Monday, 17 August 2015
Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]; Second Reading
As I was saying before the debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2] was interrupted, the bill's obligations on officers of the trade unions and employer associations is too wide and creates an undue administrative burden on some registered organisations that are less than one per cent of the financial size of companies that have less stringent obligations under the Corporations Act. The most important problem, however, is that registered organisations are not companies. It seems to be a matter that seems to have escaped the attention of the government. The government has completely failed to recognise the difference between corporations and registered organisations. Unions are different to corporations, which are different to charities and clubs, and Australia rightly regulates each type of entity differently. Otherwise, the rationale of their debate would be, 'We will use the corporations power to regulate small incorporated bodies. 'We will use the corporations power to regulate charities, clubs and companies and they will all be put into the one mix.' It is not surprising that the government might want that but, ultimately, it is not a sensible or rational policy choice.
As we know, many different entities in this country are covered by different regulatory regimes that are more appropriately suited to what they do and how they do it. That is the sensible option and the sensible way forward. The Independent Panel on Best Practice for Union Governance, in its report to the ACTU, found that a number of researchers have questioned the merit of drawing upon a corporate model of accountability, pointing to the fact that trade unions are very different types of organisations and that, even within trade unions, there are different organisations, ranging from the very large to the very small. Their rationales for formation, the purposes they serve and the nature of their membership are some of the largest differences. You do not have in Woolworths or Coles or a multinational business, for example, a management body that is elected by the members. Shareholders are different. They have large financial exposure to a company by reason of the size of their shareholding; by contrast to union members who necessarily invest only their generally fairly modest membership fees.
But, in truth, this is not a debate about unions and how they should be regulated. This government is using this piece of legislation as a way to bash unions and to use accountability and transparency as the stalking horse, as a way to undermine unions.
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
I will take that interjection, because I know Senator O'Sullivan really does like unions. He would have been a member of a union for 20-odd years and probably used their services many times over the period that he was a member of the police union. I would not even be surprised if Senator O'Sullivan had been in an official capacity in that union. I am sure he would agree with me that this legislation is all about bashing unions, and nothing else. The government of course have many other things that they can talk about, but in this instance they do not want to talk about some of the important issues that face Australia. What they would rather do is try to distract everyone's attention away from some of the big issues and onto unions.
Amongst other things, the opposition sought to engage with the government to flesh out what they sought to achieve in relation to these reforms and whether the government would, in a bipartisan way, allow amendments, including amendments that would ensure penalties were not greater than those in the Corporations Act. As I understand it—and I am happy to be corrected—the shadow minister, Brendan O'Connor, engaged with the Minister for Employment about these very issues; however, the government remained implacable.
The government continue to peddle this line that they want the position that they have promulgated. They do not want to negotiate; they do not want to actually secure the passage of this legislation to improve accountability and transparency. Why? Because they want to use it as a Trojan Horse to bash trade unions with. They are simply using the bill, along with millions of taxpayers' dollars being spent on the royal commission, to attack those they perceive as their political enemies, as may play out in the royal commission today.
There have been fundamentally unfair pieces of legislation introduced into the parliament that seek to cut hard-earned working conditions for workers who want to achieve a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. There was a Productivity Commission review into the Fair Work legislation, which is the government's mandate to cut rights and conditions by using the Productivity Commission as another Trojan Horse. In fact, they have got a team of horses.
The dirty trick to cut government cleaners' pay is another example of where the government are undermining our strong industrial relations system, as is scrapping the low-income super contribution, hitting the retirement incomes of low-paid working Australians. And we have seen them delay the increase in the superannuation guarantee. The Prime Minister had promised that no worker would go backwards under him, but his freeze means workers on average wages would be $579 worse off over a four-year agreement.
The government have also had a shocking public sector bargaining framework which is designed, I think, to have no outcome for workers in the public sector. And let's not forget the 180-degree turnaround on paid parental leave. I would like to hear their explanation of that U-turn. We have also heard from 10 coalition backbenchers, and members of the frontbench, coming out and calling for the abolition or cutting of penalty rates. This is the policy pursuit of those opposite. We have also got the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption where, just last week, The Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the commissioner, His Honour Dyson Heydon, had accepted an invitation to attend a New South Wales Liberal Party fundraiser and, as I understand it, that is playing out as we speak. The coalition are confused, but they really do have a shocking record on industrial relations. And it is not surprising to anyone that when they said WorkChoices was dead, buried and cremated, they had their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Before the last election the now Prime Minister tried to convince the Australian people that, if elected, he would not make any substantial changes to the workplace relations landscape. He promised he would not touch workers' conditions; he promised he would not cut wages or penalties. How things change in such a very short period of time! More than half-way through the term we have now got a raft of policy changes that this government wants to implement to hurt working families. Labor does not support this bill.
We have seen this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2], many times before, and what that tells us is that the Abbott government are in trouble, because we know that when they are in trouble they turn on trade unions. They turn on working Australians. They had a shocker of a week last week. Firstly, they had a six-hour caucus meeting on marriage equality and came out with exactly the same position as they went in with—except that now they have got a few more disgruntled backbenchers and, indeed, frontbenchers.
Then at the end of the week we found that the New South Wales branch of the Liberal Party had invited the commissioner from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption to a Liberal Party fundraiser. No matter which way they dress it up, that is what it is. It is a Liberal Party fundraiser and the commissioner of the royal commission into unions—which is nothing more and nothing less than a witch-hunt—has been invited to give the keynote address. Again, it demonstrates how out of touch the Abbott government are.
They seem to think that if they keep saying that it is not a Liberal fundraiser, that someone, somewhere in the Australian community might believe them. But everybody has seen the invitation; everyone is able to read for themselves that it is clearly a Liberal Party fundraiser. The other question that came out today in question time is that, given the Attorney-General obviously received an invitation, did he pay his $80? Perhaps we will get to the truth of that.
The other clear issue with the Abbott government is that there are actions and there are words. Despite their words, it is their actions that really count. We heard the Prime Minister say that WorkChoices was dead, buried and cremated, yet bill after bill in this place resurrects WorkChoices in one way or another. As Senator Ludwig just pointed out, there have been a whole raft of issues—an attack on penalty rates, superannuation, cleaners' pay and the clothing trade industry to try to reform that industry. On and on it goes. There have been attacks on low-income super. The public sector has been bargaining in good faith, yet the Abbott government refuse to move unless public servants choose to take a significant reduction in their conditions, then they might get a few more cents in their pocket. But nobody is fooled by this—it is only the Abbott government that remain fooled by their own rhetoric. They need to have a good, hard look at themselves.
We know that the leadership rumblings have started again. We were promised after the last leadership vote that good government would start from then on, but we are yet to see it. The debacle on marriage equality, the debacle on their hand-picked royal commissioner—on and on the scandal, dysfunction and chaos continue. This registered organisations bill is just one of many attacks on workers—on those who put their hand up for voluntary positions within trade unions and, indeed, within employer organisations. They are under attack again. I think this is, at least, the third time this bill has come before the Senate, with barely a change to the intent of the bill. Let's look at the background.
I heard today those opposite going on and on about the Health Services Union and it was a disgrace—there is no getting away from that—but Labor in government acted. We changed the way that registered organisations had to operate and those changes are still working their way through the system. Of course, the Abbott government would pretend that nothing changed, when in fact significant changes were made to that bill, which were opposed by the ACTU and by employer organisations. Nevertheless, Labor went ahead, when in government, and put those changes in place. As I said, many of those changes are still working their way through the system.
We had a couple of public inquiries into this bill. It did not matter whether it was the Senate legislation committee where the government has the numbers or the references committee where the government does not have the numbers, the conclusions were the same. Nobody believed that this legislation was necessary—no-one. In all of the submissions, whether they were from employer organisations or from employee organisations, no-one thought this was necessary. Indeed, I heard today in this place a government senator saying that most unions go over and above what is required under the registered organisation proposals before us today. That is true; we heard that in evidence.
The MUA goes out with its financial statements and has meetings of its members right across the country. It explains to members exactly what is and what is not in the financial statements of that union, but it still does not stop them from saying that somehow some other group needs to be legislated for. Even when we have the premier registered organisation employer organisations across the country saying that this legislation is completely unnecessary, the Abbott government nevertheless continues on and why? Because it gives them the opportunity to beat up on unions. I am not really a betting person but I bet you any money you like that, as we lead towards the Canning by-election, guess what will happen? There will be union bashing, there will be questions, dorothy dixers to ministers about trade unions. There will be speeches in here about the evils of trade unions because the government thinks that beating up on trade unions and on workers somehow increases their popularity.
You only have to look at the opinion polls to see that the Abbott government is deeply unpopular. In fact, on the sorts of issues that people would normally look to their government for support, they have lost the trust of Australian voters. Despite Canning being a relatively safe seat for the Liberals, the Canning bi-election will be a good test. We will see a swing against the government. I would love to unseat the government in that seat, but watch this space. We will see a full-on attack on trade unions over the next few weeks.
Today in this place, just as he did when he first spoke on registered organisations, Senator Back at least did not go as far as he did last time because in the interim I corrected him. He gave us a story of a member of the Health Services Union in Western Australia, a carer who was a member of her trade union. Senator Back thought that trade union was the Health Services Union and he went on about how the money was spent. But of course in a subsequent speech I pointed out to Senator Back that the union in Western Australia is United Voice; it is not the Health Services Union. Today, Senator Back told the same story again about the Eastern European member, implying that she had wasted her union contributions on this dud union, but this time he did not situate the example in Perth and he did not mention the Health Services Union. So he has learnt something.
We are seeing again this kind of rhetoric. It does not matter if it is not true, it does not matter if it is the wrong union; obviously all unions are the same. They all look the same. If you are a carer in Victoria and a member of the Health Services Union, without checking his facts he suddenly thinks it is the same union in Western Australia, which of course it is not. For a senator who prides himself on Western Australia, we often hear the Western Australian stories. He seems to know so much. He certainly could not get it right on which union carers who work in nursing homes in Western Australia belong to. It is United Voice. That story, discredited the first time, then I corrected the record, is still used a second time to somehow paint unions and low-income workers in a bad light. That story is completely wrong—and I listened very carefully today.
Between now and the last time this bill was presented, we now have the disgraceful Commissioner Heydon affair. If anybody needs checking, it is those opposite in whom they appoint, how they get there and how royal commissions are being used as nothing but witch hunts. To allow the commissioner to continue in that role is an absolute disgrace and nobody could take seriously either the interim report of the royal commission or any future reports when it is presided over by a royal commissioner who thought it was okay to attend a Liberal fundraiser.
The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill is exactly the same as a bill presented a few months ago. The explanatory memorandum to the current bill does not materially differ from the explanatory memorandum of the previous bill and it does not contain any additional information provided by the minister in relation to the matters raised by the Labor senators of the committee—again, the arrogance of those opposite. Even though in our report to the Labor senators raised particular concerns, did the minister or the government bother to take the couple of months between the presentation of the bill and today to try to address those concerns? No—of course they did not. In their usual arrogance they rolled up here and again tried to say to the Senate, 'Yep—same bill. We just want you to vote a different way this time.'
What do they think? What has changed? I have not heard employer organisations out there saying, 'Oh, we've got to have this bill. We've got to have this legislation in place. We've got to be held even more accountable. We have to be compared to a corporation when we're not.' There are fundamental differences there. Again, this demonstrates that the Abbott government certainly do not understand trade unions. But even more so they do not understand registered organisations.
In the main, most of the office-bearers in trade unions and in registered organisations are volunteers. In the case of my union, United Voice, very few of the elected positions are paid positions. Most of them—the branch councillors, the treasurers, the presidents, the deputy presidents and so on—are all volunteers who give up their time, away from their families, and who sometimes take time off work to attend union meetings to be part of the running of the trade union. And that applies to all trade unions. Very few of the positions within trade unions are paid. And it is the same with registered organisations, as we heard in evidence. In fact we heard that it was perhaps much more difficult for them when they are running a regional group.
You would think that the National Party would try to look after them, but we know that the National Party have well and truly deserted the bush with all of the things that they have agreed to in this place. It certainly shows that if they ever were a party of the bush that they have well and truly left that behind. You might have the secretary, the president and the committee of an employer organisation all as voluntary positions. And yet, without blinking, the Abbott government just wants to apply extremely onerous reporting obligations to organisations. Further to that, it wants to fine them if they get it wrong.
I would suspect, as the employer organisations told us in evidence, that in future—if this registered organisations legislation gets through—they will have trouble filling those positions. Employer organisations, along with unions, fill a really important role in our community. They can moderate the behaviour of some employers who go beyond the pale, because usually they can be impartial and have the facts and figures at their disposal. But, no—the Abbott government just want to tear that to shreds.
Again, we have seen this blatant disregard by the Abbott government for those who volunteer in our community. We have seen that whether it is in the environment, with our environment groups which have just been run over by the Green Army, or with this legislation, where we just want to bowl over all volunteers in our community and put such onerous obligations onto them that they will simply not put their hands up. They will be too scared to.
Perhaps that is part of the Abbott government's agenda—to scare these volunteers so that they do not put their hands up for trade union work or to be volunteers for employer organisations. That is where this legislation is heading. It is treating employer organisations and unions as corporations which, of course, they are not. They are not making profits and they are not returning a dividend to shareholders. That is not what either of those groups do, and yet that is how the Abbott government want to treat these groups, which do a really valuable job in the community.
The Scrutiny of Bills Committee raised issues to do with this bill too. In its fifth report of 2015 it drew attention to a number of issues that it believed were insufficiently dealt with in the explanatory memorandum. In particular, the Scrutiny Bills Committee noted its disappointment with the minister's failure to address these issues for a third time. We have to ask ourselves: are the government genuine when they say they want to listen and to respond? If a bill does not get up the first time you might think, 'Well, okay, we'll have another go.' But when it does not get up the second time and it is presented a third time, and the government have made no changes at all and do not even respond to issues raised either by the Labor senators' report or the Scrutiny of Bills Committee report then, seriously, you have to question the motives of the Abbott government in pursuing legislation like this. You would really have to question what their motives are.
And their motives are that they want to continue to bash unions. The government want to be able to stand up and say, 'Despite Labor moving legislation which already covers off on employer organisations and unions which requires officers to be trained and for there to be a lot more reporting and transparency, this goes way too far.' Again, they say, 'We think you're all guilty and that is why we need this legislation—to hold you all to account.' We have legislation in place at the moment which is perfectly adequate.
Did the Abbott government do any kind of review of that legislation? No, of course they did not. Again, their arrogance got in the way and they thought, 'No, let's just put this on our list of how to demonise trade unions.' And it is not working for them. It is not working for them. They only have to look at the polls, the disunity and the chaos in their own party to see that these types of bills are not working for them. Again, Labor will not support this bill because the government simply have not listened. They have not listened to one single word we have said in opposition to this bill.
We put the first lot of legislation in place. You might think that it stands to reason that perhaps they might be prepared to have a look and to say, 'Oh yes, we missed that. Yes, that is a good reform.' But, of course, no, they have not done that. They have not taken on one single suggestion made by Labor and they have certainly ignored the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. Why is this government continuing along this way? Because their actions speak louder than their words. We know that Work Choices is far from dead and buried. This is all Work Choices under another name. It is Work Choices by stealth—by putting this bill up, by putting up the ABCC, by putting up the low-income super, by knocking off cleaners' pay, by refusing to bargain in good faith in the public sector—on and on it goes. They are not giving one skerrick of compassion to the Hutchison Ports workers who perhaps are still facing the sack come 31 August.
This government has clearly shown it does not care one bit about workers; it certainly does not support trade unions; and it does not even support employer organisations. Labor will continue to speak out against bills like this, and we will continue to oppose them in this place. Thank you.
Thanks for the talking points, Senator Lines. It is always a pleasure. Senator Lines is Deputy Chair of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, so we have spent a lot of time examining this particular piece of legislation and consulting broadly with union organisations, the broader community and obviously the trade union movement. And pretty much everyone falls in along party lines, as it were. But we did do, Senator Lines, was take this policy to an election and we won that election. You ask why we bring in legislation that the Australian people actually voted for at the last federal election, why we bring it in to the Senate, why we bring it in to the House of Representatives. That is why: because they voted for it.
So I again rise to add my voice to the calls for greater accountability and transparency, not only in the trade union movement but across registered organisations. I am not of the belief that, simply because you are a volunteer in a registered organisation, the people you represent and the people whose money you administer should not be entitled to a level of governance that gives them faith and confidence that the board looking after their interests and indeed millions of their dollars is doing so with their best interests at heart. I think those hardworking Australians who are members of trade unions have a lot to be concerned about in terms of how the leadership of various unions—not all unions, but a great number—have actually used their money and their influence over time.
From Labor Party senators' discussions and debates around this bill before the Senate today, one would think the royal commission into the trade union movement was a waste of taxpayers' money. I will tell you what is a waste of people's money: when you look at the revelations coming out of the royal commission and the millions of dollars of hardworking low- to middle-income earners across this country that the leaderships amongst the trade union movement have wasted. It just beggars belief! We come here and we have these same debates along party lines.
I am not somebody who thinks that trade unions do not have a legitimate role in a civil society. Absolutely not. I was a president of a student union. I think the trade union movement has done great things for the Australian worker over a long period of time. But enough is enough. We need to restore faith in the trade union movement for the honest Australian worker.
It is very sad to stand here today—and the senators who are elected by those very hardworking Australian union members, whose dollars go to fund their preselection campaigns, whose money and votes and influence is used by the likes of Cesar Melhem in my home state of Victoria. You are shaking your head, Senator Polley—through you, Chair.
Senator Polley interjecting—
Do you want to come down to Victoria? Do you want to come and have a look at the Andrews government? Do you want to talk about Mr Pakula? Do you want to talk about Cesar Melhem? Do you want to talk about how hardworking Victorians' money and votes are being used and abused by the Victorian Labor Party? I am happy to have that conversation. I will take you to them. We will have the meeting.
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
Because I have, in the interests of regional Australians' jobs—
Always, Mr Acting Deputy President. Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President: I have worked with a variety of unions, because I am concerned about job opportunities in regional Australia.
You have some really great unions that are out there actually working with the local employer to find some sustainable outcomes, where it is a win-win situation, where the business gets to stay open. These employers are not bottomless pits; they are actually employing people. So the best outcomes are when the union works with the employer to actually ensure that the productivity gains on the shop floor are achieved.
Thank you, Senator O'Sullivan: more jobs, more money, a greater community, greater stability. That is the best outcome. Sorry, I know I have completely gone off my speech. It really concerns me when those opposite do not actually stand up for bringing confidence back into the Australian public and their view of the trade union movement.
When we look at the trade union movement, it is not just the classic stories that we all know too well; it is also things that have been brought out through the royal commission; the Comancheros being used as debt collectors. Again, in my home state of Victoria—you are shaking your head, Senator Polley.
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President: in Victoria, we have evidence from the Assistant Commissioner of Victoria Police, Mr Fontana—and if you want any more details about what the ALP thinks of Assistant Commissioner Fontana, then please see the Hansard of the hearing of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee estimates. Do a search for 'Doug Cameron', and I think you will find some interesting reading.
In the assistant commissioner's evidence to the royal commission, he indicated that outlaw motorcycle gangs, including Comancheros, have been regularly engaged as debt collectors on behalf of the industry. Down where my children grew up, down in South Gippsland, we also have evidence of bikie gangs and organised crime being involved in illicit drugs distribution through the Wonthaggi desalination plant construction. To quote Assistant Commissioner Fontana:
Victoria Police is concerned that the methods for debt collection in the industry involve criminal conduct such as assault, threat to assault and intimidation.
We have got evidence that the Leader of the Opposition accepted donations from construction companies in his election campaign. Bill Shorten actually cut workers conditions as part of the 2006 Cleanevent agreement.
We have heard so much from those opposite around cleaning contractors. Why don't you get your own house in order instead of coming in here and making these affected claims, rather than actually dealing with the issue at hand?
I have already mentioned Cesar Melhem—and I could go on and on about dear Cesar Melhem, but I will not. Just read the papers and search it. We have the Boral issue on construction sites, again in my home state, in Melbourne. The law is determined by the CFMEU. We have evidence before the Senate estimates committee itself around the treatment of female inspectors by CFMEU officials that is nothing short of an abhorrent. And I thank those senators opposite who have actually said 'enough is enough,' because it is. And you need to have a little more conviction around standing up for those in the union movement who are doing the right thing by their members and have more courage about standing up against those in the union movement who are not doing the right thing for those hardworking members, because it trashes the whole brand.
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
Marketing 101, Senator Bilyk, through you, Mr Deputy President. You are trashing the whole brand, and it is very disappointing, because, as I have said, I have worked with a variety of unions in positive ways to secure jobs for regional Victorians and other Australians by actually working together. But we will move on to the bill itself, because it is actually quite fascinating and quite interesting.
We hear concerns that we have not consulted and, when we produced the first report back in December 2013, the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee made a variety of recommendations as a result of the evidence. As a result of that, the government has decided to amend the bill.
I do not know what greater example there is of responsiveness to evidence than actually recognising when a good idea comes along. When a good idea comes along we will amend the legislation, and that is precisely what we did. In December 2013—
There were four, and they went to issues exactly as Senator Lines was talking about. If you have somebody heading up a registered organisation who has significant knowledge of financial obligations then there is no reason that we should actually be running that person through a financial training package as a matter of course, just to get the tick in the box. Some people like a tick in the box for no reason, but I do not see why we should actually be wasting the time and money of the person who is very busily volunteering in a trade union or indeed a registered organisation. Many employer groups are themselves run by volunteers, not just by employees. So that was going to be overregulation and an overkill for some people.
We also recommended that the obligation placed on officers to disclose every payment be reduced, with certain exclusions including limiting disclosures to payments made above a certain threshold. So we streamlined a lot of the reporting requirements that were originally envisaged. And that is a good thing because it not only cuts down on the administrative workload for those volunteers but is also quite consistent with our approach as a government to minimise regulation and red tape for those in the community.
Senator Lines went to the fact that we have looked at this bill a lot, and no-one more than the education and employment committee. I would like to make some brief comments, as it is the opportune time now, on our report brought down this month. It is useful to note that we have actually incorporated the four amendments within the bill. The bill comprises two schedules and seeks to amend the Fair Work Act 2009 and the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 to improve the governance and oversight of registered organisations.
The government's legislative response was in response to the HSU scandal, and it was wonderful to hear Senator Lines put on the record her abhorrence for that particular issue and the impact it had not only on the members of that union but also on the confidence more broadly within the Australian community around the behaviour of union officials. I guess it was in that context that this particular legislative package came forward.
Schedule 1 establishes the Registered Organisations Commission, and it is to be headed by the Registered Organisations Commissioner, which I think would be entirely appropriate. The functions and powers of the commissioner are actually based on those of the General Manager of the Fair Work Commission, as well as those set out in the ASIC Act 2001.
The ALP's claim that if you are making a profit you should be treated differently to if you are not making a profit was really interesting. When it comes to governance, I am not sure the amount of money you are dealing with should be the deciding factor. I think anybody who is presiding over the interests of others, those officials and leaders, should be subject to the same guidelines whether they are volunteers or paid and whether their organisation is a not-for-profit or a profit organisation. And I do not know why the lowest paid workers in our community should not be able to have that sort of confidence in those who seek to represent them.
Schedule 2 is in two parts. Part 1 alters the reporting and disclosure obligations of registered organisations and their officers, increases civil penalties for noncompliance and introduces new criminal offences for the most serious contraventions. I think that is important. I think also what is important is there is no budgetary cost for the government and the arrears estimates and compliance cost for every registered organisation is about $1,270 per year on average. I think for us to secure the confidence of the wider community that trade unions in particular but also other registered organisations are being governed appropriately, that is a small price to pay.
I would also like to respond to claims that there was a lack of consultation. Given the amount of reports that have been generated out of my own committee and the serious consultation that was done by the minister's office in the formulation of this particular package, I am absolutely confident that trade unions were consulted, that the community was consulted and that employer groups were consulted. I refuse to accept from the ALP that the government is simply going about trashing the trade union movement, that there is somehow a sense within the government that when the polls are bad we will pull out our bashing-the-trade-union card. It is simply not the case.
This government—and I have said it many times in this place—is the best friend the Australian worker has ever had. We are serious about ensuring a stable and productive economy so that the Australian worker can be secure in their job. We are not just looking at the jobs of today but our competitiveness agenda ensures that we are looking at the jobs for tomorrow. It is transformative what we are going through at the moment. The technological advances, the types of strategies we are implementing through education policies are going to ensure that our workforce going forward is skilled for the 21st century, which is exactly what we need to be doing.
Labor's changes whilst they were in government were quite good. They went a little way but they did not go far enough. I think what we are doing is actually giving utter confidence to the sector more broadly, because we need to restore faith in unions and we need to restore faith in employer representative bodies. I am really sick of the idea that good legislation, legislation that wants to deal with the bullying behaviour—the unlawful behaviour of some of those in the trade union movement—is somehow trashing trade unions. It is not; it is actually about ensuring that people who go to work everyday are not going to be subject to attack. I think that is about a fair go for all people in the Australian community. To assume that it is just some Trojan horse for Work Choices, that this sort of legislation and our legislative agenda in this area are simply about being the Grim Reaper of Work Choices is simply false. Look at the evidence coming out of the royal commission or read the papers or be in my home state of Victoria and look at the behaviour of Cesar Melham, look at the behaviour of the CFMEU over a long period of time and the impact that has had on public infrastructure projects. It is not just wasting the taxpayer dollar, it is not just wasting the union members' dollar and misappropriating it but it is actually wasting—particularly Victorian—taxpayers' dollars as project after project experiences blowout. It is doing untold damage.
Another comment made by those opposite throughout the course of this debate is that somehow we roll out the Dorothy Dixers around trade unions whenever the polls are down. What a joke. We have been asking very good questions on this side of the chamber about the inappropriate behaviour of some union officials over a long period of time. I do not shy away from that at all. Throughout the course of a current Senate inquiry into temporary working visas in my own committee, the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, we have had very strong representation from a variety of unions around issues with the 417 and 457 visa classes. Specifically, if you log on to the ACTU's website, you will see the Aussie jobs campaign—it must be preselection time for some people at the moment but it is still going swimmingly. The issue is, when you actually delve a little closer into the types of skill shortages that exist across the Australian economy, guess what? It turns out the union movement is experiencing a skill shortage as well. It is experiencing a skill shortage as we heard in question time today with a question answered by Senator Cash in a very powerful manner in response to evidence and questions on notice through the education and employment committee. Workplace relations advisers for 457 visas are in short supply, guess where? In trade unions.
I know, Senator O'Sullivan. It begs the question: if there are not workplace relations specialists in the trade union movement, where are they? I guess we just have to look opposite. We have got ex-workplace relations and union officials in the Senate Labor Party.
I want to thank those in the trade union movement that are doing the right thing by their membership, that are spending their money wisely and appropriately and that are showing appropriate leadership and restoring confidence. I call those who are not to actually leave the sector so we can restore confidence. All those senators in this place that are interested in ensuring honest government for the Australian worker, please support this bill.
I rise to make a contribution to this debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2] and I am very pleased to see Senator Lambie in the chamber because we know her position on these matters, as she understands the impact that some of this behaviour can have on productivity in places like her home state of Tasmania. I am almost prepared to declare my love for Tasmanians is right up there with my Queenslanders.
This legislation is about transparency. It is about accountability. It is about, in this case, some organisations including some trade union organisations being held to account. It is about the duty of care that they have to stakeholders, to beneficiaries of their efforts or victims where there are acts and/or omissions that arise out of the abuse of their power or the abuse of their position.
It includes the story in relation to criminal and unlawful behaviour. What are quite apparent are some shortcomings in the jurisdictional capacity of our nation to deal with this criminal and unlawful behaviour, particularly in those organisations that practise that, which includes—as has been well established in this place—a number of trade unions. Of course, it is about some of these organisations avoiding detection. The way they are doing that is that they are coming in here with their patrons. There are members of the Australian Labor Party and there are members of the Australian Greens who will make every effort in this place to resist this legislation and like legislation, to ensure that we never, ever restore the accountability that is required in such important sectors in our community. I have a fairly thick hide on me, I do not mind saying—but they do so, and there is a thickness of hide, I might say, that I have not seen too often.
First of all they fail to declare their conflict of interest. They fail to declare the hundreds and hundreds and millions of dollars that are pumped into their organisations to see that they are effectively returned to this place, to what is, by any standards, a very well paid, very well supported job. And they do that, it would seem—and we will talk about this a little bit later on—on the back of donations from companies that they have achieved in many instances at the cost of the people they are hoping to represent.
All we need to do as each of the senators makes their contribution—be it from ours or from the other side—is to keep in mind these key principles, these key touchstones. Ask yourself: does that support transparency? Ask yourself: does that support accountability? Ask yourself: will that hold the individuals to account so that their duty of care is taken, or does it leave us vulnerable to a continued abuse of their position and their power?
I want to reflect on the contribution made by Senator Ludwig. I know Senator Ludwig is up in his office now watching my contribution because I have got word that he does that as a matter of practice. What Senator Ludwig had to say—and it was a very, very interesting statement—was that the government is endeavouring to use transparency and accountability as a stalking horse on the unions. That is worth repeating: using transparency and accountability as a stalking horse on the trade unions. He went on to say that the royal commission was attacking unions, so the royal commission was the Trojan Horse. I know that my colleague Senator McKenzie has very eloquently set out some of the work and productivity work of the commission, and we will come back to that again in a moment.
I want to revisit—because some of the senators opposite were not here when I made a contribution on a separate bill the other day relating to these matters—where I was able to quote a union official who was calling on the Australian Federal Police to withdraw blackmail charges against one of their senior executive. Here is the old story. They say that for one man it is an empty Coke bottle; for the other it is a 5c piece. In this case we had the union official who described the behaviour of his colleague as 'normal negotiating methods'. That was his reflection on the circumstances, but to the Australian Federal Police it was the very, very serious crime of blackmail. I have some personal experience in this space. You cannot have corruption without some element of blackmail being involved. It is the way that people are blackmailed and threatened that if they do or do not do certain things there will be repercussions.
Let us just, if we might, revisit the royal commission. This is the 'stalking horse' that is using transparency and accountability as a stalking horse on the unions. Well, thank the Lord, might I say. Praise the Lord that that is what is happening, when you look at the litany of matters that have been exposed. Of course, these have nothing to do with the 600-plus breaches, offences, that have been prosecuted against a variety of unions and the over $6 million worth of penalties—which, I am instructed, are paid for by the unions, by those people who have secured the penalties against them. This is just a simple way to ensure that the behaviour permeates.
One of my favourites is the fact that Mr Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition and a union man through and through—it would seem, until you read some of the evidence that was given before this royal commission—accepted a $40,000 donation from a construction company. Now let us just stop there. Unibilt was the company. Let us just stop there. Mr Shorten, representing the interests of the membership of his union, accepted a $40,000 donation. That is a considerable sum of money by any standards and probably reflected something about the base wage of some of the individuals that he was representing in this particular circumstance. The interesting thing is that it comes from the construction company. These are the people against whom Mr Shorten is charged with representing the interests of his members. We all know what a union representative does with the employers, and that is to try and get the very best deal for those stakeholders who place their great trust in their union representative, just as stakeholders place trust in the boards of companies—and we are going to make a bit of a comparison later on, because there has been much said about how companies should be accountable but unions and registered organisations should not.
He got $40,000. What did he do with that? Let me think. Did he promote the interests of the union members? The answer is no—and, in case I forget to answer one of my own questions, we will just take a standard no for all of them. Did he put it to the welfare of the members? Did he put it into a fund? Was there any sort of benevolent application of that? That would be no, no and no. Did he distribute it? He has just achieved something off the employer, which is what he is charged to do. Did he distribute it to the members? No. Let us not continue with the mystery. What did he do with that? He paid the wages of people in his election campaign, the wages of his election campaign director. So, in an abuse of his position on behalf of the members that he was representing, he took off the enemy—if you listen to the Labor Party—off a corporation over which he was exercising—
Senator Polley interjecting—
I know it is unpleasant—through you, Mr Deputy President. I do understand this is unpleasant and I am trying to keep my remarks as measured as I can, because I have been known to sort of embellish on occasions—but not today. Mr Shorten took the money and he paid the wages of his campaign director.
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
If one of you are going to make a contribution—I say to you, through you, Mr Deputy President—it will be your chance to condemn these activities, something that you have never done. I have listened to hundreds of hours of contributions in this space, particularly about the CFMEU, and not once, not for one nanosecond, have I heard you make a contribution to condemn the behaviour—not just the unlawful, fraudulent behaviour but the behaviour as particularised by my colleague earlier in relation to threats, intimidation and evidence about outright assaults. Not once have I heard anybody make a contribution from the other side where they have used the word 'transparency'. Sorry; in the interests of being fair, I did hear Senator Ludwig use it. He talked about transparency and accountability, as a stalking horse, but, that contribution aside, I have not heard anyone on that side of the chamber use the words 'transparency' or 'accountability'. I have never heard any reference about being held to account or any reference to a duty of care—nothing. Most particularly, I have not heard you condemn the behaviour of this absolutely criminal organisation known as the CFMEU, about which this parliament, this Senate, has been endeavouring to bring measures into play so that we can regulate their behaviour, for the people who are affected by their behaviour—who are your constituency largely, members of that trade union. The day that I hear that, the little bit of hair I have got left will fall out.
So Mr Shorten accepted $40,000. Did he disclose that? Yes, he did disclose it, but it was only two days before he appeared before the royal commission—48 hours. Mind you, it had slipped his mind for eight years. But, two days out, 48 hours out, Mr Shorten finally—I use the words 'came clean'; you might use some other words. He heard the galloping hooves. He looked over his shoulder, and there was that stalking horse coming at him, with its teeth bared and its mane flowing in the wind, and what did he do? He ran straight into the Electoral Commission office to hide from the stalking horse and deliver up his declaration of this money. It was pathetic.
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
I hear you. I do not know what you are saying because I am busy making my contribution but—this is how clever I am—I can talk this loud, not listen to you and know that you have not used the words 'transparency', 'accountability', 'held to account', 'duty of care', 'abuse of power', 'criminal or unlawful behaviour' or 'avoiding detection for eight years with only two days to go'. That was real skin-of-the-teeth sort of stuff, right?
I am a good storyteller, so sit quietly, kick your shoes off and lie back. I have got about six minutes to go.
What have we got here? We would like to see these organisations have a tighter regulatory environment, a well-resourced commission or, in this case, changes to the law that will allow us to be able to bring them to account, including the increasing of the penalties and the introduction of criminal offences very similar—listen up—to those for corporations, who have got a very similar role. Corporations have a responsibility, a duty of care, governance obligations and fiduciary duties to their shareholders. The shareholders' interest in the corporations is a financial one. Let us step over into the shoes of the union members. They have an organisation which is very similarly structured, in that people are elected into their positions, as with a board of directors.
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
There are some notes on this if you guys are a bit distracted there with your conversation. I will have my office send you round some of my notes in case you have missed some of the contribution.
I am that sort of fellow, Senator Macdonald. You know that. I will bend over backwards to help my colleagues from across the way here. I will tell you why. I will tell you what motivates me. I have been in business—
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
No, no. Here is lesson No. 2. We will move off the criminality. I can give you more on that if you want. Let us move over now as to why I have got an interest. I will tell you why I have got an interest. I have employed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of those souls who pay their union dues into your organisations so that it can make it into your account and get you here into the Senate. Why would they support anyone into the Senate? I will tell you why.
No. It is a fact. It is on the public record. Why would they want you in here? It is because they have the honest but mistaken belief that you are going to contribute to decisions in this place—
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
I can hardly hear myself talk, Deputy President—that you will make contributions in this place to the productivity of this nation, that you will make decisions that will allow us to get productivity up. Do you know what comes with increased productivity? Jobs come with increased productivity. Do you know what happens when people have jobs? They get money—
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Polley, I have been trying to call senators to order. I would ask you to cease interjecting. That goes to both sides. Interjections from both sides are disorderly. If we could hear the rest of Senator O'Sullivan's contribution in silence, that would be convenient for the conduct of the Senate.
I am deeply appreciative, Deputy President. An increase in productivity means an increase in the fortunes of the company and its ability to employ more people and it ability—indeed, not just ability but a responsibility that they take very, very seriously—to pay more tax into the receipts of the nation. What do they do when all that is happening? They get a lot of confidence. Sometimes they borrow money and sometimes they will branch out and invest in new ventures. Again, what does that require? It requires more jobs. It requires more investment which generates more income, more profits, more jobs and more receipts to the nation. What happens when the nation gets blessed with good receipts? Well, Jiminy Cricket, I can only speak for our side of the parliament. The coalition invest it principally in infrastructure—that is what we do. Of course, we spend a couple of years trying to reduce debt; to get the trajectory of the economy back in order when we come to government. Eventually, we spend it on infrastructure, as we are at the moment. There is a $50 billion infrastructure program out there. That is more jobs, that is more wealth, that is more receipts, and on and on it goes—it is a cycle.
I will tell you what is the danger to the cycle. The danger to the cycle is corruption. The danger to the cycle is where you have organisations, little fish in a tiny pond, who can impact on the performance. If a job closes down for one day, it can cost $100,000. If a job shuts down for a week or 10 days, that may well reflect 100 per cent of the potential net benefit of that employer and then jobs are lost—they go to the wall. Senator Ludwig, you betcha we are going after transparency and accountability; you betcha. That is right at the fore of our mind and on the tip of our tongue. I really do not fear, and nor should the union movement or any other organisation, transparency and accountability.
My advice to them is very simple. If they hear the galloping horse coming up behind them—
Senator McKenzie interjecting—
that is our stalking horse. It is coming up to ensure that what they do is lawful, that what they do is directed in the interests of their members, that they are meeting their governance obligations and their fiduciary obligations, and that they are meeting their obligations to the national interest. They are in a position where they can affect the national interest if they affect the confidence that is in the construction authorities around this country. I urge colleagues, and I know it might be lost on some on the other side, to put the national interest, the interests of employees in this nation and the interests of the progress of this nation, before their own interests on this occasion and support this legislation before the Senate.
I have been encouraged to enter this debate by the first speaker for the opposition, Senator Cameron, who gave an emotional address that was big on rhetoric, big on misrepresentation and big on self-interest as a former union heavy but lacking any sense, lacking any truth and lacking anything that would help to serve the best interests of the workers of Australia. It was a typical speech of a union hack at a union meeting. But it is not, unfortunately, what is required in this chamber, where we actually debate facts.
Most of the Labor members who have spoken in this debate today are themselves former trade union operatives, former trade union officials or sons, daughters, husbands or wives of trade union officials. As I said before, there is nothing wrong with that if the trade union movement was at all representative of workers in Australia. But only 17 per cent of all workers in Australia choose to join a union. Within the government sector, that figure gets up to 42 per cent. Living in this town for some of my life, I can well understand and appreciate that. More importantly, of workers in the private sector, only 12 per cent choose to join a union.
Who is in the private sector? Can I suggest that the industries that are run by private enterprise include the coalmining industry in Australia, and all of those workers in the Bowen and Galilee basins up where I come from who provide the wealth of our country. But of those people, only 12 per cent across the board choose to join the union. What else might be a private industry where only 12 per cent of employees choose to join a union? It is all the other mining industries—iron ore, zinc, copper refineries and the nickel refineries in the town where I have my base in Townsville
They are all private sector investment, private sector employers. On average across the board, only 12 per cent of their workers choose to join a union.
What else is in the private sector? The car making industry. Any manufacturing industry in Australia. Any transport industry in Australia—and there are people in this chamber who claim to represent the manufacturing workers and the transport workers. Of those people, because most of them are in the private sector, on average across the board only 12 per cent choose to join the unions.
Yet the people sitting opposite us, most of whom are only here because of the trade union movement and the influence they have on the Labor Party, represent less than 20 per cent of the total Australian workforce and less than 15 per cent of the workforce in the private sector. You do not have to think about this too deeply to work out that of this small group of Australians in the private sector—workers or representatives of workers in the private sector—only 12 per cent of them join a union. But the unions have enormous influence in the Labor Party.
I have mentioned before that, of those in the Labor Party in this house, most of them are only here because of the union movement—that is, the union movement representing no more than 17 per cent of the total number of workers in Australia. Half of the current federal ALP MPs and senators have had a paid position in the trade union movement. This includes 23 of the 55 ALP lower house MPs and 17 of the 25 ALP senators. More than half of the ALP frontbench at the current time—22 out of 43—are former union officials.
Of the 26 current members of the ALP's national executive, which is the chief organisational body of the Australian Labor Party, 19 are current or former union officials. As I say, that is fine if the union movement was at all representative of the Australian worker, but it represents fewer than 17 per cent of all workers in Australia. That means that 83 per cent of all workers in Australia choose not to join a union. And yet the alternative government, who is here solely at the behest of that 17 per cent of Australian workers, claims to represent the working men and women of Australia. Clearly, that is a false assertion.
If you heard the speeches here today, you will understand why all the former union organisers are so totally opposed to any legislation that requires accountability and transparency. You do not need to go to the royal commission; this has been obvious for a long period of time. The former colleague of many of the members of the Labor Party, Mr Craig Thomson, proved to us without a royal commission just how corrupt certain elements of the trade union movement are.
I am not anti-trade unions—and in fact at one stage I worked very closely with an element of a big trade union movement. We fought together for three years against the Labor Party, I might say, to protect the jobs of Tasmanian timber workers. That was the forestry division of the construction mining forestry workers union, the CFMEU. But at that time, the forestry section, and I emphasise just the forestry section, worked very closely with me—and I was then a minister in the Howard government—to make sure that we protected the jobs of Tasmanian workers.
Those who were around in the 2004 election will remember that, I think, the seminal turning point in the 2004 election campaign was when those forestry workers organised by the F-part of the CFMEU, came together in Launceston and provided the backdrop for the then Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, as he addressed the workers of Australia. They were all there in their high-vis and helmets. Mr Howard addressed them and told them that he and the Liberal Party would be sticking up for workers.
As a result of that, the people of Australia, not only in Tasmania, voted for John Howard and his Liberal Party because they understood that it was the Liberal government that was interested in worker's rights, not the Labor Party. They had made the decision—and I know Senator Lambie will be interested in this—to abandon workers in the forestry industry and get on board with the latte left set in Sydney and Melbourne.
At that time, the F-section of the CFMEU worked in workers' interest. I have every respect for them and I have every respect for the then boss of the forestry section of the CFMEU, Mr Michael O'Connor. I class Mr O'Connor as one of my friends. I think he is a nice guy and an honest guy, but he is now the national head of the CFMEU. Clearly, he does not have control over the CFMEU as he did over the forestry division of the CFMEU. I know that Michael O'Connor would not be interested in organised crime, the Comancheros, the threats and the bullying of women particularly, and the abuse of members of the CFMEU in relation to those matters. I know Mr O'Connor would not be involved in Mr Shorten's close friend Cesar Melhem's false invoices issue.
So there are elements of the trade union movement that I respect and that I know, and I have in the past worked closely with them. I am sure that the old forestry section of the CFMEU would have no problem with this bill because all it requires is transparency and accountability—the sort of transparency and accountability that applies to corporations, as it should. This bill is all about providing for workers, whose money the unions manage, the sort of accountability and transparency that we are required to have in public office around Australia in the various state parliaments and in this parliament. We have that accountability and transparency. Corporations have that transparency and accountability. Why not trade unions? I know that decent trade union officials—who, as I say, I have worked with—would have no objection to that. They do not mind telling people what their salaries are, what conflicts of interest they may or may not have and what other entitlements they might get out of their work as a union official.
I cannot understand people like Senator Cameron who violently oppose any transparency. I say to Senator Cameron and Senator Ludwig and to anyone else who has spoken in this debate: what have you got to hide? I am not suggesting that you have anything to hide, but then why not have an open and transparent regime that exposes and leaves you beyond reproach, beyond question, for the 12 per cent of Australian workers who choose to join your union?
As I say, I have nothing against unions. I do have a problem when various Labor governments insist that public servants have to join unions or that they have to provide their details to unions so that unions can approach them to be members. That is probably why some 42 per cent of public sector employees are in the unions—because they are more or less compelled, when Labor governments are in power at state or federal level, to disclose their details so the union organisers can get around and embarrass or intimidate them into joining a union.
With regard to the private sector, perhaps there are some Labor people speaking after me in this debate—I do not think there are, but I wish there were some—who could explain to me how they claim to represent the working men and women of Australia when effectively they represent less than 12 per cent of those in the private sector. Of all miners in Australia, all manufacturing workers in Australia and most transport workers in Australia, less than 12 per cent of them choose to join the union. Yet you have all the union hacks over on the other side saying that they look after workers' interests; they know what the transport workers want; they know what United Voice wants. They know what these workers want, and yet the workers vote with their feet. Even United Voice—is United Voice the Public Service union?—or whatever the Public Service union is—
The CPSU. Even of those, only 42 per cent choose to join a union. Every time a Labor politician gets up and says, 'I represent the working men and women of Australia,' I say to myself, 'You represent less than 12 per cent of them in the private sector and less than 17 per cent across Australia.'
It is the working men and women of Australia who time after time—and I mentioned the 2004 election—have returned Liberal governments because they do not trust the unions either. If they trusted them, if they thought they were doing anything for the working men and women of Australia, they would probably join them. They would probably become members of the union, but they do not because (a) they think the unions do nothing for them; (b) they think the union officials do everything for themselves, and we have had a lot of evidence about that; and (c) they do not believe that they are on the right track for the interests of working people in Australia. And those working people of Australia vote for Liberal governments, not for Labor governments. This is an important factor, which I repeat often and will repeat more often because I get sick and tired of Labor senators getting up and saying that they represent the working people of Australia when clearly they do not. Clearly they do not! Less than 12 per cent of private sector workers choose to join the union.
A lot of those workers do not join the union, because they look at people like Craig Thomson and say, 'We are not going to pay our money so that some union hack, some union official who was supported by the Labor Party into this parliament, can cheat us, can rob us and can use our money for his own personal gratification and gains.' That is why people do not join the unions. If this legislation were passed and unions were more accountable, perhaps some of that 88 per cent of workers in the private sector who choose not to join a union might say, 'Well, now that the union industry is open and accountable, we might join because we now know that they are honest because we have the transparency and the accountability mechanisms to see that they are looking after our interests and not after their own interests.'
I say to anyone else taking part in this debate: do not be misled by anything Labor Party politicians tell you on this debate, because they represent less than 12 per cent of private sector workers.
You might ask yourself why that is so. It is because those private sector workers know that the union officials, by and large—there are some exemptions, and I have mentioned one case—are in it more for their own interests rather than the interests of the workers they serve. That is why 88 per cent of workers in the private sector choose not to belong to a union. Listening to Labor Party people talk you would think that they represent every single working man and woman in Australia. Clearly they do not. And I can assure the Senate—because I know, and the election result proves it—that workers in the forestry industry in Tasmania voted for the Liberal Party when the Labor Party abandoned them and left them to rot on the unemployment rubbish heap.
This bill, when it is passed, will help the unions. It will allow workers to understand that the unions are accountable and transparent. I would have thought that any genuine union official would be out there supporting this bill, because it could mean that more Australian workers would have the confidence and the trust to join a union. This bill will give Australian workers confidence and trust in the union movement, and that is one of the reasons that it should be supported.
I rise to once again contribute to a debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No.2]. Like many speakers I note that a form of this legislation was presented to and voted down by this parliament before. A Parliamentary Library brief on this new version of the legislation says:
The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2] (the current Bill) is virtually identical to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 (the previous Bill) with the Government amendments which were agreed to in the House of Representatives. The previous Bill was negatived in the Senate on 2 March 2015.
… … …
That Bill in turn was similar to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 together with Government amendments which were tabled (the original Bill).
I also note that the Parliamentary Library brief says:
If the current Bill is passed by the House of Representatives and rejected by the Senate, it could constitute grounds for dissolution of both houses and a general election.
… … …
A Bill must fail twice in the Senate to become a 'trigger' for a possible double dissolution election. It may be re-introduced at any time within a Parliamentary term, but there must be a minimum interval of three months between the first failure in the Senate and the passage of the Bill in the House of Representatives the second time.
The Abbott government have presented this bill to this Senate knowing that they have very little chance of it being passed. Indeed, they want it to fail because the presentation of this bill, as indicated by the library brief, is a trigger for a possible double dissolution election.
Given the polls, I doubt that they would go to a double dissolution election, especially when the Victorian president of the Liberal Party, Michael Kroger, conceded on Sky TV that my political network, the JLN, in a double dissolution would pick up two to three senators in Tasmania alone. Michael further conceded that in an ordinary election their polling indicated that it was likely that the JLN could win an extra Senate seat in Western Australia and Queensland—and I can say that he did not want to talk about Victoria at all. So it is clear that the presentation of this legislation is a political stunt, in the knowledge that it is a trigger for a possible dissolution election. While it would be political suicide for the current Prime Minister if the current Prime Minister went to the Governor-General and asked for an early election, that does not mean the opinion polls would not change very quickly if a person like Mr Turnbull, Ms Bishop or Mr Morrison led the Liberal Party in the nation.
If the Liberal Party really wanted this legislation to pass, they would have been willing to meaningfully negotiate with the Senate crossbenchers—but they just do not get it. They refused to sit down and deliver the reasonable requests that we put to the government on behalf of our constituents. The best example of the government's refusal to talk in a meaningful way with the Senate crossbenchers is this morning's defeat of their ABCC legislation. This is legislation I offered to support if the government agreed to a couple of reasonable requests contained in a letter I sent to the Prime Minister before the second reading or substantive vote was taken in this chamber. I will quote from my letter to the Prime Minister as it directly relates to the provisions in the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No.2] which aimed to clean up corruption in the union movement. It is also affected by the royal commission examining union governance and corruption. I quote:
Dear Prime Minister,
Thank you for your letter of reply dated 12 August 2015 regarding the confidential volume of the interim report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
I seek leave to table the Prime Minister's letter to me.
Mr Deputy President, in the normal course of events a senator would make whatever they wished to table available to colleagues before seeking to table it, so that we are aware of whether it was meant to be a confidential document and we are aware of its nature. I am happy to have a brief look.
I will continue quoting from my letter that I sent to the Prime Minister. In that letter I said:
While I acknowledge your point that Commissioner Heydon AC QC recommended that this volume be kept confidential in order to protect the physical well-being of Royal Commission witnesses and their families, … I do not accept the assumption that Royal Commission witnesses and their family's well-being would be compromised should crossbench Senators be granted access to the volume under the normal secrecy provisions followed for access to other highly sensitive documents.
There are plenty of precedents and procedures in place—
Order! It being 6.30 pm, time for this debate is now interrupted. The Senate will suspend until 7.30 pm and I think at that point in time I may ask the Acting Deputy President at the time to put the question again about leave for that document to be tabled and then you will be able to continue with your contribution, Senator Lambie.
Proceedings suspended from 18:30 to 19:30
I will continue quoting my letter to the Prime Minister:
There are plenty of precedents and procedures in place for safely managing highly sensitive information and protecting witnesses' well-being … while still allowing Senators access to vital information which allows them to properly scrutinise executive government's actions and carry out their free and fair performance as Members of the Upper House of the Australian Parliament.
I note that since I received your letter, strong evidence has emerged which indicates a probability that Royal Commissioner Heydon, in accepting a key speaking role at a Liberal Party fundraiser, unless he resigns first—that he will be found by a higher court to have exhibited a form of bias.
Please note that I have called for Commissioner Heydon to resign from his position, because based on the facts, it will be impossible for the great majority of Tasmanians not to have the impression that he is biased.
In light of this information and the fact that Royal Commissioner Heydon has shared his confidential volumes with all state Premiers and their staff, I invite you to reconsider your refusal to allow crossbench Senators to have access to the Commissioner's confidential report.
I'm sure you'll agree that crossbench Senators are just as trustworthy as State Premiers, with confidential information.
And that there is no logical reason for the Royal Commissioner or yourself to deny access to his confidential report—given that it's been shared with all of Australia's State Premiers and their staff.
Especially when all of the report's information is needed to make an informed decision on whether to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
With regard to the re-establishment of the ABCC, my view has shifted after I've conducted interviews with key stakeholders and re-examined the public record which you refer to you in your letter.
I'm prepared to support your ABCC Legislation currently before the Parliament under these simple conditions:
1. All crossbench senators and senior staff are given access to the Heydon confidential report after following the usual strict protocols of signing non-disclosure agreements and giving undertakings that no information will be electronically recorded or notes are taken.
2. Your Government deregisters the CFMEU. As you point out in your letter "The Commissioner draws particular attention to the behaviour of the CFMEU concluding there is a culture of wilful defiance of the law which appears to lie at the core of the CFMEU."
I agree that strong measures must be taken to remedy as you describe "widespread unlawful conduct in the building industry".
And after research over the last few months, including meeting with CFMEU leadership, ordinary members and businesses who have been adversely affected by unlawful conduct in the building industry …
… I'm at a loss to understand why you haven't taken the obvious, targeted, logical step of deregistering the CFMEU already.
Your inaction stands in stark contrast to the actions of the Fraser and then Hawk governments which deregistered the CFMEU's predecessor—the BLF.
This is a matter I raised in the Senate last week during question time and your representative Senator Abetz still failed to explain your lack of action and your weak approach to tackling lawlessness in our construction industry.
I was pleased however that he found my proposal to deregister the CFMEU "interesting" and after informal talks with fellow crossbench Senators … I'm of the view that you would have a greater chance of passing Legislation which deregisters the CFMEU than legislation which re-establishes the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Your legislation has been likened to using a sledge hammer to crack a walnut, rather than a more targeted and surgical approach that de-registration would certainly bring to our Building and Construction industry Nationwide.
I consider your offer to arrange a confidential briefing by a senior officer in your department on the Heydon confidential volume an insult and affront to the people of Tasmania.
I'm stunned that you think that by offering me a confidential interpretation of the Heydon secret report by one of your staff—which I will not be able to talk about in the Senate—that I'm then able to make a properly informed decision when it comes to your ABCC legislation.
I'm also stunned that you think your personal assurances and promise that the Heydon confidential volume "does not contain any reference to political corruption or any matter that would harm the reputation of the Liberal party"—actually influences my opinion and actions.
Unfortunately, because of your long history of broken promises and mistruths, for the best interests of Tasmanians, nothing that comes out of your mouth means anything to me.
What matters is your actions and they—in this case, unfortunately show that you and Commissioner Heydon are unreasonably determined to stop crossbench Senators from accessing all information contained in the Royal Commission's secret volume.
Your tricky and obstructionist behaviour is interfering with my and other Senators' free and fair performance as Members of Parliament.
Should this obstruction remain and this contempt of the parliamentary process continues—I will be forced to take all steps available to me under Standing Orders to hold you and Commissioner Heydon to account in the Senate.
In closing, I note that you closed by indicating your "government is committed to doing all that is necessary to reform the building and construction industry and to reinstate the rule of law in this sector."
That statement is clearly false. Your government's inaction on CFMEU deregistration and Senator Abetz's reply to my question on notice last Tuesday proved that fact.
He could not properly explain why your government, unlike previous Liberal and Labor governments, has not moved to deregister a union which you describe as "continuing distain for the law". It's time to stop talking tough and follow through with effective action.
Take that first step and arrange for Commissioner Heydon's confidential report to be viewed under appropriate security conditions by all crossbench senators.
I look forward to co-operating with you and cleaning up not only the building and construction industry—but the Financial and Banking sectors and Health system of frauds and criminals.
I have spoken about this to the Senate before but it is worth repeating again. Unlike members of the Liberal Party in the Senate, including Senator Abetz, I do not have an ingrained hatred for members of unions. I acknowledge that, on balance, the union movement in Australian has been an agent for positive change and has protected and strongly advocated for the rights of working Australia families. If we did not have unions and organised labour and their fights for better wages and conditions, Australia would be a poorer, less fair country. However, yes, I also acknowledge that the unions, just like the corporate world, have had their fair share of fraudsters, crooks and standover men who have ripped off their members and committed shocking crimes to satisfy their own greed and lust for power. Of course there is an ongoing need to monitor, investigate and enforce our laws wherever crime and corruption are found.
Within many organisations, whether they be government departments, political parties, corporations or unions, wherever there is a concentration of power and money, the risk for criminal or unethical behaviour increases because, as we all know, if you are human, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. However, the problem I have is that, when the Liberals say they want to apply corporate standards of regulation to the unions, Australian corporate standards are not all that flash. You only have to look at the corruption in one of the Liberal Party's biggest election donors, the banks, to realise that Australian corporate standards are about as good as the standards and regulations governing the Australian union movement.
At this stage of the debate, without all the facts from the royal commission, what is before us is the destruction of basic civil rights by this Liberal government, while they suck up to their political donors and pat them on the back for corporate standards which they clearly lack. I believe that an equitable solution to corruption in the workplace and broader Australian society is the establishment of a permanent corruption watch dog whose star chamber power will apply to bankers and union members equally. Combine that body with reformed world's best whistle blower or public interest disclosure laws that protect, encourage and reward genuine whistle blowers to come forward, then corruption in the workplace, corruption in government departments, corruption in the board rooms and corruption in political parties would finally be properly addressed.
This legislation can easily be viewed as an ideological attack on Australian workers. It is part of a Liberal Party attempt to silence and weaken those who advocate on behalf of workers. Once this Abbott Liberal government silences workers, it becomes easy to exploit and steal money from them and not only to steal money from them but to sack them and, for base political reasons, to have them replaced by cheap, compliant foreign workers.
It came as a hell of a shock to me and to many average Tasmanians, but I now understand, after talking with Maritime Union members and Caltex officers, that both Labor and Liberal governments have made rules which allow our big oil and other associated companies to legally sack 36 Australian maritime crew and replace them with foreigners on their tankers.
This Liberal government has decided to kill off the jobs of 45 defence clothing manufacturing workers because the defence minister has decided not to place further orders with the Workwear Group, resulting in the company announcing that union members will lose their jobs in September. This government has a budget of $100 million a year, $50 million used to be spent on making uniforms in Australia, but now the Liberal Party is happy to have all our defence combat uniforms made overseas—because it means fewer Australian union members.
In closing, I offer this challenge and advice to all political parties who want to clean up union corruption: support my call to de-register the CFMEU, give a guarantee that their money will not be accepted in political donations until this mess is cleaned up. I oppose the legislation before the house because it is ideologically motivated, unfair, and irrational and undermines the basic civil liberties and rights of Australian workers, while ignoring tens of billions of dollars in fraud, tax evasion and crime in the banking, finance, medical and other industries where multinationals have great influence.
I will respond briefly to some of Senator Lambie's contribution before I move to other aspects of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill. It is good that Senator Lambie acknowledges that there is serious corruption on our construction sites and in other parts of union activity. Issues around deregulation are certainly worth rising. I am not sure of the legalities of that. I would have thought it would need the support of parliament, although I could be wrong; obviously, it is not simply within the remit of government to make a decision like that. Whether or not support from the parliament would be there is an open question.
In relation to this bill, to say that you acknowledge some of the corruption—and some of Senator Lambie's contribution suggests that—but then to vote against this bill is to try to have a bet both ways—saying that you are against corruption but you will not support any serious penalties that would help prevent it. Let us be clear: when it comes to issues in Australian building and construction, obviously deregistration of one union, which is Senator Lambie's preferred option, does not actually address the issues. In the past when unions have been deregistered, they have come up again in a different form and as a new entity. The rule of law should be that, regardless of whether it is the BLF, the CFMEU or any other entity representing construction workers, to the extent that they represent those workers well, they should be protected by the law. They actually have a special status under the law at the moment, and that would continue. But, of course, to the extent that they misuse that status and to the extent that they engage in the kinds of practices that we have seen outlined at the royal commission and well before that, they should have the rule of law applied to them.
You should not just be able to make it a financial decision, which is what, unfortunately, organisations like the CFMEU have made at times. They are prepared to wear the fines because they see more benefit in breaking the law, knowing what the maximum fine is. I think that to sit here and say that you are against those kinds of practices but then actually to vote against any sort of reasonable sanctions and penalties simply does not make sense.
What I wanted to do was just go through what the bill actually does and then, of course, talk about some of the practices to which we want to see serious penalties applied. It is why we believe it is important that we actually have proper sanctions. And just finally on Senator Lambie—she talked about corporate criminals being held to account. The reality is that the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill is actually about saying that those in some of these organisations, like unions and employer groups, should have similar penalties, or the same penalties, to those that apply in the corporate sector. If you actually want to be fair dinkum in saying that it should be the same—whether it is wrongdoing in the corporate sector, in a union or in another registered organisation—then I agree with that. That is what this bill does. If you actually believe that, you may well support this legislation because that is exactly what it is a designed to achieve.
It says that this type of wrongdoing, in whatever form, should be dealt with similarly—with serious penalties. I do not care if you are corporate crook or a union crook. If you are doing the wrong thing—if you are deliberately breaking the law or if you are not complying with your duties at law—then you should have the same penalties, regardless of whether you are representing workers, shareholders or anyone else. That is what this legislation is about. So let's not pretend that this is about one versus the other. This is actually about applying a level playing field to wrongdoing. It is extraordinary to me that people can come into the Senate and argue that when the Craig Thomsons of the world do the wrong thing that they should be treated with a lesser penalty—
We have the interjections from Senator Conroy, but this is for anyone who is found guilty of wrongdoing. I am not aware whether Kathy Jackson has been—I do not believe she has. But whether it is Michael Williamson or Craig Thomson or anyone else—whether it is a corporate crook who is found guilty of doing the wrong thing—
Sorry—we are actually talking about serious penalties here. What you are saying is that there should be a different sphere, where if you rip off the workers you should not pay the same sort of penalty as if you rip off the shareholders. I actually think that if you rip off the workers then surely it should be a penalty that is just as high. What the Labor Party is arguing today, and what the Greens and others are arguing, is that ripping off workers is worth a lesser penalty. That is what they are saying, because that is actually what this bill addresses. They are saying that workers being ripped off by their representatives should bring a lesser penalty, that it is not as bad as if you rip off the shareholders. How do you justify that? How do you justify that to your community?
Those who claim to represent the workers are saying, 'Well, look—it's fine. We know that those union officials were meant to represent the workers, but when they ripped them off it was not as bad as when that corporate crook ripped off the shareholders and the creditors.' In my opinion, that is actually putting the workers below those others. That is what the Labor Party is doing today. They are saying, 'Your rights don't matter. You've paid your union fees, you've expected fair representation and you've expected those union fees will be used for the purposes of representing you and not for feathering the nests of some of those who represent you.' And here we have a piece of legislation that would actually hold some of those people to account if they do the wrong thing—and we are talking about knowingly doing the wrong thing. We are talking about people who set out to rip off those who they represent. Well, I say that if you are a union crook or a corporate crook then you should be treated in the same way. You should have the law applied to you fairly. Those who vote against this legislation are, of course, denying that.
That is what this does. This bill would establish an independent watchdog with enhanced investigation and information-gathering powers to monitor and regulate registered organisations. Of course, we already have ASIC, which has those kinds of powers. It will strengthen the requirements for officers' disclosure of material personal interests in related voting and decision-making rights and charge grounds for disqualification and ineligibility for office. It will strengthen existing financial accounting, disclosure and transparency obligations under the Registered Organisations Act by putting certain rule obligations on the face of the RO Act and making them enforceable as civil remedy provisions. It will increase civil penalties and introduce criminal offences for serious breaches of officers' duties, as well as introduce new offences in relation to the conduct of investigations under the Registered Organisations Act.
Now, what part of that is objectionable? There has been very little in this debate that would provide a rational, coherent response to that question. What part of those provisions is objectionable? They claim some ideological divide. What they are doing is making an ideological divide, where they say that workers being represented should hold their representatives less to account—and that the law should hold those people less to account—than those who are representing shareholders. Because those who are representing shareholders already have these obligations.
Let's just remind the Senate of what the Labor Party's position is on this, backed by the Greens. Of course, the Greens increasingly draw their funding from unions. They often talk about donations and how that affects things. Well, of course, we know that the Greens are funded by the unions almost as much as the Labor Party are these days—they are indeed.
They are saying that, if they—their funders, the union representatives, the union bosses—do the wrong thing, if they fail to properly represent their members, if they fail to comply with the law, then they should just have a little penalty, they should just have a slap on the wrist. They are saying that, if they do the wrong thing, they should have the kind of penalty that we see applied to the CFMEU often, and which they ignore because they can pay the fine; they have the financial resources to pay the fine, time and time again, so they keep engaging in the conduct. You are holding the representatives of workers to a lesser standard than the representatives of shareholders.
So let's go to some of what is being defended here. Some of what is being defended here and some of what we have seen emerge at the royal commission needs to be exposed. It has been exposed in part, but we need to highlight the type of behaviour that we are talking about. Senator Lambie said she does not hate union members 'like some members of the Liberal Party do'—and that statement about Liberal Party members is simply not true. Some of us have even been members of unions, and when we have been members of unions we have expected they would do the right thing. And many do—in fact, most do. And those that do the right thing would have nothing to fear from legislation like this. If you go out there and you represent your members to the best of your ability, if you work hard to get them the best deal, then you would actually welcome legislation like this. And, if there is someone dodgy working in the next union, maybe someone you do not know about, then they should be held to a high standard when they do the wrong thing.
We have seen too many examples to say that we should not have a legal response—because that is what this is about. It is about saying: is there a reasonable legal response to this issue? We say there is, and we put this legislation forward to simply level the playing field. But let's look at some of the examples of what we have seen in the royal commission.
We have seen that CFMEU officials Brian Parker and Darren Greenfield consorted with underworld crime figure George Alex, whose friends and colleagues include Mick Gatto, former Comancheros, senior Rebels bikies, standover man Vasko Boskovski, recently murdered career criminal Joe Antoun, and famous ISIS jihadists Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar. These are some of the connections we are seeing. We have seen Comancheros being used as debt collectors.
Assistant Commissioner of Victoria Police Steve Fontana confirmed that they have evidence showing the overall infiltration of the building and construction industry by organised crime. He indicated that 'outlaw motorcycle gangs, including the Comancheros, have been regularly engaged as debt collectors on behalf of the industry. He said:
Victoria Police is concerned that the methods for debt collecting in the industry involve criminal conduct such as assault, threat to assault and intimidation.
This is the kind of thing that is being defended by the Labor Party, the Greens and others in this place. This is the kind of thing they do not want to see reasonable penalties for. There is a range of pieces of legislation to deal with this—whether it is the Australian Building and Construction Commission, whether it is the Fair Work registered organisations legislation—that would actually apply some proper penalties so we can stop this at source, instead of having some of this wrongdoing become endemic in parts of the industry. This is what the Labor Party and the Greens are defending. We have heard it time and time again.
Senator Conroy interjected when I mentioned Craig Thomson's name—
Wouldn't you want to see the law deal with them as well? If you are aware of others that we are not aware of, then bring them forward. Expose them. But what you are saying is that the likes of Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson, who have clearly been shown to have done the wrong thing by their members.
It will help if I do not hear this chirping in my ear from Senator Conroy. It will be easier not to respond to him. Therefore, I will certainly take your advice, Acting Deputy President, and go through the chair.
But this is the kind of behaviour that the Labor Party is saying is okay. These interjections are saying: 'What about others?' Well, absolutely: what about others? If they are shown to be doing the wrong thing—I do not care who they are; I do not care if they claim to be a whistleblower or if they are a whistleblower or if they simply got caught out doing the wrong thing—there should not be just a slap on the wrist for this kind of behaviour.
I again go to the point that we rightly say—and Senator Lambie has raised it and I am sure others have raised it in debate—to corporate criminals: 'There are serious penalties.' People can lose their life savings. People invest in companies, expecting that the directors will do the right thing. We have a legal framework to make sure that you do your best. If you get it wrong, if you fall a little bit short, maybe there are some consequences. But, if you deliberately fall short, if you deliberately do the wrong thing, if you knowingly do the wrong thing, then that is when we really need to have the serious penalties, and say that that is absolutely unacceptable. We need to have confidence as a community in corporate leadership. We have those laws. At the moment they are much stronger than what applies to some of these registered organisations.
What we are saying is: let's level that playing field and let's make sure that we do have serious penalties. Whether you are ripping off the workers or ripping off the shareholders, it is the same principle. It is absolutely the same principle. We have seen this lawless attitude of some unions, whether it is with Boral and construction sites in Melbourne, with the law being effectively determined by the CFMEU. There are numerous examples of secondary boycotts, cartel behaviour, racketeering, intimidation and illegal black-banning. The CEO of Boral, Mike Kane, lashed the CFMEU as 'an organisation that openly admits it has and will continue to break the law'. He stated:
On construction sites in Melbourne the law doesn't apply, the law is determined by the CFMEU…
That simply cannot stand. We can look at all the economic costs of having a situation of lawlessness on our construction sites and in other industries but there is also the moral fabric; the rule of law actually has to mean something. We could go through all the evidence that we have heard so far about Cesar Melhem, Bill Shorten's close friend; the false invoices; the Industry 2020 slush fund; the CFMEU receiving leaked details from Cbus members; the threats and the intimidation—and here in the ACT we have heard damning evidence into some of this behaviour.
I would ask senators, as part of this debate and as they consider their vote on this issue, to simply look at what this legislation does. The claims by Senator Lambie are wrong in terms of what it does and what it does not do. And certainly you cannot claim to want to stand up against lawlessness, corruption and wrongdoing and then vote against the very measures that would ensure we have a serious legal framework to deal with those breaches. What you are effectively saying is that ripping off the workers will be treated as a lesser offence than ripping off shareholders and other members of our community. Who here who claims to stand for the workers could actually let that stand? This legislation, as part of a suite of legislation, should be supported to ensure that we have the rule of law across the board and that union officials and other representatives of registered organisations are held to account and to similar standards to what we have for leaders in the corporate world. I commend this important piece of legislation to the Senate.
Oh yes, he's back! It has started. That is a record. I think I had said two words, maybe just a syllable, and Labor interjects. That is a world record. A golf clap—almost jazz hands—in terms of the effort by Senator Conroy. I am very, very impressed, Senator Conroy—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
and I will not let you down with what I am going to talk about tonight. This will keep you awake tonight. It will—
Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I ask you to draw to the attention of Senator Conroy standing order 197, which means interjections must be ceased. Either that or tell him to get over the fact that the Sydney Swans beat Collingwood last Friday night—one of the two, but please stop him interjecting.
I am speaking here tonight, to those who are listening, on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]. The measures in this bill are a key election commitment of the coalition and a matter of high public concern in light of the ongoing royal commission into registered organisations and the recent investigations into the Health Services Union.
The coalition first released its policy for better accountability and transparency of registered organisations in April 2012 and received widespread public support—so much widespread public support that we won the election in 2013 with this as one of our key election commitments.
The bill will amend the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 to establish an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission, to monitor and regulate registered organisations with enhanced investigation and information gathering powers. It will strengthen the requirements for officers' disclosures of material personal interests and related voting and decision-making rights and change grounds for disqualification and ineligibility for office. It will strengthen existing financial accounting, disclosure and transparency obligations under the Registered Organisations Act by putting certain real obligations on the face of the Registered Organisations Act and making them enforceable as civil remedy provisions. And it will increase civil penalties and introduce criminal offences for serious breaches of officers' duties as well as introduce new offences in relation to the conduct of investigations under the act.
The government is committed to improving the Fair Work laws so that we can build a more stable, fair and prosperous future for Australia's workers, businesses and the economy. The absolute need for this legislation almost goes without saying. The rorts, the rackets and the rip-offs have been in the media on an almost daily basis, and the wider community is strongly in favour of these reforms. Until this parliament acts, Australia will not have a sufficiently robust system to ensure that corruption of the sort that was revealed during the numerous scandals can be uncovered and eradicated before it becomes systemic, as it did in the infamous HSU case.
It is simply no longer tenable to argue that the present system is adequate to deal with or discourage this kind of behaviour. Unions and employer organisations play a critical role in the workplace relations system and in the economy more broadly, and their members invest a great deal of trust in them. The community expectation is that these registered organisations will operate to the highest of standards. These organisations are given special legislative rights. With these rights come responsibilities.
The government believes that the majority of registered organisations do the right thing and, in many cases, maintain higher standards than those that are currently required. However, the recent investigations into the Health Services Union illustrate that, unfortunately, financial impropriety can occur under the current governance regime for registered organisations.
The charges and allegations against former Labor Party member of parliament Craig Thomson and former Labor Party National President, Michael Williamson, in their capacity as officers of the Health Services Union are shocking and unacceptable. Mr Thomson was arrested in respect of more than 150 fraud related criminal charges and is facing allegations that his 2007 federal election campaign was partly funded by siphoning union money without authorisation. Mr Williamson has pleaded guilty to misusing almost $1 million of Health Services Union members' funds. Mr Williamson has also been accused of destroying documents and hindering investigations. Members of the Health Services Union are asking how this gross breach of trust could happen. Questions have also arisen with numerous other registered organisations. Members of registered organisations are asking whether this could happen in their own organisation.
The government believes the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill will provide the certainty and high standards of operation that members of registered organisations are entitled to expect. The bill introduces a suite of legislative measures designed to see governance of registered organisations lifted to a consistently high standard across the board. A more robust compliance regime will deter wrongdoing and promote first-class governance of such organisations.
The recent HSU scandals also revealed that the current processes for investigating wrongdoing and ensuring accountability are clearly inadequate. The Fair Work Australia investigations into the Health Services Union took far too long and the ensuing legal proceedings remain ongoing. A KPMG review into Fair Work Australia's investigations into the Health Services Union identified shortcomings in the conduct of those investigations. Members of the union and the community not only want a strong regulatory regime to give them confidence in their organisations but they also want swift action taken when standards are breached. In order to do this, it is necessary to have a robust and strong regulator in place with appropriate powers and resources, together with meaningful sanctions that can be applied when wrongdoing is revealed.
To improve oversight of these organisations, the bill will establish a dedicated independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission, to monitor and regulate registered organisations and provide enhanced investigation and information gathering powers. The new commission will have the necessary independence and the powers it needs to regulate registered organisations effectively, efficiently and transparently. The commission will be headed by the Registered Organisations Commissioner, who will be appointed by the minister.
The commission will have stronger investigation and information gathering powers than those that currently apply. These will be modelled on those available to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, which will further enhance the ability of the commissioner to provide strong and efficient regulation of unions and employer associations. The commission will have the power to commence legal proceedings and refer possible criminal offences to the Director of Public Prosecutions or law enforcement agencies.
The bill also ensures that there are appropriate sanctions against efforts to hinder or mislead investigations. This will give all members of registered organisations confidence that should they make a complaint to the commission about a registered organisation, that organisation and its officials must comply with the requirements of the investigation process or face sanctions. Members can also have confidence in the fact that under the new legislation, a person convicted of particular offences will not be eligible to be an officer of an organisation or to stand for election to office. 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 commission will be established within the office of the Fair Work Ombudsman. While it will be located within the offices of the Fair Work Ombudsman, the commissioner will have independence in the exercise of the relevant functions and powers under the law and the authority to direct staff in relation to the performance of those functions. A special financial account will also be established for the commission to ensure financial independence and the commissioner will have responsibility for day-to-day management of the account. The commission will be required to report to the Minister for Employment annually on its activities and that report will be tabled in parliament. The commissioner will appear at Senate estimates.
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 is common with statutory office holders, the minister is able to give directions of a general nature to the commissioner. These directions must be in writing and are a disallowable instrument. For the avoidance of any doubt, it should be made absolutely clear that the minister will not have any powers to give directions as to a particular matter or investigation.
The bill also provides for information sharing between the Fair Work Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission to the extent that is required for both organisations to do their job effectively and efficiently. This is required as several administrative tasks relating to registered organisations will continue to be the responsibility of the general manager of the Fair Work Commission. Transitional arrangements have been included in the bill to ensure any ongoing matters being dealt with by the Fair Work Commission relating to registered organisations can be dealt with by the Registered Organisations Commission.
As well as establishing a strong, independent regulator, the bill introduces reporting and disclosure requirements and enhanced penalties for wrongdoing. Many registered organisations control assets worth millions of dollars. They are effectively dealing with the cash flow and investments similar to those of large businesses. That is why the bill introduces financial and operational reporting requirements for registered organisations that align with those outlined in the corporations law. This will strengthen existing financial reporting, disclosure and transparency obligations for registered organisations and officers. It is entirely appropriate to expect a high standard of financial reporting from our registered organisations given the trust members place in their unions and employer associations to operate honestly, and to use the funds derived from their membership fees to represent their interests rather than for ulterior purposes. Registered organisations have substantial economic, legal and political influence. It is clearly inconsistent with community expectations for such organisations to operate to lower standards than those that apply to corporations or other comparable bodies.
Registered organisations will need to disclose remuneration paid to the top five officers in the head office and any branches. Officers will be required to disclose their material personal interests to all members. This means disclosing the personal interests of officers and their relatives and declaring any payments made to persons or entities in which an officer has declared an interest. This aims to prevent individuals from improperly benefiting from their role in the organisation—for example, by an officer procuring goods or services from a company they hold some interest in without disclosing that interest and without an appropriate and transparent process being followed.
Registered organisations will be required to provide a summary of this information to members in an officer-and-related-party disclosure statement and lodge it with the commission. While corporations law only requires directors to disclose conflicts of interest to their fellow directors, the government believes that officers of registered organisations should be required to disclose such matters to members, as they are elected by members to represent their interests. Members deserve to know who is in control of their money and where any conflicts may exist.
Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson have shown us that the existing regulation does not sufficiently protect members' interests. Unfortunately, there will always be less scrupulous individuals who will seek to take advantage of their positions when standards of accountability are low and the risk of getting caught is also low. In the face of this kind of behaviour, a strong message needs to be sent to discourage wrongdoing by officers and to rebuild the confidence of members and the community.
Enhanced reporting and disclosure requirements and a strong and efficient regulator will have little impact if the penalties for wrongdoing are not high enough to act as a deterrent. Currently, registered organisations and officers do not face the same consequences as companies and directors for wrongdoing. That is why the government is introducing significantly higher civil penalties and a range of criminal penalties for those registered organisations and officials who do the wrong thing. These penalties are in line with those facing companies and directors who break the law.
In relation to civil penalty breaches, the maximum penalty for serious contraventions will be 1,200 penalty units for an individual and 6,000 penalty units for a body corporate. This will apply to serious contraventions. What will constitute a serious contravention is defined in the bill. Other breaches will be exposed to a maximum civil penalty of 100 penalty units for an individual or 500 for a body corporate. By way of comparison, the current maximum penalties for even the worst misbehaviour are only 60 penalty units for individuals. The Federal Court will also have the power to disqualify an officer from holding office where a civil penalty provision has been contravened and the court is satisfied that disqualification is justified. Criminal penalties are being introduced for serious breaches of officers' duties as well as offences in relation to the conduct of investigations under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. The maximum penalties in these areas are 2,000 penalty units or five years imprisonment or both.
It is the government's expectation and it is the coalition's expectation that the highest penalties will be rarely handed out, but it is important that the courts have the ability to hand down strong penalties should the crime deserve it. We know that the courts have had an issue with the current framework, with the Federal Court's Justice North making almost unprecedented comments last year, saying, 'The penalties'—under the current act—'are rather beneficially low—beneficial to wrongdoers.'
Broadly, these offences relate to officers and employees of registered organisations who fail to exercise their powers or discharge duties in good faith and for a proper purpose. They also apply where an officer uses their position to gain an advantage for themselves or someone else or uses information gained while an officer or an employee to gain an advantage for themselves or someone else.
Criminal sanctions will also apply where an officer does not comply with the commissioner's new investigation powers. These sanctions align with the penalties that apply to noncompliance with an ASIC investigation and will ensure that officers of registered organisations take their obligations and the directions of the commissioner seriously.
Some registered organisations have indicated concern that the new penalties will mean that they will have difficulty persuading people to take on official responsibilities. The government and the coalition do not agree with that. The only people who have anything to fear are those who do the wrong thing. A rigorous structure and process will be in place for investigation and prosecution of alleged wrongdoing. Officers who are operating within the law, which is the overwhelming majority of them, will have no reason to fear taking on official responsibilities. 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 the registered organisations as a whole. The coalition government firmly believes there should be no difference between the penalties levied against a company director who misuses shareholder funds and a registered organisation boss who misuses members' money.
There is broad community consensus for the government's amendments, including one actually from one of Australia's most prominent union bosses, a certain Mr Paul Howes, formerly of the Australian Workers' Union, who told the ABC in November 2012:
I actually believe there is a higher responsibility for us as guardians of workers' money to protect that money and to act diligently and honestly. The reality is I do not have any issue with increasing the level of requirements and penalties on trade unions for breaching basic ethics like misappropriation of funds.
The government's intention is to see the Registered Organisations Commission begin operation as soon as possible, from early next year, with new disclosure and reporting obligations, higher civil penalties and new criminal sanctions coming into effect as soon as practical. This timing will align with the reporting obligations on a financial year basis and will provide registered organisations and officers with time to become familiar with the new obligations and the penalties associated with those obligations.
In developing the bill the government consulted with the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council members through the Committee on Industrial Legislation, including employer and employee associations. The government has made a number of key changes to the bill, as well as several minor and technical amendments, in response to the feedback received. The government thanks those committee members for taking the time to review the draft bill.
The only people who have anything to fear from these amendments and this bill are those who have done the wrong thing. Anyone in this place who has a regard for the members of registered organisations and their money will support the bill. 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 the Labor Party's Mr Williamson and the Labor Party's Mr Thomson. It is simply no longer tenable to argue that the present system—
Senator Conroy is like a bookend in speeches, isn't he? He starts at the beginning and sparks up and then goes back to sleep—through you, Madam Acting Deputy President. He has a little slumber and then, at the end, he perks up a little bit. We are the poorer for that, Senator Conroy. I really do think you could interject more, because you add a certain je ne sais quoi to the Labor Party's approach to this bill, and that is missing.
This government believes that the bill sets a suitably high standard for the governance of registered organisations. I call on those opposite to support the bill. (Time expired)
I too rise to speak in support of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]. This bill implements the government's election commitment outlined in the policy for better transparency and accountability of registered organisations. It will enhance the accountability and transparency of registered organisations by broadly aligning the obligations of office holders and the penalties and powers of the regulator with the Corporations Act 2001. Having a look at the detail of this bill, it absolutely blows my mind that anybody in this chamber could possibly not support the provisions of the bill. The fact that so many people on the other side are not supporting this, to me, very personally demonstrates so much of what is wrong with politics today.
Since the introduction of the 2013 bill, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption has been established. The royal commission is inquiring into, amongst other areas, slush funds and other similar funds and entities established by or related to the affairs of trade unions. In its interim report, the royal commission made findings in relation to the conduct of officers of registered organisations, including that the maximum penalties for breaches of general duties in relation to financial management are too low, that breaches of officers' duties are significant and widespread and that, in some instances, there is a deliberate disregard for the law. Again, how is it possibly in workers' interests for the trade unions to have been allowed to get away with this sort of behaviour for so long? These interim findings of the royal commission, combined with the Health Services Union saga, illustrate the need for the measures proposed in this bill.
The bill increases civil penalties and introduces criminal offences for serious breaches of officers' duties similar to those applicable under the Corporations Act. The bill also establishes the Registered Organisations Commission as independent but within the office of the Fair Work Ombudsman. Most importantly, especially for those opposite who claim this to be a partisan venture, the policy principles behind this bill are supported by a range of Labor luminaries—your colleagues and ex-colleagues. Who have we got supporting this? We have got Simon Crean.
Yes. We have got Martin Ferguson. We have got Robert McClelland. We have even got Paul Howes and Ian Cambridge. They are all doyens of the labour movement and they are all saying that this is the right thing to do, and it is the right thing to do because it is the right thing to do by union members.
This bill also addresses concerns raised in the Federal Court by His Honour Justice Anthony North, who said that the penalties under the existing legislation are beneficially low to wrongdoers. That means people are not getting penalised as they should for misuse of union funds and other misbehaviour. This legislation will bring penalties in line with the Corporations Act, because we believe there is absolutely no skerrick of difference between a dodgy company director who is ripping off shareholders and a dodgy union boss who is ripping off members. Again, when you look at it that way, you think, 'How on earth is it that the people opposite, who say that they represent the workers and are there fighting for the workers' rights, cannot even give workers the same rights that shareholders have to protect them?' It is an utter, utter disgrace.
I want to absolutely stress that the only people who have anything to fear from this bill are those who are doing the wrong thing by the workers of this country. I also want to reaffirm that the government firmly believes that the vast majority of officers of registered organisations absolutely do the right thing.
This bill was previously voted down in the Senate, but the primary reasons that the opposition opposed the bill are actually issues enshrined in the legislation as it currently stands today and are in full force. Something again that is quite astounding to me is that the onerous disclosure obligations that currently exist were in fact imposed by the Leader of the Opposition when he was the minister for workplace relations, and they will be removed under this government's bill.
Having a look at this bill and having a look at some of the history to this bill, I really had to start wondering why the Leader of the Opposition and those opposite would oppose these provisions. In my short time in this place, I have come to appreciate that, the louder and more aggressive the blokes on the other side of this chamber get, the more you just know there will be something they will want to hide with all the bluff and the bluster. Interestingly, the loudest in this chamber in my time so far appear to have been ex-trade union officials—a coincidence?
I know. It is pretty hard not to find one. But is that a coincidence or not? Having a look at the facts, my strong and deep suspicion is that it is linked and it is no coincidence. To test this hypothesis, I went back and had a look at the facts—not the rhetoric—and what is behind this well-worn tactic of those opposite of denying, defending and attacking: deny, defend, attack; deny, defend, attack. What are they trying to hide behind that? When I sought to understand why those opposite do not support this bill and the protection of the workers that unions represent, it did not take long to really understand why those opposite do not support this bill and are now trying so hard to discredit the royal commission. Sadly I had to narrow it down to the top 10 reasons that have come out of the royal commission because, simply, time in this chamber would not permit more.
Mr Acting Deputy President, if Senator Conroy does not think what I am about to read out are issues that every trade unionist and those opposite should not hang their heads in shame about at the impact on the trade unions—he might heckle but let him heckle after I have read out these absolutely blatant horrendous things that are happening against the people he pretends to represent.
It was impossible to rank them because they are all so heinous. However, the first one I identified was: CFMEU officials Brian Parker and Darren Greenfield consorted with underworld crime figure George Alex. Alex's friends and colleagues include Mick Gatto; former Comanchero Bilal Fatrouni; senior Rebels bikie Abuzar Sultani; standover man Vasko Boskovski; recently murdered career criminal Joe Antoun; and infamous ISIS jihadists Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, who did weight training, out of interest, in his backyard and joined Alex on a shooting trip shortly before escaping Australia to fight with ISIS.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
You might find that funny, but I think it is an absolute disgrace on behalf of all trade unionists in this country.
The second one: Comancheros being used as debt collectors for trade unions. The facts: assistant commissioner of Victoria Police Steve Fontana confirmed that the Victoria Police had evidence showing the overall infiltration of the building and construction industry by organised crime. He indicated that outlaw motorcycle gangs, including the Comancheros have been regularly engaged as debt collectors on behalf of the industry. Victoria Police are concerned that the methods for debt collection in the industry involve criminal conduct such as assault, threat to assault and intimidation. Presumably, it is trade union members' money that is going to these outlaw motorcycle gangs, including the Comancheros. That is No. 2.
What is No. 3? No. 3 is: construction company pays Bill Shorten's election campaign director—which he, oops, forgot to declare. Mr Shorten accepted a $40,000 donation from construction companies—
$40,000, Minister—to pay the wages of his election campaign director in 2007. But, guess what? He did not disclose until—how many days do you reckon before the royal commission asked him about these matters in sworn evidence?
Two, that is right. From 2007 through to this year, he had forgotten to mention a $40,000 donation. He also relied on assistance from an AWU staff member to formalise this arrangement, which he also did not disclose and does not appear to have refunded.
Senator Conroy, the truth is the truth. As much as you might not like hearing this, it is a shame and a disgrace, and you are now defending it.
Ah, but that was not only it! The Leader of the Opposition also failed to disclose $12,700 for this worker plus $11,000 for a part-time campaign worker that was donated by—guess which union? The AWU—what a surprise. He only included this in a late disclosure—again, how many before the royal commission, do you think? It was two days before the royal commission evidence he gave. That is No. 3.
What do we think is the fourth absolute disgrace is? It is Bill Shorten himself cutting workers' conditions. Isn't that somewhat ironic—trade union members are paying for unions to represent them, and what is he doing? He is doing what I would call dodgy deals to cut their wages. How did this happen? The commission heard that under the 2006 Cleanevent agreement, signed under the authority of Bill Shorten as national secretary of the AWU, workers were deprived of penalty rates, public holiday pay, overtime and shift loadings. This was under a deal authorised by Bill Shorten himself.
As Victorian secretary of the AWU, Bill Shorten also approved an agreement to allow a group of mushroom pickers to be fired and mostly rehired as casual labour. It saved the company millions from the abolition of overtime rates, amongst many other savings. This was from a man who purports to be standing up for the workers of this country—absolutely disgraceful. That is No. 4.
What is No. 5? No. 5 relates to Boral. On construction sites in Melbourne, the law is determined by the CFMEU. Pointing to numerous examples of secondary boycotts, cartel behaviour, racketeering, intimidation, illegal black-banning and criminal conspiracy, Boral CEO Mike Kane lashed the CFMEU as 'an organisation that openly admits it has and will continue to break the law'. Kane revealingly stated that on construction sites in Melbourne, the law does not apply; the law is determined by the CFMEU. Guess who they employ to do their enforcement? The Comancheros.
No. 6: Bill Shorten's close friend and AWU associate Cesar Melhem and false invoice incidents. The royal commission heard evidence that Cesar Melhem repeatedly issued false invoices to companies marked 'training', 'OH&S' or similar when they were actually payments for union membership. These were not small amounts of money. Any amount of money would be wrong but this was for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The AWU membership roll contained the names of workers and horseracing jockeys, who had never agreed to become members of the union. Mr Melhem also made a side deal in which cleaning company Cleanevent agreed to pay the union $25,000 per year for three years—$75,000—for undisclosed services in order to retain an enterprise agreement that left their workers with substantially worse than award pay rates. That is an absolute disgrace. That is No. 6.
No. 7 of my top 10: Bill Shorten's close friend Cesar Melhem and the Industry 2020 slush fund—yet another sad saga involving them both. The royal commission heard evidence of a slush fund, euphemistically entitled 'Industry 2020' set up by former AWU state secretary and sitting ALP Victorian MLC Cesar Melhem. Despite being structurally separate from the AWU, this fund—aka the slush fund—received regular payments from companies which had EBAs with the union. It employed no staff and had no premises of its own. However, all Industry 2020 fundraisers were organised and run by AWU officials and used AWU resources. Through these fundraisers, Industry 2020 received contributions from other unions such as the Victorian branch of the NUW. The most high-profile Industry 2020 fundraiser was a $550 a head lunchtime function at Flemington Racecourse addressed by the then Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
What is no. 8 on the shame roll? It was the CFMEU receiving leaked details from Cbus members. The private details of over 300 construction workers were leaked by the construction industry superannuation fund Cbus to the CFMEU. What a disgrace. As a result of the leaks, construction workers were contacted, intimidated and threatened by CFMEU officials. And guess who the CFMEU officials employ? The Comancheros.
One of the Cbus officials who leaked the information to the CFMEU gave evidence that she was absolutely terrified of what the New South Wales secretary of the CFMEU would do to her and her family if she told the royal commission the truth about this leak. When an organisation like the CFMEU who uses Comancheros to do their enforcement, it is amazing that this woman had the courage to come forward.
No. 9 on the role of shame is John Setka's threats. Allegations were made in the royal commission that the CFMEU had threatened contractors at the Pentridge Village residential development site to sign a CFMEU enterprise agreement and that they had pressured construction workers to join the union or otherwise face being black-banned. The developer testified that CFMEU state secretary John Setka demanded that the concreter Paul Costa be kicked off the Pentridge Village site simply because he was related to Daniel Grollo who Setka hated—again, utterly, disgraceful.
No. 10 on my list—and, as I said, I have a very long list and there are many, many more examples—is where a police officer arrested a former CFMEU official who gives evidence. ACT police arrested a former construction union organiser and previous Labor Party sub-branch president after he admitted to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in payments from tradesmen to help them win work. The CFMEU organiser was arrested after evidence revealed at the Canberra hearing of the commission. This was not of the commission's making; this was evidence he gave to the commission.
Mr Kivalu, who was president of the ALP's Dickson-Morning sub-branch in Canberra at the time he was allegedly involved in corruption, denied the cash payments constituted a bribe. When he resigned as the ALP sub-branch president, he was replaced with guess who? Another union official from the CFMEU who has also been the subject of adverse allegations at the commission—again, a pattern of behaviour time and time and time again.
Having a look at those facts and that evidence—and the weight of evidence—it became very apparent why those opposite and the Leader of the Opposition so staunchly support their trade union mates and their supporters. It is a story of utter shame, and sometimes I do not know how those opposite can possibly still support the trade unions, knowing exactly what the trade unions are doing to their workers.
It is very clear when you cannot discredit the facts that you try and discredit the man. That is exactly what is happening now with the royal commission: deny, attack, defend. Deny, attack, defend. Deny, attack, defend. If you concentrate on discrediting the commission enough, you are hoping that all of these facts will disappear. Let me tell you: they will not disappear—
Senator Bilyk interjecting—
no matter how hard you scream in this chamber. Deny, attack, defend—but the facts are here and the evidence is very, very clear.
So what are the changes that you are so opposed to? The government is making changes to remove unnecessary disclosure requirements on officers and organisations that were first included by the previous government's 2012 amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. These changes will ensure that only disclosing officers, those whose duties relate to financial management of the organisations, must disclose their material personal interests; and officers no longer need to disclose the material personal interests of their relatives.
The bill now also ensures that financial officers with relevant experience can apply to the Registered Organisations Commission for an exemption. These are all issues that were identified by Labor as problems. They are problems that exist in the law as it stands today. They acknowledged it. They know it is still the case. They are problems created by Labor yet again, and we will fix them with this bill.
There is a pressing need for this bill and for the establishment of a registered organisations commission to protect union members' and the funds that come out of their hard-earned pay. As we have seen, time after time and again and again, that out of the royal commission and elsewhere something has to change. Somebody has to stand up for these workers, and it is for all of those reasons, that I support this bill.
It is a great honour to stand up in support of this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]. It is an opportunity to support stronger regulations in what is a very important sector in our economy. It is also an opportunity for the Labor party to demonstrate to the Australian people whose side they are on—whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the worker who has to work hard to pay their union dues? Are you on the side of people who want proper protection in the workplace; or are you on the side of the people who run unions currently? Are you on the side of people who have been exposed as mishandling and misusing members' funds?
It will be very interesting to see which way the Labor Party votes on this, because it will reveal whose side they are on. Are they on the side of the workers as they actually say in this chamber over and over again; or are they on the side of their political puppet masters who control the strings of their positions here in the Senate and sometimes in the lower house? We all know how many senators here from the Labor Party owe their positions to unions. It is almost all of them and, because they do, they are somewhat conflicted on this bill. They say that they stand up for the worker. They say they stand up for people who do it tough and are on or below average wages, and they want to get a better deal for them.
I do not think it was a good deal for the nurses of New South Wales who have to empty bedpans and work hours away from their families They have to do all of those things and pay their dues to their union and then have people like Mr Williamson and Mr Thomson defraud them of their money by going and spending that money on fancy dinners, travel, some establishments we will not mention here in this chamber and also just little incidental things. I remember when that report by the Fair Work Commission came out on the conduct of Mr Thomson in particular. I remember that it was not just that he was living large, living on the hog from the work of ordinary health sector union members. It was also that he was using his corporate credit card, or his trade union credit card, as his own personal piggy bank. You could see in the transactions exposed by that report that day after day he would go to the local service station and buy a chocolate bar or buy a soft drink, all on union money. It was all personal expenditure, all with a complete lack of care and fiduciary duty for his own members' money.
It will be very interesting to see on which side the Labor Party comes down on this because these changes here have their genesis in those allegations from a few years ago. They are a specific response that the coalition crafted after those sordid details were exposed. It was something that the coalition took to an election. We took a promise to the Australian people that we would get tough and we would strengthen the requirements on trade union officials to make sure that people who do the wrong thing are held to some form of account. That is all that this bill does. All this bill does is try to make sure that the behaviour and actions of trade union officials are disclosed to their members, as they properly should be, and that, if they are found to be doing the wrong thing, they are subject to appropriate sanction and discipline by the law, as they should be.
So whose side are the Labor Party on? Well, maybe I should not ask, because I think I am going to be disappointed. I do not think they are actually going to be on the side of the worker here. I think they are going to come down, once again, to favour the trade unions and to favour officials in very well paid and secure jobs, against the interests of their own workers, who do not necessarily share those same benefits.
Unions were set up for a purpose. In my maiden speech I mentioned that trade unions have done good work over a number of years in our community and in other countries to improve the lot of workers, but some have travelled far from that original purpose, no longer have the interests of their own members at heart and seem to act for their own personal gain before they act for the collective interest. I believe that is often a consequence of the fact that we have substantially protected trade unions in our legislation over the years.
We have a registered organisations act from this parliament which provides trade unions with very special privileges. They are somewhat exempt from competition from other unions establishing to try to get members in their area. You can take the Health Services Union as an example. Notwithstanding the conduct of Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson, particularly in the New South Wales branch of the Health Services Union, because of the way the registered organisations act is written, no other union could be formed to offer membership to workers in that sector if they could conveniently belong to the health sector union as it stood. There is a provision in the Fair Work Act which says that, if someone can conveniently belong to an existing union, someone cannot set up and establish a different union to compete with them.
That is the economic equivalent of saying: 'You must buy milk from this supermarket. That's it. That's the only supermarket you can buy milk from. You've got no choice.' What do you think is going to happen to the price and quality of milk in that environment? It will fall because there will be no discipline; there will be no choice on the part of the consumers; and you will get bad outcomes. One of the greatest things we have in this country, if not the greatest thing, is our choice: our choice to do as we feel like in our lives, to buy what we like and to live with whom we like. If Senator Nash did not like her cup of coffee this morning, she can go to a different cafe tomorrow and get a better cup of coffee. Through that process we get good cups of coffee. We have pretty good cups of coffee in this country because we have choice.
If you do not have choice, you get bad outcomes. If you do not have choice on who your political party leader is, you get someone like Bill Shorten, because the Labor Party do not have a choice on who leads them now. They have locked themselves into Mr Shorten because they have taken that right away from themselves, and then you get bad outcomes. You get bad outcomes like the current Leader of the Opposition. That is what happens when you do not have choice. I would encourage the Labor Party to embrace the concept of choice and once again open up the leadership of the Labor Party. You might get a better outcome, not that I would wish for that, but at least choice would be returned to their membership.
I want to mention one more thing. Not only do we have a Fair Work Act which protects trade unions from a competitive environment but we also exempt trade unions from various provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act that other organisations are subject to—in particular, collective bargaining and collusive behaviour. If farmers want to collude, if farmers want to get together and bargain in a collective fashion like a union does, they need to meet certain public interest tests under the Competition and Consumer Act before they enter into a collective bargaining arrangement. Unions are lucky not to have those restrictions placed on them. Once they are a registered organisation under the Fair Work Act, they can be exempt from those particular provisions and legally collude as often as they like.
We are not arguing against that in this bill. As I said earlier, unions have played an important role in our society and continue to, and if this bill is passed we will continue to have unions that are exempt from provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act and that can collectively bargain with their employers to get the best deal for their workers. What this act is all about is providing a more effective, more transparent and more accountable trade union sector than currently exists. This is a pro-worker bill because it will help return power to the members of unions, who are actually the workers. The members of unions are the ones who should be able to run and hold accountable the people who run their unions. This bill will help them do that.
The only people who should be afraid of this bill are those people who are doing the wrong thing, because all this bill does primarily is increase penalties for people who are doing the wrong thing. So, if you are a trade union official who is doing the wrong thing, you should be afraid of the legislation passing through tonight. But, if you are not doing the wrong thing, if you are acting in the interests of your members—and I would hazard a guess that the majority of trade union officials are doing the right thing and, as usually happens in society, it is just a few bad eggs—you will have nothing to fear from this bill. So why are the Labor Party so afraid of this bill, Senator Nash?
I do not understand why they are so afraid of this bill. It must be because they get support from some people who are doing the wrong thing. That is why they are afraid of this bill and that is why the Greens are afraid of this bill, too. We know that they get significant support—not just some support—from people who seem to be doing the wrong thing right now. We know that the CFMEU bankroll the Labor Party and the Greens. They provide substantial amounts of money. The serious allegations of misconduct that have been revealed in the royal commission and the serious and contemptuous behaviour of some CFMEU officials, particularly with regard to women—absolutely disgraceful conduct—should be condemned by all sides of politics but unfortunately it is not strongly condemned by those opposite because they get bankrolled by the union.
These days many political parties do not take donations from certain sectors—like tobacco and other sectors we feel are not doing the right thing. The Labor Party and the Greens often sanctimoniously stand up and say they will not take donations from particular sectors—because they are pure and they are nice and they stand up for what is good and right in the world—but when their financial masters, the CFMEU, engage in conduct much worse, much more beyond the pale, than many of those other sectors, those opposite do nothing because they rely so heavily on that money. In my view, their vote on this bill will be reflective of the money they receive from the CFMEU.
In the time available to me, I should outline precisely what this bill will do. The Labor Party would have you believe that this is some retrograde, almost fascist, piece of legislation, when in fact all this legislation does is make the obligations on trade union officials somewhat comparable to the obligations that are placed on directors of corporations. We provide corporations with certain privileges, particularly limited liability, and it is right and proper that we place serious obligations on the directors of corporations in return. It is the same principle here. We protect trade unions from competition and from having to justify their collusive activities and, in return, we should expect the highest standards of conduct from those officials.
This bill will establish an independent registered organisations commission to oversee the obligations of the Fair Work Act to make sure that registered organisations are doing the right thing. The bill will also strengthen the disclosure requirements placed on officials of trade unions, so that their members can be informed of what they are up to and what their conflicts of interest are. I will say upfront that the conflict of interest obligations we are imposing in this bill go somewhat further than the Corporations Act, because we think it is really important that trade union officials, in particular, show their members what conflicts of interest they have. Most significantly, this bill will increase the civil penalties associated for breaching the registered organisations provisions of the act and it will introduce some criminal offences as well—again comparable to the Corporations Act.
The coalition, in opposition, developed these proposals very soon after the allegations with respect to the HSU were exposed a few years ago. These proposals were rejected at the time by the then Labor-Green government, and I imagine they will be rejected again by the Labor-Green opposition. They were rejected when the Labor-Green government were in power. They were rejected when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was there. She relied heavily on union support to maintain her leadership of the Labor Party and—surprise, surprise—they opposed these very moderate, very reasonable and very sensible responses to that particular crisis. And they are going to reject these proposals again because they still rely heavily on the unions.
I was a bit young to remember, but I have read about a former Prime Minister of the Labor Party, Bob Hawke. I remember reading that former Prime Minister Bob Hawke took some serious and strong actions against unions that were doing the wrong thing in his time. He actually had guts. He actually stood up against people who were clearly acting beyond the bounds of reasonable conduct. He deregistered the Builders Labours Federation for conduct not dissimilar to the conduct that the CFMEU engages in today. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke also stood up to the pilots who, in the late 1980s, were on strike about certain reforms. He stared them down and won a great victory for our country that has provided us a much more competitive and efficient airline ever since—something which has not been opposed by any Labor government since that time. He did that because he had guts and he did not just follow. The unions were not just playing Pied Piper to his followers. He was not leading a government of lemmings.
Unfortunately, we now have a Labor Party that are lock, step and barrel constantly tied to the unions. They will not deviate one iota—will not step off their right foot—to sometimes do what is right for the country rather than what is right for their own sectional interests. It is very unfortunate that we now have a Labor Party like that, because these kinds of reforms are something that we should be able to bring in in a bipartisan way. We should be able to respond to serious misconduct in the union movement. No-one could deny that the behaviour of certain union officials in the last few years has been deplorable. We should be able to respond to such activities with a sensible and strong response, by strengthening the penalties and requirements of the act, to make sure that such activities do not happen again.
Why is it important that we make sure that this sort of misconduct does not happen again? Well, we don't just want to stop it happening again—that is not good enough; what we actually want to do is give members of unions the confidence that it will not happen again and confidence that the officials who are meant to represent their interests will look after their interests first and foremost. Unfortunately, I do not think union members can have that confidence right now, given the last few years. It is an unfortunate outcome, but that is the reality of where we are. This bill, by strengthening penalties and increasing transparency, will help to restore that confidence. I said earlier that it is a pro-worker bill, and I absolutely stand by that. It is a pro-worker bill because it helps to strengthen the rights and accountability and the information that flows to workers who are members of unions. I also think that this is a pro union bill, because these provisions will help to provide greater certainty and greater security to unions so that they can sell their own benefits to their members. They can stand up and say: 'We are held to a high standard by the parliament and by the government because of this bill and because of these amendments. You can be confident that we will act in your interests, because, if we don't, we'll have a serious slap-down by the law.'
And it is not just me who believes that this bill will be pro union and will help to restore the community's confidence in trade unions; it is also the view of Mr Paul Howes, the former leader of the Australian Workers Union. He supported the then opposition's amendments—now the government's bill—at the time, in November 2012, when he told the ABC:
I actually believe there is a higher responsibility for us as guardians of workers' money to protect that money and to act diligently and honestly …
Those are the sentiments that this bill tries to capture. Those are the sentiments that are driving the objectives of this bill. If this bill comes in, it will help to provide greater trust and security that union officials are acting as guardians of workers' money, that they are protecting that money and that they are acting diligently and honestly.
As I said, I want to conclude by stressing that I do believe that the majority of trade union officials are probably doing the right thing and do hold their workers' interests in the best regard. It is almost always the case that there are only a few bad apples that spoil the lot, and what we need to do with laws and regulations is to ensure that we can identify those bad apples, root them out and appropriately penalise them so that there are not the incentives in the system to act like a bad apple in the future. I generally hope that the crossbenchers can support this legislation. We will not get the support of the Labor Party and the Greens, given who pay their bills, but if the crossbenchers can support this bill it will be a great development. It will be a significant development in the regulation of trade unions in our country. It will help to increase confidence and support for the trade union movement and, most importantly, it will protect the workers of our country who often earn less than the average wage. And it will help to make sure that the money they pay in union dues is used to protect their interests and not anyone else's.
I too rise tonight to speak to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2]. Having listened to the contributions of those who have gone before me, I must admit that I too am a little at a loss to understand why anyone would be opposing this legislation. It is, largely, seeking to put in place a suite of actions that will mean that registered organisations—probably more commonly referred to as unions—are required to operate under the same corporate rules and guidelines and operating procedures as a corporation. At the end of the day, a union is nothing more than a corporation or an organisation—it is just that its output or the service that it provides relates to the organisation of the workforce or the labour force. To think that we should have a different set of rules that apply to a corporate organisation that looks after that particular service sector as opposed to any other service sector, manufacturing sector, primary production sector or whatever sector it may be, seems a little anomalous to me.
This particular bill basically seeks to replicate the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013. The measures in that bill were a key election commitment by this government. I believe this was a matter of great concern to the Australian public in the lead-up to that election and that it remains of great concern to the Australian public. And despite the hoo-ha that has been going on over the last few days in relation to the senior commissioner on the royal commission, I think the necessity to establish a royal commission into registered organisations is a pretty sad indictment of where this particular situation has got to in Australia. We do not have to look terribly far—we look back to the Health Services Union situation. What an absolute debacle! What a terrible indictment of the Australian labour movement and the union movement that such a thing was allowed to occur. And today we have still to get to the bottom of it. It continues to be in the courts without any great resolution.
The fact that this particular bill sets up great accountability and greater transparency of registered organisations and it is meeting with resistance by those opposite and by the Greens in this place is really quite bizarre. The number of times I have had to sit in this chamber and listen to those from the other side, saying, 'The government has to have more accountability,' or 'The government has to have greater transparency,' and here we are with a bill before this place that seeks to do exactly that and we find that those opposite are refusing to accept it. I do not know quite why accountability for the government, banks, large corporations or every other member of the Australian public is an acceptable thing to be demanding, but we do not seem to have to have any accountability or transparency for our registered organisations.
The bill also seeks to set up an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission, to monitor and regulate registered organisations. Once again, I am at a loss to see why anybody would not want to have an independent ombudsman or commission. Certainly, I could understand if those opposite thought that a government department were going to have responsibility for the monitoring and regulation of an organisation, but to be resistant to an independent organisation doing it is quite bizarre.
The fact of the matter is that what we have here is a rule for them and a rule for us, a rule for the unions and a rule for everybody else. I think the Australian public is actually getting to the stage where they are a little bit sick of thinking that the unions are a rule unto themselves. I have a level of sympathy with the senator from Tasmania Senator Lambie when she is calling for the deregulation of the CFMEU. Obviously, we need to be extremely careful that we make sure the rules for deregulation are consistent across all unions when you consider some of the activities and some of the allegations that come into this place about some actions of the CFMEU.
I had the privilege of sitting on the Standing Committee on Education and Employment for a period. Sitting in estimates hearings, I listened to some of the things CFMEU officials had done to people—intimidation, bullying, outright I would suggest criminal behaviour by organisers or senior officials in the CFMEU—which would probably leave many in Australia to have a level of sympathy with Senator Lambie's sentiment that the deregulation of the CFMEU would probably be a good thing. We have to be very careful that we are not just singling out the CFMEU. Legislation such as the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill seeks to make sure we make a set of rules which would apply for everybody. If we put these rules in place, then anybody or any organisation which seeks or operate outside those rules can be punished accordingly.
While I have some sympathy for Senator Lambie's position, I think it would be very wise of her to have a really good look at what this bill is trying to achieve because it may allow her to get her desire to have the CFMEU deregulated. If this particular suite of legislation goes through we will be able to find out whether the things that are being alleged about the CFMEU are true, if they do not meet the requirements set out. Obviously there would be a capacity to do that.
Why would anybody want to oppose this piece of legislation? It is probably fairly obvious why we are seeing resistance from the other side—what has come out in the royal commission in relation to some of the extraordinary things the unions are doing. There is a perception out there that unions are for workers, but if you heard some of the bad deals which have been done, for example, by the Australian Workers Union on behalf of their members, you could be excused for thinking that the unions are not necessarily there to protect workers but possibly for a level of self-interest and self-preservation. As an example, in 2006 Cleanevent entered into an EBA with the AWU, signed by a delegate of the now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, which specifically excluded certain conditions including penalty rates, public holiday pay, overtime and shift loadings. By 2010, Cleanevent was saving approximately $2 million per year in wages, and saved up to $400 million after removing night shift penalties and weekend loadings. Cleanevent paid the AWU $25,000 a year for three years as part of this 2010 deal to maintain low-paying conditions for its workers. You have to wonder how a particular action by that union on behalf of its workers, which removed a number of their entitlements in return for money being paid to the union, could possibly be in the best interests of its workers. Maybe the workers were happy with that but I would suggest the workers probably were not even aware that they had had some of their conditions sold away for the sake of funding being paid to the union by the company with which the deal was done.
Chiquita Mushrooms is purported to have saved millions of dollars from the abolition of overtime rates when the AWU permitted it to move its staff into labour hire or effectively casual arrangements. Once again, this was approved by the Leader of the Opposition before he came into this place. The labour hire was required by the EBAs to be approved through companies recommended by the AWU because it was union-friendly and would ensure that revenue to the AWU from union membership would be maintained. And low and behold, Chiquita Mushrooms paid the AWU $4,000 per month, which the union claimed was paid for education leave. The former human resources manager of Chiquita Mushrooms said that the payments were to avoid union grief and to facilitate good relations with the AWU. Former Managing Director Stephen Little agreed that the payments were to buy industrial peace. Once again, you would have to question how on earth that particular type of action can be acceptable.
I could go on for many hours with page after page of unexplained or dubious payments which have been made to various unions. You can perhaps understand why we are seeing the level of resistance on the other side for this particular piece of legislation to be passed. I suppose what we would like to know—and it is a pity that it is yet to be explained—is why the other side are not supporting this legislation. We have heard comments along the line that this is an ideological attack on workers. I cannot see how doing deals that sign away workers' entitlements or workers' conditions in response for payments to a union can possibly be ideological good for workers.
But, back to the legislation: this government—the government of which I am very proud to be a member—is really committed to making sure that we have fair work laws in Australia, because unless we have fair work laws in Australia it is almost impossible to build a safe, stable, fair and prosperous economy, not just in economic conditions for our businesses but for Australian workers in Australian businesses.
We need to get stability in there, we need to get consistency in there and we certainly need to get thuggery off our building sites. As you well know, Mr Acting Deputy President, the capacity for our major cities to be able to develop in the way that they need to develop is almost entirely built on their infrastructure development. If we are constantly held to ransom by the thug-type behaviour of unions like the CFMEU, who are quite happy to go in to intimidate and threaten anybody who would seek to do anything that they did not approve of, then that is a very sad indictment of our industrial space at the moment. And it is also doing absolutely nothing to assist our economy in its recovery from some very bad times—not the least, obviously, the global financial crisis.
Unquestionably in my mind, this legislation absolutely needs to pass because of the rorts, the rackets and the rip-offs that we have seen day after day in the media—almost on a daily basis. There is no doubt that people in the wider community strongly favour these reforms. I think the public understand what is going on and they want to see this rubbed out as well. I would imagine that the public would find it really quite extraordinary that those on the other side, and the Greens at the other end, would not seek to try to deal with what seems to be a constant and systemic problem in our building industry. We need to make sure that we have a strong and robust enough system within our parliament and legislative framework to enable those officers that need to to undertake the necessary actions that will get some trust and integrity back into our system.
The government certainly believes that the majority of registered organisations do the right thing. In many cases they have the very highest of standards. It must be very unfortunate and disappointing to them to be tarred with the same brush as some of the few unions and registered organisations that are doing the wrong thing and creating this really bad perception and idea in the wider community with all the terrible things that are going on. I am sure the public does not actually differentiate between the registered organisations that are doing the right thing and the registered organisations that are not necessarily doing the right thing. I would just like to put on the record that the government understands that the majority of registered organisations are doing the right thing, and that they have great standards. They represent their workers very well and the workers are obviously great beneficiaries of the action of the majority of unions.
But you cannot go past the recent Health Services Union situation to demonstrate the extraordinary situation that occurs when you have the kind of level of financial impropriety and corruption that we saw in that particular union. It was so extraordinary to end up with the situation where we had a member of parliament who remained seated in this place for almost the entire duration of a term of the parliament while he had charges and allegations levelled against him—Mr Craig Thomson. Then we went through the whole Michael Williamson situation. It was just extraordinary that one union could completely tarnish the reputation of the entire union and registered organisation movement across the whole of Australia.
We believe that this bill—the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill—will provide certainty and high standards for the operation of the members of registered organisations. It is the certainty they are entitled to expect. It really does seem quite ironic that we should be here defending the rights of the workers against an attack by those opposite on the rights of workers by their refusal to allow this particular bill to go through. This bill is just about governance. We talk about governance in here day in, day out. I think that we have to see a transparent and robust governance structure, and we need to make sure that the compliance regime will deter people from doing wrong. We have to provide first-class governance for registered organisations, and I think there is absolutely no doubt that this particular piece of legislation will provide a much better environment for everybody in Australia. It will provide certainty, transparency and clarity, and it will give our economy, our businesses, our employees and our employers the kind of certainty and surety needed to be able to go into the future.
It is with great pleasure that I stand here to say that I very much support this legislation. I call on those opposite to reconsider their opposition to this piece of legislation, because I think it is a very sad indictment on them that they would seek to vote down a piece of legislation that seeks to look after the workers of this country.
I thank all honourable senators for their contributions to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill debate.
Registered organisations play an important role in the affairs of workplace relations in this nation. Registered organisations are given special privileges under the Fair Work Act. With those privileges should come countervailing responsibilities. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people pay hard-earned wages—literally hundreds of dollars per annum—as dues to unions and, similarly, small businesses pay employer organisations in Australia. Those organisations are known as 'registered organisations'.
Regrettably, the rorts, the rackets and the rip-offs have been in the media on an almost daily basis. Think Michael Williamson, former federal President of the ALP; think Thomson, the former Labor member for Dobell; think Transport Workers Union; think CFMEU; and, indeed, think Mr Shorten's own union, the Australian Workers Union. In short, the community strongly favours these reforms.
To do nothing is not a responsible option. It is simply no longer tenable to argue that the present system is adequate to deal with or to discourage the kind of behaviour that we have witnessed. Regrettably, it is systemic. The government believes that the majority of registered organisations in fact do the right thing, and indeed in many cases maintain higher standards than would be required under this legislation. Nevertheless, there are systemic issues.
The Health Services Union case illustrates that, unfortunately, financial impropriety can and does occur under the current government's regime for registered organisations. The charges and allegations against former ALP member of parliament Craig Thomson, and former national president of the ALP Michael Williamson in their capacity as officers of the Health Services Union are detestable, shocking and unacceptable. Mr Thomson is still facing allegations that his 2007 federal election campaign was bankrolled by siphoning union money without authorisation. Mr Williamson has pleaded guilty to misusing almost $1 million of Health Services Union members' funds. He has also been accused of destroying documents and hindering investigations. Members of the Health Services Union are rightly asking how this gross breach of trust could happen.
Let's not forget: Mr Shorten and Senator Wong were the chief defenders of the Mr Williamsons and the Mr Thomsons of this world. Regrettably, Labor and the Greens political parties are the recipients of literally millions of dollars from these organisations, and that is why they are so silent on matters of corruption in these organisations. The Health Services Union investigation exposed the many significant shortfalls in the current framework. The investigation into Mr Thomson of the Health Services Union by the Fair Work Commission cost taxpayers almost $4 million. The report took three years to produce and, now, eight years after the initial breaches, court action is, unbelievably, still ongoing. Clearly there is something wrong with this framework. That is why there is a need for this bill.
The bill will establish an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission, to monitor and regulate registered organisations with enhanced investigation and information-gathering powers to ensure that the law is upheld. It will strengthen requirement for officers' disclosure of only material personal interests and related voting and decision-making rights, and it will change the grounds for disqualification and ineligibility for office. It will strengthen the existing financial accounting disclosure and transparency obligations. It will increase civil penalties and introduce criminal offences for serious breaches of officers' duties, as well as introducing new offences in relation to the conduct of investigations.
Importantly—and this is very important for honourable senators to note—this bill will fix the rushed, and quite frankly silly, amendments made by the former government under Mr Shorten that require even some shop stewards around Australia to disclose their husband's, their wife's or children's income and assets. These were requirements imposed by Mr Shorten, the current leader of the Australian Labor Party, and we want to fix up this mess—but more on that later.
I want to take time to address some of the concerns that have been raised by senators. In relation to penalties: the penalties will be imposed only by the courts. We know that the courts have had an issue with the current framework, when even Federal Court judge Anthony North made these almost unprecedented comments last year, 'The penalties are rather beneficially low—beneficial to wrongdoers'. And the Labor Party and Greens want to vote for these penalties that are 'beneficial to wrongdoers' to be maintained. In other words, the penalty does not fit the gravity of the offence. So why would any senator seek to vote to keep that situation in place when Federal Court judge Anthony North has come to that inescapable conclusion? It is very compelling, very persuasive and a matter of regret that the Australian Labor Party and the Greens have not succumbed to the logic and wisdom of Justice North on this occasion.
I simply pose the question: why should a corrupt union official who has ripped off hundreds of thousands of dollars from a union only be liable for a fine of $10,800 when for the same corrupt conduct a company director would be liable for five years imprisonment or a fine of $360,000 for ripping off shareholders? What is the material difference, what is the moral difference, between a company director ripping off shareholders, and a union official, or for that matter an employer official, ripping off members? Simple: there is no moral difference; there is no material difference; there should be no material difference between the penalties.
Some registered organisations have indicated concern that the new penalties will mean that they will have difficulty in recruiting people to take on responsibilities. If that is the case, it is a very sad reflection and, quite frankly, I do not believe it. It is very simple: no wrongdoing, no penalty. And the penalty of course would be imposed by the court. The only people who have anything to fear are those with wrongdoing on their minds.
A rigorous structure and process will be in place for investigation and prosecution of alleged wrongdoing. Officers who are operating within the law have no reason to fear taking on official responsibilities. The overwhelming number of officers who are already doing the right thing should be comforted to know that unlawful behaviour will be dealt with, thus ensuring ongoing member confidence in registered organisations as a whole.
More importantly, I would invite honourable senators to recognise that this bill actually cleans up the mess created by Mr Shorten and the former government, which does actually act as a disincentive to good people taking on responsibilities. Our legislation will amend the disclosure requirement for officers of registered organisations, to more closely align them with the Corporations Act.
I simply say to those who have railed against these provisions and the others I go through: 'Keep in mind, vote down this bill and all those provisions will remain.' And, what is more, we will be seeking from the Fair Work Commission their attitude in relation to pursuing all these Labor-Green imposed requirements that the Labor Party put into the legislation and which they championed. We will also remove under our bill the more invasive disclosure requirements for officers to report family members' income and assets, thereby more closely aligning it with the Corporations Act. These provisions were so ham-fistedly put into the legislation by Mr Shorten, Labor and the Greens and they are having inappropriate and dire consequences for those who want to be involved in the trade union movement or employer organisations. Vote down this bill and those provisions remain.
The bill will align the material personal interest disclosure requirements for officers, so the disclosures only need to be made to the governing body and not to the entire membership. Mr Shorten's legislation requires it to go out to the entire membership, a complete breach of privacy and something I would have thought would, at least, have excited the interest of the Australian Greens, but they are nowhere to be heard on this breach of privacy. It is okay because Mr Shorten did it! You can actually get rid of this provision by supporting the legislation.
We will limit disclosures of related party payments to payments made above a certain prescribed threshold and with certain other exceptions based on those exceptions in the Corporations Act for member approval of related party transactions. And we would provide the commissioner with a discretion to waive training requirements of officers of registered organisations. For example, if a member is a certified and practising accountant they would not have to go through the course being provided by the Fair Work Commission, another example of Mr Shorten's manic, ham-fisted approach.
The unions want this provision removed. As the ACTU said in its submission to the Senate inquiry it is concerned that this 'may dilute the content of the care and diligence duty'. But it is in fact the extra penalties that the unions do not want, and that is why they have taken this regrettable attitude to the legislation, and that is why the Labor Party is in lockstep with them and doing the same.
The dissenting report from Labor and Greens senators in the recent Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee inquiry demonstrate their attitude to this legislation. That is, they oppose the bill in its entirety, simply as a matter of principle. They even argue against our amendments that the trade union movement supports.
Let me be very clear. Unless these amendments pass this parliament, officials of registered organisations will run the very real risk of being in breach of the laws as they stand today in relation to those issues identified by the opposition themselves. When they are enforced and all the people out there rightly complain about the enforcement of these provisions, we will say to them, 'Thank the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party for not removing these provisions when they actually had the opportunity of doing so and assisting in cleaning up certain elements in the trade union movement.'
It does seem that we get lectures from those opposite, including some from the crossbench, that this is somehow an ideological attack on workers and that we somehow believe that all unions are corrupt. Even if you think that this is what we think, you are wrong. Even if you were to park that to the side, why is it that Mr Paul Howes, a former secretary of the Australian Workers Union, was able to say:
The reality is I do not have any issue with increasing the level of requirements and penalties on trade unions for breaching basic ethics like misappropriation of funds.
It is pretty simple stuff. Mr Howes does not have a problem with this legislation.
Another former leader of the Australian Workers Union, and indeed of the labour movement, now a Fair Work commissioner, Ian Cambridge, made a similar commentary, as did former Labor Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, as did former two ACTU presidents and Labor ministers, Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean. Are they also, somehow, all embarked on this ideological attack on workers? I do not think so. No, they are decent trade union leaders, who have seen a once proud organisation brought into the gutter through corruption and they want to see it cleaned up, and we as a government do as well.
We heard earlier Senator Cameron asserting that the Ai Group opposes this legislation. In actual fact, the Ai Group supports the bill, noting that it was pleased that many of the suggestions had been taken on board by the government. I suppose it should not surprise, but why is it that truth and fact is not seen to be a consideration from the frontbencher brought into this place by Mr Shorten to lead on this debate? To make the false assertion that the Ai Group does not support the bill, to say it with a straight face and to assert that that is the truth, when it must be known that it is untrue, beggars belief. For Senator Cameron to come into this place and assert one thing, whereas there is a public submission saying the exact opposite, indicates the paucity of factual information that Senator Cameron brings to these debates.
Senator Cameron and the ALP have previously suggested that the bill proposes to amend the act to restrict officers from taking part in certain decisions. Each and every one of his allegations that he made relates to the legislation that is already in place and that we are seeking to amend.
Courtesy of the Australian Labor Party's ham-fisted approach in attempting to gazump the coalition when we announced our policy for a Registered Organisations Commission, Mr Shorten introduced all these, quite frankly, foolish provisions. They should be removed. They do not assert that this is part of the government's legislation. It is already there, courtesy of the ALP-Greens forcing this legislation through the Senate without proper debate. In his ham-fisted approach all the ills that Senator Cameron refers to are in fact already in the legislation, and we seek to remove them from the legislation and relieve Labor from their own embarrassment.
The only thing we are really asking for is that there be an increased regime of penalties and a bit more transparency. Senator Cameron, the Labor Party and the Greens want to live with all of these things that they are against for fear of one thing—increased penalties. Why are they scared of the courts imposing penalties if a wrongdoing has been uncovered? They will defend the Michael Williamsons of this world and they will defend the Craig Thomsons of this world irrespective of the mountain of evidence that has been provided in both those cases.
This is a policy on which the government went to the last election. It was well and truly ventilated and put before the Australian people. I recall debating matters workplace relations with Mr Shorten in a televised debate broadcast nationally and the registered organisations commission, Mr Shorten could not criticise and it is quite obvious why. Yet here in this place, they will use their numbers to try to once again block any attempt to clean up the trade union movement—an attempt that has the support of two former ACTU presidents, two former distinguished secretaries of the Australian Workers Union and so the list goes on.
People who were the heart and soul of the union movement, those who were anxious and concerned to ensure that the union movement had a good reputation, their reputations are now being trashed by the Labor Party because they want to preserve the domain of the corrupt union official. We believe overwhelmingly union officials are honest, honourable individuals that have a very important role to play in the workplace relations landscape. However, it is clear when you have got this legacy of issues from a whole range of unions that there has to be some degree of clean-up. The Registered Organisations Commission would provide such a mechanism. The only fear that people need have if they do wrong is they will not be able to weasel around for years on end like Craig Thomson was able to do and keep the hapless Gillard government in power; they would be brought to account lot quicker with a lot more serious consequences.
We introduced this legislation within the first sitting week of the parliament because we considered it to be so important. Now it has come before the Senate yet again and I invite honourable senators to support this very important measure.