Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5312

Senator BUCKLAND (4:25 PM) —The purpose of the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002 and the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2002 is to amend the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act governing registered organisations such as unions and employer organisations. The first bill was previously introduced as the Workplace Relations (Registered Organisations) Bill 2001. The government declared that the bill embodied two policy objectives: firstly, to re-enact in a separate piece of legislation those provisions of the Workplace Relations Act which concerned the registration and internal administration of registered organisations, again such as unions and employer associations; and, secondly, through technical amendments, to modernise these provisions, particularly in relation to financial accountability, disclosure and democratic control. I certainly cannot speak for the employer associations as to whether they have democratic control, financial accountability and full disclosure because I have not worked in that sector but certainly in relation to the unions it would be very difficult to question the accountability, disclosure and democratic control of the union movement.

Following representations from the opposition, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations amended the bill to take into account the concerns the opposition had. Labor wanted to be sure that before the AIRC registers an enterprise association it considers whether the association will receive any funding or services from the enterprise and whether that enables the enterprise to exert control or improper influence over the association. This is a particularly important concession on the part of the minister because without it you would have a situation whereby management would not only be directing the manner in which work was performed but also directing and influencing the thinking and the actions of the enterprise association. That could be seen as acting only to the detriment of the employees. Certainly my experience over many years has shown that when management has influence over the thinking of employees in matters affecting industrial relations there is a build up of resentment in the work force which inevitably translates into serious industrial disputation, and that disputation can manifest itself in many different ways, not necessarily in the withdrawal of labour. But certainly morale goes down and you have problems with workplace safety and a higher incidence of claims for workers' compensation. That is experience I have gained myself and know to be the case in many other places, and it is the knowledge of many of my former colleagues.

The minister withdrew his amendment dealing with exclusive representation in relation to breaches of union rules. There is now an appropriate qualification on the court's powers with respect to that. It is appropriate to mention that unions are now far more professional in the manner in which they conduct their business than the government and much of society gives them credit for. If one looks at the manner in which unions conduct their business, particularly within the society we live in today, one will see a great deal of professionalism. Gone are the days when the union official was in a blue singlet and shorts screaming and yelling his demands upon on others. Those days are part of our history, and certainly unions do not conduct their business in that fashion, and have not done so for some years. But that is the way that they are quite often portrayed, and that is wrong.

With respect to employer associations, the people in these associations have a fairly broad background in the industries that they tend to represent in those organisations. But the bulk of union officials certainly come from the workplace. I did that myself. I came from the workplace, and I believe that I had a thorough understanding of the industry and associated industries in which I was involved. That is good, because that is direct representation of the work force. A certain amount of professionalism comes with that, through the experience of negotiations at the workface and later on, on behalf of a broader group of workers. There is professionalism in the sense that there is knowledge of the industries. There is also a great deal of professionalism in the way the unions conduct their business with regard to those they employ—people such as occupational health and safety officers. These people are professionals in their field. They generally tend to have a university background that has dealt with that particular discipline, and they have financial control of professional accountants and managers. Again, it takes away this perception that unions are unprofessional in their role in society. It really goes to the question of: `Why change the act?' But the act has been changed. Those changes are supported, but they do not do a great deal to advance industrial relations. In my view, the act could have been left alone.

Look at the professional way in which unions and, indeed, the majority of employer associations that I have had dealings with take on industrial officers who have studied industrial relations and have taken it as their career path. You have people who deal specifically with workers compensation and you have specialists employed to deal with superannuation—which we all know is one of the major issues confronting our nation at the moment—to ensure that our dealings with superannuation and our management and control of superannuation are done right. You have professionals working there. You have professionals working in that extremely important area of occupational health and safety. That is an area in which the professionalism of the unions has brought about the changes that were necessary in industry and, again, it shows the professionalism of unions and the professional approaches that they take to this. The unions brought about the changes that changed the patterns of work and the structure of the workplace so that workers could go to work knowing full well that they would go home, or have a reasonable chance of going home, that evening in as good shape as they went to work that morning. The reduction of injury and death in the workplace is a testament to the effect that that has had.

Let us look at one aspect of it, where there needs to be control of unions and accountability of unions before their members. As a branch secretary, I have always questioned why people would ever think that we had to be questioned on that issue of accountability. The structure of unions means that there are committees of management at the branch level—committees of your peers from the workplaces which you cover. If you are not transparent with your spending patterns and the issues you pursued and the costs associated with those issues, you are very quickly brought to account by your committee of management. It strikes me that unions, through their built-in accountability structure, could give very clear lessons to some of our corporate people in industry today on being accountable not only to their boards and shareholders, but to society as a whole. There is far more transparency in the management of unions than there has been in industry in general. We would be better off spending our time addressing those issues of corporate accountability.

I had no intention of speaking at length on this. However, this is an opportunity to bring to the attention of the Senate the professional way in which unions conduct their business. It is not reasonable for people to keep this perception that unions are a bunch of yobbos getting together and screaming and yelling at fences. That is not the way that the unions in general conduct their business. That is a result of unprofessional management that forces issues to go to industrial action involving work stoppages.