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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 1378

Mr GILES (Scullin) (12:39): I rise in opposition to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013. This bill, once again, demonstrates that the government's rhetorical commitment to deregulation is just that—rhetorical only—wherever it conflicts with their ideological aversion to unionism. This is fundamentally unnecessary legislation. Regulation of registered organisations has, as the member for Gorton has just informed the House, never been stronger. We have heard much sensationalism in this debate from members opposite, with very little grounding in the substance of the bill which is before us.

It was last year that this parliament considered the substantive issues the subject of this bill and enacted into law the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012. That act, I will go on to say, does all the work required to achieve the stated purposes of this bill—or rather, it will do so; I note that several provisions are not yet operative. So it is proposed that we discard one regime before it has had a chance to do its work. In respect of those provisions that are now operative, I do note, as the member for Gorton has as well, that some registered organisations are still working to achieve full compliance.

That we are having this unnecessary debate speaks volumes both as to the depth of the antipathy on the part of members opposite to trade unionism and as to the poverty of this government's vision for Australia. All we get is reaction and deja vu all over again. The government is proceeding with this bill in undue haste to remedy a problem that it has been unable to properly articulate. Where is the evidence that these present arrangements have not worked? What specific aspect can the government point to that is not working? If there is something specific that is not working as best it can, then why not take the time to work with the existing system to ameliorate any perceived problems? Why not take the cooperative path to the sensible centre the Prime Minister has been talking about as his goal for industrial relations regulation? The government simply has not made the case. Indeed, the government has helped make the case against its own bill by conceding, quite properly, that most registered organisations do the right thing and 'in many cases maintain higher standards than those currently required'.

That registered organisations are fundamentally different from for-profit corporations seems lost on those opposite. Unions in particular are different in structure, ethos and purpose than for-profit companies. And the very nature of union members' rights and interests, which have been talked a little about by members opposite, is clearly distinct from the economic interests of shareholders. It is axiomatic but often lost on members opposite that regulation must be fit for purpose.

Whilst all organisations afforded legal privileges by the state require regulation and checks and balances, each exists for different purposes and is run and structured differently to match such purposes. The minister stated:

Many registered organisations control assets worth millions of dollars—they are effectively dealing with the cash flow and investments similar to those of large businesses.

This is a misleading and deceptive representation. Usually, the biggest asset that a trade union has is its premises, so to compare this to the investment of large business is, at best, disingenuous.

I also note that the proposed increased penalties are vastly disproportionate to the assets of most registered organisations, certainly in comparison to the multibillion-dollar businesses who are currently subject to ASIC's scrutiny. And do not just take my word for this. The concerns of a prominent employer organisation that is, at least presently, a registered organisation, the Australian Industry Group, are worth noting on this point: 'It is unfair to subject non-profit organisations to the same disclosure rules applying to listed company executives.' Much less, of course, more onerous obligations.

The Australian Industry Group has gone on to most effectively draw out what I hope is an unintended consequence of this bill as it is drafted—the potential for the bill to drive a democratic deficit in organisations representing the concerns of workers and employers. And so it is unhelpful for the minister to assert that 'the only people who have anything to fear by these amendments are those who are doing the wrong thing'. Such a statement is, of course, on its face, absurd—particularly from a supposed keen advocate of small government.

But it is also just plain wrong. It creates a real disincentive against office-holding and a powerful incentive for those registered organisations that can—that is, employer organisations—cease their registration. Surely, a relevant consideration here should be to encourage democratic participation in the governance of registered organisations, if we are sincere in our concern for their members. But instead we see a commitment—indeed, an 'unfair' commitment, in the words of those radicals at the AiG—to push members away from involvement in governance.

As the member for Gorton set out, the current regulatory regime for registered organisations already provides for obligations and duties very similar to those applying to corporate directors. In government, Labor legislated to improve financial disclosure and transparency rules for registered organisations and provided targeted training in financial management, which is currently improving the operation and accountability of registered organisations.

Labor legislated to require the rules of registered organisations to provide for the disclosure of remuneration, including board fees, of the five highest paid officials of organisation as well as the two highest paid in each branch, to the members of the organisation. This disclosure must be made at least every 12 months—for example, to align with the usual reporting periods for annual reports and the filing of financial returns.

Labor increased penalties, recognising the seriousness of complying with workplace laws, but importantly kept these penalties proportional to the distinct nature of registered organisations. Whilst Labor recognised there were areas for improvement, the changes made maintained the responsiveness to the unique character of registered organisations in the Australian system of industrial relations. It was fit-for-purpose regulation, made in response to circumstances and enacted following appropriate consultation with stakeholders across the whole spectrum—employers, employees, registered organisations and unregistered organisations. This was a stark contrast to this bill which is before the House.

I draw the attention of members to the consultative approach of the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who consulted with the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council in its entirety, the peak representatives of this nation's employer and employee organisations. I take this opportunity to remind the House of the words of the then minister, who stated:

Fair Work Australia is an agency independent of the executive. It must retain its independence, particularly in the face of partisan politicking. These amendments are proposed by the government for the sole purpose of improving the operation of Fair Work Australia's investigative function. They are supported by the government and the members of the NWRCC.

The current laws governing registered organisations have the support of both employer and employee groups.

In contrast, this bill does not have the full support of the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council. Some members of the council have already suggested that this bill be delayed, which is understandable as this government tries to ram it through parliament. The opposition's position is simply that this matter needs to be referred to the Senate references committee, where it can receive more and appropriate scrutiny. The ACTU and employer groups—including the Ai Group, the ACCI, Master Builders and the Pharmacy Guild, to name but a few—have raised concerns about the legislation in its present form and all would like to see it delayed or substantially amended.

But this legislation is not concerned with giving due consideration to the views of stakeholders or the Australian community at large. It is not concerned with putting in place an effective governance regime for registered organisations, which play such a fundamental role in Australia's industrial relations system. It is quite simply an attack on trade unionism masked with a feigned concern for the interests of union members. The matters that are the subject of this bill are, however, very important. They deserve due consideration and proper examination. So I oppose this bill and support the amendment moved by the member for Gorton.