Wednesday, 14 May 2014
Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading
I continue my speech from yesterday, when I was quoting the coalition's dissenting report. That report reads as though there are many, many unions acting improperly with members' funds but not one employer group, and that members of employer groups have nothing to gain from this legislation. The final sentences highlight that this bill is solely about trashing unions and about seeking to destroy collective bargaining.
I turn to substantive parts of the references committee report—a report that was necessary because of the shortcomings of the recommendation from the legislation committee's report. Many submitters—both employer groups and trade unions—said that even if the recommendations were accepted by the government the legislation would still cause great disruption and harm to the operations and effectiveness of the administration of registered organisations in Australia. This is due to the significant unintended consequences of the bill, and the training and financial burdens imposed by the bill.
The references committee report went to great lengths to incorporate arguments both for and against the bill, and to include arguments from both employer groups and trade unions. It is a report that I believe clearly crushes the arguments for the bill. The report highlights how, in drafting and conceptualising the bill, the Liberal government has fundamentally missed the point about the nature of officials and officers of many registered organisations.
Far from being commercial, for-profit companies, these are membership organisations that survive on the work of volunteers. I highlight comments from the Australian Industry Group regarding the proposed material personal interest requirements of the bill. They said:
The provisions of the Bill in this area will operate very unfairly on registered employer organisations and their officer, and it is essential that the Bill is amended. The Bill would impose a far more onerous regime for officers of registered organisations than what applies to directors of public companies. The regime, if enacted, would undoubtedly deter persons from standing for office in employer organisations. In practice the provisions of the Bill would seriously impede many organisations from carrying on their daily business operations.
The ACTU reiterated this concern, from the perspective of trade unions, in its submission. It said that the committee should be cognisant of the fact that the burden of this regulation falls not just on the full-time salaried leadership of unions, but on many rank-and-file members who are elected as unpaid delegates to governing bodies, which may meet as infrequently as once a year or once every two years.
If registered organisations cannot get members to fill the various office and delegate roles required for their organisations to function appropriately then what happens to these organisations? They will die a slow death, and the Australian community will be worse off.
The report also highlighted evidence from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation that the minute-keeping requirements of this bill were too onerous. The evidence was:
While organisations do keep extensive records of their meetings, it is often the case that they deal with sensitive and confidential issues and do so under an agreement that such matters remain “in house”. Examples of this are in dealing with an organisation’s employees, industrial strategy and commercial issues.
A blanket requirement to record minutes, and for such records to be made public, will only foster and encourage a lack of transparency as organisations respond to this requirement with more “off the record” discussions and more informality and consequently reduced accountability when dealing with issues that are considered sensitive or confidential.
I felt that the ANMF hit the nail on the head with this evidence.
The requirements in this bill around the management of registered organisations are too rigid and impractical. With regard to the training of officials, this bill would impose upon registered organisations a requirement to have their training recertified by the new commissioner, even if their training has been approved by the current Fair Work Commission. The Ai Group raised that they had already spent significant resources on developing a training program required under the 2012 changes. They submitted:
For example, there are four organisations—us, the ACTU, the AWU and one other organisation which I cannot recall—that put huge resources into having their officer training programs developed and approved. There is nothing in this legislation that grants automatic approval for those training courses. We have got to again run the gauntlet with the Registered Organisations Commission.
Talk about increasing red tape on business!
Of course, there are always loopholes available, and it was interesting that the ACTU said:
… that the passage of the bill could result in many employer organisations deregistering as registered organisations and instead, adopting corporate structures. By forming companies limited by guarantees, the organisations could then avoid the disclosure, training and oversight provisions of the bill.
So on one hand this bill will severely damage the effectiveness of trade unions, but provide an out for employer groups to actually become more secretive and more exclusive than they already are. Maybe that is the real reason for this bill?
The report also highlights that the penalties under the Registered Organisations Act were tripled in 2012, and that these penalties are sufficient to act as a disincentive. The report notes that the bill has been drafted in such a way that the new serious contravention category actually has a circular definition. That is the definition of 'serious contravention' includes a contravention of the act that is 'serious'. Of course, no definition of 'serious' is provided, creating an ambiguous definition to allow the commissioner to apply a serious contravention whenever he or she chooses.
Further, given the different functions of corporations from registered organisations, the attempt to copy the serious contravention provision from the Corporations Act is totally flawed. As evidenced in recent months, criminal law is able to prosecute wrongdoing. The actions of the few should not be used as an excuse to enact draconian measures on registered organisations and their membership.
And I repeat that I do not condone officers of registered organisations, or anyone in a position of trust, acting inappropriately, misusing trusted funds or taking benefits when they are not entitled. The reforms by the previous government are sufficient to improve accountability of trade unions and employer groups, and this has been clearly demonstrated over recent times. I urge senators to vote against this bill.
In rising to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 I would like to make one thing quite clear: this is a bill designed to silence unions. It is a bill designed to impose so many bureaucratic reporting requirements on unions that they have barely enough time to focus on their core business, and that is representing and defending the rights of workers.
When John Howard was Prime Minister, savage dogs and security people were on the docks. This government has decided to employ more subtle means of breaking the unions. But make no mistake about it: when the Liberal-National coalition is in government they will do all they can to attack the union movement. They will attack unions because the union movement is standing in the way of their ultimate ideological goal: stripping the rights and conditions of Australian workers.
This is a government led by an ideological Prime Minister with an historical grudge. He is continuing to fight a workplace relations battle that was comprehensively won in 2007, and this time he is fighting it by stealth and subterfuge. Instead of taking the union's head-on he is going to do it under the guise of tackling misconduct and corruption. And if you think Mr Abbott has abandoned WorkChoices, let us recall that in 2008 he said:
… it was good for wages, it was good for jobs and it was good for workers. And let’s never forget that.
That is his quote.
In 2009 he said:
… workplace reform was one of the greatest achievements of the Howard government.
That is what this bill is really all about. It is about crippling the union movement with burdensome regulation so they lack the ability to fight against the Abbott government's ideologically-driven workplace reform.
The bill that is now before the Senate is a broken promise. Once again, we see a coalition that says one thing in opposition and does another in government. The Abbott government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations, and now they have broken that promise. This bill places more onerous reporting requirements and higher penalties on officers of registered organisations than those imposed on company directors.
For example, corporations face a late fee from ASIC of $299 if their annual reports are lodged more than a month late. Yet this bill seeks to impose penalties of up to $85,000 if a registered organisation fails to lodge their annual report within the required time. The bill sets higher penalties for officers of registered organisations for a number of other breaches, such as noncriminal breach of good faith obligations, noncriminal misuse of position and noncriminal misuse of information.
For those who believed the Prime Minister when he said he would not touch workplace relations and when he said he would not reintroduce WorkChoices, just look at the trail of broken promises he has left behind so far. And just look at the ideological campaign that is being waged against unions right now, with this bill as a weapon, and you will see where the Abbott government stands on the interests of workers.
Those opposite like to pretend that this bill is about standing up for union members, but how can you stand up for union members if you mute the organisations that are supposed to represent them and fight for their rights? I want to make clear that this is not a debate about whether union corruption is acceptable. I and the rest of my colleagues in the Labor Party not only opposes corruption, we abhor it and have zero tolerance for it. Officers of registered organisations, just like directors of companies, are placed in a positions of trust and responsibility, to provide for the interests of their members—just as company directors are to act in the interests of their shareholders. Anyone who engages in corrupt behaviour, who is put in a position of responsibility and authority and abuses that authority for their own personal benefit, must be prosecuted with the full force of the law. I hope that the government is fervently opposed to all corruption, despite the fact that they seem to have an obsession with focussing on corruption in one particular sector—that is, the union movement.
But let us not pretend either, as those opposite would have us believe, that this is a debate about who is serious about tackling corruption. If the government cannot get this bill—this ideological instrument—through this place, then they will, at the very least, use it as some kind of political tool to claim that those of us on this side are not serious about tackling corruption in the union movement. We are serious about tackling corruption and misconduct, and we have demonstrated our seriousness through the legislation we passed in government in 2012.
In fact, Labor introduced stronger accountability measures and tougher penalties for misconduct in registered organisations than those introduced by the current Prime Minister when he was Minister for Workplace Relations in 2002. And do not forget, it was Labor in government that forced the Health Services Union into administration.
The conduct that those opposite claim they are targeting is already prohibited in the Registered Organisations Act. The act already prohibits members' money from being used to favour candidates in internal elections. It allows for criminal proceedings when funds are stolen or obtained by fraud, and ensures the Fair Work Commission can share information with police. There are statutory civil penalties in the act for parties who knowingly or recklessly contravene an order or direction made by the Fair Work Commission or Federal Court. Officers of registered organisations have fiduciary duties similar to those of company directors, and are required to disclose their personal interests. In trying to justify this bill, the government point to instances of alleged corruption that are being dealt with effectively by the current provisions.
If those opposite were really serious about tackling corruption and misconduct, then they would do so across the board. Despite the hundreds of prosecutions brought by ASIC each year against company directors, despite all the material that has been dealt with by ICAC in New South Wales, we do not hear a peep out of this government about corruption and misconduct in the corporate sector. Yet if you listened to the rhetoric of the coalition over the past several years, you would think that corruption and misconduct is entirely confined to unions.
The challenge for the government in prosecuting the case for the bill is this: explain to the Senate how and why the system that is in place already is not working; explain to the Senate how this bill will improve the system in any meaningful way; and explain to the Senate how you justify the enormous regulatory cost that you are seeking to impose on the very organisations whose members you claim to be protecting. They have failed to do this in the House, and I doubt they will succeed here. This is a poorly constructed piece of legislation. Not only is it poorly constructed, but its sole purpose is the pursuit of an ideological crusade—although I would consider it is more like the stuff of the sheriff of Nottingham than of Robin Hood.
As I said before, this bill imposes more onerous requirements on the officers of registered organisations than those which company directors are subject to. Why won't the government support the same onerous reporting requirements, the same steep penalties, for corporations and their directors as they do for registered organisations? If they are going to claim that by opposing this bill we are not serious about tackling union corruption then, surely, by their own standards they are not serious about tackling corruption in the corporate sector.
Of course, this is the government that apparently is all about cutting red tape and letting businesses get on with business. But they are not interested in letting unions get on with their business. Instead, they want to drown them in regulatory requirements so they cannot get on with their core business—representing workers. That is what the coalition's mates in big business want them to do. If they cannot bring Work Choices back, then they will at least have a go at breaking the back of the union movement.
Business is often regarded by those opposite as their natural friends, but has the Abbott government considered how employer organisations feel about this regulatory approach? Employer organisations are, after all, registered organisations who would be subject to the same requirements as employee organisations under this bill. Perhaps the Abbott government is so hell-bent on this ideological crusade that they are happy to sacrifice employer organisations in the process. Perhaps they consider weighing down employer organisations with the same regulatory burden to be worth the collateral damage. Perhaps to them this is the cost of winning their ideological war against unions.
Well, these organisations obviously do not like it any more than employee organisations do. The Australian Industry Group made the point that directors of companies are typically small in number and well-remunerated for their role in returning a value on shareholders' investments, whereas registered organisations, being not-for-profit entities, typically have many elected officials and committee members who are unpaid. The Ai Group, for example, has 78 volunteer councillors deemed officers under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act, who give up a great deal of their time working on the policy and financial management of the group while also trying to run their own companies. I know this is also the case for many other registered organisations including unions and yet the bill imposes excessive reporting requirements on these unpaid volunteers.
One such requirement is the obligation to disclose their material personal interests, including those of relatives, to every member of the organisation and the penalty for breaching this requirement is over $1 million—I think that in fact it is $1,020,000. By contrast, under the Corporations Act, company directors only have to disclose their material interests to the other directors and only those interests that relate to the affairs of the company. Let me just reiterate that. One requirement is the obligation on one group to disclose material personal interests including those of relatives to every member of the organisation and the penalty for breaching that requirement is around $1 million. By contrast, under the Corporations Act, company directors only have to disclose their material interests to other directors and only those interests that relate to the affairs of the company. Here is what the Australian Industry Group said in their submission in relation to the disclosure of material personal interest:
The provisions of this Bill in this area will operate very unfairly on registered employer organisations and their officers, and it is essential that the Bill is amended. The Bill would impose a far more onerous regime for officers of registered organisations than what applies to directors of public companies. The regime, if enacted, would undoubtedly deter persons from standing for office in employer organisations. In practice the provisions of the Bill would seriously impede many organisations from carrying on their daily business operations.
That was from the Australian Industry Group in their submission to the Senate inquiry.
Will just drop this year and then I can work on I would like to compliment the Ai Group on what is a very comprehensive and well-thought-out submission, which points out the many flaws in this bill. Concerns about the regulatory burden this bill will place on registered organisations have been echoed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions and several other employer organisations, including the Master Builders Australia and the Pharmacy Guild.
By introducing these onerous reporting requirements, the government is not just imposing costs on unions but is imposing costs on the whole workplace relations system. Of course, the government must have known that these concerns were going to be brought up. Maybe that is why they were in such a hurry to rush this bill through.
Many employer organisations, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have raised concerns about the lack of time they have had to review the legislation and lodge a considered submission. Surely it would send a clear message to this government, when both employer and employee organisations are united in their stance on this bill, that something is seriously wrong with it?
While looking through the second reading speeches to this bill in the other place, I think the member for Moreton made an interesting point—that the increased compliance costs resulting from this bill could be passed on to the members of registered organisations. In the case of unions these could include low-paid employees, such as retail workers, or cleaners, or childcare workers or aged care workers. Far be it from those opposite to care about low-paid workers, but many employer organisations that represent small businesses may also be forced to pass these costs onto their members, resulting in increased costs for small business. Of course, we know that if that happens that cost will be passed on to consumers.
I doubt the government, on the other side of this chamber, who trumpet their business credentials and their war on red tape, have considered the cost burden this legislation could potentially have on small businesses. You would think this is exactly the kind of legislation that the government would include in one of their 'red tape repeal days'. But then this government really only pays lip service to repealing red tape. Not only are they not serious about reducing red tape they are intent on using red tape as a weapon.
Labor will oppose this legislation, and we have many good reasons to do so. We already have a very good regime in place for ensuring the accountability of officers of registered organisations, including reasonable penalties for failing to meet their duties to their members As a number of submitters have pointed out, it is this rushed legislation that is causing problems. The government's royal commission into the trade union movement will be making recommendations about the regulation and governance of registered organisations, so why not wait for those findings? Is it because this bill is a stunt?
This is the same stunt the government pulled in opposition when Senator Abetz introduced a similar bill. I remember when I spoke on that bill: I described it as a 'solution looking for a problem'. The bill that is currently before the Senate is no different.
This is not just Labor's view, or the view of the union movement, and I point again to the Australian Industry Group's submission which said:
It is a transparently political Bill in an area where there is no extant public policy problem.
Unfortunately, what the government has demonstrated with their royal commission is that they are willing to spend millions of dollars in pursuit of their political witch hunt. They will spend millions of dollars in taxpayers funds while also imposing millions of dollars of costs on registered organisations, including employee and employer associations.
Why does this government insist on attacking unions? Because they want to silence the voices of those opposed to their real agenda, which is bringing back WorkChoices. If the government wants to introduce serious, adult, measures to combat misconduct and corruption, Labor will support them. However, Labor will not support childish stunts, we will not support a political witch-hunt and we will not support unnecessary regulation and red tape. And we will not support actions designed to cripple and silence the union movement.
For these reasons, Labor opposes this bill.
It is deja vu. It is Groundhog Day. He we are again, and yet again we are pulling out our speeches—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
Senator Bilyk, I am glad you referred to an earlier speech you made on very similar legislation. Anyway, I rise to speak to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013, a bill for an act to amend the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 and for related purposes. This was the coalition election policy. We were very clear. Senator Bilyk, you made comments about rushed pieces of legislation. This piece of legislation was like a train coming across—through you, Chair—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
Like a freight train across the Nullarbor, you could have seen this particular piece of legislation coming for miles—for days, for weeks, for months, for nigh on a year. This was part of our agenda to ensure accountability and transparency with registered organisations. It is not an ideological attack on the union movement, as those opposite would like us to believe. It is actually for all of us—for the community—to be assured that employer organisations, workers' organisations and indeed any registered organisations ensure that the dues paid by the members to those organisations are used in a responsible matter and that the governing arrangements for those organisations give confidence to those members that they are being taken care of in an appropriate manner.
Briefly, the policy applies the same rules to unions and officials as for companies and their directors. Given the amount of money that some of these organisations are in charge of, and given the importance of a lot of the advocacy work that they are involved in, that should be the least of the regulations that they should be subject to. It ensures penalties for breaking the rules are the same for everyone, as are disclosure requirements. In addition, the policy calls for a new body, the Registered Organisations Commission, to take on the enforcement and investigation roles currently held by the Fair Work Commission. The new commission would also provide information and advice to registered organisations about their rights and obligations under the law.
We have a clear mandate for this legislation. Specifically, the bill responds to a number of outstanding recommendations from the June 2012 review into the operation of the Fair Work Act by the Fair Work Review Panel. I speak on this bill as a member—and, at the time of the inquiry, acting chair—of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee, which inquired into the bill and reported to the Senate in 2013. In the legislation committee report, the committee supported the bill subject to four minor amendments. Firstly:
The Committee recommends that, consistent with the Corporations Act 2001, material personal interest disclosures should only be required to be made to those officers whose duties relate to the financial management of the organisation. Such disclosures should be recorded in the minutes of the meetings of those officers and should be made available to members on request.
I am surprised that the opposition is not supporting this amendment, given that it ensures that the shareholdings of husbands and wives of union representatives are not open for disclosure. It ensures that only those who are dealing directly with the financial management of the organisation are subject to the same disclosure rules as under the Corporations Act. Secondly:
The Committee recommends that a list of exclusions from the obligations to disclose material personal interests based on section 191(2) of the Corporations Act 2001 be inserted into the bill. This would narrow the obligation to disclose material personal interests …
The Committee recommends that the obligation placed on officers to disclose every payment should be reduced with certain exclusions …
Fourthly and finally:
The Committee recommends the bill be amended to allow the Commissioner to grant exemptions from the training requirements if an individual can demonstrate significant knowledge of the financial obligations specified in the bill.
This is because, despite the policies of various Labor state governments and the TAFE regime, there is no point training people for the sake of training people. I know the training obligations and the money they can raise from training their members are a great money-spinner for many of the registered organisations, but if you already have the training there is no reason for you to undergo that again.
Predictably for a bill which would make unions more accountable, Labor senators produced a dissenting report opposing the bill in its entirety. I think that was in December 2013. What was less predictable was Labor's decision to refer the bill to the Education and Employment References Committee, which of course they control.
Referring the bill for a second inquiry was a highly unusual tactic. In fact, it has not been used since August 1996 when, again, Labor referred another piece industrial relations legislation, the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996 to the Senate Economics Reference Committee. So much for the bleating about ideology. Politics is the battle of ideas; on this side, ideas centred around freedom, transparency and accountability. And on the other side, as Senator Cameron made reference to in his contribution on this piece of legislation yesterday: 'There is nothing wrong with it—leave it as it is. There is no problem.' Clearly, that is not what we found in our inquiry. That was not the evidence given to the committee and it was not the evidence given to the coalition during the construction of our policy around this matter. It just shows how desperate Labor is to appease its union mates and masters.
The reference committee essentially replicated the work of the legislative committee. The only difference is that this time it was a Labor majority report, with a dissenting report from coalition senators. Our dissenting report flatly rejected the need for a second inquiry. The new inquiry held just one hearing for which just three unions and one employer organisation turned up. What a waste of time, paper, energy, Senate resources and money! But how typical of Labor.
Senators on this side of the chamber firmly support the government taking strong action to ensure all registered organisations are accountable. Has Labor learnt nothing from the HSU scandal? The fact that it took Fair Work Australia four long years to complete its investigation into the HSU demonstrates the need for a separate Registered Organisations Commission, as set out in this bill.
It is now very clear that HSU was just the tip of the iceberg. The Fair Work Commission has recently launched proceedings against the Musicians Union of Australia, and currently has inquiries or investigations into the Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Industry Union, the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation, the Communications, Electrical, Electronic, Energy, Information, Postal, Plumbing and Allied Services Union of Australia, the Flight Attendants' Association of Australia, the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, Australian Nursing Federation and the Australian Childcare Centres Association.
We have also just seen the start of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. I would encourage Labor Senators who think that all is well with the union movement and that this bit of legislation is not required to please log on to www.trade union royal commission.gov.au, and tor those Twitter aficionados amongst as it is #turc, if they want to follow what is actually going on at the royal commission into the trade union movement and governance. Find some evidence of why this bit of legislation is required now.
The bill before the Senate is not about union bashing. It is about protecting workers from union officials who do the wrong thing—and they do exist. Not all; not the majority. But they do exist. The majority of union officials are honest and dedicated to the welfare of their members, and thus have nothing to fear from this bill. In fact, by clearing up the governance issues in registered organisations unions should become stronger as they regain the lost trust of workers and, indeed, the wider Australian public about their important role in our civic life. It is hard to understand why any Labor senator would have a problem with tackling corruption.
While current Labor politicians are more than shy about criticising unions, Labor figures of the past have been much more forthcoming. Former Labor powerbroker, Graham Richardson, wrote a column in The Australian of 31 January 2014, titled, 'Labor needs to re-examine its ties with the unions'.
Labor must assert the primacy of its own position over the trade unions. If it is seen again to slavishly follow the union line, it will give an already well-endowed Prime Minister even more grist for his mill.
Unfortunately for Labor, for workers and for the union movement more generally, that message is not getting through to Labor in this building.
Labor Senators cited as their main reason to oppose the bill, disclosure requirements for officers of registered organisations. Yet these issues arise courtesy of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012, introduced by the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten. When introducing the bill, Mr Shorten said:
Under the amendments proposed by the government—
the then government—
registered organisations will be required to amend their rules to provide for the disclosure of transactions between the organisation and related parties, which may include the family members of officials.
Labor was happy to support disclosure when it was in government, but now it is against it now it is in opposition. What hypocrisy. Labor senators should really be more supportive of their leader. Mr Shorten was very close to the top of the Gillard government. He not only helped install Ms Gillard, he was so close to her that he agreed with everything she said even when he had no idea what she had said. Mr Shorten had the Prime Minister's back—that is, until he stabbed her in the back.
Edmund Burke said:
Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.
Labor's hypocrisy on this bill is similar to Labor now voting against budget saving measures that Labor brought to parliament and took to the last election. Last year Labor proposed $2.3 billion of savings. These came from an efficiency dividend on universities, a cut to scholarships and other higher education changes. In February last year the Gillard government announced savings of $1.1 billion as a result of research and development tax changes. But now Labor is blocking both of these pieces of legislation—both previous Labor plans. Labor sees no conflict in voting against its own policies, none at all. Indeed, it expects us to vote against our own policies, policies that we were very, very clear on prior to the election, that were part of the mandate that Australian people gave the Abbott government.
So why are Labor senators so reluctant to hold trade unions to account? I think that is a very, very good question. I have done a bit of homework; I have a few stats I would like to share with the chamber. Maybe one of the reasons could be that 19 out of the 31 ALP senators are former union officials or union bosses. Nine of them were union bosses, 10 of them were union officials. Senator Bilyk, who we just heard from before, the Australian Services Union; Senator Bishop, Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees union boss; Senator Cameron, passionate defence of the union movement yesterday, AMWU union boss; Senator Collins, SDA union official; Senator Conroy, Transport Workers Union official; Senator Dastyari, ALP boss right there; Senator Farrell, another shoppie union boss; Senator Furner, the National Union of Workers union boss; Senator Gallagher, Transport Workers Union boss; Senator Hogg, our President, a Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees union official; Senator Lines, United Voice, and what a voice it is, union boss; Senator Ludwig, Australian Workers Union union official; Senator Lundy, CFMEU union official; Senator Marshall, the ETU union official; Senator McEwen, the Australian Services Union boss; Senator Moore, CPSU union boss; Senator Singh, Australian Education Union official; Senator Sterle, Transport Workers Union official; Senator Urquhart, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union boss; Senator Wong, CFMEU union official. But wait, there is more! Come 1 July these senators will be joined by Senator Joe Bullock, SDA union boss, and Senator Chris Ketter, SDA union boss.
And what do they all have to hide? The community expectation is that these unions must operate to the highest of standards. These organisations are given special legislated rights, and with rights come responsibilities. The Craig Thomson affair showed that these responsibilities are not being met under the current arrangements. Mr Thomson was arrested in respect of more than 154 fraud related criminal charges and is facing allegations that his 2007 federal election campaign was partly funded by siphoning union money without authorisation. The union that Mr Thomson was ripping off represents some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, and it is outrageous that the union contributions of these low-paid workers were used to fund the seedy high life of a man who was supposed to be fighting on their behalf. It is outrageous that it took four years for justice to be done. It is outrageous that Labor senators think it is okay to maintain the status quo.
To improve oversight of registered organisations, the bill will establish a dedicated independent watchdog, the registered organisations commission, and provide it with enhanced investigation and information-gathering powers to monitor and regulate registered organisations. The new commission will have the necessary independence and the powers it needs to regulate registered organisations effectively, efficiently and transparently. The commission will have stronger investigation and information-gathering powers than those that currently apply. They will be modelled on those available to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The commission will also educate, assist and advise registered organisations and their members in relation to the new obligations, and ensure members are aware of their rights. The activities of the commission will also be subject to the same oversight by the Commonwealth Ombudsman as Commonwealth agencies. This will ensure the appropriate level of transparency and public accountability.
As well as establishing a strong, independent regulator, the bill introduces reporting and disclosure requirements, and enhanced penalties for wrongdoing. Many unions control assets worth millions of dollars. In financial terms they operate in a similar way to a large business, so it is appropriate for them to have similar reporting requirements. And I note that in his contribution yesterday, Senator Cameron was very keen to use the word 'volunteer', as if somehow we were talking kindergarten committees or football/netball clubs in the way that unions were being run. But I am very, very confident about this, having actually presided over a student association many years ago which had a turnover of $17 million. I know that many of the people involved in that organisation were not solely volunteers, and I know that throughout the unions there are some very significant salaries within the government structure of the union movement. They should be subject to more stringent accountability measures. Than the local kindergarten committee is.
The only people who have anything to fear are those who are doing the wrong thing. The overwhelming number of officers who are already doing the right thing should be comforted in knowing that unlawful behaviour will be dealt with, thus ensuring ongoing member confidence in registered organisations as a whole. There should be no difference between the penalties levied against a company director who misuses shareholders' funds and a union boss who misuses members' money. I do not know why that is a point of contention.
Any political party that refuses to support this greater accountability and transparency for registered organisations is voting to give the green light to more of the same behaviour that we have seen from some executives of the HSU. It is time for Labor senators to choose which side they are on. Are you on the side of Craig Thomson or are you on the side of the workers? I think the misuse of the committee process by Labor, particularly around this and the other amendment to the Fair Work Act is a disgrace, because all they are doing is using the very limited resources of the Senate basically to prosecute what is an ideological argument.
It will ever be thus, and when Senator Bilyk wants to talk about 'ideological crusades', the Labor Party and Greens, their partners in crime, have been on an ideological crusade for six years. And whenever you want to call them out on their ideological crusade; whenever you actually want to inject some accountability and transparency into workplace relations; and whenever you want to talk about the reality of operating a small business in regional areas and of penalty rates for young people, they pull out the Work Choices wildcard. It is the 'press button in case of emergency/smash glass'; it is as if this spectre of Work Choices will actually make up for the negligence that those opposite have wreaked upon the Australian economy and upon the potential job prospects of young Australians and the stability of our budgetary position over coming decades.
I am very proud of our government in that whilst it was not of our making, we have actually taken strong steps this week to address the inherent issues of the Labor malaise.
Senator McKenzie, I could not let you go without thinking to myself, quietly, 'I hear the social agrarian that you in fact are when you talk about trade unions with such distaste.' I find the juxtaposition of where you sit in the social agrarian National Party and where I sit in trade unions somewhat novel to look at. But, nonetheless, you are entitled to have your views.
I rise to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013. The Australian people were promised a mature, responsible government. We were promised a government that would be run by adults under the coalition. That promise has proved to be just one of the many broken promises that litter the corridors of the Ministerial Wing of this building today. The Abbott government's pre-election promises have all gone up in a puff of cigar smoke and the way this legislation has been handled, quite frankly, is no different. Just as Mr Tony Abbott's budget is a budget of broken promises, this legislation is completely full of hypocrisy. The legislation before the chamber can only be described as being politically motivated in the extreme. It is unnecessary, and I will not be supporting it or the way government has managed this bill in this place. It is in fact a piece of scrambled legislation that they have cobbled together as, you could only say, an extreme attack on trade unions per se. The legislation is a thinly-veiled attack on trade unions and, by extension, their members. Unions work incredibly hard to represent the best interests of their members. They have a role to play in the modern Australian economy and workforce, and I think that in itself is what the Liberal Party and the Liberals on the other side find almost impossible to accept.
The government has not properly explained the case for change for this legislation. They have failed to make the case that the existing legislation should be changed in this extreme way. Registered organisations should be responsibly regulated, and I do not think that anyone would cavil at that statement. Labor supports the act in its current state. Why? Because it gets the balance right. It strikes the right balance between good legislation, how you properly regulate registered organisations and how you should ensure that you do not take it to the extreme to punish registered organisations.
The law at present already does the following: registered organisations already prohibit members' money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns; the Registered Organisations Act already allows for criminal proceedings being initiated where funds are stolen or are obtained by fraud; the Registered Organisations Act already ensures that the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police, as is appropriate; and the Registered Organisations Act already provides for statutory civil penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly contravenes an order or direction made by the Federal Court or the Fair Work Commission under the Registered Organisations Act or the Fair Work Act. The current legislation is pretty tough, can I say, in the way that it currently works.
Under the Fair Work Act officers of registered organisations already have a fiduciary duty akin to that for directors under the Corporations Law. The Registered Organisations Act already requires officers to disclose their personal interests. The Registered Organisations Act already requires officers to disclose when payments are made to related parties. And it does not stop there. The Registered Organisations Act already requires officers to exercise care and diligence and act with good faith. All of these put an incredible onus and responsibility on trade unions to act appropriately and conduct their affairs in an open and transparent way on behalf of their members.
As the dissenting report of the committee's inquiry into the bill noted, the current Registered Organisations Act already addresses the proposals of the bill to the appropriate extent. It prohibits money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections and gives priority to the determination of criminal proceedings, for example, where it is alleged that funds have been stolen or obtained by fraud, and ensures that the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police, as appropriate.
As has already been noted by the speakers on this side on this bill, these changes are aimed solely at hindering the efforts of trade unions to effectively represent their members in the workplace. When you look at the present legislation and at where these changes want to go, you can be left in no doubt that it is all about simply making it almost impossible for unions to operate effectively in the workplace and an unveiled attack on trade unions by this government. Why? Those on the other side have a long hatred of unions, and it manifests itself whenever they get their head. When they had the ability to pass legislation in this place from 2004 onwards, what did they do? They attacked unions and their members through Work Choices. Unfettered, they then went to the extreme, as is always the case. In this instance, they took a piece of legislation that was suitable and matched to fit registered organisations, and they have taken it to the extreme again. Why? As I said, the only reason left is their unbridled hatred of trade unions.
When you look at one particular aspect of the bill that represents significant overreach by a government full of twisted priorities and full of surprises, you can see it come through. The expansion of coercive investigatory powers is hidden within this bill. The legislation as it stands provides coercive powers in relation to current and former officers, employees or auditors of an organisation. The amendment legislation extends the powers in such a way as to reach any person the commission identifies as potentially holding information or evidence of relation. This will give the commissioner significant new powers to compel evidence, execute warrants and seize documents from any person. This can only be described as a significant overreach.
It was not something the coalition canvassed with the public before the last election. What they want to be able to do is give powers to the commissioners which are unprecedented in a broad sense—more than what you would expect for a body that is there to ensure registered organisations act within the law. Why? They want to have unfettered access to be able to attack trade unions using this piece of legislation shamelessly. Of course, the overreach is not hidden in that sense. They do put it in their legislation and they do encourage the commission to use all of the powers that are available to it to attack trade unions—and I suspect it would.
One of the novelties, if there is a novelty within this piece of legislation, is the extraordinary hypocrisy about red tape. We all know that this government is about removing red tape. They have set up—I do not know what they call it—a red tape task force to go around in departments, find red tape and destroy it where they can. This is one of the hypocritical issues that have come forward, which can also be described as a broken promise.
Mr Daniel Mammone, the workplace policy and legal affairs director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, gave this evidence in the Senate inquiry in response to a searching question from Senator Tillem:
Senator TILLEM: Would you agree with the statement that, further, the requirements of this bill add another layer of red tape for those organisations that you deal with and got feedback from? Is that a fair statement?
Mr Mammone: There are elements that compound the existing problems, yes.
This is clear evidence that the government's only plans are for twisted priorities and broken promises, because in this instance they want to add red tape and ensure that they surround trade unions with a substantial amount of red tape. Why? Because of their unbridled hatred of the operation of trade unions, the way they look after their members and the way they operate within the industrial sphere. The government are willing, in this instance, to breach and break one of their promises of removing red tape for what can only be described as a political end. It is simply a twisted priority when you juxtapose it. As Senator Bilyk noted, they would happily sacrifice a business to put impediments on the operation of trade unions. They are even willing to go that little extra step and say: 'We won't worry too much about business in this instance. Businesses are in the way of our target. They might be called collateral damage—too bad, so sad. We are willing to sacrifice those principles and sacrifice small business to achieve our aim of attacking trade unions.'
The Liberals have proved themselves to be the poorest managers of this chamber since I have been here. I cannot speak for before then, but when you look at the way this bill has been dealt with, the incompetence has not been limited to the operation of government business and the programs of this place. It really has extended across the entirety of this government when you look at how they are managing this legislative program.
The budget is a betrayal of working people and it truly is a slap in the face to the people who voted for this government, because what are we dealing with today? We are dealing with one of their twisted priorities. We are dealing with registered industrial organisations. It is not about the budget, it is not about issues that go to the budget; what they really want to talk about are their twisted priorities around how to attack trade unions. The budget process to date has been farcical, and the extraordinary damage they are now inflicting on families is quite unbelievable. We witnessed the most chaotically mishandled and sieve-like budget since John Howard's 1980 budget, which was leaked in full to Laurie Oakes.
I suspect we have already got a government in revolt, with a backbench treated like mushrooms and a Prime Minister and Treasurer breaking election promise after election promise. Above all, I think this budget has been—as Dr Chalmers from the other place called it—an ambush on the Australian people, particularly on working people, and this piece of legislation is just another attack on working people. It attacks industrial organisations which represent their members—Australian working people—in the workplace. It highlights their priorities around who they have in their target: working people and trade unions who represent working people.
This is a budget written by the cigar chompers and borne by hardworking Australians. While lower- and middle-income earners are being sent to the wall, the big end of town are getting off scot-free. Their attack on working people contained in this bill is replicated in their attacks in the budget, and you do not have to go far into it to hear it. A GP tax, increasing the petrol tax, cuts to the pension, education, students with disabilities and young apprentice support—all broken promises, all attacks on hardworking Australians, and it is reflected here.
I would go so far as to say that this registered industrial organisation bill today has at its heart the way the Liberal Party addresses working people. They do not like trade unions, they do not like working people and they do not like those who need support in the electorate. Labor does not support a tax on working people or their representatives. Unions work hard for their members' interests in the workplace, and you do not have to go far to find how bad this piece of legislation is.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions, in its submission to the Senate committee inquiry, expressed the view that this bill is 'poorly conceived, badly motivated, entirely unnecessary and transparently political in an area where there is no extant public policy problem.' I think they have said it all in one sentence, quite frankly. The ACTU's analysis and conclusions about many of the requirements and penalties in this bill are similar to the AIG's.
In the workplace we have a confluence of interests—industrial organisations, trade unions and employer organisations—who all think this legislation is bad. It is atrocious in the extreme. It even goes to areas which I think make you wonder about their priorities. If you look at the coercive powers in the investigatory area, they have given greater powers and taken away use and derivative use immunity. You could juxtapose that with what a former senator of this place, Senator Cooney, said. I hope I have got this right; I am happy to correct it. He once said that what you are doing is giving more power to people to look into, in this instance, trade unions or registered industrial organisations, than you give to the police to look at people who have been murderers, people who have done some heinous deeds in the criminal sphere. Why is that? To be able to justify it you do need to put down quite clearly what those justifications are and why we should accept them. I do not think, in this instance, the case has been made for this extreme use of powers plus the removal of the privilege against self-incrimination for use and derivative use immunities. In fact, derivative use immunity is, as I understand it, gone.
Turning to other provisions in this legislation, of course they will have to fund it. I think it highlights their twisted priorities where they are going to fund an attack on registered industrial organisations whilst at the same time, for companies, it is quite interesting. The argument goes something like this: registered industrial organisations should be treated like companies. I think that is a poor argument and does not reflect the truth of how industrial organisations work and how they are comprised. But whilst you are strengthening these powers to attack trade unions, today we find out from the budget that you are removing approximately $120 million from ASIC so that they will not be able to perform their tasks in pursuing companies and the like for the work that they do—which has been and always is good work. But that is where you find their priorities. 'We'll ensure that ASIC cannot do its job. We'll take $120 million out of them over four years to make sure they cannot do their proper functions of keeping big corporations in check, making sure that companies do have a good investigative arm on their case. In this instance, though, we're going to support a tough piece of legislation to attack trade unions but ultimately we are going to say that companies and trade unions from your perspective should be treated the same.' How hypocritical. You are entirely hypocritical in that argument. It falls flat when you look at how you are going to pull the rug out from under ASIC and bolster your attack on trade unions. I commend the submission to the Senate. (Time expired)
I too rise to make my contribution to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013. I think it is amazing to sit here when we go on a union-bashing exercise. It is absolutely gobsmacking to hear some of the contributions from those opposite. I did not hear it but I am told that, to use up some of the Senate's valuable time, Senator McKenzie went on a tirade about those of us on this side of the chamber—our backgrounds or what union affiliation we have. As I said, I did not hear it; I was sorting out my sock drawer when she was making her contribution.
I just want to clarify a few things. Do I have a conflict of interest with this ridiculous amendment that is before the chamber? If I can be accused of being a lifelong member of the Transport Workers Union and having been awarded life membership of the Transport Workers Union, yes, I have a conflict of interest. If I am accused of being a truck driver, not a university-graduated person who just wanted to get into politics and went to work for a member of parliament or a Liberal law firm—
I am not one of those, I can tell you. I can be accused of a lot of things but that is not one of them. I have actually been a blue-collar worker. I joined the Transport Workers Union in 1980 when I was 20 years of age because I wanted to join the Transport Workers Union. Do I have a lot of friends in the union movement? Yes, I do. There are a lot of good people in the union movement, both office holders and rank and file members—my oath. But when I am told that an opposition senator thinks it is clever to wrap us all up as—my words, not hers—'operatives for unions', they really need to do their homework. I am proud to say that my wife and I were self-employed. We had our own small family business; so, gosh, forgive me. I actually worked for myself.
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I do appreciate that coverage. I shake in my boots when Senator Edwards from South Australia attacks me. But you see, I know the value of dirt under the fingernails. I know the value of leaving school and thinking, 'What am I doing to do with myself, because I do not want to go to university?'
I also understand the value of putting up your life savings. I think I had about $1,200 in the bank when my dad said to me, 'If you want to buy a truck, mate, you're using your own money.' I understand signing up to a loan and thinking, 'Now I've got pay it off.' I also understand the value of putting in a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. I also understand feeling that if I did not have—like hundreds of thousands of other Australian workers have—the safety net of union membership behind me should I need it, what the heck would I do? How would I service my loans if I were, one day, unfairly treated, if the company I worked for decided that they did not need me, through no fault of my own? I worked for one of the largest transport companies in Australia, TNT. At the time, we were the Ansett division, Ansett Transport Industries, so I came through the Ansett sector. They were a very good company until things started going bad. My union membership came in very, very handy, and I am proud to have had that. I am also proud—and I will get to the bill but I just want to let some of those boofheads over there understand that they are not the gatekeepers to all intelligence, let alone good business practice—
Yes. I have withdrawn. Through the chair, I withdraw.
I go back to this ridiculous position we have in front of us, where those on that side think that they are so clever because they go and bash a few unions because it suits the top end of town. I came off the road when I had two young children. It was time to come home and try to be more than a part-time father. It was time to stop running between Perth and Darwin and try to be home every night. I was employed as an organiser with the Transport Workers Union. I was employed as an organiser with the Transport Workers Union not because I was an apparatchik and not because they wanted to put me in parliament—nothing could be further from the truth. It was because I was a truck driver. It was because I valued a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Fourteen years later, I left and entered the Senate. But it really irks me when smartypants on that side make ridiculous statements and they have got no idea of our backgrounds. I dismiss the ridiculous contribution from Senator McKenzie. I do not think she would be the only one.
This bill is a nonsense. I could waffle on about what it is all supposed to do. This is ideology as its craziest. This is the Liberal Party, with the help of the Nats, paying back the top end of town. But they are also throwing out a blanket, because they want to talk about some unfortunate misdemeanours we have seen from a couple of people who were employed in union leadership roles. Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop, I know your background too. Apart from being a father of two and a hardworking senator for 18 years, you have been a very successful union secretary. You served a massive membership. The majority of your membership respected not only your intelligence but your thoughts and your wisdom. You represented mainly women, a lot of people who had English as a second language and those working in stores and shops.
This bill is the government delivering to the top end of town. Employers who do the right thing have absolutely nothing to fear in dealing with unions. Employers who are doing the right thing—and there are many, many employers out there that do the right thing; unfortunately it is a few ratbags that bring the rest of them down—have nothing to fear with collective bargaining. But what they have got to fear is when the opposition come out to deliver their thankyous to the top end of town.
If we are talking about the corrupt few, I say: throw the buggers in jail and throw the key away. I am not just making that up. I would have full support from the union movement. They are not the sort of people that we want in the movement. But they are not the only ones, unfortunately, who may be corrupt or who are doing the wrong thing. I have got some statistics I wish to share with you, Mr Acting Deputy President. They are about ASIC. For a bit of background, for those who may not know: ASIC is Australia's corporate market and financial services regulator. ASIC is an independent Commonwealth government body. ASIC is set up under and administered under the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act and carries out most of its work under the Corporations Act. ASIC currently comes under the portfolio responsibilities of the Assistant Treasurer. Who does ASIC regulate? It regulates Australian companies, financial markets, financial services, organisations and professions who deal and advise in investments, superannuation, insurance, deposit taking and credit. Why am I telling you that? Because I want to tell you of some of the fine work that ASIC has done. In the last three financial years, there have been 79 criminal proceedings completed, 74 people convicted and 45 people jailed—not union secretaries but businesspeople. There have been 30 non-custodial sentences or fines, 73 civil proceedings completed and 70 illegal schemes shut down or other action taken—and I have not even started on that scenario in Western Australia with the Vietnamese market gardeners. There have been 228 people disqualified or removed from directing companies. ASIC also publish enforcement reports. The most recent one is for July to December 2013, for which the media statement says:
ASIC achieved 340 enforcement outcomes. This included criminal as well as civil and administrative (e.g. a banning or disqualification) actions, and negotiated outcomes, including enforceable undertakings (EU).
What I am saying is, if you want to look where all the crooks are, it is not how to work out where most of them are. They are in the boardrooms. Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, it is absolutely ridiculous, the contribution from the other side.
I want to allude to Senator Back's contribution. I have the greatest respect for Senator Back. We do a lot of work together in our RRAT committee. RRAT—for those who are listening—is not what you might think it is; it is rural and regional affairs and transport. Senator Back is very well regarded in agricultural industry, but he is way off track in this debate. I will tell you why he is way off track. In the closing couple of minutes that were available to him yesterday, Senator Back wanted to attack the Maritime Union of Australia. Before that mob over there get all excited and get their undies in a twist, I am just going to make it very clear that I am a personal friend of Christy Cain, the state secretary of the MUA in Perth, and I know you are too, Mr Acting Deputy President Bishop. Christy is a fantastic representative of maritime workers and waterside workers on the waterfronts throughout Western Australia.
But Senator Back had a whack at 50 employees—I think there are about 50, but I will stand corrected—offshore in Port Hedland. I believe they work in the port for Teekay Shipping. Some background: I would hope that every Western Australian would know this, but in Port Hedland every day there are about 30 or 40 ships waiting offshore to get in and load predominantly iron ore out of Port Hedland and get it to the Asian Markets, the Chinese markets, the Indian markets or wherever it needs to go. We have about 50 of these guys, who followed John Howard's dream of actually having to have secret ballots for whether they wanted to take industrial action. They followed John Howard's dream, they had the vote for the Fair Work Commission and they voted to take industrial action on a secret ballot basis. But it does not suit those on that side that there was a secret ballot and workers actually made up their minds that they wanted to take industrial action.
What do they want to take industrial action about? With Senator Back and the Libs it is all about going out there—in my words, not theirs—to try to destroy the iron ore industry or however they put it. They put their case forward: how dare these maritime workers or seamen go out there and want to take action because of safety issues that may cost—and I am using Senator Back's figures here, but I think I did read them in one of the journals to The Australian, which is not to say I like reading The Australian, but obviously I had nothing better to do for that three minutes—the industry about $100 million a day, and the action that was supported could last for seven days. So we have an industry that could lose $100 million a day. You think to yourself: 'A hundred million dollars a day? Crikey, that's a lot of money.' But then you think to yourself, 'Why the hell do these workers want to take industrial action?'
I will tell you what I did. I rang Christy Cain and spoke to Christy. What it is is that, in the trucking industry, aviation, the mines and everywhere, we have fatigue management policies. It is enshrined in legislation, and workers are protected through occupational health and safety laws to be able to have certain hours of rest and certain hours of work. It is done for a very good reason: to protect not only workers on the site but other workers, particularly in the transport industry—which this mob want to steal from us too in terms of getting remunerated for it. We want our drivers safe. The miners want their miners safe. We want other workers safe. And the seamen, waterside workers and maritime workers want to be safe too.
Christy told me about the BHP shipping operations out of Port Hedland. I was told very clearly—and I know this for a fact anyway—that BHP has fatigue management systems. They have safety procedures everywhere you go. Any of us who have visited a BHP site knows the rules and knows that occupational health and safety is foremost in their mind, and so it should be. And the mining industry does too. It is great, because it is a dangerous industry. But these rules that govern miners and truck drivers are not enforced for the maritime operation. Through Teekay Shipping, who contract to BHP in Port Hedland, whose maritime workers' job every day is to get these ships in nice and quick, get them loaded and push them out, I am told very clearly that these guys are working 12- to 14-hour shifts per day. You think that is a long stretch, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. These guys and girls are actually working these 12- to 14-hour days 28 days in a row. With the greatest of respect, it is all very well for BHP—and if I am off the Christmas list for BHP, stiff—to have rules that govern workers on mines. It is all right for BHP to have rules that govern truck drivers' hours when they are on their sites or come into their sites, which we support. But it does not have to affect workers or cover workers on the ocean. I say to the MUA and their 50 members: good on you, boys. Stick it up them. You want to get home safely.
I do not want to sound alarmist, but what would happen if one of those ships ended up on the beach or, worse still, some other terrible accident happened in the port of Port Hedland because these guys are fatigued? I am backing them. Good on you, fellas. These ships can weigh up to 250,000 tonnes. It alarms me that senators from that side—and I am talking about the Libs and the Nats—cannot get their thoughts past the poor company that may have some financial penalties imposed upon them because workers want to be safe. You guys have got to get real, seriously. You have to save your whips and your ministers. I am too embarrassed to make stupid contributions like that; but, unfortunately, some of them have.
While I am on that, there is another fear there too. Trust me, there is always another angle. Not only did the MUA have to be condemned by Liberals—particularly Liberals from WA, which makes it worse—because how dare they want to be safe; there is another game being played. As Christy Cain informed me earlier, there is a mob—you would be aware of this, Bob—called Saipan. I believe they are an Italian company. I remember Saipan because, when I was out there trucking through the eighties and early nineties in the Pilbara, they were the mob that built the gas pipeline from Karratha to Bunbury. They are working for Inpex, who are building the underwater pipeline through the Ichthys field to Darwin. Saipan are now saying that they have 33 barge loads. I cannot tell you the tonnage—I wish I could—but it is significant. That is 33 trips from Kupang, where these pipes are being made, to come down to be laid as part of their project out there on the ocean to take the pipeline to Darwin. That in itself is good, no worries; it is tremendous and good for Australia. But I will tell you want is not good for Australia: that work has always been performed by Australian workers.
I come from WA, and some on that side may attack me and say I have this thing against foreign workers, but I do not. We welcome foreign workers. This country was built on foreign workers. I am first-generation Australian. But I really have a problem when foreign workers are used when Australian workers are sitting around with their hands in their pockets. They are used because—and I will take my 32 steps and say it outside publicly—they will be paid a heck of a lot less than Australian workers.
Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Edwards from South Australia really has no idea what is going on with working people. Their work has been taken because they are losing their work to foreign workers. In WA a classic example this week was the disgraceful uncovering of the Vietnamese market-gardening operation. I think we are up to about 120-odd. I know that Senator Abetz as the Minister for Employment might be able to tell me how many foreign workers are treated like absolute animals, caged in rooms of 30 people with, I believe, one toilet. They are being absolutely exploited. I do not support this bill; I reckon it is a load of bull. But I do support the maritime union's members—I support Christy Cain—and I wish them all the very best in their pursuit of safe working practices.
BHP are welcome to ring me and tell me that this is not the case. How can you have safety procedures, how can you espouse to be the king of all safety in looking after your workers if they are on a mine or in a trucking operation coming to your mine, and how can you absolutely keep a straight face and say that that does not affect you with the maritime workers and with the shipping because they are employed by a contractor? Do not be fooled by the crocodile tears coming from BHP. Christy, all the best brother, and to your members, the brothers and sisters out there on the Port Hedland port, I wish you well in your procedures for a safe working environment.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I will not be supporting the bill.
I thank those senators that have partaken in this debate for their contribution. Let us remember what this bill is about. It is, in fact, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill. It is seeking to implement the policy that we, as a coalition, announced well in advance of the last election; in fact, 12 months in advance. It was out there for all to see. I thought we had won the election but, no, the Labor Party and the Greens are going to keep using and abusing their majority in this place to frustrate the will of the Australian people. If I recall Senator Wong correctly this morning in the media, she said that she and the Labor Party were elected to oppose. They were elected to oppose the government. I think that says it all. It indicates the mindset; it is their negativity; it is their resentment of the Australian people voting for a change of management on 7 September last year.
What is this registered organisations commission bill all about? It is very simply this: under corporate law, if a company director rips off his or her shareholders, they potentially face a period of imprisonment of five years, or a fine of, I think, $320,000. Now, if you go to a union official or, indeed, an employer organisation official that rips off his or her members, do you know what the penalty is? It is $10,000. Those opposite in all their ranting and raving and contributions in this debate were not able to indicate in any way, shape or form what the material or moral difference is between a company director ripping off shareholders or a union official ripping off members. What is the difference, morally or materially? Absolutely nothing.
What we are seeking to do in this legislation is to make the penalty regime for ripping off shareholders the same as for ripping off members. Why did we think that that was necessary? Because of the former Labor member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, because of the former National President of the Australian Labor Party, Michael Williamson, because of Mr Blewitt and Mr Bruce Wilson of the Australian Workers Union scandal of some 20 years ago, we believe there was the need for a regime that put in place penalties that would ensure, or hope to ensure, that if you do the crime you would actually do the time and pay a penalty.
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
My goodness, we have the former union official from the other side. They are all the same from over there. They are here courtesy of the unions, by the unions and, regrettably, for the unions. Keep in mind that the Australian workforce has determined for themselves, now that the coalition has given workers the opportunity to decide whether or not to join a union, and 83 per cent have decided not to belong to trade unions. I just ask the simple question: I wonder why? Indeed, there have been some decent trade union officials who have come to me and said, 'Whatever you do, don't quote my name or where I'm from but, Eric, you are doing a great thing for the trade union movement in this country with this legislation. Because you know what, all I want to be is a shop steward. I want to be a person that looks after the interests of the workers. I have no desire to become a Labor senator, therefore I don't need slush funds, therefore I don't need to have slush funds to boost membership.'
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Abetz is alluding to the fact that he believes all Labor union officials who become senators have been involved in slush funds, and I find that completely and utterly offensive.
Well, the former Labor leader that Senator Bilyk helped knife off, Ms Gillard, in her exit interview with Slater and Gordon admitted that every union has a slush fund. So, Senator Bilyk, I either take your word or Ms Gillard's, your former celebrated Prime Minister. One or the other must be right or wrong. I will let the public of Australia determine as to whether Senator Bilyk or Ms Gillard was correct, but I am not going to get involved in that debate.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
Senator Collins, another former union official. They come into this place thick and fast. The simple fact is this: Ms Gillard said it in her exit interview with Slater and Gordon, 'Every union has a slush fund.' She is either right or wrong. We believe that there should not be this sort of mechanism that is now being shown with the Australian Workers Union and its Victorian 2020 fund that collected $250,000. A union official, using the union's name, collected hundreds of thousands of dollars but never put it through the union books—exactly the trick of Ralph Blewett and Bruce Wilson 20 years earlier. The CFMEU started off a drug and alcohol fund—a very worthy cause. There was $1 million allegedly raised for it from employers and elsewhere. The sad fact is it appears that not one cent has actually been spent on that. But it will be revealed in the royal commission in due course whether or not that has occurred. We then hear about the Electrical Trades Union waterfront mansion for one of their officials and so the list goes on. It seems to us as a government, having taken these issues to the Australian people, that this is the sort of legislation that nearly every union member actually wants because it protects their money.
I have got news for those sitting opposite. As I go around factory floors and other workplaces in Australia, the vast majority of the workers that are actually union members—so it is a majority of a very clear minority—say that they are members of a union not because they want to hold hands and sing Solidarity Forever but because they see their membership as an insurance policy for their own protection. So the relationship is a bit like house insurance: it is a payment they make in the hope they will never have to use it. But you know what? Union members want a proper guarantee that their money will be used for the purposes for which they give it. And that is why insurance companies have robust reporting mechanisms required of them as should registered organisations.
It is passing strange that having announced this legislation as we did before the election, which Labor says is completely unnecessary, Mr Shorten, in one of the most clumsy, flat-footed approaches and indeed panicked by our policy, raced into this place with some legislation which Labor and the Greens rammed through this place without proper consideration, which has now left the reporting requirements in an absolute shambles. Indeed, the trade union movement has been to me requesting that we amend Mr Shorten's legislation because it was so hopeless. The Senate committee looking into our bill suggested we make amendment to the existing legislation to undo the mess Mr Shorten created with the help of those Labor and Green senators sitting opposite. Yet again, it is another example where Labor, in its dying days and in cahoots with the Greens in this place, forced through legislation that was not thought out, that tied people up in red tape serving no useful purpose and then tried to window-dress to overcome the need for what everybody understands is necessary—that is, a more robust supporting system and stronger penalties.
Now we have before this place, as part of this legislation, some amendment to fix up Mr Shorten's mess. Labor and the Greens, I suspect, will be voting down this legislation, which will mean we do not even get the opportunity to clean up Mr Shorten's mess, which, the trade union movement in agreement with the employer organisations believe should be cleaned up. They are on a unity ticket on this but Labor senators opposite, so absolutely committed to ensuring that no robust reporting conditions be applied to unions, will say, 'Bad luck brother and sister'—to use Senator Sterle's language in the union movement. You will have to cop these reporting conditions that will regrettably see shop stewards having to report what their spouse might be earning or what assets they have.
We as a coalition did not ventilate the activities of the Craig Thomsons of this world and the Michael Williamsons of this world or the other activities that are slowly being ventilated but—I have said this before and I will repeat it—the Fairfax Media and the ABC, surprisingly, exposed some of the scams that were operating. They simply asked the question: why shouldn't the honest trade union members, the honest trade union men and women of Australia be protected from all these scams that have now been uncovered and disclosed? Why should they not be protected?
It is interesting that, in all this, we do in fact have the support of such people as Paul Howes of the Australian Workers Union and of Chris Brown. Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson, who are both former presidents of the ACTU, who are both former ministers in a Labor government and who both have had a lifetime of commitment to their service to the trade union movement, see the need for the act of the trade union movement to be cleaned up. If they can see it, why cannot those that are currently holding office, courtesy of the trade union movement in this place, see it as well?
If ever there was a conflict of interest writ large it is in relation to those Labor senators in this place, who are, I understand, going to vote down this legislation.
It will be a matter of great regret if this legislation does not get carried. It is legislation that we put out there in lights before the election. We said it was important legislation. We therefore said it would be introduced within the first week of the parliament sitting because it was so important. Can I thank the departmental officials and the parliamentary draftspeople that worked so hard to make sure it was ready for the first week. And here we are in the Senate with Labor and Green senators denying the will of the Australian people, still in full resentment mode of what the Australian people decided on 7 September and in denial of that which their own party elders like Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean have said to them: 'This is basically good legislation. Let it go through and clean up the trade union movement.' Then in relation to the amendments that we are moving to the existing legislation, you do know, those sitting opposite, that those amendments are fundamentally required for the benefit of the trade union movement itself and employer organisations and you are wilfully blocking that and as a result making life exceptionally difficult for the administration of the trade union movement.
We can hear about the terrible things that occurred in a market garden in Western Australia. Can I simply say to Senator Sterle that the workplace relations legislation and framework in Australia has not changed over the past seven years. These things have happened under Labor's Fair Work regime. You cannot blame the coalition for the atrocities. If what Senator Sterle says is right, and I am willing to accept that, can I just remind those opposite that it has all occurred under their watch, under their legislation, under their regime. Bad as it is, condemned as it should be, I ask how does that relate to getting rid of corruption out of the trade union movement. It is completely and utterly unrelated but a desire to use up the time, because there is no argument against that fundamental proposition, which is, what is the moral difference, what is the material difference, between a company director ripping off shareholders and a union official ripping off members? Why shouldn't the penalty be the same? None of the Labor senators in their contributions have dealt with that issue in any way, shape or form.
We know we have got the arguments on our side, we know we have got the right on our side, we know we have got the people of Australia on our side. The regrettable fact is, and we recognise this, that the Labor Party and the Greens are not on the side of the people of Australia, on the moral side of this debate. I commend the bill to the Senate.