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Monday, 21 November 2016
Page: 2751


Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Employment and Minister for Women) (22:19): I rise to sum up the debate in relation to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. I thank all honourable senators for their contributions to this debate. The government acknowledges the important role of registered organisations, both union and employer organisations, and the role that they play in the affairs of workplace relations in this country. What we want to do is ensure, for the two million Australians who are members of registered organisations, that their organisations remain strong. This will only happen if confidence is restored to those members and to the Australian people.

Despite what has been said by those on the other side, this is not about union busting. What it is about, though, is increasing transparency and accountability and stopping those unscrupulous individuals who would use members' hard-earned funds for their own self-interest. The gross breach of trust and financial impropriety displayed by officials of the Health Services Union provided the initial impetus for this reform. The actions of former ALP member of parliament Craig Thomson, former ALP national president Michael Williamson and former HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson are nothing short of shocking and, I would hope, condemned by all in this chamber as unacceptable. Mr Williamson is serving a jail sentence for misusing almost $1 million of HSU money. Ms Jackson is currently facing dozens of charges for theft, and Mr Thomson has been ordered to repay nearly half a million dollars for his indiscretions.

The subsequent findings of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption have shown that the current system of regulation is doing very little to deter corrupt and unscrupulous individuals—for example, the royal commission identified that former senior officials of the Transport Workers Union were undeterred from using members' funds to purchase themselves two luxury cars. These officials then used their senior positions to change redundancy rules to ensure that one could keep the car for his personal use even after leaving the union. As recently as last week 172 charges were laid against two former staff members from the New South Wales branch of the National Union of Workers who together are alleged to have misappropriated $870,000 from members of their union for personal expenses including holidays, concert tickets and sex toys.

This bill will strengthen existing financial accounting and disclosure requirements placed on registered organisations, increase penalties for those found to have done the wrong thing and establish a strong, independent regulator—the Registered Organisations Commission—to give the regulation of registered organisations the attention it needs.

It is clear from case example after case example after case example that many union officials have used their members' funds and their unions as their own personal piggy bank. Unless parliament acts, there will be nothing to deter this behaviour.

I turn now to the senators' contributions during the debate. Labor has proposed that this bill exclude application to volunteers. I remind those opposite of one particular person whose last position with the HSU was as a volunteer. The position was, of course, the honorary national secretary, and that person was Kathy Jackson. Labor's amendments would ensure that Kathy Jackson would be able to continue doing what she was doing with no recourse. Under Labor's proposal Kathy Jackson could not be held accountable for any wrongdoing in that role simply because she was a volunteer. This creates a significant loophole in the legislation—one that would no doubt be exploited.

We believe that, if a volunteer like Kathy Jackson makes significant decisions affecting the finances of a registered organisation, they should be held to the same standards as a paid official. We are not talking about a union delegate who attends a conference and is asked to vote to accept the financial reports of a branch. They will not be caught. What we are talking about here is volunteers—Kathy Jackson—with real decision-making power who deliberately do the wrong thing or turn a blind eye to doing the wrong thing.

Labor has also proposed that the regulator be ASIC rather than the Registered Organisations Commission. This is a distraction for ASIC, a watering down of the current arrangements and a signal that Labor still refuses to acknowledge the serious wrongdoings within registered organisations that require stronger, not weaker oversight. Surely registered organisations—and I remind those in the debate that they have a collective net worth of approximately $2 billion and have approximately two million members—deserve their own regulator to ensure that those in charge of the registered organisation are doing the right thing by their members.

Look at the investigations into the misconduct within the Health Services Union. They took years and years to come to a conclusion despite the overwhelming evidence that was available. The current regulator, the Fair Work Commission, has many other duties and is unable to give the regulation of registered organisations the focus they so clearly require. The Registered Organisations Commission is needed to ensure that misconduct is detected and addressed quickly and effectively.

Labor has also proposed that the disclosure threshold for donations to all federal elections be reduced to $1,000. Labor also well knows that this is not the time or place to discuss proposed amendments to electoral laws. That is a completely separate piece of legislation. In addition, Labor is well aware, following any federal election, the matters of electoral policy are first considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and that is currently being undertaken.

I now turn specifically to matters raised by members of the crossbench. I place on the record my gratitude and thanks to members of the crossbench for considering this bill on its merits and engaging with the government in good faith to discuss genuine improvements to protect members of registered organisations. I put on the record that the government is happy to support stronger protections for whistleblowers in this bill and thank Senator Xenophon and Senator Hinch for proposing these strong protections. The proposals will ensure that whistleblowers have access to strong and effective remedies where a person causes them detriment out of a belief that they may make a disclosure of certain information. It will also ensure that the regulator can pursue those who cause detriment to whistleblowers, including prosecuting them for a criminal offence. I confirm the undertaking, read into Hansard, by Senator Xenophon from the government.

The government is also very happy to support stronger measures to ensure that those who conduct audits of registered organisations are independent. Auditors should be independent, should be registered and should be rotated regularly. These are the equivalent arrangements that apply to company auditors, and there is currently no such regime within registered organisations. The government is pleased to support Senator Hinch's amendments in this regard.

The coalition is committed to improving the governance and accountability of registered organisations. The case for improvement is clear. The Australian people have chosen, and the parliament now has an opportunity to act. I commend the bill to the chamber.

Senator Urquhart: On a point of order: my understanding was that there was a second reading amendment from the Greens at this stage—no?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): No, they are sitting there shaking their heads in the negative—no Greens. The question is that the bill be now read a second time.