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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2312


Senator CASH (Western Australia) (10:11): In rising to contribute to the debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012, the question that needs to be asked is: why is it that a coalition senator has had to take it upon himself to introduce a private senator's bill to improve the accountability and transparency of organisations registered under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009? That includes not just trade unions but employer groups as well.

It is patently obvious to anybody in this debate that the answer is a very simple one. It is because the Labor Party cannot. They just cannot—or they just will not. There is a good reason for that. When you look at the biographies of those Labor senators on the other side it is patently clear that not only do they represent the union movement in this place, they basically are the union movement. I believe that almost each one of those who are in this place as Labor senators have held senior offices in the union movement before coming to this place. You only need to look at Minister Shorten to understand why the Labor government refuses to take further steps to ensure the accountability and transparency of the union movement. Minister Shorten, by his behaviour in relation to the goings-on of the unions, believes still that he is a union official first and a minister of the Crown, a very, very distant second. You only had to listen to the speech of the previous senator in her contribution on this debate. It was almost a carbon copy of the speech that was given by the member for Greenway when she spoke on this bill in the other place. You would have thought that, as a proud union boss who says that she was proud to stand up for the workers, the senator may have taken the time to write her own speech on this matter instead of quite literally coming into this place and peddling the lines and the rhetoric that were clearly provided to her by the minister's office.

Those of us on this side do believe in true accountability and true transparency. That is why we have taken it upon ourselves to introduce this legislation which, if it is passed, will have the effect of giving further protection to the thousands of good, decent members who belong to these organisations. How will it do that? It will strengthen the financial disclosure rules. I cannot see how anybody could argue with that. It will enshrine higher duties for officers, union bosses; I cannot see how anybody can argue with that. It also will increase penalties to provide a genuine deterrent against misuse of position and power.

There is no comparison between the penalties under the registered organisations act and those currently under the Corporations Act, because the penalties that company directors face in the event that they misuse shareholders' money far outweigh the meagre penalties that a union boss faces if he or she wants to blatantly rip off the workers. For the union bosses $10,200 is the maximum penalty. This has recently gone up from $6,600. Compare this with a fine in excess of $200,000 for a company director or, as the previous speaker alluded to, actually going to jail. There is no comparison at all in relation to what is similar behaviour. Whether you are blatantly ripping off the workers, as union bosses have been proven to do, or you are taking money from shareholders, both behaviours are completely and utterly inappropriate and both behaviours should be subject to the same penalties.

I would challenge anybody in this place to stand here today and put on the record why a union boss who wants to use union members' funds for prostitutes or to fund his salacious lifestyle should be subject to a lesser penalty than a company director who rips off the shareholders. Why does one person face a fine, a maximum penalty that has only just been increased to $10,200, and the other person face the potential of going to jail? That is completely inconsistent. Unlike those on the other side, we are not going to lower the standard. We are not going to say, 'Let us change the Corporations Law and let us make the penalties faced by those company directors who do the wrong thing the same as those faced by union officials.' We say, 'No, let's increase the penalties faced by union officials who do the wrong thing to ensure that they properly align with what company directors who do a similar thing or the same thing are facing themselves.'

Those on the other side are happy to say one thing—and they will in their contributions to this debate today—and then do another. The coalition by this legislation is saying to the people of Australia, the hardworking members of unions and employer groups who do nothing more than front up to work on a daily basis, work for their eight or nine hours, go home and live a decent life, that, 'Unlike the Labor Party, we are not going to condone your union bosses ripping you off.' But the Labor Party cannot say that, because they are owned by the unions and we all know the unions financially contribute to them. We will not condone union bosses treating the workers with that type of contempt. We will not condone union bosses taking the workers' money and treating it inappropriately as if it were their own. We on this side of the chamber with this legislation are saying that if it is found to have occurred—and it certainly was found to have occurred last year in relation to some of those who run unions in Australia—the courts should have the ability to hold those people accountable and in doing so the courts should also have the ability to impose similar penalties to those faced by company directors if they breach the law. We are saying nothing more and nothing less.

This bill is a real test for those on the other side who will stand up in this debate and say: 'We want to stand up for the workers. We are the only party in Australia that stands up for the workers.' Then they will tell you, as the previous speaker did, that the penalties are sufficient and that a maximum fine of $10,200 is sufficient punishment for someone who steals hundreds of thousands of dollars from hardworking union members to fund their own lifestyle, and unfortunately we know that last year that meant using the services of prostitutes. The Labor Party will say, 'That$10,200 is sufficient punishment,' but then will say on the other hand, 'If a company director is found guilty by the courts of taking money from shareholders, you should hang them.' It is probably the one time the Labor Party will stand up and say you should bring back the death penalty because sending them to jail is not good enough, making them liable for a penalty in excess of $220,000 is not good enough. But it is good enough for a union boss who blatantly rips off the workers not to have to face jail, not to have to face a fine heading towards $220,000. It is good enough for a union boss to face a maximum fine of $10,200 under this piece of legislation. So you can rip the workers off, you can rip them off blindly to any extent that you like, because the good news is that under Labor the only fine you are going to pay is $10,200. You might say it is almost worthwhile.

The coalition do not say that and that is why we are proudly standing in this place and saying that we will stand up for the workers. We do not condone that type of behaviour. We do not condone it if a company director does it and we certainly do not condone it if a union boss or official does it. We will support accountability and transparency. The feedback we have received is that the majority of officers of registered organisations support this, because they know that if they are not in breach of the law they have absolutely nothing to fear at all from what this bill proposes. It is like any one of us: if we comply with the law, we need not fear a penalty that may be able to be applied in the event that we breach the law. But that is just not good enough for the Labor Party. The behaviour of Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson is, quite frankly, yet again a classic example of the age-old maxim, 'Nothing is too good for the representative of the worker', especially when you have the ability to put your dirty little paws into the workers' funds and rob them blind to support your lifestyle. That is not something that the coalition will support.

What is so offensive in this bill that it cannot be supported by those on the other side? One of the provisions of the bill is that it will increase penalties for breaches of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. The current penalty under that act is $10,200. All we are proposing by this legislation is that, if you breach the law—and by breaching the law the examples given are obviously what occurred last year in relation to a number of unions around Australia, where, yes, they did rob the workers blind—the penalty should be increased so it is more closely aligned with those contained in the Corporations Act 2001, where you have a maximum criminal penalty of $220,000 and/or five years imprisonment. Up to five years imprisonment is a very serious penalty and it has certainly been imposed by the court. That is all we are saying in the first instance: let's make sure the fines for similar behaviour are the same.

It is not as if the unions do not have money. It is not as if we are saying, 'Companies, because they have lots of money, should be subject to different penalties.' In that regard I refer to the evidence given by the Institute of Public Affairs in their submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill. This is what the Institute of Public Affairs had to say:

Unions are large financial entities. For example, the 2010 financial report of the Victorian Branch of the CFMEU Construction and General Division reported net assets of $42 million. In 2011 the ANF Victorian Branch held $22 million in net assets. The NSW division of United Voice reported $25 million in net assets in 2011.

The conclusion the IPA came to was:

If these unions were classed as proprietary companies they would be considered large corporations.

It can therefore be nothing more and nothing less than in the national interest and the interests of members of registered organisations to ensure that there is an equivalent high standard set as between directors of corporations and officers of registered organisations in this regard. If, because of the number of assets that you hold, you would be considered a large corporation, why is it that those on the other side stand up in this place and defend the imposition of what is a completely, totally and utterly paltry penalty when you compare it to the penalty that a court is able to impose for similar behaviour by company directors who breach the Corporations Act? There is no answer to that question.

The coalition's proposed changes to the law will be a genuine deterrent to those who do the wrong thing. They will also provide additional duties for officers of registered organisations and improve standards of governance by requiring them to act in good faith and make it an offence to use a position to achieve a personal financial gain. Again, I would be genuinely interested for those on the other side to stand up and say why they are opposed to a change in the law that will provide additional duties for officers of registered organisations and will improve standards of governance by requiring them to act in good faith—I would have thought that was blindingly obvious; that someone in charge of someone else's money should act in good faith—and make it an offence to use a position to achieve a personal financial gain. Again, I personally would have thought that that was blindingly obvious. If a union member pays money to the union, the person in charge of that money should not be allowed to take the money and use it for their own benefit, as has now been proven to have occurred on a number of occasions—in particular, over the last 12 months.

Our bill also proposes higher penalties for failing to lodge proper financial statements with Fair Work Australia. Again, I genuinely do not understand how those on the other side could condone the lodging of incorrect financial statements by union officials. What we have seen in the past is that some unions take years to lodge their financial statements with Fair Work Australia. Why? If a company director has to lodge a company's financial statement under the Corporations Act in a timely fashion, what is wrong with changing the law to ensure that a union official who is dealing with someone else's money has to comply with the law and provide the financial statements of that union to Fair Work Australia in a timely fashion?

Again, it is all about transparency and accountability—nothing more and nothing less. If you support transparency and accountability, it is only logical that you will support the provisions of this bill. For those who want to say that this is nothing more or nothing less than the coalition defending big business, I have already said that if a company director breaches the Corporations Act and the court finds them guilty and they are sentenced to jail, we are very happy that that is an appropriate sentence—nothing more and nothing less.

In the same respect, why is it that those on the other side will only support a maximum financial penalty of $10,200 for someone who does exactly the same thing? There is a complete inconsistency in the approach taken by those on the other side. Again, if you are a union boss and if you comply with the law—as the majority of them do—you have absolutely nothing to fear from this legislation. In fact, you have everything to gain because this legislation will provide a direct disincentive to union bosses who want to rip off the workers and use their money to fund their lavish lifestyle. The coalition supports transparency and accountability. (Time expired)