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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7452


Ms LEY (Farrer) (11:27): I rise today to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012. You will not get any argument from those of us on this side of the chamber about the need for far greater accountability of registered organisations and their officeholders. The never-ending saga of the Fair Work Australia inquiry into the Health Services Union has made it absolutely clear that major reform is needed. Fair Work Australia has finally handed down its report, which is 1,200 pages in length and outlines the widespread unauthorised spending of its members' hard earned dollars on the member for Dobell's federal election campaign, on cash withdrawals, on travel, on expensive restaurant dining and on escort services. The report also clearly highlights significant mismanagement of the HSU national office by the member for Dobell. In fact, the report goes so far as to suggest that substantive parts of the member for Dobell's evidence provided to Fair Work Australia were 'false and misleading'.

However, though I hate to appear as a cynic, this bill introduced by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations seems to be little more than a hasty attempt by those opposite to give the appearance that they are making an effort to resolve the many issues plaguing the oversight of registered organisations. The reality is that this bill falls well short of doing what is necessary, and we in the coalition have a number of real concerns with it.

The minister said, in response to a question on notice to my colleague Senator Abetz in the other place, that the government would consider the KPMG report currently being undertaken into Fair Work's investigation before changes were considered. That report is underway and may yet make further recommendations, yet here we are with this rushed job of a bill in front of us.

In this bill, Fair Work Australia retains control of investigating registered organisations. My concern with this is that there is very recent evidence of the inability or reluctance Fair Work Australia to undertake timely and comprehensive inquiries into registered organisations. We also face the prospect of having union bosses being regulated by former union bosses if the minister has his way. Quite frankly, this does nothing to alleviate the concerns of the coalition. We have seen this government obliterate the Australian Building and Construction Commission, turning it into a toothless tiger, and we have seen a government willing to accept the vote of a tainted member of parliament, all to ensure that they remain in power. This is a government indebted to the union movement. At the Prime Minister's recent childcare round table, the unions sat front and centre. The unions are so sure of their influence over this government that the United Voice union has put forward a claim for $1.4 billion from this government to meet the wage claims of the childcare sector. That is almost as much as the forecast surplus of the Treasurer. This is a union who, I have been informed by childcare providers, has been touring the childcare centres in this country offering free union membership and promising to deliver wage rises for childcare educators.

I am the first to admit that many childcare workers are not well paid. However, if this really is the approach being taken by this union it is the absolute height of arrogance, promising to deliver something that is entirely out of its hands. Proven by the appalling situation over at HSU headquarters, the arrogance that has been spawned within the union movement in this country is quite terrifying. Union members everywhere should be angry and upset at the contempt in which some union leaders appear to hold them, given these leaders are so free to splash around the cash to benefit their own circumstances. This is a key reason why we must have urgent action to better regulate these organisations. We on this side of the chamber have a comprehensive plan to ensure that all members of registered organisations can rest safe in the knowledge that their money is being spent wisely and will not be misused by those in control of the purse strings.

Interestingly, this minister announced his lesser plan just 10 days after the Leader of the Opposition announced the coalition's plan. This is not the first half-baked policy set by the government. Indeed, in recent months we have had a trifecta. In the Employment and Workplace Relations portfolio we announced before the last election a seniors employment policy. We were told at the time by Labor that it was bad policy. But just a few months ago it was announced by the government as their policy, albeit they have managed to bungle it. The announcement just last week regarding the job relocation plan for unemployed people looks remarkably similar to the coalition's job relocation plan that we took to the last election, the difference being that they will pay job agencies rather than paying job seekers, those who are actually prepared to make the move.

Members will remember back to 2007 when we had Kevin 'Me-too' Rudd and Labor and now we have the me-tooisms back. I say the same thing today that we said then: if you want a coalition policy, it is best that a coalition government deliver it because, if you cannot trust those opposite to get it right, you need the coalition. That is why we have a government with a half-baked seniors employment plan, a half-baked job seeker relocation plan and this half-baked bill that does not really deal with the issues.

I refer again to the situation that enabled the powers-that-be of the Health Services Union to use moneys from the workers they represent—some of the lowest paid workers in this country—to pay for what can only be described as a lavish lifestyle. We firmly believe that registered organisations should be accountable and transparent to their members, just as companies and directors are required to be accountable and transparent to their shareholders. Our plan would ensure that registered organisations and their appointed officers would follow the same rules and regulations that govern companies and their directors. The level of accountability and transparency that currently applies to companies and their directors would be extended to registered organisations. The level of reporting and penalties for non-compliance for registered organisations is different from that which exists for companies. For example, had the Fair Work Australia findings of both investigations into the Health Services Union been made against a company and directors, they would have been subject to significant financial penalties and potential imprisonment. Instead, HSU officers in Victoria are exposed to a comparatively modest civil penalty. Indeed, even if the full civil penalties were applied, you would have former union bosses paying a penalty less than the monetary value that was taken. Indeed, there is no disincentive for the bosses of registered organisations that do the wrong thing.

The coalition would establish a new regulator—the Registered Organisations Commission. It would be required to cooperate fully with law enforcement agencies when it is in the public interest to do so. Removing this responsibility from Fair Work Australia is really the only sensible course of action. They have clearly demonstrated that they are not up to the task of regulating this sector in a timely and effective manner. They are too plagued with demands from their various taskmasters, with their investigation into the Health Services Union blowing out to more than three years in duration.

We are told that justice delayed is justice denied and for the low-paid members of the Health Services Union, that is exactly what has happened. We need legislation that will see real change, and only a coalition government can deliver the hope, reward and opportunity in this space that Australians are clamouring for. This bill is a poor bill that does not deal with the problems. It does not even enforce comparable standards to those requirements sought of company directors. At a minimum, this should be the case, with officers of registered organisations being liable for equal penalties to those imposed on company directors who are in breach of their charter. Regrettably, the civil penalties imposed by this bill will merely bring the penalties in line with other penalties in the Fair Work Act. The Corporations Act, on the other hand, has provision to impose more significant, deterrent penalties.

The other area of concern the coalition hold is that this bill, while expanding police cooperation powers, does not make it expressly clear that Fair Work Australia can cooperate with police. We never again want to witness an agency that refuses to cooperate with the police or a law enforcement body when it is apparent to all that cooperation is in the public interest. I think the Australian public have a right to expect that tax payer funded agencies in particular have a duty to help uphold the laws of this land and, as such, they must cooperate fully with requests from law enforcement.

We know that the former Industrial Registrar, Doug Williams, on the last day before Fair Work Australia came into existence said this should be referred to the police. Now the government tell us that the laws did not change. They cannot have it both ways. Fair Work Australia should have done what any decent Australian would have done and cooperated with the police. Indeed, the advice of eminent workplace relations lawyer Stuart Wood SC tells us that there was no impediment to Fair Work Australia cooperating with police. We know from a detective sergeant of the Victorian fraud and extortion squad in correspondence released under freedom of information that Fair Work Australia's ridiculous view was based on 'mistaken beliefs' that the police wanted Fair Work Australia to conduct its investigation, which is a total farce. Australians expected better and they have been let down. On this bill we should not need to move an amendment; the minister should have stepped in and ensured that Fair Work Australia was under no illusion that it should be cooperating with police. Instead, all Australians are made out to be mugs.

To make matters worse, this bill is lacking explicit provision to allow Fair Work Australia to provide a brief of evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions. We saw even more obfuscation from Fair Work Australia when it sent its report to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP told Fair Work Australia it could not pursue the report because it was not provided in a brief of evidence. Fair Work Australia's response? 'We can't do that; our legislation doesn't allow for it.' What a joke! Never before have we seen an institution so insistent on putting itself into a straitjacket and purporting to be completely helpless. One just have to read the emails coming from members of the Health Services Union about how distressed they are about the goings on to know that this is just plain wrong. Fair Work Australia recommended that the DPP should pursue some matters, but now we will not see them pursued because of another Fair Work Australia straw man—this legislation.

Now we have a government that has lost total confidence in the Prime Minister's own institution, Fair Work Australia, such that under this bill Labor is seeking to allow the total outsourcing of investigations to outside bodies. That means no scrutiny from the Australian parliament and no scrutiny as expected by the Australian people. Will Fair Work Australia investigations be conducted by anyone the general manager sees fit? If anybody is wondering what this means, it means that Fair Work investigations could be conducted by so-called secret police, external to government, and the findings never made public.

No-one believes that, if it were not for the Coalition's work in ensuring that Fair Work Australia lifted its game, we would see any movement from the government, and Fair Work Australia may even still be considering its inquiry. The coalition agrees that more information needs to be given to members of registered organisations, but the coalition also believes that this additional information should be given to Fair Work Australia to ensure that spending by bosses of registered organisations is on the public record and easily available to the statutory body charged with responsibility for managing registered organisations.

Ultimately, we believe that this bill reeks of union involvement and is a desperate attempt to regulate its own patch as lightly as can possibly be achieved. It has been designed by a former union boss and will be regulated by former union heavies. Sadly, it does not go far enough, and the coalition will be proposing a number of commonsense amendments to try to restore some confidence in an institution that is the laughing stock of the country. If those opposite are honestly committed to preventing the widespread rorting of union members into the future, they will agree with our amendments, and I call on the Independents to do so as well.

I move:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

'the House notes with approval that, in response to public pressure, the Government has introduced this limited bill, but deplores the Government's failure to:

(1) establish an independent Registered Organisations Commission to:

(a) enforce, and police the reporting and compliance obligations;

(b) provide information to members of registered organisations about their rights and act as the body to receive complaints from their members;

(c) educate registered organisations about the new obligations that apply to them; and

(d) absorb the role of registered organisations enforcer and investigator, currently held by the General Manager of Fair Work Australia;

(2) ensure registered organisations face the same accountability and transparency measures as required of companies and their directors under the Corporations Act; and

(3) ensure registered organisations face the same penalties as companies and their directors under the Corporations Act.'

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr KJ Thomson ): Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Hartsuyker: I second the amendment.