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Thursday, 21 June 2012
Page: 7469


Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (12:35): I rise to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012. I would like to pay tribute to the speech just delivered by my federal colleague the member for Ryan. She made some excellent points and I want to make some similar points. Before I commence, I must admit that I do find it a little surprising that, when the Prime Minister has boasted about a policy where she says she has "worked hard to get the balance right—and I believe that the Fair Work Act is right" we stand here yet again in this chamber to debate yet another amendment to the Prime Minister's Fair Work Act.

The purpose of the bill is to "increase the financial and accountability obligations of registered organisations and their office holders, strengthen the investigative powers of Fair Work Australia and enhance remedies under the Registered Organisations Act." It will do this, according to the bill, by requiring rules of all registered organisations deal with disclosure of remuneration, 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. But of course it is not enough, as my colleague so rightly pointed out.

The question is: why has this bill come about? Why all of a sudden now does the political wing of the union movement feel as though a stronger stance against corruption and misappropriation must be taken? Is it because it is the right and honest thing to do? Is it a proactive step to stamp out cronyism within the union movement? Is it to finally put it on a level legislative playing field as its corporate equivalents are on, to impose the same kinds of punishments for infractions where there the only difference is where the money is coming from? No, it is not. This government lack the moral fortitude to do something like that. It is simply because they were shamed and embarrassed into some action through the scandals and disgraces of the Health Services Union that have plagued this government and in particular the member for Dobell. It is because they have been shamed by the strong leadership demonstrated by Tony Abbott on this issue and the strong stance that he has taken.

It does make one wonder, however, if the issues that arose out of the HSU scandal had not come to public attention, whether the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations would even be proposing these amendments, as limited as they are. Of course not; the minister would never let a good, consistent, moral policy get in the way of the advantage of the union bosses. It is troubling and concerning that it takes what the minister himself has labelled as 'disturbing' behaviour to finally get some action from the government.

But will the legislation that is proposed and is before the House today actually fix the problems around accountability, reporting standards, misappropriation of members' funds and fraud? Will it address the issues around penalties, both civil and criminal? The resounding answer to those questions is no. To start with, under the proposed legislation Fair Work Australia will still be the regulatory body overseeing the union movement. This is a regulatory body that has been widely criticised for the time it has taken to carry out the investigation into the HSU—more than three years long and still there is no adequate conclusion.

But what would one expect when you have ex-union bosses investigating ex-union bosses? It is simply not possible. The coalition has long called for this role to be transferred to a registered organisation commission, and the investigation into the HSU is the perfect example of why this is a necessary course of action. Yet there is nothing in this bill today that would allow for this registered organisation commission to be brought into effect.

Under the government's proposed legislation, the rules are too little too late. They are still weak and do not bring the unions and the registered organisations into line with company directors or their equivalents. Only under a Labor government does there always seem to be one set of rules for the masses and another one for their mates. In fact, in some parts, the reporting requirements for the union movement are less onerous than the rules that the government have more recently proposed to impose on charitable organisations and not-for-profits. So we potentially have this quite farcical situation where a union would face less stringent reporting arrangements than those faced by, for instance, the local footy club or the local parents association and other not-for-profits. This, to me, makes no sense whatsoever.

But it is not only the provisions that are monumentally weak; it is also the punishments proposed, should a breach be found to have occurred. If a company director was found to have used $500,000, for instance, for his own personal use then he or she would face large fines, criminal charges and possibly years in jail. Why should it be any different for an official in the union movement? In both circumstances individuals have been charged with the responsibility of managing other people's finances, and in both cases those funds would have been misappropriated for personal use. So why should the penalties differ so much? There is no commensurate justice in the changes being brought forward today for what are certainly morally commensurate offences.

This balance in justice strikes at the heart of those that have been transgressed against. How can an orderly in a hospital feel any sense of justice when the only reason justice has not been served is that they are a member of union and not a shareholder of a company? This is a very gross breach of faith. They deserve the same protections that apply to a shareholder in a company and the penalties that should apply should be the same.

There have been many farcical events throughout this whole sorry state of affairs; however, none more so the case of when Fair Work Australia refused to cooperate with police. A statutory regulatory body, set up by this government to be the overseer of the industrial relations system refused to cooperate with the requests of the nation's law enforcement agencies. If you heard rumours of something like that, you simply would not believe it. In this country, the basis of the justice system is to get to the bottom of the truth and punish those that have done wrong and seek justice for those who have been transgressed against—not to protect and prolong the fact that the truth is still hidden. The government's legislation does not adequately address this obvious flaw in the system and we insist it be addressed prior to the passage of the bill.

The coalition does offer a better way, which is why the coalition has brought forward amendments to strengthen the bill as it currently stands. The amendments ensure that requirements on registered organisation officials are in line with those of directors and companies under the Corporations Act and that the penalties are in line with the Corporations Act. Our amendments also give specific permission for Fair Work Australia to prepare a brief of evidence; ensure that the investigation is conducted by Fair Work Australia and not outsourced entirely, as this bill would allow; and ensure that the disclosure of how money is spent is provided to Fair Work Australia as well as to union members. Our amendments require that, when investigations last for more than a year, a report must be made to the parliament at that time and for every six months thereafter. The amendments make the provision relating to police cooperation very clear so that Fair Work Australia can cooperate with police at the commencement of, during and at the conclusion of an investigation. We will also ensure with our amendments that the penalty is increased for misusing members' funds, in line with the Corporations Act.

The reality is that this bill has been designed as window-dressing. It is a fig leaf for the minister and window-dressing for union bosses. It is so that they can declare to the Australian people that they have done something. We say that they have simply not done enough. It is little wonder that the public's trust and participation in the union movement is at historic lows. Far more transparency is required within the union movement for it to ever regain the relevance and trust that it once had. It should no longer be a boys' club—no more mates looking after mates, no more cronyism, no more political expediency and no more of union bosses looking after the interests only of themselves and not of their members.

This bill is a step in the right direction, which is why the coalition will support it, but the government needs to take a much stronger stand. They need to join with us in supporting our amendments, which will make this bill so much stronger. If they do not, the Australian public has the right to ask the question: are they serious about improving transparency and ensuring justice for members in the union movement who have been transgressed against? There should be an equal playing field here. Corporations and registered organisations and their officials, just as company directors, should all be treated the same. That is all that we are proposing. I commend the bill and its amendment to the House and I simply ask that those on the other side support the very good amendments.