Monday, 2 March 2015
Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
This is the third instalment of my speech on this matter. This bill is a real reminder as to why this bill clearly should not be passed. This bill is designed to be the latest instalment in the considerable attacks that this government is running on the union movement. We have seen 'Colonel Abetz' roll out his ABCC—
Thank you for that assistance. This piece of legislation is the latest round in a whole wave of attacks we are seeing mounted on the union movement, from the Australian Building and Construction Commission to the problems with the royal commission. This legislation itself is very damaging.
One of my big concerns is that the attacks are aimed at unions, like the CFMEU, who are out there working with the workers on the job around the very important issue of occupational health and safety. This government so often attempts to limit the ability of unions and the workers on the job to defend adequate safety standards at work. Everybody has a right to expect that when their loved one goes to work that person will come home of an evening.
When the Howard government was in power, there was such a serious attack on unions that the number of deaths occurring on the job increased at that time. This is again a reminder as to why we need to not allow this legislation to pass.
There is the interesting case with regard to Boral. Boral Chief Executive, Mike Kane, has called on other construction companies to join him in attacking the CFMEU, which he asserts is driving down productivity. We all know those arguments; we hear them time and time again.
It is worth noting that Boral, between 1998 and 2008, donated more than $540,000 to the Liberals, the Nationals and the Labor Party; $300,000 of this went to the Liberals and Nationals alone. You see the money going to those political parties and in this place you see the Liberals and Nationals line up to amplify their attacks on the union movement.
While Boral have had an easy run in the media, increasing their accusations of blackmail and boycotts, what should have been hit in the headlines was the many safety breaches that this company has been involved in. Boral Construction Materials was fined $200,000 in 2004 following the death of a roadworker in Goulburn in New South Wales. In South Australia, Boral Masonry has been fined for serious workplace accidents.
This is where we need to be clear. The allegations from Minister Abetz about blackmail and boycotts are because the workers and their unions are calling on employers and the government to put workplace safety first, and because they are working for improved on-the-job conditions. The Greens strongly support workers' rights to take industrial action, and the right to strike is something set out in our policy.
I think what is also relevant in this debate is that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has taken out a case against a unionist and the CFMEU. The ACCC Chairman, Rod Sims, has publicly stated that they could face fines of up to $10 million for secondary boycotts taken against Boral, which was supplying concrete to Grocon, the company the CFMEU was in dispute with over major industry breaches—again, relevant detail to this debate. A subsidiary of Grocon was fined $250,000 in November last year for what the court called 'failing to ensure a safe workplace'. Three people died in a workplace accident.
Meanwhile, the CFMEU has been fined millions of dollars for trying to make the workplace safe. This union has already paid $1.25 million over its dispute with Grocon. So there we have it: three people die in workplace accidents and there is a $250,000 fine. The CFMEU was fined $1.25 million for fighting for a safe workplace. The dispute with Grocon and Boral is over the union's demand that union nominated health and safety representatives be employed on all construction sites.
Surely the minister, in his speech in reply, should detail what is wrong with that. Construction workers are facing an increasing risk of injury. We know when there is less regulation more workers die on these jobs. He should be setting out why he wants to limit those rights. To have a safe workplace, to reduce the chances of workers being killed and maimed at work, we do need the regulations, we need the standards and they need to be put in place very quickly.
Who is investigating the intimidation of workers ordered to work under unsafe conditions? That is a question that Senator Abetz needs to set out. Why are these incidents not investigated by his office or by the royal commission? Why do the terms of reference for the royal commission not allow it to investigate the corruption, the intimidation and the failure to ensure a safe workplace by companies?
Our generation cannot allow hard-fought-for workplace rights to be wound back. While the Abbott government prioritises the sectional interests of those whose concerns do not go beyond increasing their profits, the Abetz war will rage. He might win some battles but he is not going to make workplaces safer.
What would one expect from the Greens? It is always very interesting, Senator Rhiannon, that you come into this place. We just heard your very spirited defence of the CFMEU but what you forgot to tell us about the proceedings between the CFMEU and Boral was the absolute culture of silence and fear of reprisal that is very much a feature of the building and construction industry. Indeed, ACCC Chairman Sims, during the course of those proceedings, had this to say:
The ACCC has only been able to progress the investigations by compelling people to give evidence.
Indeed, without the ACCC's compulsory powers, the serious wrongdoing alleged could not have been put before the court. And that is one of the reasons why this legislation should be passed.
But of course the Greens as well as those opposite are heavily conflicted in this matter. It is not surprising why they are not supporting this legislation. The Australian Electoral Commission returns, which were released on 2 February, show that the CFMEU contributed $1.33 million to the ALP in 2013-14. Senator Rhiannon failed to tell us that the CFMEU also donated $145,000 to the Australian Greens. Indeed, overall, the figures show that the ALP has received $9.64 million from the unions and the Greens received $465,000 including also $300,000 from the ETU.
So, Senator Rhiannon, do not come into this place with your sanctimonious lectures. If you are going to put your sanctimonious lectures to us, perhaps you might also disclose your conflict of interest on this issue by disclosing that you are in here as a mouthpiece for the CFMEU.
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I rise to speak today on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. There are two words that sum up the need for this legislation. Over 10 years in this place, I have pursued a number of matters. One of these was that the sordid saga that became the Craig Thomson affair. Those are the two words why this legislation needs to be passed. Craig Thomson, the disgraced former Labor member for Dobell and one-time secretary of the Health Services Union in his maiden speech, which I have quoted in the past, stated:
The support I received from the entire union movement and of course my own union, the Health Services Union, was phenomenal.
Little did we know the extent of that support that the HSU gave. How ironic that Mr Thomson's comments, with the wisdom of hindsight, were made exactly seven years ago in the other place.
When people think of the Health Services Union, they might imagine a cohort of doctors and highly-paid medical professionals who are financially stable and extensively educated in their chosen field. In reality, the union fund that Craig Thomson stole from was financed largely by people of considerably less wealth. Indeed, most of them were aged care workers who penny pinched on a minimum wage to have their hard earned salary funnelled into feeding Craig Thomson's habits.
Senator Abetz in a media release on 17 December after Craig Thomson was sentenced was absolutely correct when he referred to the moral decay that was and is the long and shameful saga of the Craig Thomson affair, which showed the reason why we need a registered organisations commission.
What did that sad and sorry saga cost the taxpayers of Australia? It cost $4 million through the Fair Work Commission inquiry alone. So as we call on those opposite to support the coalition's registered organisation bill, I ask those opposite: how do you know that there are not more Craig Thomsons and Michael Williamses out there? I believe that there are and that the HSU was only the tip of the iceberg.
So what did the Labor Party do? What did the Labor Party do?
Senator Cameron interjecting—
You defended him to the hilt, Senator—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President. You defended him to the hilt. And I see Senator Dastyari sitting next to Senator Cameron. You defended this guy to the hilt. Shame on you. Shame, shame, shame on you, and shame on the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, when repeatedly she was asked—
Throughout the whole sad and sorry saga, the ALP promoted, protected and endorsed the individual who represented, in my view, one of the worst features of union boss rorts and Labor lies.
When you look at the history that we saw emerging as a consequence of the Craig Thomson affair, the betrayal of honest union members, it began—
Mr Acting Deputy President, through you to Senator Cameron: it began with Coastal Voice. I have spent many, many hours in this chamber disclosing issues pertinent to the activities of the former member for Dobell. But these allegations were around in 2009. They were around earlier than that. So what did Labor do? They re-endorsed Mr Thomson as their candidate in 2010. The whispers were out there, and they have emerged as a consequence of the investigations into his activities.
When there was an opportunity to condemn Mr Thomson's behaviour, those opposite and their Greens alliance partners voted against the motion. Indeed, the former Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, told us that she looked forward to the member the Dobell being there for a very, very, very long time to come. Of course, the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten, turned around and told us that he believed him. He believed him!
Of course, the Labor Party forked out a lot of money. I have made comments in this place in relation to the initial quarter of a million dollars that was allegedly paid by the New South Wales ALP to assist Mr Thomson with his legal fees. We then heard further allegations in relation to the then New South Wales ALP secretary, now Senator Dastyari, spending $350,000 of ALP money helping to keep Mr Thomson in parliament.
Despite this sordid saga and all the implications that come with it, those opposite still persist in not wishing to see this legislation passed. Why? Because there is an obligation on those opposite to protect their union mates, the union crooks. I call on those opposite: you protect those decent members of the union movement who need protection from the Williamsons and from the Thomsons, so why don't you get on board and support us in this legislation?
Thank you. This legislation is about protecting the most vulnerable workers by legislating accountability and transparency for the union hacks who have gotten their way with criminal activity for far too long. The workers of Australia need to be protected from the excesses of the union movement. Regrettably, this is happening too many times and too often. We believe that this legislation will protect the union movement from the other Craig Thomsons and the other Michael Williamsons out there.
Some we already know, and I have mentioned those. Others have been revealed in the recently released report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption inquiry. We already know that the interim report makes adverse comments and criticisms about officials of various unions and the operation of a number of slush funds and other entities. I want to refer to a number of the unions mentioned. Senator Abetz in a media release dated 19 December 2014 refers to the two volumes of the interim report of the royal commission into trade union governance that were tabled—and of course the third, confidential volume, which deals with the serious criminal matters, which could not be publicly released because of 'serious risks to the safety of certain individuals referred to in this volume'.
The royal commission made a significant number of recommendations, including that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions 'consider criminal charges against a range of CFMEU officials in relation to various acts of intimidation and coercion', that ASIC 'consider charges against the Queensland state secretary of the CFMEU', that the DPP 'consider criminal charges against a range of HSU officials'—and the list goes on.
The royal commission's comments in relation to the confidential volume certainly have to raise alarm bells. They are of huge, grave concern. To say that evidence could not be publicly released because of 'serious threats made to certain witnesses and their families' reveals, as the royal commissioner correctly stated, 'grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state'. We know that the police are pursuing these matters.
The interim report also makes adverse comments and criticisms about certain officials and a number of other slush funds: the TWU, the AWU, the HSU, the CFMEU—and the list goes on. The interim report also identifies the five key areas of concern about the current use and operation of union election slush funds: how they operate in secret, how they are characterised by deficient or nonexisting record-keeping, other contributions to them may not be voluntary, how they give a disproportionate advantage to incumbents—
Senator Cameron interjecting—
Sorry, Senator—through you, Madam Chair—are you threatening? Senator Cameron, would you like to repeat that for the record?
Madam Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: what I did indicate, if there is any uncertainty, was that there should be a royal commission into the Liberal Party slush funds as well.
Anyone reading that interim report cannot be in any doubt about why there is a need to look at governance in the union movement and in other registered organisations through the introduction of a registered organisations commission. Goodness only knows what is in that confidential volume dealing with serious criminal matters, which, as I have indicated, will not be released for fear of safety to certain witnesses and their families.
The section of the report which deals with the CFMEU concluded that there is a 'culture of wilful defiance of the law which appears to lie at the core of the CFMEU'. The report further confirms the pressing need for the legislation to counter the thuggery and lawlessness in the construction industry. In relation to the CFMEU, as I indicated, the royal commissioner referred to the spread of the culture of unlawfulness in the building and construction industry and to what he said was a 'culture of wilful defiance of the law which appears to lie at the core of the CFMEU'. These are the reasons that establishing a registered organisations commission has been listed for debate as a matter of priority in the first Senate sitting week of 2015. It is why we need this commission. This bad conduct has to be curbed.
The good news is that in this act we will establish an independent watchdog—the registered organisations commission—which will monitor and regulate registered organisations with enhanced investigation and information-gathering powers. This act will amend the requirements on officers' disclosure of material, personal interests and related voting and decision-making rights and will change grounds for disqualification and ineligibility for office. It will also strengthen existing financial accounting, disclosure and transparency obligations under the registered organisations act by putting certain rule obligations on the face of the registered organisations act and making them enforceable as civil remedy provisions. Finally, it increases civil penalties and introduces a criminal offence for serious breaches of officers' duties as well as new offences in relation to the conduct of investigations under the act. The registered organisations commission, when established, would have an important education function to assist registered organisations and their officials to understand and to work with these laws. To be clear, officials and registered organisations will be able to get advice and assistance to help them in their duties and to understand the framework. The passage of the bill will mean that the commission will be there to help and assist, but of course, if there is illegality or continued and deliberate noncompliance with the laws, the commission will have the powers available to take prosecutions and to allow the courts to decide on penalties.
In addition, we are about marrying the situation in relation to companies and unions. In short, we want to make sure that the penalty regime for ripping off shareholders is the same as for ripping off members of the unions. Why should unions be deserving of less rigor in terms of penalties? The impact on some of Australia's most hardworking workers can be just as dreadful as on shareholders. However, it should be understood that the penalties are not mandated in the bill. Whilst legislation can prescribe maximum penalties, the ultimate penalty will be always at the discretion of the court. It is, however, fair to say that the penalties are potentially heavy to send a clear message. Thuggery and slush funds are not beyond the full rigor of the law. This bill if passed will still, consistent with longstanding practice, grant the courts the ability to determine the actual penalty within the context delivered in this legislation. The seriousness test encompassed in this bill would again be left for a court of law to pass judgement on within the framework of the legislation.
Members have expressed concerns about this legislation. The only individuals who should have anything to be mildly concerned about in relation to this bill are those who are found by a court of law to have acted corruptly. I for one have absolutely no problem seeing justice brought down on those involved in criminal activity. A registered organisations commissioner will be able to support officials. Training, fact sheets and consistent information will aid in the understanding of the requirements set out in this legislation. It is only rogue officials who will have anything to fear. I look forward to seeing these individuals watched and monitored in a way that protects the many hardworking and diligent individuals who contribute their wages to supporting registered organisations that they are part of. Why are Labor and their Green alliance partners not wholly supportive of this legislation? As I indicated earlier, one only has to look at the returns from the Australian Electoral Commission to have the answer to that. Those opposite and their Green alliance partners are heavily conflicted in this matter. Of course, we saw it recently in Victoria when the newly-elected Premier, who is wedded to his union mates, introduced legislation to repeal police move-on laws. This has gone on for too long. It is time that the rorts were brought to an end. (Time expired)
I rise to speak in this debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. Well how far we have come and how little has changed! The government still persists with its agenda of shackling unions, making it difficult for people to secure representation and attacking working conditions for millions of Australians. In March 2013 I spoke in this place against a private senator's bill from Senator Abetz that was not too dissimilar to the one in front of us today. In that speech I emphasised Labor's belief that officers of registered organisations or anyone in a position of trust who misuses the funds of members, who acts inappropriately or who takes benefits that they are not entitled to must never be condoned.
Less than a year later, in May 2014, I spoke again to address a government bill that continued on the same failed lines as Senator Abetz's doomed private senator's bill. We all know that this bill was also rejected. It did not have the support of registered organisations, it did not have the support of industry groups and, unsurprisingly, it failed to gain the support of the Senate. Yet here we are again today looking at another slightly mutated clone that Labor still cannot support.
Government members continue to bring up the HSU case as evidence that there is something fundamentally, systematically wrong with how registered organisations operate in this country and the laws surrounding them. Ironically, it is this very case that illustrates that the system is working. In this case the Fair Work Commission collected evidence and the courts gave their verdict. Due process was used to carefully consider the evidence, a decision was made and punishment was meted out appropriately. The system worked as it should have. Nothing in this bill before us today would stop people committing fraud, despite what those opposite continue to assert.
As I mentioned earlier, Labor support appropriate regulation for registered organisations, including a properly empowered regulator and consequences for those who do not follow the rules. We are committed to ensuring that unions and employer organisations are accountable, but that is not what this bill is about. This legislation is clearly little more than a spiteful witch-hunt and simply another way to weaken the rights of working people and their unions. Twice now we have seen so little support for the government's plan to weaken registered organisations and twice we have seen condemnation of this policy, yet here we are with a bill with the same intentions as the two that preceded it to weaken unions.
Even with the proposed amendments there are still significant concerns with the bill. It still exceeds penalties in the Corporations Act 2001 and in doing so breaks a fundamental promise that the government made to the Australian people before the election. The government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations. This bill does not do that. The reality is that this government is so blinded by its anti-union agenda it has been unable to recognise that this is a fundamentally flawed policy. It is a policy that will not strengthen the system.
When the predecessor of this bill went before the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee it became clear how flawed it was. It was criticised by employer groups and trade unions alike, something that does not happen too often. The Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation pointed out that the bill:
… is unnecessary, poorly structured and excessive, particularly when the Parliament in 2012 enacted the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012 that largely and adequately dealt with the same issues by introducing enhanced reporting and financial management standards.
Similarly the Ai Group said:
The Bill would impose a far more onerous regime for officers of registered organisations than what applies to directors of public companies.
It became clear that the bill presented an ineffective solution to an ill-defined problem that actually flew in the face of the government's own promise of red tape reduction.
Today I stand before you as a former state secretary of a trade union—the Tasmanian branch of the AMWU. I am proud to put that on the record—my experience as a union member, an organiser and a secretary. I do so with the benefit of firsthand experience of how unions deliver real outcomes for working Australians. There is no doubt that registered organisations play a fundamental role in Australia's workplace relations system. They are created and registered for the purpose of representing Australian employers and employees at work. They are a fundamental mechanism to ensure that our workplace relations system strikes a fair balance between the rights of workers and the interests of their employers.
As I said earlier, there is no doubt that the bill before us today has nothing to do with strengthening union governance, despite what Senator Abetz has asserted. Those opposite love nothing more than to demonise and demean unions and those who support them. They like to use emotionally laden terms like 'union thugs' and 'heavies' to demean union workers and smear the reputations of the vast majority of honest, hardworking union representatives. What they do not want people to know is how strong the current regulations for registered organisations already are.
The truth is that the registered organisations act already allows for criminal proceedings to be initiated where funds are stolen or are obtained by fraud. It already ensures that the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police as appropriate. Not only that but the same act already provides for statutory civil penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly convenes an order or direction made by the Federal Court or the Fair Work Commission under the registered organisations act or the Fair Work Act.
Under the Fair Work Act officers of registered organisations already have fiduciary duties similar to those 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. The registered organisations act already requires officers to exercise care and diligence, act with good faith and not improperly use their position for a political advantage.
Clearly, this bill is not about better governance and accountability, as we already have that, and self-evidently it is not about fixing a broken system. The sole purpose of this bill is to hit registered organisations hard and to make it highly unappealing for honest volunteers to play their part in the governance of their union or their organisation for the betterment of its members. This bill would make volunteering on the board of a union or employer organisation such a risky proposition that registered organisations would find it hard to fill these positions. It sets out to remove the necessary ingredient for effective functioning of volunteer organisations—that is, their volunteers. This bill wants to use the improper and fraudulent actions of one or two officials to fundamentally weaken all trade unions into the future.
On this side, we believe in fairness in employment and in industrial relations. We believe in an appropriate balance that helps business to be profitable and productive, while ensuring a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. When Labor was in government it delivered positive reforms—not penalise over two million Australians and their families—because it wanted to unite and negotiate collectively for reasonable conditions. In fact, in 2012, the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten, as minister, strengthened the laws to increase financial transparency and disclosure by registered organisations to their members. As a result, today, we have regulation of trade unions that has never been stronger, accountability that has never been higher and the powers of the Fair Work Commission to investigate and prosecute for breaches that have never been broader. Not only that, Labor tripled the penalties for breaches, which means they have never been tougher.
When I spoke on this bill last year, I talked about the importance of a union and the importance of acceptance of unions for some female workers in a George Town factory, in my home state of Tasmania, a number of years ago. It is a story that shows how important unions are in providing a voice for working Australians; it is a story that highlights the need for representation when there is a power imbalance in the workplace, a toxic culture or an unscrupulous employer; and it is a story that is just as relevant today. I will share it again for those who were not here listening.
It was a small fishery and processing facility. I, as a union organiser, was asked by some of the staff to visit and talk with the workers. When we approached management they were helpful. They invited us in, gathered the workers in the lunch room and made us feel welcome. The workers at the processing facility were mainly women, all of them casually employed. The few men in the workplace were all permanent. With permanency came security, but it also bred an attitude of superiority. We spoke to the staff about joining the union and people seemed positive. We left some information and told them we would come back the next week. We thought we had had a good hearing and that we would be able to offer support to the workers.
Unfortunately—and many people listening will know where this story is going—when we left, the boss got everyone together in the lunch room and said that if they joined the union they would lose their jobs. 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, publicly, no-one was interested. However, the silent members called again and arranged for us to meet with a group of workers.
We met with the women at one of their houses. They told us what had been going on in their workplace: bad behaviour toward the female workers by the men. Some acts might have been perceived as harmless by some, but many other acts a reasonable person would frame as assault and dangerous. The workers would hose down the facilities 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 jobs, spraying them with a high-powered hose. It was harassment; it could be viewed as assault; it was certainly dangerous.
There were other cases where some of the men would force themselves into a bathroom cubicle in the unisex toilets while one of the women was in there. It was clearly designed to intimidate the female workers. One day, it got out of hand. One of the men forced his way into the cubicle. The woman was able to fight him off, but she was left with visible bruising on her arms. She told me that she spoke to her husband when she got home that night, who was at first angry and wanted the man to be punished. His 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 the behaviour. We asked them, 'Why didn't you raise these matters with the supervisor?' They replied, '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 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, many staff at this George Town workplace were not able to walk into their boss's office, raise issues of concern and receive a fair hearing. Sadly, this is still the case in so many workplaces today. Unions give workers the means to join together to give themselves some bargaining power in circumstances where there are serious power imbalances. If there had been a union at this factory providing a mechanism for the workers to raise issues and to be listened to fairly, these issues may not have happened at all.
What will this bill do for people like those factory workers in George Town? It will do nothing. It is not designed to help them. In fact, it is designed to disempower working Australians and make it harder for unions to provide assistance. As with so many of the policies of those opposite, it is the most vulnerable who will suffer. It is those whose employment is the least secure, it is those who have limited opportunities in a tough marketplace and it is those whose jobs could be at risk if they spoke out on their own.
I repeat: this bill will not help these people. When those opposite speak in favour of this bill, they ignore these stories, these real-life stories of working Australians. Despite their empty rhetoric, the Liberal government does not seek a middle ground—their so-called sensible centre. No, they seek to rid the country of unions as a favour to their big-business friends.
As I mentioned earlier, the legislation governing registered organisations already requires officers to act with care and diligence, to act in good faith, to not improperly use their positions and to not improperly use information they have obtained through acting as a member of an organisation. (Time expired)