Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Questions without Notice

Trade Unions

2:16 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister for Employment, Senator Abetz. Can the minister advise the Senate whether the government is concerned about recent reports of alleged unlawful activities relating to union slush funds and, if so, why?

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

The government is concerned about the proliferation of union slush funds, as are many union members and officials around Australia. The former Prime Minister, now a constituent of Senator Bernardi, admitted in 1995 that every union has a slush fund. Just in the last year, we have seen revelations about slush funds operated by the TWU, NUW, CEPU, CFMEU and the ETU. The fact of their existence and, more importantly, the reasons for their existence, have only been revealed years later by court proceedings or investigative journalism. I am pleased that some light will now be shone on the Australian Workers Union Workplace Reform Association scandal as a result of the decision by the Chief Magistrate in Victoria.

It has taken over 20 years and cost careers of several people for some hope of transparency to finally emerge. It should be remembered that a former senior official of the AWU Ian Cambridge, now a member of the Fair Work Commission, wrote to the then Labor industrial relations minister in 1996 expressing grave concern about the operation of this slush fund and called for a royal commission. The former Labor Attorney-General Robert McClelland also expressed his very grave concern that the AWU affair highlighted serious shortcomings in the regulation of unions.

The government shares their concerns. The problem with union slush funds is that they are secretive and used for nefarious purposes. Whilst Labor did nothing to overcome this scourge, the coalition promised, and had endorsed by the Australian people, their proposal for a Registered Organisations Commission which has now been sabotaged in this place by the beneficiaries of those slush funds sitting opposite. (Time expired)

2:19 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister for his answer. Can the minister advise the Senate whether there are any impediments to enhanced transparency and accountability for registered organisations and, if so, what are these impediments?

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Stephen ConroyStephen Conroy (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

What about Tony Abbott and the Pauline Hanson slush fund?

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! When there is silence on my left we will proceed.

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

Let us be clear, slush funds operate in a legally dark area as they are not subject to the reporting and governance obligations that apply to registered organisations, nor are officers of registered organisations required to report to their members on such funds. They operate in the shadows. They often exist without any detection by others, let alone any scrutiny. The government has introduced legislation to improve the accountability of unions, which has already been the subject of one committee report.

Union members have every right to expect that their money is being used lawfully and for proper purposes. They have a right to know if officers of that union are engaged in financial dealings with shadowy slush funds. The one great impediment to improved accountability and transparency is Labor's sabotage and obstruction to the passage of the registered organisations commission bill.