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Thursday, 21 March 2013
Page: 2328

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:27): Can I emphasise at the beginning that this bill, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012, is all about protecting workers' rights and, more importantly, protecting the money that they give to their union for purposes which union members believe will be in their best interests. We know in at least one or two instances that money contributed by workers to their union, believing it to be for their benefit, has been used by union officials for very improper purposes. I do not make these allegations; I simply repeat what Fair Work Australia has found in relation to the Health Services Union.

I also have alerted the chamber to news reports of a union with which Senator Mark Furner was associated. I say at this point that the reports say that Senator Furner had not done anything wrong, and I make that clear up-front. But the reports do indicate that union members' money was being used to pay out some union officials for their employment in dodgy deals which would not have stood accountability. Perhaps Senator Furner will contribute to this debate and explain in detail not what his role was—I accept it was minor, just signing the cheques—but what the deal was that provided union members' money to pay off some union official for redundancy payments which, it is suggested in the newspaper articles, were not appropriate. So this bill is all about protecting union members and their money and their rights and entitlements. And why, on that basis, it would be opposed by the party of the unions completely escapes me.

The coalition government had the same concern for shareholders in public companies. We wanted to make sure that shareholders in public companies were not ripped off by their directors; that there were penalties, severe penalties, that would discourage directors from doing the wrong thing with shareholders' money. It was coalition governments who amended the Corporations Act 2001 to provide this. Yet, in this debate, you have Labor speakers saying we are doing this to union officials but what about the corporations? The answer to that is clear: the coalition has already acted with amendments to the Corporations Act 2001 to make company directors and senior officials accountable—and now we are trying to do the same thing for union officials. I ask: what is the difference? No Labor senator contributing to this debate has yet explained the difference between corporation directors being required to be accountable to their members for the expenditure of money and the same rules for union leaders. Clearly, from the Health Services Union case this has not, and never has, occurred.

I am delighted to see Senator Furner coming in to participate in this debate because he will be able to tell us the truth about the newspaper reports that start with a nice photo of him and a headline, 'Senator linked to union cash'. But I am not interested. I concede, as I said before, that Senator Furner was said not to have done anything wrong—that he just signed the cheques. But I would be interested in the deal that was referred to in that particular account.

If further rules are required for union members, you need look no further than to an excellent article by Grace Collier in the Australian Financial Reviewof 16 November 2012. In that article, Grace Collier, who has spent 20 years working in unions and as an industrial relations consultant, said some pretty interesting things about how unions and union officials operate. If you had not read the Fair Work Australia report on the Health Services Union you would be surprised. What Grace Collier said pales into insignificance when you read the Fair Work Australia report on the Health Services Union. Grace Collier said:

Sometimes people who associate with union officials can become star struck with the perceived power and status or titillated by the association.

Again, you only have to look at the ICAC reports and the investigations in Sydney into my namesake. I always hasten to add that he is no relation to me whatsoever—he, New South Wales Labor Party; I, Queensland Liberal Party—but, regrettably in these instances, we have the same name. You only have to look at what is happening there to see how the union movement gets tied up with all these dodgy deals. When you go back through history, you see a lot of Labor politicians in jail these days and you can see how the interaction between the unions and Labor politicians leads to some outrageous results.

All the provisions in this bill do is protect workers' money and protect workers' rights—and that, I think, is appropriate. This applies to company directors under the Corporations Act 2001. Why should the same rules not apply for union leaders under the provisions of the law? I know of much anecdotal evidence of union officials—and I am not going to name them in parliament—misusing money. You might recall that incident when a union official was put on a superannuation board and received big money as a director of some of the biggest financial companies in the world. Apparently he had done a deal with the union that any money that he got from his work as a director in the superannuation company would go into the union funds. But he apparently—according to newspaper reports—chose not to do that and so the union sued him for the money. It makes you wonder what happens. We know what happens in the Health Services Union. You cannot tell me that the Health Services Union is the only place where those sorts of regrettable activities occurred. If you go back through history, you will find evidence of that in the past.

I am proudly a senator for the state of Queensland and I am delighted that the Campbell Newman government is—according to newspaper reports—talking about actually doing something to protect workers' money and to protect workers' interests in the money they contribute to their union. Newspaper reports suggest that the Queensland government is going to introduce legislation to force union officials to reveal their pay and other perks of office that they get from their union. Why would anyone object to that? Take our profession—not a very highly esteemed profession, I might add. We rank down there with journalists and union officials at the bottom of the table. But at least with every politician anyone can find out—in the next five minutes—what their pay is and what their allowances are. They can know what assets I personally have by a look at the register of interest. So it happens to politicians and, similarly, to most public servants through estimates or other questions. Should we want to, we can find out what the secretary of a department receives. We question them every estimates about the flights they have taken and about the hotels they have stayed at. It is par for the course for politicians and for public servants. Why do union officials think that they should be in a different category? It is not as if they are using their money. It is in relation to money that they spend or receive, which is contributed by the membership fees of the members of the union. I am delighted that the Queensland government is looking at some sort of bill that will require unions registered in Queensland to reveal the pay and other perks of office. What can be wrong with that? I suspect what will happen, of course, is that a lot of unions who are registered in Queensland will suddenly find that it is better to be registered federally so that they do not have to abide by the laws of the Queensland parliament. Hopefully, if this bill is passed, it would be pointless for them to do that because then they would have to make these same disclosures here.

The papers and history are, in fact, littered with suggestions—some convictions—of deals between various union officials and big construction companies for individual benefits that union officials receive, pursuant to some arrangements that they have made with some of the biggest construction firms around the place. In the Queensland instance, the newspaper reports that under the proposals union officials would have to declare an array of personal and professional interest such as credit card statement, similar to that of state MPs. Individual unions would have to publicly account for all spending with particular emphasis on political party expenditure. Who can have an objection to that? I know that there are a lot of union members who despise the ALP—and I might say that list is growing by the hour—and there are many members who are staunch supporters of the LNP in Queensland, who are very annoyed that their membership fees, which they pay for industrial support, end up in the coffers of a political party which they despise. If that is the will of the majority of the union, that is fair enough, but there should be accountability. The Queensland legislation, according to newspaper reports, will require unions to indicate clearly to their members how their fees are being spent.

The newspapers again report that the legislative change at state level will help to stamp out corruption and ensure that the law provides more safety nets, checks and balances. The impetus, the catalyst for this legislation in Queensland is said to be—and you can well understand that this would be the case—the recent scandals including allegations of credit card misuse levelled at federal Labor MP Mr Craig Thomson. I do not want to go into the Craig Thomson criminal matters—they are before the courts—but I do quote at length from the Fair Work Australia investigation into that official of the Health Services Union. What this legislation before us and the Queensland legislation are all about is addressing those issues in the same way as they apply to the politicians, public servants and company directors. I ask again: why should union officials not be accountable in the same way as company directors, as public servants, as politicians and as most others in our Australian society.

I understand that Mr Paul Howes from the AWU has said that the unions need to be accountable. I do not have a high regard for Mr Howes; he is fairly good at the talk but, when it comes to the action, it is not quite as fulsome and as consistent as is the talk. But I think any person in public office would think that accountability is a test which should apply to all. This bill, as Senator Abetz has said, increases penalties for breaches, so that rather than a penalty of $6,600, they would go up to the same penalties as apply under the Corporations Act to company directors—that is, $220,000 or five years imprisonment. Can the next Labor speaker in this explain to me why it is that company directors should face $220,000 or five years imprisonment, as opposed to union officials who misuse money, who face a civil penalty of $6,600. Why would you object to putting people who have been proved to have misspent union members' money in the same category as directors who misspend shareholders' money? It is such a no-brainer that I cannot understand why the party supposedly of the unions, supposedly of the workers, would not be there shouting to support this bill—you could not understand why.

I know that union membership in Australia at the moment is about 16 or 18 per cent of the total workforce. That means that, of all workers in Australia, only 18 per cent think that it is worthwhile being a member of a union. After the HSU revelations, one wonders why is it that even that 18 per cent bother. If you take out the public service unions, I think that it is about 14 per cent of Australian workers who are involved in the union movement. It is that 14 per cent who 'elect'—and I put that in inverted commas because I am not quite sure how much electing of union bosses the 14 per cent do, but let's assume that unions are entirely democratic, there is no show and tell and there is no bullying to get the right union official into the right position; let's assume it is an open and transparent democratic process—union officials, who then elect the Labor Party.

We have seen with all the leadership changes that there have been—and the one that is going to happen tonight—that it is not the elected members of parliament or the people of Australia who determine who is going to be Prime Minister; it is the faceless men, the union officials, who pull the strings. As Ms Gillard clearly said and Mr Shorten said the other day as well, they are the party for the unions; they are not the party for Australia. They do not even pretend to be the party of the majority of Australians. They make a virtue of being the party of the union movement—read 'of the union bosses', read '"elected" by 14 per cent of workers who happen to be in unions'.

You only have to think about that to understand why this government is so dysfunctional. You only have to understand that to realise why this government wants to shut down anyone who should criticise the Labor Party and the government. They are trying to shut down the press, who might criticise them today. Who knows what will happen in the future if the Greens and the Labor Party get going: I will probably be gagged from speaking my mind. In fact, more often than not when I get up to speak you will find the Labor Party and the Greens moving to gag me. Why? Because I criticise the Labor Party and they do not like it. They could always get up and answer the allegations, but none ever seem to do it.

My time for this debate is coming to an end but I would ask the next speaker to explain to me what is different between union officials and company directors. Why should company directors who misspend the money of their members, their shareholders, pay a fine of $220,000 and go to jail for five years and union officials who misspend their members' money get a $6,600 fine? Tell me the difference. This is a bill introduced to help workers, to support workers, to make sure that workers' membership fees are appropriately used. I would be delighted if someone from the other side could explain to me why this is not appropriate, why there should be different rules for union officials than there are for everyone else in society.