Senate debates

Monday, 17 August 2015

Bills

Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]; Second Reading

9:03 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I too rise tonight to speak to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]. Having listened to the contributions of those who have gone before me, I must admit that I too am a little at a loss to understand why anyone would be opposing this legislation. It is, largely, seeking to put in place a suite of actions that will mean that registered organisations—probably more commonly referred to as unions—are required to operate under the same corporate rules and guidelines and operating procedures as a corporation. At the end of the day, a union is nothing more than a corporation or an organisation—it is just that its output or the service that it provides relates to the organisation of the workforce or the labour force. To think that we should have a different set of rules that apply to a corporate organisation that looks after that particular service sector as opposed to any other service sector, manufacturing sector, primary production sector or whatever sector it may be, seems a little anomalous to me.

This particular bill basically seeks to replicate the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013. The measures in that bill were a key election commitment by this government. I believe this was a matter of great concern to the Australian public in the lead-up to that election and that it remains of great concern to the Australian public. And despite the hoo-ha that has been going on over the last few days in relation to the senior commissioner on the royal commission, I think the necessity to establish a royal commission into registered organisations is a pretty sad indictment of where this particular situation has got to in Australia. We do not have to look terribly far—we look back to the Health Services Union situation. What an absolute debacle! What a terrible indictment of the Australian labour movement and the union movement that such a thing was allowed to occur. And today we have still to get to the bottom of it. It continues to be in the courts without any great resolution.

The fact that this particular bill sets up great accountability and greater transparency of registered organisations and it is meeting with resistance by those opposite and by the Greens in this place is really quite bizarre. The number of times I have had to sit in this chamber and listen to those from the other side, saying, 'The government has to have more accountability,' or 'The government has to have greater transparency,' and here we are with a bill before this place that seeks to do exactly that and we find that those opposite are refusing to accept it. I do not know quite why accountability for the government, banks, large corporations or every other member of the Australian public is an acceptable thing to be demanding, but we do not seem to have to have any accountability or transparency for our registered organisations.

The bill also seeks to set up an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission, to monitor and regulate registered organisations. Once again, I am at a loss to see why anybody would not want to have an independent ombudsman or commission. Certainly, I could understand if those opposite thought that a government department were going to have responsibility for the monitoring and regulation of an organisation, but to be resistant to an independent organisation doing it is quite bizarre.

The fact of the matter is that what we have here is a rule for them and a rule for us, a rule for the unions and a rule for everybody else. I think the Australian public is actually getting to the stage where they are a little bit sick of thinking that the unions are a rule unto themselves. I have a level of sympathy with the senator from Tasmania Senator Lambie when she is calling for the deregulation of the CFMEU. Obviously, we need to be extremely careful that we make sure the rules for deregulation are consistent across all unions when you consider some of the activities and some of the allegations that come into this place about some actions of the CFMEU.

I had the privilege of sitting on the Standing Committee on Education and Employment for a period. Sitting in estimates hearings, I listened to some of the things CFMEU officials had done to people—intimidation, bullying, outright I would suggest criminal behaviour by organisers or senior officials in the CFMEU—which would probably leave many in Australia to have a level of sympathy with Senator Lambie's sentiment that the deregulation of the CFMEU would probably be a good thing. We have to be very careful that we are not just singling out the CFMEU. Legislation such as the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill seeks to make sure we make a set of rules which would apply for everybody. If we put these rules in place, then anybody or any organisation which seeks or operate outside those rules can be punished accordingly.

While I have some sympathy for Senator Lambie's position, I think it would be very wise of her to have a really good look at what this bill is trying to achieve because it may allow her to get her desire to have the CFMEU deregulated. If this particular suite of legislation goes through we will be able to find out whether the things that are being alleged about the CFMEU are true, if they do not meet the requirements set out. Obviously there would be a capacity to do that.

Why would anybody want to oppose this piece of legislation? It is probably fairly obvious why we are seeing resistance from the other side—what has come out in the royal commission in relation to some of the extraordinary things the unions are doing. There is a perception out there that unions are for workers, but if you heard some of the bad deals which have been done, for example, by the Australian Workers Union on behalf of their members, you could be excused for thinking that the unions are not necessarily there to protect workers but possibly for a level of self-interest and self-preservation. As an example, in 2006 Cleanevent entered into an EBA with the AWU, signed by a delegate of the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, which specifically excluded certain conditions including penalty rates, public holiday pay, overtime and shift loadings. By 2010, Cleanevent was saving approximately $2 million per year in wages, and saved up to $400 million after removing night shift penalties and weekend loadings. Cleanevent paid the AWU $25,000 a year for three years as part of this 2010 deal to maintain low-paying conditions for its workers. You have to wonder how a particular action by that union on behalf of its workers, which removed a number of their entitlements in return for money being paid to the union, could possibly be in the best interests of its workers. Maybe the workers were happy with that but I would suggest the workers probably were not even aware that they had had some of their conditions sold away for the sake of funding being paid to the union by the company with which the deal was done.

Chiquita Mushrooms is purported to have saved millions of dollars from the abolition of overtime rates when the AWU permitted it to move its staff into labour hire or effectively casual arrangements. Once again, this was approved by the Leader of the Opposition before he came into this place. The labour hire was required by the EBAs to be approved through companies recommended by the AWU because it was union-friendly and would ensure that revenue to the AWU from union membership would be maintained. And low and behold, Chiquita Mushrooms paid the AWU $4,000 per month, which the union claimed was paid for education leave. The former human resources manager of Chiquita Mushrooms said that the payments were to avoid union grief and to facilitate good relations with the AWU. Former Managing Director Stephen Little agreed that the payments were to buy industrial peace. Once again, you would have to question how on earth that particular type of action can be acceptable.

I could go on for many hours with page after page of unexplained or dubious payments which have been made to various unions. You can perhaps understand why we are seeing the level of resistance on the other side for this particular piece of legislation to be passed. I suppose what we would like to know—and it is a pity that it is yet to be explained—is why the other side are not supporting this legislation. We have heard comments along the line that this is an ideological attack on workers. I cannot see how doing deals that sign away workers' entitlements or workers' conditions in response for payments to a union can possibly be ideological good for workers.

But, back to the legislation: this government—the government of which I am very proud to be a member—is really committed to making sure that we have fair work laws in Australia, because unless we have fair work laws in Australia it is almost impossible to build a safe, stable, fair and prosperous economy, not just in economic conditions for our businesses but for Australian workers in Australian businesses.

We need to get stability in there, we need to get consistency in there and we certainly need to get thuggery off our building sites. As you well know, Mr Acting Deputy President, the capacity for our major cities to be able to develop in the way that they need to develop is almost entirely built on their infrastructure development. If we are constantly held to ransom by the thug-type behaviour of unions like the CFMEU, who are quite happy to go in to intimidate and threaten anybody who would seek to do anything that they did not approve of, then that is a very sad indictment of our industrial space at the moment. And it is also doing absolutely nothing to assist our economy in its recovery from some very bad times—not the least, obviously, the global financial crisis.

Unquestionably in my mind, this legislation absolutely needs to pass because of the rorts, the rackets and the rip-offs that we have seen day after day in the media—almost on a daily basis. There is no doubt that people in the wider community strongly favour these reforms. I think the public understand what is going on and they want to see this rubbed out as well. I would imagine that the public would find it really quite extraordinary that those on the other side, and the Greens at the other end, would not seek to try to deal with what seems to be a constant and systemic problem in our building industry. We need to make sure that we have a strong and robust enough system within our parliament and legislative framework to enable those officers that need to to undertake the necessary actions that will get some trust and integrity back into our system.

The government certainly believes that the majority of registered organisations do the right thing. In many cases they have the very highest of standards. It must be very unfortunate and disappointing to them to be tarred with the same brush as some of the few unions and registered organisations that are doing the wrong thing and creating this really bad perception and idea in the wider community with all the terrible things that are going on. I am sure the public does not actually differentiate between the registered organisations that are doing the right thing and the registered organisations that are not necessarily doing the right thing. I would just like to put on the record that the government understands that the majority of registered organisations are doing the right thing, and that they have great standards. They represent their workers very well and the workers are obviously great beneficiaries of the action of the majority of unions.

But you cannot go past the recent Health Services Union situation to demonstrate the extraordinary situation that occurs when you have the kind of level of financial impropriety and corruption that we saw in that particular union. It was so extraordinary to end up with the situation where we had a member of parliament who remained seated in this place for almost the entire duration of a term of the parliament while he had charges and allegations levelled against him—Mr Craig Thomson. Then we went through the whole Michael Williamson situation. It was just extraordinary that one union could completely tarnish the reputation of the entire union and registered organisation movement across the whole of Australia.

We believe that this bill—the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill—will provide certainty and high standards for the operation of the members of registered organisations. It is the certainty they are entitled to expect. It really does seem quite ironic that we should be here defending the rights of the workers against an attack by those opposite on the rights of workers by their refusal to allow this particular bill to go through. This bill is just about governance. We talk about governance in here day in, day out. I think that we have to see a transparent and robust governance structure, and we need to make sure that the compliance regime will deter people from doing wrong. We have to provide first-class governance for registered organisations, and I think there is absolutely no doubt that this particular piece of legislation will provide a much better environment for everybody in Australia. It will provide certainty, transparency and clarity, and it will give our economy, our businesses, our employees and our employers the kind of certainty and surety needed to be able to go into the future.

It is with great pleasure that I stand here to say that I very much support this legislation. I call on those opposite to reconsider their opposition to this piece of legislation, because I think it is a very sad indictment on them that they would seek to vote down a piece of legislation that seeks to look after the workers of this country.

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