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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 8015

Union Funds


Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (14:44): My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Senator Wong. I refer to the findings of improper use of union funds by former HSU officials and to uncontradicted reports that the ETU has purchased a $1.5 million mansion in Sydney for one of its officials and also a house in Tasmania for another official, a former ALP candidate for the seat of Franklin, Kevin Harkins.

I ask: is the minister satisfied that Fair Work Australia has sufficient resources to investigate fully and promptly all claims concerning the improper use of union members' money?


Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:44): I anticipated a question about the employment figures and the increase in unemployment in Queensland but, clearly, those opposite continue not to be interested in things such as jobs.

On the specific details of two assertions which I think were made in that question, I do not have any advice, nor do I have any personal knowledge. They may have been on the public record but I do not recall seeing them. I cannot provide any information on that. If there is any relevant information from Minister Shorten I will seek that and provide that if I can.

In relation to the issue of the powers of Fair Work Australia I would make this point: the government has amended the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act to improve accountability of registered organisations—

Senator Ronaldson: Mr President, I rise on a point of order—on relevance. Clearly, there was a fair bit of noise from the other side when this was being asked and the minister may not have heard my question. I asked her if there were sufficient resources to investigate fully and promptly all claims concerning improper use of union members' money.

The PRESIDENT: There is no point of order.

Senator WONG: I would have thought that the capacity of Fair Work Australia to act in relation to accountability, if the opposition are interested in accountability, would actually be a relevant issue. The opposition would be aware that the government's amendments included, for example, the requirement of officers to disclose personal interests, the requirement of disclosure of payments being made to related parties, new detailed rules about record keeping and what a permissible use of organisation's funds is being more clear to members.

Senator Abetz: How is this relevant?

Senator Jacinta Collins: Transparency is very relevant. They can't investigate something if there is no transparency.

The PRESIDENT: Order!

Senator WONG: Senator Collins is making a very important point: if you want to ensure that something is investigated then you want to ensure that the organisation responsible in fact has the powers to do so, and I am outlining the amendments that— (Time expired)









Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (14:47): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister inform the Senate what additional resources, if any, have been provided to Fair Work Australia since the publication of its report into the misuse of HSU members' funds, to enable Fair Work Australia to fully and promptly investigate claims of the improper use of union funds? Given that it took three years for Fair Work Australia to complete its investigation of the HSU, if no additional resources have been provided then why not?


Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:48): My recollection was that it was the government that acted to have an administrator appointed to the HSU East Branch of the Health Services Union. Minister Shorten has made clear the reasons for that, which included, obviously, the dysfunction in that branch. We did so without the support of the Liberals. The government has also acted to improve the transparency and accountability of registered organisations and the powers of Fair Work Australia to investigate.

I do not have the figures before me about the current appropriation for Fair Work Australia. I can certainly obtain those and provide them on notice to the Senate.


Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (14:49): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Given the fact that the maximum penalty for a breach of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act is a mere $6,600, doesn't this paltry penalty simply encourage crooked union officials to rip off their members' funds? Why will the government not increase these paltry penalties and bring them into line with those faced by company directors who do the wrong thing by their shareholders?


Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:49): I think that everybody knows what Senator Ronaldson is trying to do. Interestingly, after telling me that the powers of the organisation were irrelevant to this issue and that only the resourcing was, now he wants to turn to the issue of penalties. I think he is making the point by this second supplementary question that the legal framework is important. I refer to my answer in the first—

Honourable senators interjecting

Senator Ronaldson: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. The minister should withdraw that comment. She knows full well that I only asked questions in relation to resources and made no reflection on anything else whatsoever.

The PRESIDENT: That is debating the point. I do draw the minister's attention to the question. She has 36 seconds remaining to answer the question.

Senator WONG: I am not sure which bit of the answer he wants me to withdraw.

Senator Ronaldson interjecting

Senator WONG: Well, tell me which bit you want me to withdraw and I will withdraw! Which was the offensive bit? I pointed out that you were inconsistent between your primary question and your supplementary. My goodness! Isn't that dreadful!

I again remind those opposite that it was this government which made amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act to improve the accountability of trade unions, requiring officers to disclose personal interests and requiring the disclosure of payments being made to related parties, and these amendments were appropriate. (Time expired)