of registered organisations. This was fit-for-purpose regulation, made in response to circumstances and enacted following appropriate consultation with stakeholders across the whole spectrum—employers, employees, registered organisations and unregistered organisations—not just the IPA and certain unregistered organisations. This is in stark contrast with the bill before the House now and in December last year. This bill is at odds with its stated justification. This bill, as it has been reincarnated, albeit with very little life breathed into it, was an attack on trade unionism then and it remains so today.

    If members of the coalition care about union members and people on low to middle incomes more generally, then they would not have supported a budget that attacks their way of life, their ability to see a doctor or to get an education. We are being asked on the one hand to have regard to a royal commission, but with this bill we are being told the government has already made its mind up anyway. I oppose this bill, which has at its core an attack on the very notion of collective action. (Time expired)

    8:58 pm

    Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I, like the member for Scullin, rise to speak again on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. Like the member for Scullin, I spoke in December. As then, tonight I will speak for a few moments and return to the speech at another time.

    I oppose this bill, just like I oppose the Treasurer's so-called fair budget, with its so-called fair changes to pensions, fair cuts to education, fair GP tax, fair changes to Newstart eligibility and fair changes to higher education, training and apprenticeships. I rise to oppose the ludicrous, the ridiculous situation whereby this government would retain the word 'fair' while making amendments that are not fair.

    When I was working in schools in the western suburbs of Melbourne I saw the impact on local families of the then Minister Abbott's WorkChoices legislation. I saw students exploited by individual contracts. I heard direct from these kids about being paid in pizzas. I heard time and time again about kids who did not get a job when they asked about the conditions and overtime arrangements. I saw parents under pressure, too—

    Debate interrupted.