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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 7649


Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (13:29): I rise also to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012 and support the amendments moved by this side of the House. I will begin my remarks by quoting from another member in his contribution late last week. The member said:

In my experience, the vast majority of trade unions are professionally managed by highly competent and dedicated people who act on the basis of sound professional advice. But, regrettably, there have been exceptions to that. Officers have sought to obtain personal benefit or benefit on behalf of others at the expense of members of their union. Reported instances include not only misapplying funds and resources of the union but also using the privileges of their office to attract and obtain services and benefits from third parties.

Aside from issues of profiteering, secret commissions and tax avoidance, these undeclared benefits can compromise officials. Rather than diligently representing the interests of their members without fear or favour they effectively ‘run dead’ as a result of these side deals. This is no less than graft and corruption in its most reprehensible form, and it occurs at the expense of vulnerable members whose interests they have been charged with representing.

That was in the early part of the contribution from the member for Barton, who made, I thought, an extremely good contribution to this debate last Thursday. They are words that I very much agree with.

Unions play a fundamental role in Australian workplaces and people have the right, and should always have the right in our free and open democracy, to join a trade union. And to ensure that the trade union is managed properly and within the law, you need to ensure that the laws that govern them give people faith that they can trust that the money they are contributing will be used to represent their best interests.

The same applies to the employer who decides to join a group of like-minded employers to have their interests represented in industrial relations in this country. It is an important element of running a business, dealing with your staff. It is a complicated area of law which very rarely goes through a period of five years without having substantial change in one form or another. So these are important institutions in our country. Trade unions are a very important institution in our society.

What we have seen in the last 2½ to three years—and have probably seen only very few times in the past—is a fundamental undermining of the role of unions and the faith that people have in their operation. I think that the member for Barton is right to say in his contribution that the vast majority of trade union officials are professional and that the vast majority of unions are managed professionally by highly competent and dedicated people, and many of them in this parliament, who were formerly trade union officials, fit into that category. They care deeply about their perspective, they care deeply about the working people who join trade unions, and they have sought in their career to represent them to the level that they have risen in being elected to the federal parliament, and I think that genuinely of many of those on the other side.

But what, I think, should pain us all is that laws—laws which I have some familiarity with—have for some time been so badly abused and so badly misused. It must cause many of those on the other side a great deal of pain to see the institutions which are so valued and so important in our society undermined by those who are—in the member for Barton's words—'profiteering', seeking 'secret commissions' and practising 'tax avoidance' which is 'no less than graft and corruption in its most reprehensible form'.

The allegations and the evidence which have been produced in relation to the Health Services Union are an example. No worse allegations could have been made. The fact that we are having to debate this bill in such haste, as the member for Melbourne commented, shows just how shameful this episode has been. It has dragged out for a period of four years because the agency which has been enlisted to investigate it has dragged its feet, for whatever reason. It has been shown not to have the capabilities or the capacity to investigate thoroughly enough or to bring justice to those members whose funds have been used in inappropriate ways.

Putting aside the contemporary and real political debate in relation to a member of this parliament who had involvement in these issues, and putting aside whether he was at fault or not, there is no doubt that this behaviour went on. There is no doubt that this behaviour was allowed to go on for a very long period of time, and there is no doubt that many within the union movement knew that it was going on. There is no doubt about that. A very recent piece from Aaron Patrick in the Australian Financial Review steps clearly through what people knew and when they knew, and the extent of the involvement of people in the party of those who sit opposite must bring great pain to many.

So this bill is an attempt by the government to address issues which have become clear in the HSU matter and other matters that the member for Barton refers to further in his speech, and he makes the point that the Prime Minister has some familiarity with some of those similar issues. To those involved in industrial relations, practitioners across the country, I think people are genuinely shocked at the level, as the member for Barton said, of graft and corruption which has gone on, and are surprised that these measures have had to be enacted in the first place.

We say, and rightly, that this bill does not go far enough. In fact the Leader of the Opposition announced, just 10 days before this bill was announced, stronger measures, and they are measures that we move as amendments to this bill. What we need now—and what we quite obviously needed in the past but what was not fully understood—are the strongest possible measures, measures which are consistent with responsibilities that corporations are required to meet. We need these measures because the faith of people who are paying their union dues week in and week out has been fundamentally undermined by the evidence as to and the examples through the Health Services Union. For those who do not understand or know, the Health Services Union workers are the people who push trolleys around hospitals: the hospital orderlies. These are not well-paid people. These are people who usually come from a migrant background, a non-English-speaking background. They are usually low skilled; although, some current members of the HSU are undoubtedly skilled employees. Many are unskilled and many are exactly the sort of workers who should be members of a trade union because they do need assistance in negotiations.

It has been a fundamental principle I have always supported that if someone wants to be represented they should have that opportunity. So it must pain all of us to see what has happened to these people who have committed their small amount of funds, albeit from their pay packets, every week, funds that could be used for all sorts of other purposes to make their life easier. In doing so they have knowingly made their own choice to commit to an organisation because they think that it is helping them to better their circumstances and that it is an institution that will negotiate with employers on their behalf to ensure a far better outcome in their workplace. But what they now know is that the money they contributed, for however long they have been contributing to that institution, has not always gone to these good causes, including the good cause of fighting for their rights and responsibilities.

We hear much from those opposite about the rights of working people and about ensuring that working people have fair pay and conditions and fair workplaces. We currently hear in question time the minister for workplace relations trying to create each day a political issue out of state legislation because he claims working people are going to be worse off, yet we have not heard the same minister and other members who also argue strongly on these matters—like the member for Wakefield and the member for Kingston, in my own state of South Australia—express the great outrage that they should be expressing when it comes to these matters. This bill is before the House not because the Labor Party want to reform the way that registered organisations operate but because they want to cover their great shame at the way that these workers have had their money ripped off from them in unimaginable ways. They have been ripped off to an enormous extent. There are suggestions that the amount of money ripped off from these union members could be somewhere around $20 million. The sums are quite extraordinary.

I have always been uncomfortable with the fact that trade union members contribute money to a political party whether they wish to or not and I think that is an area of reform that this country needs to consider. I know the new Premier of Queensland is considering such things, and I congratulate him for it. Early on in his premiership he is proving to be someone who will get things done, someone who is setting a course for the right things to be done. And this is a right thing to do. To give people choice about where their money is going is the right thing to do, particularly in the circumstances which we have seen in this HSU debacle, this shameful episode in Australian industrial relations history which is not yet fully investigated or prosecuted. So this bill is a shameful attempt by the minister for workplace relations to cover what is an ongoing sore for the union movement and the Labor Party which undermines the faith Australians have in these important institutions. The Australian Labor Party is an important institution as well but currently the leadership is trying to undermine as much as it possibly can people's faith in it.

As Senator Abetz has said time and time again, in relation to this bill—and the member for Forde repeated this before—it is true that this bill is designed by a former union boss to regulate union bosses and it sees former union bosses as the cops on the beat. It is completely conflicted. It is weak at its very foundations. It will not do the job it needs to do to ensure recovery of the faith that has been lost in this whole process, this whole shambolic HSU episode with its factionalism and nastiness and with its 'graft and corruption', to quote the member for Barton's terrific contribution last Thursday—reflecting the freedom of the back bench that he now has to outline some of these concerns. He did so in a quite fulsome way, as the House should be reminded. Obviously, he knows and he has seen all this as he makes the point in his contribution that in his time in legal practice these issues have been played out. That is the most concerning thing of all, that what has gone on at the HSU could be rife in the union movement. Certainly the member for Barton was indicating last week that there are concerns about other episodes and other examples and that these are matters which should be looked at, and I am sure that in the future there will be more consideration given to ensuring that the money of trade unionists, the people who decide willingly to contribute their own funds for their own betterment in the workplace, is being used in an appropriate fashion.

Sadly, this bill will not ensure that that is the case. The proposed amendments that have been put up by the coalition will ensure that that is the case. Certainly, they will ensure that there will be a greater level of transparency to ensure that people are being represented and are getting what they think they should be getting from the product that they are purchasing, which is membership of an organisation which seeks to assist with their working life, not for their money to be spent on the most objectionable indulgences by its officials. This has been a shameful episode in Australian industrial relations history and this bill should be tougher so that it does not happen again.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! It being approximately 1.45 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.