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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2303

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (09:31): The coalition commends to the Senate the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012. Let me say at the outset that unions do have a very important place in our community. They protect and they fight for safer workplaces. We support the role of unions and all registered organisations, but it is important to us as a coalition that, in particular, low-paid workers who give so much of their income to these organisations are adequately protected from any impropriety. Similarly, we say that about small businesses and other businesses that make contributions to their representative organisations that together are classified as registered organisations.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of union officials are committed to their membership and the cause of a fair industrial relations system. We on this side salute their service. Similarly, we salute the service of the representatives of the employer organisations and together, as I said before, they make up the registered organisations with which this bill deals.

There is no doubt that on one side of the ledger—namely, the trade union side—there has been a host of scandals where the union bosses have let down their union membership. And it is a matter of regret that those who are in this place allegedly the champions of the workers have let down those workers and union members by not supporting a tougher, stronger regime to bring some of the excesses and illegalities to heel.

I think we all know about the Health Services Union scandal, where the Prime Minister herself kept Mr Craig Thomson on political life support and still does to this day. That man has been found by the Fair Work Commission to have breached rule after rule after rule and the matter is now before the courts. But actual findings have been made against Mr Thomson, that he used the money of the low-paid health workers in this country for a lifestyle that was lavish, extravagant and, some would say, completely immoral.

We can go to the CFMEU, which has established a drug and alcohol foundation, a very worthy cause to which a number of organisations and employers donated. We now know that money has gone missing from that foundation and nobody knows where to. Yet again there seems to be this code of silence.

We of course have the notorious Australian Workers Union scandal in which the Prime Minister herself was embroiled when she was a lawyer at Slater & Gordon. Still, as we speak today, both Ms Gillard and Slater & Gordon have inappropriately invoked the concept of legal professional privilege to claim that they cannot disclose that which occurred. The reality is that the legal cases overflow from the law books telling us that lawyers and legal firms are not protected by this so-called legal professional privilege if fraud is involved. So this fig leaf of an argument of legal professional privilege that Ms Gillard and Slater & Gordon have mounted has simply been a ruse and an excuse not to tell the membership of the Australian Workers Union what happened to about $1 million.

We have the Australian Workers Union—not satisfied with that scandal—in more recent times, in 2008, developing Industry 2020. Sounds good: supporting industry. And who goes on to address a lunch that earned $250,000? None other than the then Deputy Prime Minister, now Prime Minister, who was the lawyer for the Australian Workers Union in that earlier scandal. She raised, by her presence there, $250,000. It has now come to light that that money was used to fund inter-union elections, including the very bitter union election in the Health Services Union in Victoria in 2009.

If employers are being invited to make contributions, be it to a CFMEU drug and alcohol foundation or to an AWU 2020 industry fund, and union officials use their position to collect that money under cover of being a union, they have an obligation to their membership to fully disclose. The fact that they put it into a separate bank account is indicative of the fact that they want to hide something. The reason they do it is they do not want to be exposed. What we are proposing here today in the Senate will ensure that members of these unions will be able to see into the activities of their trade union. They will be able to see what actually occurs behind the closed doors.

I could go on. United Voice in Tasmania is still being investigated by Fair Work, as is the CEPU. We have the electrical trade union mansion that was bought for an officer for over $1 million, if I recall correctly, on the Sydney waterfront. So it is not a situation where one can say, 'Look there was just a one-off little scandal here'; this is a situation where there has been literally scandal after scandal after scandal—and not dealing with small amounts of money. It is not insignificant—indeed, it is hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of money that should have gone to the benefit of members of the trade unions themselves. Instead, the money has been squirrelled away.

As we know, with the AWU scandal, in which the Prime Minister herself was embroiled, monies were used from the AWU Workplace Reform Association—what a lovely benign name—to buy one of the officials a home in Kerr Street, Fitzroy in Victoria. Despite case after case after case, we have this nonsense coming from those opposite: 'Nothing to see here; move on, move on. No need for extra legislation here.' We say, as a coalition and an opposition, that we are prepared to take a stand for the union members around this country and ensure that moneys that are collected on their behalf or in their name actually go to the purpose for which they are collected.

The vast majority of trade union officials in this country will have nothing to worry about, and nor will the vast majority of employer organisations, to whom the same rules will apply. But I make this one very important point: if a company director were to misapply shareholders' funds, that company director could face a penalty of five years in jail and, I think, about $220,000 worth of fines or 2,000 penalty units. Interestingly, if a trade union official were to misappropriate trade union members' funds, there is no prison sentence and the fine is only about $10,000. It was $6,600. Nobody has been able to explain the material or moral difference between the company director so acting and the trade union official so acting. There is no difference and the same sort of penalty regime should apply. But those opposite, regrettably—undoubtedly informed by their own trade union boss backgrounds—are hell-bent on ensuring that a different regime applies to company directors as opposed to trade union bosses. Our view is that the same sort of offence should have the same sort of penalty, and the trade union bosses should not be given lower penalties because they happen to rip off their membership.

This bill seeks to increase transparency. It will tell trade union members how much the top five officials get paid. Finally, might I add, that is part of the Labor Party's new reforms. They have been dragged, kicking and screaming, to this position, and we welcome those changes. This bill will require that if a reporting unit does not comply with the requirements of reporting to the Fair Work Commission serious penalties will apply. In asking questions at Senate estimates, it became apparent that there are some organisations that have not filed their returns and reports for a decade, but they are still on the books. And a significant percentage of organisations file their documentation late, and seriously late. The members of these trade unions are entitled to have these reports filed in a timely manner. There should be nothing controversial about the first tranche of amendments that we are suggesting in this bill.

The next amendment is that officers of an organisation commit an offence if they recklessly or are intentionally dishonest and fail to exercise their powers and duties in good faith in the best interests of the organisation or for a proper purpose. I ask: why would you object to that? It is a very appropriate amendment because it looks after the membership of these organisations. I suspect that the vast majority of trade union members are members of their trade union not because they want to be engaged in militancy and celebrate militancy; not because they want to be on the stage singing Solidarity Forever, as we saw Paul Howes and Bill Ludwig doing recently on our TV screens. They actually see their trade union membership—quite rightly and properly—as an insurance policy so that, in the event of an industrial issue, there is somebody to whom they can turn. They see it like their house insurance: not sure that they like paying the premium, they do not have any genuine or real affection for the insurance company but they see that it makes good sense and common sense for them to be a member in case of tough times.

It is especially those people whose cause the coalition is seeking to champion by these amendments. It is important that those people in particular be told what is happening to their funds; those who do not have any rampant ideological commitment to either the union or the Labor Party but see it as a commercial transaction that makes good sense for them to look after them and their fellow workers in difficult times.

We also believe that there should be penalties if these organisations do not comply with court orders. Once again, how can anybody genuinely object to such a proposal? We believe that there are many matters in this bill that address the very real and genuine concerns of the Australian people and of the Australian workforce, and indeed there has been some welcome involvement in this discussion by trade union officials. One said: 'I actually believe there is a higher responsibility for us as guardians of workers' money to protect that money and to act diligently and honestly. The reality is I do not have any issue with increasing the level of requirements and penalties on trade unions for breaching basic ethics like misappropriation of funds.'

If one trade union official can bring himself to say that, why is it that this bill introduced by the coalition has been so demonised, especially by Mr Bill Shorten, a former national secretary of the Australian Workers Union? Of course, we are reminded that this is the man who, on his own admission, walks around this place proudly waving his Australian Workers Union membership card and who goes to the Maritime Union of Australia conference in Western Australia to celebrate militancy. Of course, regrettably, Mr Shorten and all his acts as minister have shown this to be the case: he sees his role as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations as an upmarket version of a union boss. He is actually a minister of the Crown; he has obligations to all Australians.

Much as I know and understand Mr Shorten's commitment, love and whatever else for the Australian Workers Union, I suggest to him that it might be a good idea to at least suspend his union membership whilst he is the minister of the Crown responsible in this area. I remember when I was minister for forestry, amongst other things, and I resigned my membership of the benign organisation, a lovely organisation, Timber Communities Australia. I said to them that, as a minister, I did not want to be seen to be under any obligation or conflict, and I tried to ensure that I was never a member of any organisation about which it could be said I might be in conflict with my ministerial role. I do not think I am unique or Robinson Crusoe in what I did, because that is, I think, a basic standard, so I do not try to hold myself up as being the exemplar of that standard. It is just the common, proper and decent thing to do.

The fact that Mr Shorten as Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations cannot bring himself to do the same speaks volumes about the approach of this government and, in particular, this minister—who is the most partisan minister for workplace relations this nation has seen, chances are, since Eddie Ward's days many decades ago, way into the last century. I simply say to those opposite, in particular, if you are genuine about looking after the interests of workers who are members of a union then it is important that you offer and show your support for this legislation. Please do not descend into the nonsense that this is all about union bashing. There are, in fact, union officials that—at least on the public record—are willing to say that the standards and ethics do need to be lifted and union members do need to be protected, and the question is: why would you not use this bill? If you do not like this bill because it happens to have my name on it, that is fine, introduce your own, put your name on it, and we as a coalition will support it, if that is the difficulty.

The purpose of this legislation is to protect that 18 per cent maximum of the workforce that are actually trade union members. It is important that they be protected and that their funds be protected from the minority—and I stress that—of union bosses, like the Michael Williamsons of this world, the Craig Thomsons of this world, the Bruce Wilsons of this world, and the list goes on. Union members deserve protection. We as a coalition stand ready to provide that protection for them and, as a result, enable the good name of trade unionism to be upheld.