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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1030

Senator GALLACHER (South Australia) (16:48): I rise to take up the challenge to address some of the comments that Senator Macdonald has put on the table today. I suppose I too will get around to addressing the point at issue but I cannot let some of those comments go unanswered. I do not think being a trade union official is a profession that anybody should be shy about proclaiming their success or otherwise at. It is like every other job in Australia: if you go in in the morning and you do a hard day's work then you are entitled to take your pay at the end of the week.

As Senator Macdonald probably well knows, most trade union officials in this country both historically and currently are people with a sense of community and public spiritedness. They go out of their way to advance the cause of the least advantaged people in the economy, people who are—as he pointed out—cleaning hospitals, people who are collecting garbage, people who are sweeping the streets, people who are doing all levels of jobs in a very proficient and professional way. The only way of advancing their position in the economy is to become a collective force and bargain for it. That is why there are trade unions, and those trade unions have been around for a very long time. Trade unions are governed, as I can attest, by a very stringent set of rules. The reporting obligations of registered organisations are honoured, complied with and are very stringent.

I believe this piece of legislation would actually affect some registered organisations that are not involved in trade union activity. They do have always a core of people who come to the organisation in a voluntary capacity. I could tell you of organisations in South Australia that only have a couple of trustees. The trustees will look over the accounts of the organisation at the regular meetings, will ask questions about those accounts and on a number of occasions will actually sign the cheques for the organisation. Those people are ordinary workers. They are not paid officials of the organisation. They are ordinary workers who go to work every day and then after hours donate additional time to the betterment of their fellow workers in their industry. They are unpaid trustees, vice presidents, branch committee and management people—genuine salt of the earth working class people. The sole reason for their activity out of their normal working hours is the advancement of their fellow workers in various worksites and in various industries. And this is how it has been for a hundred-plus years. This is how it has always been. And it has always been very heavily scrutinised by the regulator, if you like, and the registrar and also by an independent auditor. Each organisation has an independent auditor who works not for the union but on behalf of the members to give an independent view of the authenticity of the accounts that are presented in the general operating report. The salaries of officials are contained in there and the salaries of staff are contained in there. Despite the best efforts of those on the other side, they have not been able to cast a slur over the whole union movement.

No-one condones the activity that is alleged at the HSU. That is a major issue which I think has been addressed appropriately by the ACTU—the peak council. They should face, if guilty, the full force of the law. No-one is arguing otherwise in any way, shape or form.

To return to the debate today, what we have is a new government that is carefully positioning itself to go from basically deriding and putting out a continual barrage of negativity to actually trying to govern. They figure, 'We'll put this in, we'll slam this in against the registered organisations, we'll try to get some more publicity out of that, try to impugn the reputation of all trade unions and all members of unions, maximise the capacity for bad news to travel fast—and, at the same time, we will whack it in to the legislation committee, have a very short, sharp inquiry and go back and do our business.' Unfortunately, it has been referred to a references committee, where a much more complete examination of the process will occur.

Senator Edwards: You didn't win the election, Alex, you didn't win.

Senator GALLACHER: I am well aware we did not win the election, Senator Edwards. The reality is that you are going to have to be patient before you use this chamber to ram through whatever you feel like. We are going to a references committee. In that references committee some of the dissenting report from the legislation committee will probably get a bit more discussion.

The bill is unnecessary and political in nature. Clearly those on the other side have no interest in anything other than denigrating the cause of working people represented by unions. They have seized on every opportunity to cast in a bad light the whole union movement, using the prism of one particular area of issue. They have used that area of issue and spread it like manure as widely as they could in order to impugn working people, members of trade unions and those who are, as I think Paul Keating said, on the side of the 'angels'—the 95 per cent of people who need a bit of a lift up in the economy, not the five per cent who are already there seeking to get away with the rest of their ill-gotten gains. We are on the side of working people who simply want a fair hearing.

Is it really necessary to put really severe penalties on the activities of unpaid honorary officials of trade unions? I have no problem whatsoever with taking responsibility for my actions as a paid official of a union. I would be appropriately cautioned, I would be appropriately trained and challenged. This legislation will affect people who volunteer their time not only for trade unions; I do not think this will apply only to trade unions. There will be other not-for-profit organisations that might face much more severe penalties than currently exist, and there is no proven evidence of any wrongdoing.

The fact that there are no criminal sanctions against not-for-profit and registered organisations is probably indicative of the history and the fact that there has not been a long history of transgressions—unlike in corporate Australia, where there is a very genuine need for severe sanctions for people who do the wrong thing. But I am not sure that the opposition has made the case that there is a demonstrated need for their bill to apply to registered organisations and not-for-profits. I am not sure that they have made that case at all. We say the bill is unnecessary. Show us the evidence. Okay, you have taken the HSU and you have spread that all across the papers, you have repeated that like a dog returning to vomit. Every time you have had the opportunity you have repeated that. But really, where is the history of it? A hundred years of history for registered organisations and not-for-profits and you cannot come up with too many occasions where there are improprieties.

Trade unions are not corporations. I am happy to get to the stage where trade unions are corporations, I suppose, but at the moment they are not. So why should they be regulated in the same way as corporations are? They comprise a number of people who are paid, elected by the membership. There are honorary people in that mix who are elected by the membership. For those on the other side who do not know, you generally have a president, a vice-president, two trustees, between three and 11 branch committee members, and a secretary/treasurer. They are all elected.

Senator Ian Macdonald: How many of them are paid?

Senator GALLACHER: I will take that interjection. A secretary/treasury would be paid, the branch committee of management would not be paid and there would be elected organisers. I used to run a small organisation. Five people were paid and 17 were in the mix. Twelve people came in off the job, to run the union as a branch committee of management, look at the accounts and approve the accounts and they were unpaid. The trustees—genuine long-term union members, not normally paid officials—would donate their time to scrutinise the accounts and to sign cheques.

You are trying to regulate organisations which are fundamentally democratic. You go to an election every four years. All of the positions are vacant every four years. There is appropriate scrutiny and independent elections and you win or lose on the vote. That is how they are structured. If those people have transgressed and not complied with their reporting requirements, they would quite quickly face sanction, including the removal of their positions.

We have this position where the coalition has seized an opportunity to keep on smashing the aspirations of working-class people and their unions. Senator Macdonald asked why the number of people in trade unions is so low. It is a democracy. You can choose either to join or not to join. He would well remember, I would imagine, the Howard government's expenditure of taxpayers' funds, some $3 million per annum, on a mantra which said: 'You don't have to join a union because you'll get everything that you are entitled to even if you're not a member.' I think that mantra was fairly successful. People could take the benefits negotiated by unions without being members. That is one reason why membership is low.

The local bowls club struggles for members and, if this legislation gets up, they might struggle for a treasurer. The local tennis association might struggle for an unpaid trustee to supervise the accounts if criminal sanctions are imposed on not-for-profit and registered organisations. The fact that people could be up for criminal sanctions could impact on the wherewithal of a vast number of not-for-profit organisations, which could be caught up in the scope of this attempt to further the coalition's vested political interest in destroying the aspirations of working people and their representatives.

The fact that we are now going to have a more complete examination of this bill is a very good thing. I do not think that those opposite have too much to fear from letting appropriate organisations come in and make submissions. Let there be a couple of hearings and let the evidence get on the table. They attempted to ram through what they saw was a political advantage. But let us face it, they were basically a one-trick pony in opposition. They simply rose at every opportunity. One would have imagined that the whole trade union movement was afflicted by what has transpired at the HSU. What has transpired at the HSU is appalling and I think the ACTU has made enough comment on that. Those things are in train and being resolved. We just do not think that you need to get a sledgehammer and crack the rest of the place open, looking for things that are not there.

Senator Edwards: It's just governance; that's all.

Senator GALLACHER: Governance and due diligence are the lifeblood of registered organisations. If you have ever been a member of a bowls club, a footy club, a bingo club or a union, you will have found that those people in charge of the till are always meticulous. They volunteer their time, they bring their acumen and governance is complete. The registrar would take reports from any number of registered organisations every year. They scrutinise them in accordance with the legislation and they return a letter. You know you have been successful when they give you a letter which has one line in it: 'Documents have been filed.' That is the complete tick of approval from the registrar that documents have been filed. That means that your general purpose operation statement, your statement of profit and loss, and your balance sheet have all been independently audited by a completely separate auditing firm working on behalf of the members of the organisation. That is all placed in the appropriate statement that the branch committee of management has made and it all goes off to the registrar. If there is a comma out of place, a misspelt name, a paragraph or an answer to one of the questions in the wrong place, you get an immediate letter back, saying, 'Correct it.' As I say, success is: 'Documents have been filed.'

That happens for a great number of registered organisations in this country every year. I am sure that statistics are available for the number of registered organisations which do not get that letter, stating: 'Your document has been filed.' If there are an overwhelming number of organisations not getting that letter, stating, 'Your document has been filed,' there may need to be some examination of what is going wrong. But I can tell you that is not the case. Unions have been fulfilling their obligations in respect of auditing, governance and reporting back to their members for 100 years.

The government may well think that imposition of criminal penalties will make things better. Sadly, I do not think it will change anything. I do not think it is required. Life will just go on as normal. People may become a little more cautious. That rank-and-file member who volunteers his 2½ hours per month to help out his work mates, his industry and his union may think twice about whether he will put his name to being a trustee, because this government has decided to create significant penalties—penalties equivalent to those associated with corporate misbehaviour.

I would like to finish on that. Corporate misbehaviour is documented. There is plenty of evidence that there has been a whole lot of corporate misbehaviour and there is plenty of evidence going back 100 years that substantial penalties are required for that. You could reel them off. That body of evidence has created the need in law for substantial penalties. My position is that there is an absence of a body of evidence that creates the need in law for these substantial penalties to apply to unions. In addition, from the opposition's point of view they may have unintended consequences. You may have not-for-profits that do not get a contribution from people who do not get a salary. You may have a not-for-profit that cannot fill a position because there are penalties in place. You may in the trade union movement get genuine workers who do the right thing and want to do a bit extra for their industry and their work mates considering, 'Should I be a trustee or president? Do I need to get legal advice as to what could happen in the event of a misdemeanour?'