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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 7647

Mr VAN MANEN (Forde) (13:17): I rise to speak on the Fair Work ( Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012. It is interesting that it took the government only 10 days to announce this legislation, but only after the Leader of the Opposition had announced the coalition's Better Plan for Accountability and Transparency for Registered Organisations. It is flattering that Labor has sought to emulate the stance that had been articulated by the Leader of the Opposition, but, as usual, Labor's plan is lacking in a number of key areas: it still sees Fair Work Australia in control of investigating registered organisations; it does not expressly provide Fair Work Australia with the ability to cooperate with police; the requirements and penalties are still not in line with the Corporations Act; and it has no reporting mechanism on why investigations are going overtime.

The coalition's plan, on the other hand, seeks to make sure that members of registered organisations can be assured that their money is being used for the right things and for their interests. There are rules to ensure that companies and their boards of directors do the right thing—the same rules should apply to registered organisations and their officers. Our plan seeks to ensure that registered organisations and their officers are as accountable and transparent as companies and their directors, and that we have a level playing field where we ensure that everybody plays by the same rules. It is clear from the experience with the HSU that Fair Work Australia is not up to the job of making sure that registered organisations do the right thing—it is either a model of incompetence or is engaging—or has engaged in—a deliberate and overt go-slow to protect the government.

The coalition's plan proposes to remove from Fair Work Australia both the investigative and the compliance powers over registered organisations and give those powers instead to a new, genuinely independent body, which will be called the Registered Organisations Commission. The Registered Organisations Commission will have stronger powers. It will be tasked with acting quickly and efficiently and will be required to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies where it is in the interests of the public to do so.

By contrast, in this bill and under Labor's proposed changes Fair Work Australia would continue to be responsible for registered organisations. Under the government's plan, former union bosses are going to regulate union bosses. It is akin to putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. The rules and requirements which would apply as a result of the proposed changes are still significantly weaker than those currently applicable to company directors. Company directors are subject to 697 federal and state provisions that impose legal liabilities, including massive fines and jail time.

While the penalties proposed in the bill are in line with other civil penalties in the Fair Work Act, they still fall considerably short of those required under the Corporations Act. It is the disjointed and inconsistent nature of this regulation that creates opportunities for people to find loopholes. This is disappointing but also expected of this government.

Under the coalition's plan, the penalties would be the same across the board, whether for union bosses or company directors. It is worth noting that we can enforce penalties all we like but, at the end of the day, it is individual behavioural systems that let the everybody down. This point was highlighted in an article by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks when he said:

Those who believe that liberal democracy and the free market can be defended by the force of law and regulation alone, without an internalised sense of duty and morality, are tragically mistaken.

As we discussed in earlier debates today, that rings very true. In a perfect world, citizens would be more aware of their 'moral' responsibility; however, as we all know, this is not necessarily the case.

While this bill seeks to expand police cooperation powers, it does not clearly state that Fair Work Australia can cooperate with police. Given the track record of Fair Work Australia, it is important that we get clarity on whether there will be cooperation in this area. There is also no express provision to allow Fair Work Australia to provide a brief of evidence to the DPP when it is important to give express powers to allow this to happen. This is a bill designed by a former union boss to regulate union bosses that sees former union bosses as the 'cops on the beat'. It is a weak bill that does not go far enough and we call on the government to support the common-sense amendments that we will be proposing.

These amendments will include: to give specific permission for Fair Work Australia to prepare a brief of evidence; to ensure that the investigation is conducted by Fair Work Australia, not outsourced entirely, as this bill would allow; to ensure that the disclosure of how money is spent is provided to Fair Work Australia as well as to union members; to have reports to parliament on why investigations are taking so long, when the investigations last for more than a year, and then every six months thereafter; to make the provision relating to police cooperation very clear so that Fair Work Australia can cooperate with police at the commencement, during and at the conclusion of an investigation; and to increase the penalties for misusing members' funds, in line with the Corporations Act. At the end of the day these bills and the penalties imposed should not be compromised to keep union bosses happy. They should be designed to protect everyday working Australians that fund these unions in the first place.

In terms of the case with the HSU, it is disgraceful to see health workers' money being spent for personal purposes by union bosses and employees. Our health workers, who look after our ageing population, work with the disabled and support the sick, are not usually rolling in dough. They work hard to pay their bills and pay their unions to represent their best interests. If I were part of this workforce paying union dues, I would be outraged by the recent reports in the media about what has gone on and the outrageous, unauthorised expenditure of union funds. It is because of this investigation that we stand here today debating this proposed legislation. We have maintained all along that the process Fair Work Australia has undertaken on this investigation was severely lacking. The final report that was produced had 1,200 pages, with many pertaining to the former secretary of the HSU.

We will not oppose this bill but will seek to apply sensible amendments to make it work better in everybody's interests, as we agree that something needs to be done to ensure that money being paid by members to registered organisations is used for proper purposes. As previously stated, and as usual, the coalition have a better plan and we will seek to improve the proposed legislation by making the amendments I referred to earlier.