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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 1387


Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (13:16): That sort of introduction does put a bit of pressure on me! It is a great opportunity to speak on this legislation, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 and, particularly, to follow two Queensland speakers. I also acknowledge the contribution of the member for Wright, who is in the chamber, in the 43rd Parliament to this debate; I know that he feels strongly about it. I feel equally strongly. I spoke against his private member's motion then and I have not changed my views—sorry to disappoint the member for Fisher! I do so again by giving first some broad information and then some empirical data.

First off, I have always seen the Labor Party, this side of the chamber, as being the political arm of the trade union movement. That is my position. In fact, just for the member for Wright's edification, if you stand for election in the Labor Party, it is actually a requirement that you be a member of your relevant union, or organisation if you are a business person. That is why it is no surprise to look through our CVs and see that we are members of unions and that many of us have worked for unions. It is actually a requirement.

I am a member of three unions. I used to work for the Independent Education Union, the union that looks after Catholic schools—Trinity Grammar and all sorts of private schools; little Christian schools; schools in my electorate like the Murri School, which focuses on Indigenous education; or Southside Education Centre, which has a creche because they mainly educate young girls who have babies, which certainly makes for an interesting year 12 graduation. So the Independent Education Union covers a range of schools, from the wealthiest to the poorest, in the non-government sector. I am also a member of two other unions, United Voice and the AMWU. So I do know a little bit about unions, and I did work for one for about four or five years.

I had a yarn, before I came in to speak today, with my former boss, Terry Burke, the Queensland general secretary of the Independent Education Union because, as the two Queensland members here know, Campbell Newman has brought in not dissimilar legislation in Queensland already. So I wanted to hear about the union's lived experience of such legislation—and they talk to employer groups, who have similar requirements—to find out just what this will mean.

I will tell you what it does mean. It means greater costs to individual union members and organisation members for a start. In fact, I can tell you how much it cost my union, the Independent Education Union: it meant a two per cent increase in fees to meet the compliance costs. I know, if you look at the Bills Digest or this legislation itself, there is a complete minimisation of the regulatory impost—but it will cost money. There will be more forms to fill out. Looking at the Independent Education Union, the people that make up the executive are teachers, cleaners and teacher aides, but primarily teachers, who work in non-government schools. They do not get remunerated for being on the executive. They go to seven meetings a year, and I think they get a cup of tea and a meal at that meeting. But, for that, they and their family members have to fill out a form that details all of their interests, all of their personal interests and related voting and decision-making rights—family members. So let us look at what that would mean under this legislation. If I were an executive member of the Independent Education Union, my eight-year-old son's Dollarmite account would have to go on the register of interests. My four-year-old son's Dollarmite account would have to go on the register of interests. If he opened another one, I would have to trot off and let them know that there had been a change. All the members of the Queensland Independent Education Union's executive have had to fill out these forms—that is part of the onerous legislation before us—and all of those employer groups.

It is interesting to hear the language of those opposite, and both Queensland members who spoke before me were guilty of it. They talked about 'union bosses' and 'business leaders'. Now, I was an English teacher; I know how powerful language is. The fundamental philosophy of those opposite is that there is something wrong with unions. Why don't you give me a big, long list of all the outcomes for workers that have come from that side of the chamber or spontaneously from employers over the last 110 years? I can give you a list now, if you want. It will look like a blank sheet of paper. It will be a blank sheet of paper, because the reality is—

Mr Brough: Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, I seek to intervene and ask a question.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Mitchell ): Is the member for Moreton—

Mr PERRETT: I would rather keep going. This is a speech to be sent out to my people, not your people. No voters in Fisher that I need to worry about!

The reality is that this is unpacking the remuneration paid to officers and the material and personal interests of officers and their relatives. You can put up arguments for some of them but let us be realistic about this: most unions are completely different from BHP and other corporations. I know there are millions of corporations in Australia and that they are not all BHP, Xstrata or something similar; there are much smaller organisations. But those large corporations have a completely different focus. They say, 'We will take your money and we will comply with ASIC obligations, with Corporations Law.' It is completely different if you are listed on the stock exchange. The example I gave, the Independent Education Union, is a largish union but still the majority of the officials are effectively volunteers—they do not get paid; they do get a cup of tea and lunch at seven meetings throughout the year. For those officers to be potentially facing a $330,000 fine or—heaven forbid!—five years prison for not reading their documents as carefully as they should, is taking a sledgehammer to break a walnut. It is a completely wrong approach.

There is a unity ticket on both sides of the chamber in terms of stamping out any corruption in corporations, in registered organisations, whatever. But look at the submissions from the employer groups on this. They have indicated concern about the financial implications. And I believe that this will have ramifications for the quality of people who put their names forward for these employer or employee organisations. For a start, if you are an employer organisation and you are a stockbroker, every time you change your material interests—and that is not uncommon for stockbrokers who are in employer organisations—it will be like me going to the clerks every time I change my register of interests. You would need a procession of runners to let people know what you are doing. It is not realistic for employer organisations or employee organisations.

Let's be fair dinkum about this. For my union it meant a two per cent increase in compliance costs and now the federal government is going to put more red tape onto unions and other employer groups. I have no problem with oversight if it is going to achieve a purpose, but why should the good people of Australia know about the wife of a schoolteacher or the husband of a schoolteacher, what property they own, what shares they own or, heaven forbid, what their kids own? This is not a Coles or Woollies shareholder meeting; we are talking about small organisations which do good things. Unions have a history of looking after their members' interests. They are voluntary organisations. I know the member for Wright suggested otherwise, but that is not the case.

Union membership has been going down since the 1970s, when it peaked at nearly 60 per cent. We are now not of that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven. That which we are, we are—that is the reality of modern Australia. There are many reasons people do not join unions but I can tell you this: for all the language used by officers talking about union bosses as if they are somehow doing something nefarious, the reality is unions turn up every day and save lives. Talk to someone in the construction industry, which is where the roots and the motivation for this legislation lie.

Why create an extra oversight body when you can look at the empirical data flowing out of the last six years? Labor was in power. We changed the Work Choices legislation. What happened? Did disputes increase? There was no mention, by the member for Sturt, of the fact that dispute days went down. What about productivity? Did productivity go down in the last six years in the building industry? Surely, with Labor in control, and bringing in this legislation, productivity went down. No, it increased. I am loath to make this connection but let us look at fatalities, the most horrible piece of empirical data in workplace relations. Did fatalities increase or decrease? They decreased under our legislation. So why bring in extra red tape and extra costs? It can only be because of a political agenda. This is 'union busting 101'—create red tape for unions. I do recognise that it also creates red tape for employer organisations, but they are a little bit more muzzled in terms of speaking up. Those opposite think the National Farmers Federation is like a union; it is not. There are a range of unions out there and a range of employer organisations.

We are passionate about the role of unions. I unashamedly support the role of unions in our society. They do good things. They are leaders in so many ways. They were involved in the environmental campaigns of the 1970s, which were a precursor to the green movement. They led the Labor Party into having a much stronger policy on the environment. This piece of legislation, with increased disclosure requirements, will be cloaked over and over in the HSU scandal. Let us be realistic about the HSU scandal. The prosecutions taking place now are taking place under current law. There are always provisions, both in the criminal code and in industrial legislation, when there is wrongdoing.

If you steal from members, if you steal from the lowest paid workers in Australia when they pay you your union money, you are the lowest of the low. It is bad when you steal from a multinational corporation, but when you steal from the lowest paid Australians who, on a voluntary basis, pay union fees, I think that is absolutely disgusting and that the full force of the law should come down on you.

But why is the Liberal Party—the party of small 'l' liberals, supposedly—now suggesting that we should have more red tape for organisations, more forms to be filled out? Reading these forms will not be like reading the member for Fairfax's disclosure statements. They will be boring. Members of these unions lead pretty simple, uncomplicated lives. They are simply people who are prepared to volunteer to help other people. The HSU example is an anomaly and, as I said at the start, the people involved should be stomped on, as should anyone who is stealing from union members.

This bill is rushed, unclear and onerous for the registered organisations. The main thing I emphasise is the lack of consultation. I understand that those opposite are not interested in talking to unions, but they should look at the submissions of the employer groups. That is the most telling comment of all on the legislation—that the employer groups are saying that they are unhappy with the penalties, that there needs to be more consultation and that the wording needs to be changed. When they are saying that and when they are worried about the quality of officers who will come forward in the future—because the level of disclosure required of office holders is too onerous—then you know that this legislation is wrong. It is part of a union-busting witch-hunt and should be reconsidered. Given the existing legislation and the existing criminal codes, it is hard to see any good reason why anyone would want to go down this road and bring in extra burdens—unless it is part of a political agenda.