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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7460

Ms GAMBARO (Brisbane) (11:57): It is my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012.

It is always very interesting to follow the member for Chifley. He started off his speech here today saying that you could not compare union leadership and office bearers with corporations who pay their CEOs and board members vast amounts of money, that it was an unfair playing field and that you simply could not compare the two. The member for Chifley says that corporations have huge wealth, but corporations covered by the Corporations Act are also small businesses—those very small businesses that, day after day in the previous months, he comes in here telling us would be subjected to the benefits of the mining tax. Many of those small businesses—those small business mums and dads that he keeps telling us about—are covered by the Corporations Act. So how can he say that those people have certain fiduciary responsibilities but that somehow the unions do not come into that category at all and should not be treated as such?

The bill that the government is responding to is a very sad and sorry saga. It is the result of the report into the Health Services Union and the member for Dobell. The 1,200-page report that detailed the financial misuse and inappropriate manner in which the hard-earned money of the Health Services Union members was spent by senior union officials has led many of us here in the chamber to be disgusted. It is ironic that an organisation that has purported for many, many years to represent hardworking workers and their rights has now been exposed as having zero regard and zero respect for those workers. The revelations that union members' money was spent by union officials on escort agencies, travel, restaurants and huge cash withdrawals are disturbing, to say the least, to many of us. The revelations involving the Health Services Union demonstrate that there is an urgent need to ensure that money paid by members to registered organisations is used responsibly, appropriately and in a transparent way. We know that some union organisations have used money for inappropriate purposes and they have breached existing rules, and this evidence shows that the existing laws need improvement. The penalties for breaches of these laws are also in line with what the community expects for such gross breaches of trust. We know that Fair Work Australia's investigation into the Health Services Union took an unacceptably long three years. We have seen a failure to cooperate with the police and Fair Work Australia claiming that it could not prepare a brief of evidence.

The coalition believes that this bill does not go far enough. It fails to deal with the very real issues that were brought up over the course of Fair Work Australia's three-year investigation. We will be moving amendments to this bill that will substantially improve it. However, if the Independents again decide to vote with the government and block our amendments then we will not oppose the bill. But it is interesting to note that, if individuals in a private corporation engaged in behaviour similar to what was outlined in the Fair Work Australia report, those individuals would face severe fines and penalties under the Corporations Act. The coalition believes that that should also be the standard for registered organisations. There need to be rules and, just as there are rules to ensure that companies and their boards of directors do the right thing, the same rules should also apply to registered organisations and their officers. The shadow minister, Senator Abetz, in a speech to the Australian Industry Group recently, said:

It isn't reasonable that someone can be a shareholder in a company and expect one level of transparency and accountability from the board—yet that same person who is a member of a union cannot expect that same level of accountability from their union or for that matter an employer organisation.

These sentiments have not been confined to the coalition. There are many people who have spoken on the record out there, and I notice that Dave Oliver, the now Secretary of the ACTU, said on 3 May 2012:

… every union member in this country has a right to know that when they pay their dues, that their money is going to be subject to good governance and good regulation.

He then went on to say:

… if union bosses are caught with their 'hand in the till'—

now, everybody knows what 'hand in the till means'—

then there should be 'significant penalties'.

We all agree and, in fairness, the government does to an extent as well. But the bill goes some of the way by requiring that the rules of all registered organisations deal with the disclosure of remuneration, particularly on pecuniary and financial interests; increasing the civil penalties under the Registered Organisations Act; enhancing the investigative powers available to Fair Work Australia under the Registered Organisations Act; and requiring education and training to be provided to officials of registered organisations about their governance and accounting obligations. However, these measures do not go far enough.

Funnily enough, Minister Shorten's announcement of the legislation that we are seeing came just 10 days after the Leader of the Opposition announced the coalition's better plan for accountability and transparency for registered organisations. But Labor's plan, as displayed in this bill, is sadly lacking on a number of fronts: it sees Fair Work Australia in control of investigating registered organisations; it does not explicitly provide Fair Work Australia with the ability to cooperate with the police; its requirements and penalties are still not in line with the Corporations Act; and it has no reporting mechanism on why the investigations are going over time.

There is a better way and the coalition's plan will make sure that members of registered organisations, mainly small businesses and workers, can be assured that their money is being used for the very right reasons. Just as there are rules to ensure that companies and their boards of directors do the right thing, the same rules should also apply to registered organisations and their officers. Our changes will ensure that registered organisations and their officers are as accountable and as transparent as companies and their directors and that they play by the very same rules.

It is also clear that Fair Work Australia is not up to the job of making sure that registered organisations do the right thing. They are either a model of incompetence or they are engaging in a deliberate go-slow to protect the government. We will make sure that there is a regulator that has real teeth, by removing the investigative and compliance powers over registered organisations from Fair Work Australia and give them instead to a new and genuinely independent body to be called the Registered Organisations Commission. The new regulator will have stronger powers, act more quickly, act more efficiently and be required to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies where it is in the public's best interest to do so. It will not just be a case of a union boss regulating a union boss.

Although the overwhelming majority of registered organisations do the right thing, the coalition will ensure that they are strongly deterred from doing the wrong thing and that, where inappropriate actions occur, they will be investigated and enforced by a genuinely independent regulator that has teeth. Our proposal also explicitly clarifies that Fair Work Australia does indeed have to cooperate with the police. Even though there is evidence from Stuart Wood SC to investigate that a provision to this effect does not indeed exist, we will ensure that it is expressly clarified in the legislation.

As I said before, we will be moving amendments at the completion of the second reading debate. These amendments need to be accepted by the crossbench and inserted into the bill, because there are 60,000 low-paid, hardworking members of the Health Services Union who did not deserve to have their trust and faith in the organisation breached in the way that it was. It is hard to take the Labor Party seriously on this because, when all of this was happening, the member for Charlton was the head of the ACTU and the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations sat on the ACTU when the member for Dobell also sat on the ACTU. How can you take Labor seriously when this happened right under Labor's nose, while the member for Dobell was a member of parliament and Michael Williamson was the President of the Labor Party?

I was present in this House when the Howard government introduced the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002, and I well remember the deal that the Labor Party did with the Democrats at the time to water down some of the provisions in that bill that related directly to what we are talking about today. I am really glad that the member for Barton is in the chamber—though I do respect him enormously—because I hope that in his speech he might be able to assist the chamber in recalling his time as the shadow minister for workplace relations. He will recall, on 16 September 2002, coming into the chamber and speaking on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002 and the negotiations that he made as shadow minister with the government of the day. The member for Barton, on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, will recall that they watered down the coalition's proposed legislation with the Democrats, and wound back what we as a government wanted to do to ensure accountability and transparency of registered organisations in Australia. The member for Barton should take some time today in his speech to explain to the chamber why the ALP watered down the bill in negotiations and how those changes have led to the place that we are in today.

In conclusion, the bill should be amended, and I urge the parliament to support the amendment.