Senate debates

Thursday, 21 March 2013


Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012; Second Reading

9:31 am

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

The coalition commends to the Senate the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012. Let me say at the outset that unions do have a very important place in our community. They protect and they fight for safer workplaces. We support the role of unions and all registered organisations, but it is important to us as a coalition that, in particular, low-paid workers who give so much of their income to these organisations are adequately protected from any impropriety. Similarly, we say that about small businesses and other businesses that make contributions to their representative organisations that together are classified as registered organisations.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of union officials are committed to their membership and the cause of a fair industrial relations system. We on this side salute their service. Similarly, we salute the service of the representatives of the employer organisations and together, as I said before, they make up the registered organisations with which this bill deals.

There is no doubt that on one side of the ledger—namely, the trade union side—there has been a host of scandals where the union bosses have let down their union membership. And it is a matter of regret that those who are in this place allegedly the champions of the workers have let down those workers and union members by not supporting a tougher, stronger regime to bring some of the excesses and illegalities to heel.

I think we all know about the Health Services Union scandal, where the Prime Minister herself kept Mr Craig Thomson on political life support and still does to this day. That man has been found by the Fair Work Commission to have breached rule after rule after rule and the matter is now before the courts. But actual findings have been made against Mr Thomson, that he used the money of the low-paid health workers in this country for a lifestyle that was lavish, extravagant and, some would say, completely immoral.

We can go to the CFMEU, which has established a drug and alcohol foundation, a very worthy cause to which a number of organisations and employers donated. We now know that money has gone missing from that foundation and nobody knows where to. Yet again there seems to be this code of silence.

We of course have the notorious Australian Workers Union scandal in which the Prime Minister herself was embroiled when she was a lawyer at Slater & Gordon. Still, as we speak today, both Ms Gillard and Slater & Gordon have inappropriately invoked the concept of legal professional privilege to claim that they cannot disclose that which occurred. The reality is that the legal cases overflow from the law books telling us that lawyers and legal firms are not protected by this so-called legal professional privilege if fraud is involved. So this fig leaf of an argument of legal professional privilege that Ms Gillard and Slater & Gordon have mounted has simply been a ruse and an excuse not to tell the membership of the Australian Workers Union what happened to about $1 million.

We have the Australian Workers Union—not satisfied with that scandal—in more recent times, in 2008, developing Industry 2020. Sounds good: supporting industry. And who goes on to address a lunch that earned $250,000? None other than the then Deputy Prime Minister, now Prime Minister, who was the lawyer for the Australian Workers Union in that earlier scandal. She raised, by her presence there, $250,000. It has now come to light that that money was used to fund inter-union elections, including the very bitter union election in the Health Services Union in Victoria in 2009.

If employers are being invited to make contributions, be it to a CFMEU drug and alcohol foundation or to an AWU 2020 industry fund, and union officials use their position to collect that money under cover of being a union, they have an obligation to their membership to fully disclose. The fact that they put it into a separate bank account is indicative of the fact that they want to hide something. The reason they do it is they do not want to be exposed. What we are proposing here today in the Senate will ensure that members of these unions will be able to see into the activities of their trade union. They will be able to see what actually occurs behind the closed doors.

I could go on. United Voice in Tasmania is still being investigated by Fair Work, as is the CEPU. We have the electrical trade union mansion that was bought for an officer for over $1 million, if I recall correctly, on the Sydney waterfront. So it is not a situation where one can say, 'Look there was just a one-off little scandal here'; this is a situation where there has been literally scandal after scandal after scandal—and not dealing with small amounts of money. It is not insignificant—indeed, it is hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of money that should have gone to the benefit of members of the trade unions themselves. Instead, the money has been squirrelled away.

As we know, with the AWU scandal, in which the Prime Minister herself was embroiled, monies were used from the AWU Workplace Reform Association—what a lovely benign name—to buy one of the officials a home in Kerr Street, Fitzroy in Victoria. Despite case after case after case, we have this nonsense coming from those opposite: 'Nothing to see here; move on, move on. No need for extra legislation here.' We say, as a coalition and an opposition, that we are prepared to take a stand for the union members around this country and ensure that moneys that are collected on their behalf or in their name actually go to the purpose for which they are collected.

The vast majority of trade union officials in this country will have nothing to worry about, and nor will the vast majority of employer organisations, to whom the same rules will apply. But I make this one very important point: if a company director were to misapply shareholders' funds, that company director could face a penalty of five years in jail and, I think, about $220,000 worth of fines or 2,000 penalty units. Interestingly, if a trade union official were to misappropriate trade union members' funds, there is no prison sentence and the fine is only about $10,000. It was $6,600. Nobody has been able to explain the material or moral difference between the company director so acting and the trade union official so acting. There is no difference and the same sort of penalty regime should apply. But those opposite, regrettably—undoubtedly informed by their own trade union boss backgrounds—are hell-bent on ensuring that a different regime applies to company directors as opposed to trade union bosses. Our view is that the same sort of offence should have the same sort of penalty, and the trade union bosses should not be given lower penalties because they happen to rip off their membership.

This bill seeks to increase transparency. It will tell trade union members how much the top five officials get paid. Finally, might I add, that is part of the Labor Party's new reforms. They have been dragged, kicking and screaming, to this position, and we welcome those changes. This bill will require that if a reporting unit does not comply with the requirements of reporting to the Fair Work Commission serious penalties will apply. In asking questions at Senate estimates, it became apparent that there are some organisations that have not filed their returns and reports for a decade, but they are still on the books. And a significant percentage of organisations file their documentation late, and seriously late. The members of these trade unions are entitled to have these reports filed in a timely manner. There should be nothing controversial about the first tranche of amendments that we are suggesting in this bill.

The next amendment is that officers of an organisation commit an offence if they recklessly or are intentionally dishonest and fail to exercise their powers and duties in good faith in the best interests of the organisation or for a proper purpose. I ask: why would you object to that? It is a very appropriate amendment because it looks after the membership of these organisations. I suspect that the vast majority of trade union members are members of their trade union not because they want to be engaged in militancy and celebrate militancy; not because they want to be on the stage singing Solidarity Forever, as we saw Paul Howes and Bill Ludwig doing recently on our TV screens. They actually see their trade union membership—quite rightly and properly—as an insurance policy so that, in the event of an industrial issue, there is somebody to whom they can turn. They see it like their house insurance: not sure that they like paying the premium, they do not have any genuine or real affection for the insurance company but they see that it makes good sense and common sense for them to be a member in case of tough times.

It is especially those people whose cause the coalition is seeking to champion by these amendments. It is important that those people in particular be told what is happening to their funds; those who do not have any rampant ideological commitment to either the union or the Labor Party but see it as a commercial transaction that makes good sense for them to look after them and their fellow workers in difficult times.

We also believe that there should be penalties if these organisations do not comply with court orders. Once again, how can anybody genuinely object to such a proposal? We believe that there are many matters in this bill that address the very real and genuine concerns of the Australian people and of the Australian workforce, and indeed there has been some welcome involvement in this discussion by trade union officials. One said: 'I actually believe there is a higher responsibility for us as guardians of workers' money to protect that money and to act diligently and honestly. The reality is I do not have any issue with increasing the level of requirements and penalties on trade unions for breaching basic ethics like misappropriation of funds.'

If one trade union official can bring himself to say that, why is it that this bill introduced by the coalition has been so demonised, especially by Mr Bill Shorten, a former national secretary of the Australian Workers Union? Of course, we are reminded that this is the man who, on his own admission, walks around this place proudly waving his Australian Workers Union membership card and who goes to the Maritime Union of Australia conference in Western Australia to celebrate militancy. Of course, regrettably, Mr Shorten and all his acts as minister have shown this to be the case: he sees his role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations as an upmarket version of a union boss. He is actually a minister of the Crown; he has obligations to all Australians.

Much as I know and understand Mr Shorten's commitment, love and whatever else for the Australian Workers Union, I suggest to him that it might be a good idea to at least suspend his union membership whilst he is the minister of the Crown responsible in this area. I remember when I was minister for forestry, amongst other things, and I resigned my membership of the benign organisation, a lovely organisation, Timber Communities Australia. I said to them that, as a minister, I did not want to be seen to be under any obligation or conflict, and I tried to ensure that I was never a member of any organisation about which it could be said I might be in conflict with my ministerial role. I do not think I am unique or Robinson Crusoe in what I did, because that is, I think, a basic standard, so I do not try to hold myself up as being the exemplar of that standard. It is just the common, proper and decent thing to do.

The fact that Mr Shorten as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations cannot bring himself to do the same speaks volumes about the approach of this government and, in particular, this minister—who is the most partisan minister for workplace relations this nation has seen, chances are, since Eddie Ward's days many decades ago, way into the last century. I simply say to those opposite, in particular, if you are genuine about looking after the interests of workers who are members of a union then it is important that you offer and show your support for this legislation. Please do not descend into the nonsense that this is all about union bashing. There are, in fact, union officials that—at least on the public record—are willing to say that the standards and ethics do need to be lifted and union members do need to be protected, and the question is: why would you not use this bill? If you do not like this bill because it happens to have my name on it, that is fine, introduce your own, put your name on it, and we as a coalition will support it, if that is the difficulty.

The purpose of this legislation is to protect that 18 per cent maximum of the workforce that are actually trade union members. It is important that they be protected and that their funds be protected from the minority—and I stress that—of union bosses, like the Michael Williamsons of this world, the Craig Thomsons of this world, the Bruce Wilsons of this world, and the list goes on. Union members deserve protection. We as a coalition stand ready to provide that protection for them and, as a result, enable the good name of trade unionism to be upheld.

9:51 am

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on, and to oppose, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012. I am a former state secretary of a union, and I am proud to say that in this place. I do not condone officers of registered organisations, or anyone in a position of trust, for acting inappropriately, for misusing trusted funds or for taking benefits when they are not entitled. However, this bill is just an attack on the officers of registered organisations, both unions and employer groups, from Senator Abetz, and it is an attempt to throw the corporate veil across further organisations in this country—

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on a point of order. We sat in silence for the whole time while Senator Abetz was speaking. There are different points of view around this question. Respect to the speaker would be appreciated.

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, minister. Senators on my left, you will pay due regard to standing order 197, that senators on their feet will be interrupted only on a point of order or on a matter of privilege.

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This bill is a further example of the coalition's lust for corporatising every aspect of our lives. There have always been different regulations and legislation for registered organisations and corporations to reflect the differences in purpose and motivations of unions, employer groups and corporations.

The facts are that under Labor the financial accountability standards applied to registered organisations—that is, trade unions and employer groups—have never been higher. The powers of the Fair Work Commission have never been stronger and penalties have never been tougher, and there are already requirements in the legislation governing registered organisations for officers to act with care and diligence, to act in good faith, not to improperly use their position nor to improperly use information they have obtained through acting as a member of an organisation.

Minister Shorten introduced significant reforms to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act a little under a year ago—reforms that tripled penalties for breaches of the legislation; that required that the rules of all registered organisations deal with disclosure of remuneration, pecuniary and financial interests; that required that education and training be provided to officials of registered organisations about their governance and accounting obligations; and that enhanced the investigative powers available to Fair Work Australia. Without allowing time to test their effectiveness, Senator Abetz and those opposite simply seek to create fear in the community. Instead of allowing time for these changes to be bedded down, those opposite have mounted a weak argument for further change. In reality this bill is a cruel, backhanded attack on Australian workers' rights to organise and to collectively bargain. Liberals say they want corporate law standards, but you do not hear a peep out of them when ASIC prosecute company directors. Between 2002 and 2012, I understand that ASIC completed over 2,400 court proceedings, including 385 criminal convictions which led to 212 imprisonments, yet there is no outrage from the opposition on that, not even a peep. Their endgame is the supposed free-market state where there are two types: the haves and the have-nots. They do not propose measures to boost equity or to boost participation in workplace relations and employment. They propose stunts.

We all remember 26 November last year, amid all the smear that the coalition was peddling in the lower house the Leader of the Opposition briefed the newspapers that he would suspend standing orders and introduce a private member's bill that would toughen standards for union leaders. As such, an article appeared in that day's Australian newspaper. Later in the day, Mr Abbott gave an interview where he again repeated that there would be legislation introduced. Was legislation introduced? No. Did we hear any more? No. All stunts, no substance. Now that the bill has finally been presented, it is being dressed up as necessary in the public interest. Naturally, if there were significant public interest, there would have at least been a handful of submissions in support of this bill. How many were there? Two. Yes, just two. For all their yelling and screaming, for all the abuse that those opposite are hurling at hardworking Australians who want to be members of a union, all that abuse has led to only two submissions in support of the bill.

And from where, you might ask? The first was from the Liberals' friends at the Institute of Public Affairs. The second was from the Liberal state government of New South Wales. In his submission, the New South Wales industrial relations minister admitted that New South Wales's own legislation provides penalties far lower than those prescribed in this bill. If there were some overwhelming public interest then I would have thought there would have been more than just a couple of submissions in support of this bill, that there would have been thousands of people lining up to have a swipe at the employees and officials of registered organisations. Or is it just those opposite that seek to demonise the employees and officials of trade unions and employee groups? It just shows how out of touch the Liberals are—

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Urquhart, I remind you of the standing order 193, not to impugn improper motives on members opposite.

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It just shows how out of touch the Liberals are on workplace relations. They are a policy-free zone with Senator Abetz holding watch and only pushing stunts like this bill without seeking to make a positive contribution on how we in this place can make the lives of working Australians better. Australians know in their hearts of hearts that those opposite want to bring back the worst of their Work Choices industrial relations system. There is no greater threat to workers in Australia than a Liberal government. We know this from past history. The Liberals will take away unfair dismissal protections for millions of Australian workers, ensure that key terms and conditions such as penalty rates, public holiday pay and overtime are removed, not protected or otherwise undermined leading to increased job and income insecurity, and allow for 'take it or leave it' individual contracts with no negotiation and no real protections leading to increased job and income insecurity.

Australians will not be fooled. Australians know that those opposite have put Work Choices on ice. They refuse to seriously engage in workplace relations, hoping to sneak into government and a little way down the track start clawing back the rights of working Australians to collectively bargain. Those opposite have put Work Choices on ice but Australians will not be fooled. Australians can see right through Senator Abetz's plea of a few weeks back when he said Work Choices went too far. Senator Abetz, the millions of Australians whose livelihoods were thrown up in the air by Work Choices know you went too far and they are rightly worried. They are worried that there are many in the coalition who share the same view of unions as the organisation who owns the Sanitarium company, and that is the Seventh-day Adventists.

The Sanitarium factory in regional New South Wales sources most of its labour locally from within the church if possible. But not all the workers came from within the church. Due to the poor wages and conditions at the factory, these workers wanted to join the union. They wanted to discuss a fairer deal for their day's work. The company would not negotiate. When the union brought the matter to arbitration, Sanitarium's HR representative refused to talk to the union and would only speak through their lawyer. Why? you might ask. A story that ran in the local newspaper tells that story. The owners of the Sanitarium company said to the local newspaper that unions were the tools of Satan. They believe that Satan is controlling workers when they come together to discuss and bargain for decent conditions at work. The workers just wanted a fair go.

Australians know that bills like this are just stunts and mirages to hide the lack of detailed workplace relations policy available from those opposite. They know that all the negativity, all the hyperbole and all the lack of policy detail from Senator Abetz is just a cover until the election. We do not hear the shadow minister for employment providing ideas and policies on how to lift employment in Australia, how to prepare Australians for work or how to care for them if they are injured at work. For a party that goes to any lengths and takes every opportunity to criticise the government's workplace relations policy, either the opposition are all talk and no action or they are deceiving the Australian public about their policy intentions in this space. Either way, it is a dishonest and dishonourable approach.

Contrast that against the positive policies and the positive outcomes we have seen in workplaces across Australia as a result of this Labor government. We have more Australians in work than ever before in our nation's history. Over 11½ million Australians are in work today. Nine hundred thousand jobs have been created since Labor came to office. Productivity is up and industrial disputes are down. This is in contrast to the rest of the world, where many developed economies have shed jobs and unemployment remains in double digits.

Those opposite love talking people down for highlighting Australia's place in the world. We do not do it to gloat. We do it because it is a fact and all Australians should be proud of it. Together we are putting in place the right policy mix to grow jobs and support families—the right policy mix to support creating and protecting jobs for Australians. It is a policy mix that also values quality wages and conditions at work and respects workers.

What we on this side of the chamber believe in is clear. We know that there are pockets of the Australian economy, of our communities, where there are challenges and jobs growth is not what we would like. That is why we are investing $1 billion in a plan for Australian jobs. It is why we are building the National Broadband Network and delivering on a plan for school improvement. It is why there are trade training centres and the National Workforce Development Fund across the entire country: to give our young people the skill set they need to enter the workforce and to give older Australians the opportunity to retrain and start a new job. It is why we are taking up the challenge to lift the superannuation guarantee from nine to 12 per cent. It is why we have introduced the low-income superannuation contribution: to effectively refund the tax paid by low-income earners on their superannuation by up to $500 per annum. It is a policy which, at its core, delivers on the value of fairness. It is a policy which assists 30 per cent of the workforce, 3½ million Australians—over two million of them women—to save for their retirement. It is a policy which those opposite have committed to the rubbish bin. It is why we passed the Fair Work Act, why we ridded this nation of Australian workplace agreements and why we started the journey of returning fairness to Australian workplaces for our workers.

The vast majority of Australians regard a strong and stable safety net, flexibility and fairness, unfair dismissal protections and conditions like penalty rates as standards in the workplace. Many people that I speak to in Tasmania are very worried about the prospect of a Liberal government and Senator Abetz as minister for employment and workplace relations. They know that those opposite are in the minority who, while they are not vocalising their support for it today, are champing at the bit to get back into office and make changes to Australia's industrial relations system. They want to make changes like wiping the low-income super contribution, like limiting access to unfair dismissal and like limiting access of trade unions to worksites. These are changes that defy logic because they are changes to a system that is delivering solid productivity improvements, decent conditions at work and historically low industrial disputes. They are changes that do not increase opportunities, do not create safer workplaces and do not lift the living standards of working Australians. In contrast, the challenge Labor seizes is: how do we build upon this system to deliver more opportunities for work and how do we deliver greater fairness and equity.

That is why we are progressing further reforms to improve the jobs and security of Australian workers: better protecting pregnant workers; providing more flexibility for workers who need it by expanding the right to request flexible work arrangements; dealing with bullying at work by restoring productive working relationships; requiring employers to consider the impact on their employees' families when they do things like change working hours and rosters; introducing a right to request part-time work when a parent returns to work after taking unpaid parental leave; and ensuring penalty rates are protected through the modern award system so that people who have to work undesirable hours are compensated for missing valuable time with their friends and family.

On this side, we want to talk about fairness in employment and industrial relations. We want to spend time promoting positive reforms, not tarring over two million Australians and their families with a brush because they want to collectively organise and negotiate for decent conditions at work. Workers like those used to work at the fish factory in George Town, in the north of Tasmania. It was a small fishery and processing facility. I, as an organiser, was approached by some of the staff to come along and speak to the whole team. When we in the old Food Preservers Union approached the management to come along they were helpful. They invited us in, got the workers together in the lunch room and made us feel welcome. The workers at the processing facility were predominantly women, all of them employed on a casual basis; the few men around were all permanent. With permanency came security but also a sense of superiority. We spoke to the staff about joining the union and people seemed positive. We left them some information and told them we would come back the next week to talk again to those who wanted to join the union. We thought we had had a good hearing and that we would be able to offer these people support.

Unfortunately—and many people listening will know where this story is going—when we left, the boss got everyone together in the lunchroom and said that if they joined the union they would lose their job. Plain and simple: they would lose their job. Two women who were silent members of the union called and told us what had happened. They were worried for their jobs. A week later, we went back to the factory and talked to the people again. This time, no one was interested—publicly. However, the silent members called again and arranged for us to meet with a group of the workers.

We met with the women at one of their homes. They told us of the shenanigans that went on in their workplace; one-way shenanigans towards the female workers by the men, and some stuff that some people might not think of it as wrong but as larrikinism. But there were a lot of acts that any reasonable person would frame as assault and dangerous. The workers would be hosing down at the end of the day. One day one of the men was cleaning down in his underwear. He repeatedly turned the hose on the women, who were just going about their job, spraying them with a high-powered hose. The lunch room at the factory had a large window overlooking the rest of the site. The workers would have lunch at staggered intervals. The men would be having their lunch, no doubt having a banter as well, and they would often bare their backsides, or their fronts, directly at the women who were still working in the factory.

At the factory, there were only shared toilets; that is, a number of cubicles in a room. One more than one occasion, some of the men would force themselves into the bathroom cubicle while one of the women was in there. It was a sick and twisted game to intimidate the female workers. One day, it got out of hand: one of the men forced his way into the cubicle and the woman was able to fight him off but was injured, with visible bruising on her arms. She told me that she spoke to her husband when she got home that night. His first reaction was: 'Who is this bloke? I'm going to rip his head off.' This was a desperate reaction from someone without the means to resolve disputes through negotiation. The second reaction was: 'But you have to go to work tomorrow because we need the money.' This woman, this family and all of these workers had no choice but to put up with this behaviour.

We asked them, 'Why didn't you raise these matters with the supervisor?' Their simple replies were, 'We couldn't, he was one of the men involved.' They had no recourse on their own, but they wanted to join the union. They wanted to join the union so that together they could make a change at their workplace. So we set up a picket outside the factory. We went to the Industrial Relations Commission, where we were able to run an argument for these women and to lay down the facts. The commissioner found that there was clear evidence that the workers wanted to join a union, that they had been discriminated against and that they should be protected. The commissioner enforced a code of conduct for the factory management and gave the female workers in particular comfort that there were avenues for recourse if they needed to go down that path in the future.

Clearly, power structures exist across a range of situations, across a range of work sites and across a range of organisations. It was untrue in this situation in George Town that there was a mentality or a value set whereby anyone could walk into their boss' office, raise issues of concern and they would be treated fairly. And it is untrue for many millions of Australians today. Unions are the staff, they are the workers joining together to give themselves some bargaining power, to give themselves some cover. If there had been a union at this factory providing a mechanism for the workers to raise issues and to be listened to fairly, some of the incidents may not have happened the second, third or 10th time; in fact, they may not have happened at all.

What will this bill do for these people? It will do nothing. It is not designed to help them. It is designed to demonise working Australians. I do not condone officers of registered organisations or anyone in a position of trust acting inappropriately, misusing trust or funds or taking benefits which they are not entitled to. But there are already significant penalties available through the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 and provisions that allow for further criminal prosecution. Australians want positive ideas and solutions from their government on how to grow jobs and create safer workplaces. Labor understands this. That is why we are committed to ongoing positive reforms to improve the jobs and security of Australian workers.

10:11 am

Photo of Michaelia CashMichaelia Cash (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration) Share this | | Hansard source

In rising to contribute to the debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012, the question that needs to be asked is: why is it that a coalition senator has had to take it upon himself to introduce a private senator's bill to improve the accountability and transparency of organisations registered under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009? That includes not just trade unions but employer groups as well.

It is patently obvious to anybody in this debate that the answer is a very simple one. It is because the Labor Party cannot. They just cannot—or they just will not. There is a good reason for that. When you look at the biographies of those Labor senators on the other side it is patently clear that not only do they represent the union movement in this place, they basically are the union movement. I believe that almost each one of those who are in this place as Labor senators have held senior offices in the union movement before coming to this place. You only need to look at Minister Shorten to understand why the Labor government refuses to take further steps to ensure the accountability and transparency of the union movement. Minister Shorten, by his behaviour in relation to the goings-on of the unions, believes still that he is a union official first and a minister of the Crown, a very, very distant second. You only had to listen to the speech of the previous senator in her contribution on this debate. It was almost a carbon copy of the speech that was given by the member for Greenway when she spoke on this bill in the other place. You would have thought that, as a proud union boss who says that she was proud to stand up for the workers, the senator may have taken the time to write her own speech on this matter instead of quite literally coming into this place and peddling the lines and the rhetoric that were clearly provided to her by the minister's office.

Those of us on this side do believe in true accountability and true transparency. That is why we have taken it upon ourselves to introduce this legislation which, if it is passed, will have the effect of giving further protection to the thousands of good, decent members who belong to these organisations. How will it do that? It will strengthen the financial disclosure rules. I cannot see how anybody could argue with that. It will enshrine higher duties for officers, union bosses; I cannot see how anybody can argue with that. It also will increase penalties to provide a genuine deterrent against misuse of position and power.

There is no comparison between the penalties under the registered organisations act and those currently under the Corporations Act, because the penalties that company directors face in the event that they misuse shareholders' money far outweigh the meagre penalties that a union boss faces if he or she wants to blatantly rip off the workers. For the union bosses $10,200 is the maximum penalty. This has recently gone up from $6,600. Compare this with a fine in excess of $200,000 for a company director or, as the previous speaker alluded to, actually going to jail. There is no comparison at all in relation to what is similar behaviour. Whether you are blatantly ripping off the workers, as union bosses have been proven to do, or you are taking money from shareholders, both behaviours are completely and utterly inappropriate and both behaviours should be subject to the same penalties.

I would challenge anybody in this place to stand here today and put on the record why a union boss who wants to use union members' funds for prostitutes or to fund his salacious lifestyle should be subject to a lesser penalty than a company director who rips off the shareholders. Why does one person face a fine, a maximum penalty that has only just been increased to $10,200, and the other person face the potential of going to jail? That is completely inconsistent. Unlike those on the other side, we are not going to lower the standard. We are not going to say, 'Let us change the Corporations Law and let us make the penalties faced by those company directors who do the wrong thing the same as those faced by union officials.' We say, 'No, let's increase the penalties faced by union officials who do the wrong thing to ensure that they properly align with what company directors who do a similar thing or the same thing are facing themselves.'

Those on the other side are happy to say one thing—and they will in their contributions to this debate today—and then do another. The coalition by this legislation is saying to the people of Australia, the hardworking members of unions and employer groups who do nothing more than front up to work on a daily basis, work for their eight or nine hours, go home and live a decent life, that, 'Unlike the Labor Party, we are not going to condone your union bosses ripping you off.' But the Labor Party cannot say that, because they are owned by the unions and we all know the unions financially contribute to them. We will not condone union bosses treating the workers with that type of contempt. We will not condone union bosses taking the workers' money and treating it inappropriately as if it were their own. We on this side of the chamber with this legislation are saying that if it is found to have occurred—and it certainly was found to have occurred last year in relation to some of those who run unions in Australia—the courts should have the ability to hold those people accountable and in doing so the courts should also have the ability to impose similar penalties to those faced by company directors if they breach the law. We are saying nothing more and nothing less.

This bill is a real test for those on the other side who will stand up in this debate and say: 'We want to stand up for the workers. We are the only party in Australia that stands up for the workers.' Then they will tell you, as the previous speaker did, that the penalties are sufficient and that a maximum fine of $10,200 is sufficient punishment for someone who steals hundreds of thousands of dollars from hardworking union members to fund their own lifestyle, and unfortunately we know that last year that meant using the services of prostitutes. The Labor Party will say, 'That$10,200 is sufficient punishment,' but then will say on the other hand, 'If a company director is found guilty by the courts of taking money from shareholders, you should hang them.' It is probably the one time the Labor Party will stand up and say you should bring back the death penalty because sending them to jail is not good enough, making them liable for a penalty in excess of $220,000 is not good enough. But it is good enough for a union boss who blatantly rips off the workers not to have to face jail, not to have to face a fine heading towards $220,000. It is good enough for a union boss to face a maximum fine of $10,200 under this piece of legislation. So you can rip the workers off, you can rip them off blindly to any extent that you like, because the good news is that under Labor the only fine you are going to pay is $10,200. You might say it is almost worthwhile.

The coalition do not say that and that is why we are proudly standing in this place and saying that we will stand up for the workers. We do not condone that type of behaviour. We do not condone it if a company director does it and we certainly do not condone it if a union boss or official does it. We will support accountability and transparency. The feedback we have received is that the majority of officers of registered organisations support this, because they know that if they are not in breach of the law they have absolutely nothing to fear at all from what this bill proposes. It is like any one of us: if we comply with the law, we need not fear a penalty that may be able to be applied in the event that we breach the law. But that is just not good enough for the Labor Party. The behaviour of Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson is, quite frankly, yet again a classic example of the age-old maxim, 'Nothing is too good for the representative of the worker', especially when you have the ability to put your dirty little paws into the workers' funds and rob them blind to support your lifestyle. That is not something that the coalition will support.

What is so offensive in this bill that it cannot be supported by those on the other side? One of the provisions of the bill is that it will increase penalties for breaches of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. The current penalty under that act is $10,200. All we are proposing by this legislation is that, if you breach the law—and by breaching the law the examples given are obviously what occurred last year in relation to a number of unions around Australia, where, yes, they did rob the workers blind—the penalty should be increased so it is more closely aligned with those contained in the Corporations Act 2001, where you have a maximum criminal penalty of $220,000 and/or five years imprisonment. Up to five years imprisonment is a very serious penalty and it has certainly been imposed by the court. That is all we are saying in the first instance: let's make sure the fines for similar behaviour are the same.

It is not as if the unions do not have money. It is not as if we are saying, 'Companies, because they have lots of money, should be subject to different penalties.' In that regard I refer to the evidence given by the Institute of Public Affairs in their submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill. This is what the Institute of Public Affairs had to say:

Unions are large financial entities. For example, the 2010 financial report of the Victorian Branch of the CFMEU Construction and General Division reported net assets of $42 million. In 2011 the ANF Victorian Branch held $22 million in net assets. The NSW division of United Voice reported $25 million in net assets in 2011.

The conclusion the IPA came to was:

If these unions were classed as proprietary companies they would be considered large corporations.

It can therefore be nothing more and nothing less than in the national interest and the interests of members of registered organisations to ensure that there is an equivalent high standard set as between directors of corporations and officers of registered organisations in this regard. If, because of the number of assets that you hold, you would be considered a large corporation, why is it that those on the other side stand up in this place and defend the imposition of what is a completely, totally and utterly paltry penalty when you compare it to the penalty that a court is able to impose for similar behaviour by company directors who breach the Corporations Act? There is no answer to that question.

The coalition's proposed changes to the law will be a genuine deterrent to those who do the wrong thing. They will also provide additional duties for officers of registered organisations and improve standards of governance by requiring them to act in good faith and make it an offence to use a position to achieve a personal financial gain. Again, I would be genuinely interested for those on the other side to stand up and say why they are opposed to a change in the law that will provide additional duties for officers of registered organisations and will improve standards of governance by requiring them to act in good faith—I would have thought that was blindingly obvious; that someone in charge of someone else's money should act in good faith—and make it an offence to use a position to achieve a personal financial gain. Again, I personally would have thought that that was blindingly obvious. If a union member pays money to the union, the person in charge of that money should not be allowed to take the money and use it for their own benefit, as has now been proven to have occurred on a number of occasions—in particular, over the last 12 months.

Our bill also proposes higher penalties for failing to lodge proper financial statements with Fair Work Australia. Again, I genuinely do not understand how those on the other side could condone the lodging of incorrect financial statements by union officials. What we have seen in the past is that some unions take years to lodge their financial statements with Fair Work Australia. Why? If a company director has to lodge a company's financial statement under the Corporations Act in a timely fashion, what is wrong with changing the law to ensure that a union official who is dealing with someone else's money has to comply with the law and provide the financial statements of that union to Fair Work Australia in a timely fashion?

Again, it is all about transparency and accountability—nothing more and nothing less. If you support transparency and accountability, it is only logical that you will support the provisions of this bill. For those who want to say that this is nothing more or nothing less than the coalition defending big business, I have already said that if a company director breaches the Corporations Act and the court finds them guilty and they are sentenced to jail, we are very happy that that is an appropriate sentence—nothing more and nothing less.

In the same respect, why is it that those on the other side will only support a maximum financial penalty of $10,200 for someone who does exactly the same thing? There is a complete inconsistency in the approach taken by those on the other side. Again, if you are a union boss and if you comply with the law—as the majority of them do—you have absolutely nothing to fear from this legislation. In fact, you have everything to gain because this legislation will provide a direct disincentive to union bosses who want to rip off the workers and use their money to fund their lavish lifestyle. The coalition supports transparency and accountability. (Time expired)

10:31 am

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

After some of the absurd contentions and dramatics from the other side, can I say that it is a matter of another day another stunt from those in the opposition! I should point out that I do not believe the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012 is a serious bill at all. I do not believe that this bill was crafted by those opposite with the intention of getting it passed into law. The opposition are not serious about getting crossbench support for this bill and they are not serious about having it passed. This bill has one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to beat up on the unions. I say to those opposite: if you are going to bring legislation into this place, then please stop doing it as a cheap political stunt. When you introduce legislation that is purely about making a political point, then you treat this parliament with contempt.

Government is serious work. It takes more than just a series of set piece stunts, but that is all we get day in day out from the coalition, because they are too lazy to come up with any serious policies. We know the opposition is not serious about this bill because the leaders of the opposition in both the House and the Senate, Mr Abbott and Senator Abetz, said on 26 November that they would suspend standing orders to urgently introduce the bill in both places. Mr Abbott briefed the newspapers and restated his position in a doorstop interview. Such was the urgency of getting this legislation passed, it was introduced to the Senate the following day, and to the House of Representatives—do you know when?—more than two months later, in February. So while Mr Abbott puffed up his chest about the urgency of this legislation, he could not match his words with actions. What better indication is there that this is no more than a political stunt?

Before I go into what is so fundamentally wrong with this bill, I will explain a bit about the political point the opposition is trying to make. This bill is part of a political strategy where the opposition will talk about allegations of mismanagement and corruption within the union movement. The idea is to plant a seed in the public's mind that this behaviour is widespread throughout the union movement. They will then point to the fact that we oppose this bill as some kind of evidence that we are not serious about tackling corruption or financial mismanagement within the union movement, when nothing could be further from the truth. It is just another example of dog whistle politics from an opposition that will say anything and do anything to get into government—that is, except for developing serious policy.

We saw this worn-out tactic tried during the 2007 federal election with ads attacking our 'union dominated front bench', as if there is something wrong with representing workers and being part of the largest grassroots social justice movement in Australia. Embarrassingly, they even gave the title 'ex-union officials' to Mr Wayne Swan and Mr Craig Emerson, at the time two shadow ministers who had never worked for a union. During the 2007 campaign, a video was produced by Manic Studios which provided an excellent parody of the kinds of scare tactics used by the Liberal Party. It was titled How to make a scare campaign, Liberal Party style.

The instructions outlined in the video were: first, find some deeply disturbing music with threatening undertones; continue this throughout the commercial because it lends a subliminal sense of menace and foreboding. Next, find a voice that is male, deep, paternal and speaks at a hypnotic pace. Find photographs of your subject that show them in the most unflattering light; make them black and white and grainy to further enhance the menace. Introduce red, the colour of alarm, into all your backgrounds. Repeat terms laden with dark meaning—'heavies', 'thugs', 'union bosses', 'takeover', 'domination'! I quite like this video because it highlights in a comical way the modus operandi of the Liberal-National coalition when they try to demonise the union movement and, by extension, the Labor Party.

Of course we see this kind of campaign continuing in a subtle way with the coalition jumping like a pack of ravenous hyenas on every allegation of improper behaviour within a union. Yet, you have to wonder why we hear so little from those opposite when it comes to corporate law standards. Where is the outrage when the Australian Securities and Investments Commission successfully prosecutes company directors? Over the last 10 years to 30 June 2012, as was mentioned by my colleague Senator Urquhart, ASIC has completed 2,454 court proceedings and secured 385 criminal convictions, 212 of which included prison sentences. But we do not hear a peep out of those opposite about instances of fraud, misappropriation and corruption within corporations—and why not?—because it does not suit their political purposes.

Well, contrary to the picture the opposition would like to paint, Labor are very serious about the accountability of registered organisations to their members. We are very serious about the proper conduct of officers of registered organisations on whom the members rely for the proper management of their membership dues to advance their interests. It is this Labor government which introduced substantial amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act to improve the accountability of registered organisations, including unions. It is this government which acted to appoint an administrator to the Health Services Union. These are not the actions of a government that takes the accountability of unions lightly.

Registered organisations already have a number of clear and strict obligations. These obligations, and the associated penalties, were developed through consultation with both trade unions and employer organisations. The act requires officials to act in good faith and exercise due care and diligence in their work. It prohibits members' money being used to favour candidates, internal elections or campaigns.

The 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. It allows for criminal proceedings to be initiated if funds are stolen or obtained by fraud and also ensures that Fair Work Australia can share information with the police as appropriate. There are significant penalties for breaches of the act. In fact, last year our amendments to the registered organisations act saw the penalties triple.

Under the Gillard Labor government the financial accountability standards for registered organisations have never been higher, the powers of the Fair Work Commission have never been stronger and the penalties have never been tougher. Yet, despite this, the opposition introduced this ridiculous bill into the House and the Senate. This bill is no more than a solution looking for a problem.

This has been such a huge issue for the public that a whopping seven—yes, seven, Madam Acting Deputy President—submissions were received by the inquiry into this bill. Could there be any better indication that this bill is motivated by no more than a political stunt than the fact that only seven organisations were actually interested enough to comment on it? Not even the Australian public think that the opposition is serious about passing this bill.

Of those seven submissions only two support the bill. One was from the Institute of Public Affairs, which we all know is a right-wing think tank whose views are not to be taken seriously on any policy matter and is not even a registered organisation. The IPA supported tougher penalties, yet had nothing to say about the effectiveness of changes to the registered organisations act introduced by the government last year.

The other submission was from the New South Wales government—the New South Wales government whose own legislation does not include penalties at the level proposed in this bill. What a joke! It begs the question: who are the coalition actually responding to when they put forward this legislation other than some focus groups or internal polling? Who have they actually consulted on this legislation? Even employer organisations do not support this bill. That is right, Madam Acting Deputy President—even employer organisations do not support this bill. Both the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group in their submissions recognised that there has not been time to assess the government's 2012 amendments. In fact, some of our amendments are yet to take effect. ACCI and the AiG believe that any changes at this stage would be premature.

The stated purpose of this bill is to align obligations and penalties of registered organisations with those of corporations. The problem with this approach is that unions and corporations are entirely different types of entities. A corporation exists to generate wealth and to advance the interests of its shareholders. A registered organisation is established to look after its members and to advance their interests at work, including fair pay and conditions, health and safety, and a variety of other industrial rights.

The fact is different types of organisations are subject to different regulatory regimes—a fact acknowledged in the coalition's own dissenting report to the inquiry. If we are going to start treating corporations as being the same as registered organisations then what about charities, unincorporated associations or partnerships? Should companies like Telstra or Rio Tinto, for example, be subject to the same regulations as charities like St Vincent de Paul or partnerships like your local store? This makes no more sense to me than those corporations being subject to the same regulations as a union like the Australian Services Union, for which I very proudly worked for over a decade looking after the working rights and interests of Australian people. Should they be subjected to the same regulations?

It is not just the purpose and operation of corporations and registered organisations that make them different. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations noted in its submission that, unlike directors of corporations, who in most cases are remunerated for their work, many officers of registered organisations perform the role voluntarily and not on a full-time basis. In evidence given to the Senate inquiry into our changes to the registered organisations act last year, concerns were raised by employer organisations that if penalties were increased or criminal penalties were imposed then they would find it difficult to attract qualified people to volunteer to be officers and employees of their own organisations. When you look through the coalition's dissenting report into the inquiry into this bill, there is no explanation as to why these entities need to be treated in the same way. I am yet to hear this explanation in the contribution of those opposite or in their public statements.

We know that the majority of union officials act honestly and in good faith. In a small number of cases where they have not, this government has taken firm actions. Our changes last year to the registered organisations act have strengthened the enforcement and penalties for officials of registered organisations who breach their duties. Those changes have the support of both employer and employee organisations, whereas both groups are opposed to this bill.

Like I said before, the bill is a solution looking for a problem. It is a political stunt and a shameless political tactic. We have been waiting five years for the coalition to come up with a workplace relations policy other than Work Choices and they come up with this. The fact is the coalition do not want to talk about the real issues in workplace relations. They are pretty quick to have a whack at the trade unions for the sake of political expediency, but we never hear them speak about the rights and conditions of working Australians.

When it comes to true workplace relations policy, those opposite seem to go into hiding. When they finally release their workplace relations policy are they going to adopt their previous form? Are we going to see the removal of penalty rates, overtime and public holiday pay? Are we going to see further attacks on unfair dismissal protections for millions of Australians? Are we going to see statutory individual agreements?

It is, and always has been, the Australian Labor Party that stands up for working Australians. We have created over 900,000 jobs since coming to government. We have legislated to boost the superannuation guarantee from nine to 12 per cent. We have cut income taxes, putting more pay in the pockets of Australian workers. We have increased productivity and kept the economy growing through the global financial crisis. We have increased the childcare rebate to 50 per cent and expanded jobs, education and training childcare fee assistance. We have introduced Australia's first national Paid Parental Leave scheme allowing parents to spend more time with their newborn children.

I am really proud to have worked for the Australian Services Union because they were the union that brought the social and community services equal pay case to the government. We supported that, providing a pay increase to 150,000 workers. We have torn up Work Choices and introduced the Fair Work Act, restoring the rights and entitlements for millions of Australian workers. Through the Fair Work Act we reinstated for 2.8 million workers the unfair dismissal protections that had been taken away by the Howard government. We reinstated the basic safety net and the right to collective bargaining. We have introduced other rights for workers such as the right for a parent to request part-time work when they return to work after taking unpaid parental leave and an expanded right for workers to request flexible working arrangements.

If the opposition want to see an example of what a government does when it is standing up for the rights of workers, including members of unions, then they can look to this Gillard Labor government's list of achievements. These achievements were made through hard work and serious legislation. All the opposition can come up with is cheap political stunts like the bill we are debating today. From the absolute absurd comments of the previous speaker we know that this is nothing more than a political stunt. The first question that the previous speaker asked was, 'Why is it up to a coalition senator to bring this bill to this place?' That is because it is just a cheap political stunt. It is just a circus. They have no idea. They would not really defend workers' rights. We know that they will go back to Work Choices, we know they will take away penalty rates, we know they will try and cut leave, we know that they will not make the lives of working Australians any more comfortable than they are at the minute. In fact, we know that they would make their whole lives worse.

We also think it is fairly ironic that the coalition senators on the committee that was reviewing a bill in the same terms as this said that the amendments were needed in the national interest. Give me a break. If you were really concerned about the national interest you would come up with some policies, you would come up with some ideas, you would not be putting up these political stunts that basically waste time. Yesterday I heard huge debates from those on the other side about time wasting in this place and today we have this private member's bill from those opposite which is not going to go anywhere. We all know it. Last November we had Mr Abbott puffing up his chest, getting all excited about how important this was and saying what a matter of urgency it was but here we are in March and it has finally come to the table.

I will just say in my concluding comments that we know that those opposite are out of touch when it comes to workplace relations. We expect that they will bring forward bills like this and we expect that in the next election we will see more of what we saw in the 2007 election with dramatic advertisements trying to scare the people. That is what they are about. They are so negative. They just want to scare the Australian people. They think if they say these things often enough that people will believe them. It is a tactic. That is all it is. It is a circus and I think this is one of the most atrocious things I have seen in my nearly five years in this place.

10:49 am

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

There are lessons to be learned in this place all the time. Sometimes you actually do not need to try and take your full 20 minutes, particularly when your written speeches run out. The coalition has introduced a private member's bill to improve the accountability and transparency of organisations registered under the Fair Work Act 2009, trade unions and employer groups. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012 will, if passed, improve protection for the hundreds and thousands of members who belong to these organisations by strengthening the financial disclosure rules, enshrining higher duties for officers and increasing penalties to provide a genuine deterrent against the misuse of position and power.

One asks the obvious question: in light of what we have seen over the last 12 to 18 months, why wouldn't the Australian Labor Party support a bill that would strengthen financial disclosure rules, enshrine higher duties for officers and increase penalties to provide a genuine deterrent against the misuse of position and power? What possibly could motivate those opposite to not support it?

I think I might have found the answer. I was having a look through the list of ALP senators this morning. Numbers have been union officials and political staffers but not union officials. They have heads on them like mice. Indeed, I think you, Madam Acting Deputy President Stephens, might be the only one who has not been in those categories. What a remarkable coincidence, Madam Acting Deputy President. I will go through it to get it on the record. How many Labor senators have been union officials—24?

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Me and proud.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, we know. Don't fess up again, it will do you no good. How many have been political staffers but not union officials? Six have been both and five have never been.

I want to talk about some comments from Mr Paul Howes in relation to what is required. I am looking forward to Senator Thistlethwaite and Senator Ludwig, who are both AWU union officials, joining on this side in solidarity for Mr Howes because of course they cannot do anything else other than that. I know that you have all marched up and down streets and chanted 'Workers united will never be divided'.

Government senators: Defeated!

Defeated? Okay. I have a new slogan for you: 'A party divided will never be united'. I tell you what, you are an absolute joke. I want you to march up and down the streets and chant that new slogan: 'A party divided will never be united'. What an absolute joke!

We now know why this has been introduced. While we are talking about division, I watched with interest today Mr Graham Perrett from the other side. He was asked about the quite remarkable comments of Joel Fitzgibbon, the Chief Government Whip in the other place. Mr Perrett said:

Obviously the Whip, there can be no gap between the Whip and the Prime Minister. The Whip has the Prime Minister's back. You know, Joel is an honourable man. He's a good friend of mine, a great defence minister in his time.

I think there might be some different views about that, but anyway—

Today, today we need him to have the Prime Minister's back. If he can't do that, if he can't be loyal to the boss, well, he should resign. Okay?

REPORTER: Has he been disloyal?

GRAHAM PERRETT: Well, if he can't be 100 per cent loyal to the Prime Minister, he can't draw a wage as the Whip obviously. He needs to get on with the job of looking after the Prime Minister's back. That's what he's paid for and if he's not doing that after five o'clock today, well then obviously he needs to look at his situation.

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What's this got to do with the bill?

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Well Mr Fitzgibbon, on behalf of Mr Rudd, is very clearly looking at the Prime Minister's back—there is no doubt about that—

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

but he is most certainly not protecting the Prime Minister's back. I was Chief Government Whip for three years, and I can only imagine what the response of former Prime Minister Howard would have been if I was out there talking down—

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Bilyk has completed reading her speech—

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And you interjected. You didn't mind interjecting at all!

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Bilyk! Senator Williams is on his feet.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I said, Senator Bilyk has completed reading her speech and I ask you to ask her to stop interjecting so we can all listen to this very interesting speech by Senator Ronaldson.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I remind all senators that calling across the chamber is unparliamentary.

Senator Williams interjecting

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think he liked my speech too.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I didn't actually. In fact, there was not much I liked about it at all.

We have a divided federal government where, remarkably, the chief whip is attacking the Prime Minister of this country. And even in relation to the responsibilities of the trade union movement, we have division. I referred to Mr Paul Howes before. I want to read a quote from Mr Howes. He has stood up and actually backed moves for tougher penalties for union bosses who misuse members' funds, stating:

I actually believe there is a higher responsibility for us as guardians of workers' money to protect that money and to act diligently and honestly.

The reality is I do not have any issue—

I will repeat that—

I do not have any issue with increasing the level of requirements and penalties on trade unions for breaching basic ethics like misappropriation of funds.

Interestingly, it is reported that at the AWU annual conference, Mr Howes said:

Unions should be held to a higher account than the corporate sector and there should be 'zero tolerance' for corruption.

As we know, this bill will increase penalties for breaches of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. It will provide additional duties for officers of registered organisations. It will improve standards of governance. It will provide higher penalties for failing to lodge proper financial statements with Fair Work Australia. It will provide new penalties for those who breach those laws.

What we need to do in the debate on this bill is to see who is talking the talk and see who is walking the walk. This bill, introduced by my colleague Senator Abetz, is walking the walk in relation to protection of workers from union officials who seek to deprive them and misappropriate their funds. Those opposite, and we have heard the speeches today, are talking the talk but will not walk the walk. I go back and look at the disgraceful behaviour of Mr Thomson from the other place and the behaviour of Mr Michael Williamson, who, from recollection, was a national president or deputy national president—one or the other. And those opposite have the gall to come in here and talk the talk but will they walk the walk on behalf of the union members who have been exploited by Mr Thomson and others?

When you have a political party such as the Australian Labor Party, of whom virtually all are former union officials or staffers, how can you possibly come in here and oppose a bill such as this? I invite those opposite to reflect on Mr Thomson's behaviour and I invite those opposite to reflect on the alleged misappropriation of funds by Mr Thomson that has led to some 142 charges, from recollection.

When you come in here and talk the talk, how about you start walking the walk in relation to some of the lowest paid people in this country—people who are cleaning hospitals, cleaning toilets, cleaning bathrooms, cleaning bedpans? They are some of the lowest paid people in this country, and you are walking away from them. You walk away from them in relation to Mr Thomson. You walked away from them with your protection of him until it became completely untenable for you to continue that. I will give you some quotes from the Prime Minister soon. You know, I know and the Australian community knows that you should have walked away well before then. And we know that what was being done during that period of time was the reinforcement of the greatest protection racket we have ever seen in this country—a protection racket protecting those who are ripping off the lowest paid workers in this country. How can those opposite, as union officials, stand by and watch that sort of behaviour? How could you possibly let down the people you ostensibly represent in that way? How could you possibly do it to them?

Those opposite have a choice to make today. You stop the likes of Mr Thomson—and I do not think the two Labor senators opposite, whom I will not name, support treatment of workers like that. If indeed that is correct—I will not embarrass you by mentioning your names—then how can you possibly vote against this bill?

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! I remind you to address your remarks through the chair.

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I am sorry. Through you: how can those two senators opposite, whom I will not name and who I believe are decent, genuine people, possibly vote against this bill in light of what has happened? It is utterly beyond me. I think it shows that the protection racket that has been run by this government to protect senior union officials is clear evidence that there is an unholy alliance between the trade union movement and the Australian Labor Party. It has now meant that the rights of workers in this country and the obligation of those opposite to protect them have been completely abrogated. They have abrogated their responsibility to those men and women whom they say they represent. If they are serious about wiping out the behaviour of the likes of Mr Thomson then they will indeed support this bill.

Senator Bilyk made some comments about the comments of the coalition members and the comments in the dissenting report. I have already said Mr Howes believes that there is even greater obligation on unions than there is on the corporate sector. I will repeat his quote. Mr Howes told the AWU annual conference:

… unions should be held to a higher account than the corporate sector and there should be "zero tolerance" for corruption.

I do not for one minute think that the Australian community believes that Mr Thomson's behaviour was anything other than corrupt. I would find it hard to believe that those opposite would think that the misappropriation of those funds as alleged was anything other than corrupt. Mr Howes believes there is a greater obligation on the union movement even than there is on the corporate sector.

The coalition said:

… in relation to the discharge of duties – that the same responsibilities should apply to a union boss as to a company boss. At present this is not the case, for example:

Mr Smith is the CEO of The Book Corporation and is found to have misused $50,000 of shareholders' money in contravention of his duties to the Corporation and its membership in an intentionally dishonest manner under the Corporations Act 2001.

I note that was introduced by the coalition, so so much for this notion that we do not believe the corporate world has the same obligations as unions and others. We are the ones who introduced this legislation. As for this notion that we are there to protect the corporate sector while attacking the union sector—'beating up' as Senator Bilyk said—maybe the corporate sector thought we were beating up on them when we introduced this bill in 2001, when we introduced a bill which imposed significant penalties on people who were not doing the right thing, where we imposed significant penalties on those who were misusing company and shareholder funds. They may well have thought we were beating up on them. We were not. We were requiring of them a level of responsibility and an obligation to use the funds that they hold appropriately. This bill is doing exactly the same thing. So, rather than beating up on the unions, over 10 years ago we actually introduced legislation in relation to the corporate sector to ensure that they did the right thing.

I will go on with this report:

Under section 184 of the Corporations Act 2001, Mr Smith could be subject to a maximum fine of 2,000 penalty units and five years' imprisonment as well as further civil and criminal offences i.e. fraud.

I read on from the dissenting report:

If Mr Smith is the Secretary of the Bookkeepers Union and is found to have misused $50,000 of union members' money in contravention of his duties to that union and its membership in an intentionally dishonest manner under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009, Mr Smith would not be liable for any criminal penalty but may be liable for further civil and criminal offences i.e. fraud.

So we have two people doing exactly the same thing, misusing funds, and one will face up to five years imprisonment and the other is not liable for any criminal penalty.

When you have the likes of Mr Michael Williamson, Mr Craig Thomson and Mr Eddie Obeid who believe the law is beneath them, that they are indeed above the law, is it not the obligation of this parliament to ensure that similar penalties apply to everyone who is misusing funds, whether they be shareholder funds or members' funds? If this were the only bill in relation to the misuse of funds then I would have some sympathy for the comments of those opposite. This bill comes 12 years after the introduction of penalties under the Corporations Act. Some would quite rightly say it should have been brought in before then.

What actually motivated this bill? What motivated it was the protection of union members' rights to have their funds protected. It was driven by the need to protect people such as some of the lowest paid workers in this country who are cleaning hospital toilets, cleaning hospital laundries, cleaning hospital floors and cleaning hospital bathrooms. They are the people who deserve protection from union officials who seek to misappropriate their funds. That union member is no different from a shareholder in a corporation who needs to be protected from those who would seek to remove their— (Time expired)

11:09 am

Photo of Lin ThorpLin Thorp (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to reject the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012 and in doing so I act in accordance with the Senate committee's recommendation that this bill not proceed. I also reject the idea that the Liberal and National parties have any genuine interest in the rights of Australian working people or the needs of the families they support. Undermining the very structures that support fair working conditions and a decent lifestyle in this country is, as always, the real motive behind this bill. It is what the coalition is all about; I am afraid, it is in the blood.

Those opposite have a callous disregard for the institutions built up through more than a century of struggle and activism that have ensured that working men and women are able to get a fair go and a chance to get ahead in modern Australia. They show no understanding of the history of the movement which has led to our modern work practices and they now seek to tear down all that has been achieved by workers, by unions and by successive Labor governments. The Liberal Party, after all, are the party of Work Choices. This bill is nothing more than an attempt by those opposite to lay the foundation stone and to pave the way back to Work Choices.

This bill is an example of the assault on workers' rights which the Australian people would have to endure if a Tony Abbott led government ever came to power in this nation. Unlike the Liberals, the Gillard Labor government has a strong track record in protecting, securing and enhancing the rights of working people. If the opposition cared about Australian workers, they would have supported this government's legislation to weed out unscrupulous sweatshop operators, who underpaid workers in the textile industry. There was no support from the opposition to extend benefits such as leave, superannuation and minimum hours of work to contracted outworkers. When these workers wanted a chance at a fair go, they stood up with their union, a registered organisation, the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union, and they made their voices heard. It was this government that listened, not those opposite. Those opposite were happy to go on ignoring their plight because the truth is they just do not care.

Perhaps if the coalition cared about the rights of Australian workers, they would have not committed to rejecting legislation that would have ensured workers were able to access their entitlements where directors have abandoned a company, under the Corporations Amendment (Phoenixing and Other Measures) Bill 2012. The coalition's opposition showed clearly that the Liberals are more interested in protecting their mates in big business by pledging to protect directors who abandon their companies rather than giving employees the ability to access their entitlements under Corporations Law.

We are only debating this bill today because last year the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Tony Abbott, overreacted to public hype and heroically pledged that he would suspend standing orders and introduce the legislation urgently. However, Mr Abbott failed to follow through on his statements, again. It is now clear the opposition leader's words were nothing more than another media stunt. Let us not pretend the opposition leader is actually interested in protecting and defending workers' rights. After all the promises to act, Mr Abbott did not introduce this bill himself nor was it introduced in the chamber in which he sits. It would be a nice change if the coalition could present the parliament with some actual policy. This bill is unnecessary, cynical and shallow. There is nothing in the current Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act that would prevent criminal proceedings being initiated when funds are stolen or when someone has engaged in fraudulent behaviour. Nor does the current legislation prevent criminal proceedings from commencing even after civil penalties have been applied in relation to the same conduct as per section 313 of the act.

Trade unions are not corporations. However, there are many similar regulations that are already in place that regulate the activity of registered organisations. For example, registered organisations are subject to legally recognised duties and obligations. The levels of financial accountability of registered organisations have never been higher than they are now under the Gillard Labor government. These organisations are already required to undertake regular reporting of their financial accounts, audits are required to sign off on the books and this is all processed in accordance with accounting standards. This is largely due to the powers of the Fair Work Commission, which have never been stronger. Penalties for those who do the wrong thing have never been tougher than they are now. In fact, the Gillard Labor government has tripled penalties for breaches to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. This means that, under the current legislation, there are already requirements in place, for registered organisations, for officers to act with care, diligence and in good faith. These requirements already act to discourage improper use of positions and improper use of information that has been obtained through the organisation.

With regard to financial accountability, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act clearly prohibits members' money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns. The Gillard government also made amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act which require office holders to disclose personal interests. For example, officers must disclose material personal interest that relates to the affairs of their organisation. This requirement extends to the officer and/or relatives of the officer, and this information must be disclosed to members of the organisation or branch.

In fact, when the Liberals claim to be enhancing the rights of workers and supporting the union movement, the Australian people ought to be very wary, because we know that policies such as Work Choices are in the Liberal Party's DNA. It goes to the core of what they are all about. Ripping off working people and doing everything they can to lower the costs of Australian labour to benefit their mates in the big end of town—this is the Liberal story. This is a history that the coalition should be ashamed of. Those opposite have consistently chosen to help out billionaire mining magnates and accept blood money from multinational tobacco giants, all at the expense of the average Australian worker. This bill is yet again another attempt to undermine Australian workers and yet again another attempt to weaken the unions that act on behalf of workers to uphold rights and to ensure fair wages and conditions.

It has always been Labor governments who have acted to restore fairness, decency and equity to our workplaces. By working together, it has been Labor governments and unions that have been able to achieve great outcomes. These initiatives include things such as Medicare, the PBS, the superannuation guarantee, occupational health and safety laws, workers compensation, enterprise bargaining, the National Employment Standards, long service leave and the age pension. This is our history. This is the history of the Australian Labor Party, and it is a history that every Labor representative and party member is very proud of. It is a history in which we have stood with Australian unions and Australian workers to ensure that no working men or women are treated unfairly or left behind. Only Labor governments have fought to ensure that fair working conditions such as penalty rates, public holiday pay and overtime will be protected. This is what the Labor Fair Work Act is all about. It is about providing a strong and stable safety net, providing a flexible and fair workplace, providing protection against unfair dismissal and upholding conditions. That is why Labor is increasing superannuation from 9 per cent to 12 per cent, and it is why Labor is working to harmonise workplace health and safety legislation, as we recognise that all Australians should be safe at work. It is why Labor has recently announced even more measures to improve the safety of Australian workers at their workplace, by introducing changes that will protect pregnant workers and workers who are experiencing workplace bullying, provide workers with a right to request part-time work when returning from unpaid parental leave, provide workers with rights with regard to flexible rosters and ensure that employers consider the impact on their employee's family when determining those rosters. These are all practical measures and they are policies that we are willing to talk about and debate in this place.

Sadly, too often, great Labor reforms which support the Australian worker are opposed by those opposite. Time and time again, coalition governments have slapped Australian workers in the face, and they will no doubt continue to do so under an Abbott government, should Mr Abbott ever become our Prime Minister. The Abbott opposition were not prepared to provide support or work proactively to solve the Grocon dispute. They stood on the sidelines and played politics, showing total disregard for the rights of Australian workers.

The bottom line is that the Gillard government has already acted to amend the registered organisations legislation. In June last year, the government acted to improve the functioning of the Fair Work Commission by enabling it to more effectively monitor, investigate and enforce the rules under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. At the same time, the Fair Work Commission was granted greater powers to monitor compliance and prosecute breaches. The Fair Work Commission is also now instructed to complete its investigations, and I quote, 'as soon as practicable'. Investigations are now able to source information from a wider range of sources, a move that has empowered the General Manager of the Fair Work Commission to share information with the police and other regulatory bodies. At this time, however, the policy-weak Liberals did not bother to make any suggestions about changes to the deregistration of union rules. This is because they genuinely do not care.

In contrast, the Gillard Labor government has a proud record of supporting workers, particularly low- and middle-income-earning Australians—decent and hardworking people who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. Take, for example, this government's commitment to funding the social and community services pay equity case. This decision affects workers who are employed under the Social, Community, Home Care and Disability Services Award, and it ensures fair pay for many thousands of people performing these vital roles across the country. This outcome has been reached because this government understands the real bread and butter issues that affect Australians because of those deep links with the trade union movement.

We understand because unions like the ASU and HACSU make sure we do. You only have to look at the recent announcement of a $300 million investment in the childcare sector bringing fair pay for early childhood educators while maintaining affordability of child care for Australian families. The government acted on this important issue because it recognised the vital role played by those responsible for providing our children with their early educational experiences. It also recognised that the low wages were leading to a workforce crisis. Childhood education centres across the country were finding it very difficult to find and retain staff. Hundreds were leaving the sector every week—not necessarily because they wanted to, but because they needed to work elsewhere to pay their bills because of the low pay they were on as childcare workers. So this is a great outcome that ensures a more stable and skilled workforce who can give our children the best start in life. I would like to acknowledge the hard work of United Voice through their Big Steps campaign in coming to this outcome.

Perhaps we should turn to the 'safe rates' laws this government passed earlier this year—once again, our commitment to a safe and decent working environment for our nation's hardworking truck drivers has been realised by working with the Transport Workers Union to achieve this reform—or perhaps the fact that, working with the Maritime Union of Australia, we have achieved stronger shipping laws in this country that will protect workers and grow the industry after years of neglect and downturn presided over by those opposite.

While the coalition senators who were on the Senate committee reviewing the bill said that the proposed amendments were 'in the national interest', only two submissions, as others of my colleagues have mentioned, supported the proposed changes.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Paul Howes was one of them, wasn't he?

Photo of Lin ThorpLin Thorp (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, not supporting. Don't you think, Mr Acting Deputy President, that if there were real public interest in the bill there would have been more people putting in submissions? I would have thought so. It is a clear display of how out of touch the Liberals are with workplace relations policy. And there is no greater threat to workers in Australia than the threat of an Abbott-led Liberal government. We know from the history of those opposite that the Liberals do not support unfair dismissal protections for millions of Australian workers.

Speaking of workplace relations policy, where is the workplace relations policy of those opposite? The coalition will go to any lengths to criticise Labor's workplace relations policy, but we know, and I think the Australian people know, they are all talk and no action. Mr Abbott is deceiving the Australian public about their policy intentions in this place, and it is quite dishonest and dishonourable. The Abbott approach is an approach that would result in poor outcomes for Australian workers and poor outcomes for the Australian people.

Compare this approach to the positive policies and outcomes that the Gillard Labor government has achieved for Australian workers. More Australians are in work than ever before in our nation's history. I can proudly say that 11.6 million Australians are in work today. Industrial disputes are down. Since this government has been in office we have created 900,000 new jobs.    We are more productive as a nation and more of us are employed. There is greater job security and much greater job opportunities for all Australians. All these factors lead to improved job security and job opportunities. The Australian Labor Party is all about creating jobs and employment and protecting the jobs we have got. We are all about protecting the workers, and this is why the Gillard Labor government has recently introduced legislation to establish a Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. This tribunal will have the ability to set pay or pay-related conditions to ensure safe driving practices for the trucking industry—for real people.

In conclusion, the range of remedies that are currently stipulated under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act are suitable, practical and sufficient for an industrial context. These regulations ensure there is financial accountability and transparency in the running of registered organisations. We must be reminded that corporations and organisations are different in nature. They are different both in practice and in legal application. Their aims are different and their purpose is different.

Corporations act to generate wealth and advance the financial interests of their shareholders. Corporations are concerned with the interests of their shareholders and therefore the laws which regulate the behaviour of corporations aim to protect the rights of shareholders, as they rightly should be. On the other hand, registered organisations are established to represent the rights of their members, whether their members are employers or employees. Laws which regulate unions aim to protect the members of those organisations by acting to ensure they have fair pay and conditions and acting to protect their rights. These aims go hand in hand with the aims of the labour movement, which has always fought to uphold decent pay and conditions in order to promote and protect a fair go for all Australian workers.

11:27 am

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I emphasise at the beginning that this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012, is all about protecting workers' rights and, more importantly, protecting the money that they give to their union for purposes which union members believe will be in their best interests. We know in at least one or two instances that money contributed by workers to their union, believing it to be for their benefit, has been used by union officials for very improper purposes. I do not make these allegations; I simply repeat what Fair Work Australia has found in relation to the Health Services Union.

I also have alerted the chamber to news reports of a union with which Senator Mark Furner was associated. I say at this point that the reports say that Senator Furner had not done anything wrong, and I make that clear up-front. But the reports do indicate that union members' money was being used to pay out some union officials for their employment in dodgy deals which would not have stood accountability. Perhaps Senator Furner will contribute to this debate and explain in detail not what his role was—I accept it was minor, just signing the cheques—but what the deal was that provided union members' money to pay off some union official for redundancy payments which, it is suggested in the newspaper articles, were not appropriate. So this bill is all about protecting union members and their money and their rights and entitlements. And why, on that basis, it would be opposed by the party of the unions completely escapes me.

The coalition government had the same concern for shareholders in public companies. We wanted to make sure that shareholders in public companies were not ripped off by their directors; that there were penalties, severe penalties, that would discourage directors from doing the wrong thing with shareholders' money. It was coalition governments who amended the Corporations Act 2001 to provide this. Yet, in this debate, you have Labor speakers saying we are doing this to union officials but what about the corporations? The answer to that is clear: the coalition has already acted with amendments to the Corporations Act 2001 to make company directors and senior officials accountable—and now we are trying to do the same thing for union officials. I ask: what is the difference? No Labor senator contributing to this debate has yet explained the difference between corporation directors being required to be accountable to their members for the expenditure of money and the same rules for union leaders. Clearly, from the Health Services Union case this has not, and never has, occurred.

I am delighted to see Senator Furner coming in to participate in this debate because he will be able to tell us the truth about the newspaper reports that start with a nice photo of him and a headline, 'Senator linked to union cash'. But I am not interested. I concede, as I said before, that Senator Furner was said not to have done anything wrong—that he just signed the cheques. But I would be interested in the deal that was referred to in that particular account.

If further rules are required for union members, you need look no further than to an excellent article by Grace Collier in the Australian Financial Reviewof 16 November 2012. In that article, Grace Collier, who has spent 20 years working in unions and as an industrial relations consultant, said some pretty interesting things about how unions and union officials operate. If you had not read the Fair Work Australia report on the Health Services Union you would be surprised. What Grace Collier said pales into insignificance when you read the Fair Work Australia report on the Health Services Union. Grace Collier said:

Sometimes people who associate with union officials can become star struck with the perceived power and status or titillated by the association.

Again, you only have to look at the ICAC reports and the investigations in Sydney into my namesake. I always hasten to add that he is no relation to me whatsoever—he, New South Wales Labor Party; I, Queensland Liberal Party—but, regrettably in these instances, we have the same name. You only have to look at what is happening there to see how the union movement gets tied up with all these dodgy deals. When you go back through history, you see a lot of Labor politicians in jail these days and you can see how the interaction between the unions and Labor politicians leads to some outrageous results.

All the provisions in this bill do is protect workers' money and protect workers' rights—and that, I think, is appropriate. This applies to company directors under the Corporations Act 2001. Why should the same rules not apply for union leaders under the provisions of the law? I know of much anecdotal evidence of union officials—and I am not going to name them in parliament—misusing money. You might recall that incident when a union official was put on a superannuation board and received big money as a director of some of the biggest financial companies in the world. Apparently he had done a deal with the union that any money that he got from his work as a director in the superannuation company would go into the union funds. But he apparently—according to newspaper reports—chose not to do that and so the union sued him for the money. It makes you wonder what happens. We know what happens in the Health Services Union. You cannot tell me that the Health Services Union is the only place where those sorts of regrettable activities occurred. If you go back through history, you will find evidence of that in the past.

I am proudly a senator for the state of Queensland and I am delighted that the Campbell Newman government is—according to newspaper reports—talking about actually doing something to protect workers' money and to protect workers' interests in the money they contribute to their union. Newspaper reports suggest that the Queensland government is going to introduce legislation to force union officials to reveal their pay and other perks of office that they get from their union. Why would anyone object to that? Take our profession—not a very highly esteemed profession, I might add. We rank down there with journalists and union officials at the bottom of the table. But at least with every politician anyone can find out—in the next five minutes—what their pay is and what their allowances are. They can know what assets I personally have by a look at the register of interest. So it happens to politicians and, similarly, to most public servants through estimates or other questions. Should we want to, we can find out what the secretary of a department receives. We question them every estimates about the flights they have taken and about the hotels they have stayed at. It is par for the course for politicians and for public servants. Why do union officials think that they should be in a different category? It is not as if they are using their money. It is in relation to money that they spend or receive, which is contributed by the membership fees of the members of the union. I am delighted that the Queensland government is looking at some sort of bill that will require unions registered in Queensland to reveal the pay and other perks of office. What can be wrong with that? I suspect what will happen, of course, is that a lot of unions who are registered in Queensland will suddenly find that it is better to be registered federally so that they do not have to abide by the laws of the Queensland parliament. Hopefully, if this bill is passed, it would be pointless for them to do that because then they would have to make these same disclosures here.

The papers and history are, in fact, littered with suggestions—some convictions—of deals between various union officials and big construction companies for individual benefits that union officials receive, pursuant to some arrangements that they have made with some of the biggest construction firms around the place. In the Queensland instance, the newspaper reports that under the proposals union officials would have to declare an array of personal and professional interest such as credit card statement, similar to that of state MPs. Individual unions would have to publicly account for all spending with particular emphasis on political party expenditure. Who can have an objection to that? I know that there are a lot of union members who despise the ALP—and I might say that list is growing by the hour—and there are many members who are staunch supporters of the LNP in Queensland, who are very annoyed that their membership fees, which they pay for industrial support, end up in the coffers of a political party which they despise. If that is the will of the majority of the union, that is fair enough, but there should be accountability. The Queensland legislation, according to newspaper reports, will require unions to indicate clearly to their members how their fees are being spent.

The newspapers again report that the legislative change at state level will help to stamp out corruption and ensure that the law provides more safety nets, checks and balances. The impetus, the catalyst for this legislation in Queensland is said to be—and you can well understand that this would be the case—the recent scandals including allegations of credit card misuse levelled at federal Labor MP Mr Craig Thomson. I do not want to go into the Craig Thomson criminal matters—they are before the courts—but I do quote at length from the Fair Work Australia investigation into that official of the Health Services Union. What this legislation before us and the Queensland legislation are all about is addressing those issues in the same way as they apply to the politicians, public servants and company directors. I ask again: why should union officials not be accountable in the same way as company directors, as public servants, as politicians and as most others in our Australian society.

I understand that Mr Paul Howes from the AWU has said that the unions need to be accountable. I do not have a high regard for Mr Howes; he is fairly good at the talk but, when it comes to the action, it is not quite as fulsome and as consistent as is the talk. But I think any person in public office would think that accountability is a test which should apply to all. This bill, as Senator Abetz has said, increases penalties for breaches, so that rather than a penalty of $6,600, they would go up to the same penalties as apply under the Corporations Act to company directors—that is, $220,000 or five years imprisonment. Can the next Labor speaker in this explain to me why it is that company directors should face $220,000 or five years imprisonment, as opposed to union officials who misuse money, who face a civil penalty of $6,600. Why would you object to putting people who have been proved to have misspent union members' money in the same category as directors who misspend shareholders' money? It is such a no-brainer that I cannot understand why the party supposedly of the unions, supposedly of the workers, would not be there shouting to support this bill—you could not understand why.

I know that union membership in Australia at the moment is about 16 or 18 per cent of the total workforce. That means that, of all workers in Australia, only 18 per cent think that it is worthwhile being a member of a union. After the HSU revelations, one wonders why is it that even that 18 per cent bother. If you take out the public service unions, I think that it is about 14 per cent of Australian workers who are involved in the union movement. It is that 14 per cent who 'elect'—and I put that in inverted commas because I am not quite sure how much electing of union bosses the 14 per cent do, but let's assume that unions are entirely democratic, there is no show and tell and there is no bullying to get the right union official into the right position; let's assume it is an open and transparent democratic process—union officials, who then elect the Labor Party.

We have seen with all the leadership changes that there have been—and the one that is going to happen tonight—that it is not the elected members of parliament or the people of Australia who determine who is going to be Prime Minister; it is the faceless men, the union officials, who pull the strings. As Ms Gillard clearly said and Mr Shorten said the other day as well, they are the party for the unions; they are not the party for Australia. They do not even pretend to be the party of the majority of Australians. They make a virtue of being the party of the union movement—read 'of the union bosses', read '"elected" by 14 per cent of workers who happen to be in unions'.

You only have to think about that to understand why this government is so dysfunctional. You only have to understand that to realise why this government wants to shut down anyone who should criticise the Labor Party and the government. They are trying to shut down the press, who might criticise them today. Who knows what will happen in the future if the Greens and the Labor Party get going: I will probably be gagged from speaking my mind. In fact, more often than not when I get up to speak you will find the Labor Party and the Greens moving to gag me. Why? Because I criticise the Labor Party and they do not like it. They could always get up and answer the allegations, but none ever seem to do it.

My time for this debate is coming to an end but I would ask the next speaker to explain to me what is different between union officials and company directors. Why should company directors who misspend the money of their members, their shareholders, pay a fine of $220,000 and go to jail for five years and union officials who misspend their members' money get a $6,600 fine? Tell me the difference. This is a bill introduced to help workers, to support workers, to make sure that workers' membership fees are appropriately used. I would be delighted if someone from the other side could explain to me why this is not appropriate, why there should be different rules for union officials than there are for everyone else in society.

11:47 am

Photo of Mark FurnerMark Furner (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Unfortunately I have only a couple of minutes to address some of those issues that Senator Macdonald raised in this debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012. In saying that, when I look at the title of this bill and see the word 'transparency', I question the ideological attack on union organisations that this bill represents and the one-sided transparency.

Why do I suggest that? We merely need to look at today's Courier-Mail. I am glad Senator Macdonald referred to what is happening in Queensland, my home state as well. The headline in the Courier-Mail today is 'Caught out: proof that Driscoll lied to parliament'. Driscoll is the newly elected member for Redcliffe, a Liberal National Party member. He has been caught deliberately lying to parliament about phone lines he installed so that he could secretly run a retail lobby group from his electoral office. This is the transparency that those opposite want to apply. They do not want to apply it and shine it on the organisations they support, the employer organisations; they want to shine it only on unions. This is the contradiction in the actions of those opposite when they present private members' bills like the one they have presented in the chamber today. The article goes on to say:

But new evidence uncovered by The Courier-Mail ties Mr Driscoll directly to a scheme under which phone lines used by the Queensland Retail Traders and Shopkeepers Association, also known as the United Retail Federation, were moved to the electorate office last year so staff on parliamentary salaries could help run the lobby group.

How corrupt, how inept and how disrespectful it is to use public money, taxpayers' money, in Queensland to run a private business out of an electoral office. It demonstrates the contradiction of coalition speakers who have come in here today and indicated that they want transparency. What is the Premier of Queensland saying about this? Nothing. He is standing by his man. While this member for Redcliffe is being investigated by the Crime and Misconduct Commission and investigated by the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission, Campbell Newman, the Premier of Queensland, wants to give him a fair go. I will give him a fair go. Let us hope he comes clean and indicates the corruption he is involved in—I should say alleged corruption because at this stage he has not been proven guilty by the Crime and Misconduct Commission or the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.

Surely this is a clear example of the double standards of Liberal National Party both in Queensland and in this house when they come in here and try to put up such private members' bills. Under the Gillard government financial accountability standards for registered organisations have never been higher, so we have set that benchmark. They have never been higher before in this place. We set that benchmark purposely to make sure that organisations are accountable for their actions. But, rather than look at actions of employer organisations, which the opposition should be doing as well if they want to address concerns, they come in here and attack the trade unions that are doing an excellent job for the workers in our country—workers the opposition despise and hate. We will see that in their industrial relations policy at some stage in the future when they come to power.

Photo of Alan FergusonAlan Ferguson (SA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time for this debate has expired.