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Tuesday, 13 May 2014
Page: 2394

Senator BOYCE (Queensland) (13:26): I would like to begin today by actually agreeing with Senator Doug Cameron on one point. He said that trying to undermine democracy is one of the most reprehensible things you can do. I absolutely agree with him on that point. Our point with this legislation is to improve and enhance democracy by improving transparency and accountability. There was no argument about whether there needed to be reform in this area because, in fact, the initial bills to reform the area were put through by Mr Shorten when he was in government last year. The only problem, of course, was that they followed the usual pattern of Labor legislation, which is that the bills were ineptly drafted, hastily developed and, mostly, completely incompetently implemented. So most of the changes we are talking about this morning relate to trying to fix some of the problems that were so evident in the legislation that Mr Shorten put through.

It is probably worth just making a point about what we are looking at in the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 today. It limits the obligation of officers in registered organisations to disclose material personal interests when they do not relate in any way to their duties. It removes the express obligation on officers and organisations to disclose details of any material personal interests in a matter that relates to the affairs of an organisation that an officer's relative has or acquires. It requires officers to make disclosures of material personal interests to the committee of management and for such disclosures to be recorded in the minutes of the meeting and be available upon request to members. It provides for a civil penalty for organisations or branches that fail to provide minutes of the committee of management meetings to their members. It aligns the obligations on officers to disclose material personal interests with the Corporations Act by putting in exclusions about what obligations and material personal interests are applicable and which are not. It provides that an officer is not restricted from taking part in a decision where they have a material interest if that interest is not such that it needs to be disclosed. It expands the exclusions that apply to the disclosure of payments made where they are less than the prescribed amount or where member approval for that transaction is not necessary under the current Corporations Act.

It enables the Registered Organisations Commissioner to grant exemptions from training requirements if an organisation can demonstrate that an officer has a proper understanding of their financial duties within the organisation or branch. It is a bit bizarre when you consider that the legislation as the former Minister Shorten had it drafted, given the way it read, would have required qualified accountants to go and do a one-day financial training course so that they knew how to behave when they were on the board. These are common-sense amendments to give better transparency and better accountability for registered organisations.

Certainly the coalition welcomed in principle the fact that then Minister Shorten did recognise that there was something very, very wrong within the union movement when he put his initial legislation up, but of course we had the situation where a former union boss was relying on the goodwill of other unionists for that legislation to go through. I am somewhat bemused by some of the arguments around how poor little unions run by volunteers should have the same sorts of requirements put on them as you might put on a kindergarten committee or such and that they should not face the same requirements as a corporation. I am afraid that that is not a view that works on this side of the House, and it was not a view that worked with the Australian people. We made it very clear at the last election that it was our intention that people who ran unions should have the same qualifications and the same responsibilities as people who ran corporations because, after all, it is not their money that they are playing with. It is someone else's. It is their members' money. You only have to go back to the major problems that caused then Minister Shorten to put his flawed legislation through last year—that is, the Health Services Union's problems and the resulting court cases out of that—to see one aspect of the problems that need to be so significantly addressed in this area.

One of the key components of that legislation and what happened with the Health Services Union was the inordinate delay—in fact, it was later described as such by PricewaterhouseCoopers when they reviewed it—in the hearing of that case by Fair Work Australia. It is not impossible—and certainly many people have suggested it—that the fact that the government required the vote of the alleged 'Independent' Labor member, Mr Thomson, could explain part of the reason for why that delay happened, although many other apparently cogent reasons were put up by Fair Work Australia as to why it took them years and years to go through material, which of course has since led to both civil and criminal charges. If we were looking at the Health Services Union as a one-off issue, there would not be the same need for legislation as has been required. But it is clear that there has grown up in some elements of the union movement a systemic corruption, a systemic sense of being entitled to do what they damn well like with members' fees. Certainly in some areas there was a view that the political support of the then Labor government was so much more important than meeting the needs of members.

I would like to add there that the vast majority of executives of unions are people trying to do their best for their membership and working hard at that. But to suggest that they are poor little volunteers akin to someone on a kinder committee is nonsense; it has always been nonsense. As we will now discover, many of these union executives are paid the sorts of money that would, in other circumstances, lead Labor members to talk about 'rich fat cats'. They receive the sorts of payments that senior executives receive; they receive larger pay packets in fact than members of parliament receive.

Senator Bilyk: No! Do you know how much a union official earns? What are you talking about? You're atrocious!

Senator BOYCE: I think we will just continue on, Senator Bilyk. I do not—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Gallacher ): Order! Senator Boyce, please direct your comments through the chair.

Senator BOYCE: I think we all know that there are extremely highly paid union officials around, and to try to suggest that somehow we would compare unions—

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator Cameron: Not as well paid as Arthur Sinodinos!

Senator BOYCE: to kindergarten committees is a complete nonsense.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Boyce, please direct your address through the chair.

Senator BOYCE: I was addressing my remarks to the chair. I did not in any way refer to members opposite by their names or anything, Mr Acting Deputy President, so I would have thought it was perhaps more the interjectors who may have been causing the issues here, rather than my speech.

Senator Cameron interjecting

Senator BOYCE: I think Senator Cameron was listened to in silence more because people were bored by hearing the same message over and over.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Interjections are disorderly!

Senator BOYCE: The complete denial from the other side that corruption happens in any way within the union movement is just very sad. As I said earlier, I support Senator Cameron's view that democracy requires transparency, but it also requires accountability and members of many unions have not had that. We have had it in minute detail as to how that has not happened for the Health Services Union. And of course there are other unions involved, and I have just run through a small list that, coincidentally, was published in TheWest Australian today. We have the Ai Group urging the Heydon royal commission to investigate claims that unions are receiving generous and undisclosed kickbacks from income protection insurers to sign up members. We have the Master Builders wanting all payments made by employers for training by unions to be investigated. We have the fact that there are training groups set up by the CFMEU, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, and that they lent some money to a training organisation—in fact training has been a nice little earner for unions. That is fine if what is happening is genuine training for genuine reasons. But that is not what has been happening. It is being used as a way to milk employers yet again in an apparently honest way. But of course it is not honest; it is the usual overkill and attempts at bribery.

We go on to look at the AWU slush fund scandal, which is the whole reason that the royal commission was established. We even have reports of one union official saying that many of the members of the AWU had secret TAB accounts where they could hide $1,000 or so from the missus. Now of course they were not just hiding the money from the missus; they were hiding the money from their members, from the tax office, and from any efforts that could be made to try to bring criminal charges for fraud against them.

I have mentioned already, of course, Mr Thomson and the HSU. Even more serious, and certainly a matter of great concern in my home state of Queensland, have been the apparent links between the CFMEU and organised crime. On the east coast of Australia we have recorded conversations, bank records and police files that demonstrate that major crime, bikie gangs and the CFMEU have all been working together very nicely within the construction industry. I would hope that the members opposite would agree with me that these matters need to be exposed. They have no place in Australia and they have no place within a union movement that is trying very hard to—

Senator Cameron: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The senator is making allegations that have got no basis in fact. The Crime Commission appeared before the Senate inquiry. The Crime Commission, the Federal Police and the Victoria Police have indicated that there was no basis to allege this type of activity.

Senator Back: Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: the senator is debating the issue. He has had his opportunity. He squandered it and now he has got to sit and listen.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: There is no point of order.

Senator BOYCE: It is somewhat sad that Senator Cameron, who I think is a great proponent of democracy in Australia and would be a proponent of democracy within the union movement, is making what appear to be excuses for behaviour that I would have thought he would condemn. I would have thought that he would be one of the people foremost in saying, 'I want an organisation that I can be proud of,' and I very much hope that that is where we will end up with some of the inquiries that go on. But I would contend that there has been in some unions and at some levels systemic corruption, a systemic lack of interest in the rights of members, systemic indifference to the needs of members and systemic featherbedding going on. Wherever that happens, this Senate has a duty to attempt its very best to ensure that it is exposed.

I would like to look at articles out of today's paper that demonstrate that in other areas there is action taken and there is the availability of criminal and civil penalties against those who behave wrongly. We have a headline about fears that a $7 million insider trading deal involving the ABS and others is in fact simply the tip of the iceberg. That is terrible. That should not happen. But ASIC and others have the responsibility under the legislation to ensure that it does not happen. Here we have a case where it has actually come out, where the alleged offenders will be taken through the courts and forced to come up with a solution. This involved the ABS and it was found out through the auditing that went on between the ABS and other areas.

We have ASIC, the ANAO and numerous other bodies oversighting the way government departments and agencies and corporations function. But the minute you suggest that there be a similar body to oversight the way unions behave we have the most bizarre and ridiculous nonsense coming out of the opposition about the fact that these are tiny little groups involving volunteers with scarcely a cent to their name. It is just nonsense. The opposition know it is nonsense and they know that work has to be done to improve the transparency of unions.

If Fair Work Australia had demonstrated the ability to deal with these matters when they had the chance with Craig Thomson and the HSU, if we could have said, 'My goodness, that was shocking, but it is a one-off issue; it has got nothing to do with any other unions or the way any other unions function,' then that would be fine. We could say, 'Okay. Fair Work Australia should just get its act together and do better next time.'

But that is not what happened and that is not where the problems lie. I would love to be able to stand here in a few years time and say we probably do not need a Registered Organisations Commissioner anymore; the job is done. But certainly the job has not even begun yet. I would hope that the majority of members of the Labor Party, the majority of union members and the majority of members of this place would want to see the union movement cleaned up. They would want to see the same amount of accountability and transparency in the way these organisations are run as you would expect to see in any other organisation of the size.

Senator Cameron: Like the Liberal Party and Arthur Sinodinos!

Senator BOYCE: I would suggest that we are not talking simply about whether anyone ever committed some sort of corrupt act; we are talking about the ability for the public to know and perceive that this has occurred. I think we have had some rather good examples from both sides of parliament in New South Wales of what happens when you get transparency. But I think we also need to take into account that the Independent Commission Against Corruption is not a court; it is simply an investigative body, and out of that investigation one imagines some charges may well be laid against numerous people. But simply appearing as a witness in a court, tribunal or commission is not a suggestion that one has committed a crime.

Senator Bilyk: Neither is belonging to a union.

Senator Cameron: It's a crime to take 40 grand an hour!

Senator BOYCE: I think that, when we look at some of the other matters that have gone on—


Senator BOYCE: Thank you. I recommend these amendments to the house. I am saddened by the fact that people who allegedly care about democracy on the other side of this chamber do not think that putting through the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 will assist the people that I understood they are here to represent. I think they need to take some advice from the people at the bottom who put them here and who support their policies. They need to genuinely behave like representatives of workers. (Time expired)