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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5324

Senator KIRK (5:31 PM) —As Senator Campbell said, the opposition supports theWorkplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002 and its consequential amendments. The Australian Labor Party, having its roots richly based in the lives and successes of working families, understands the role of trade unions. The Australian Labor Party believes that unions are effective and play an essential role in maintaining a fair workplace in which workers have their rights and entitlements protected.

Of course, we need to regulate our trade unions in the same way we regulate our corporations and our political parties. But this must be done in a way that does not deprive them of their freedom to control their own affairs. Australia already has one of the most highly regulated trade union movements in the world. That was based upon the need for the registration of organisations which protect the interests of employees. The legislation that we are dealing with here today deals with a variety of matters concerning registered organisations. It includes such things as the amalgamation and disamalgamation of unions, the independence of unions, the maintaining of accurate financial accounts and the regulation of union ballots, including sections on ballot requirements and the conduct of ballots.

As all in this chamber—and most outside of it—would know, it is not the objective of this government to promote the interests of the trade union movement. As early as 1996, it was the policy of this coalition government to:

... amend the Industrial Relations Act to ensure that the accounting, auditing and other financial obligations are as nearly as practicable the same as those of companies ...

Essentially, this is what it is seeking to achieve by the introduction of this bill. This legislation received the support of the opposition, the ACTU and the broader trade union movement. This is because the union movement is not afraid of financial responsibility and encourages it in its organisations. The government, I am sure, would be pleased to know that today Australia's trade unions are highly administered, professional organisations which take their role seriously and of course employ accounting and administrative staff to ensure that their finances are properly managed and accounted for. The vast majority of modern unions respect their members' funds and hence this legislation will pose no problem whatsoever for them. Any improper use of members' funds within a trade union is unacceptable to the Labor Party and hence we support moves to ensure that this practice does not occur.

In my university days, when I was working at a department store as a shop assistant, I was a member of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association in South Australia. I also worked for the SDA after the 2001 federal election as an industrial officer representing retail workers in their dealings and disputes with employers. I remain a proud member of the SDA today and I am pleased to say that the SDA continues to increase its membership. From my experience I can say that the SDA is a union that cares greatly for the accountability of its members' funds and ensures that they are accounted for properly and are not used unwisely. The SDA is also a union that has strict internal processes for essential activities, such as elections, which the bills that we are examining today will enshrine in law.

Trade unions are democratic bodies. They have their representatives elected by the union members, under legislated procedures. This creates bodies which are, in turn, responsive to the needs of employees. Quite possibly, if such measures were implemented within the corporate world we would not see the problems in corporate Australia that we see at present. Just to point out the relevance of trade unions and what they seek to achieve, I refer to a statement by US industrial commentator Clyde Summers in 1951. This was referred to by Mr McClelland in the other place. Clyde Summers said:

The organised worker seeks a place at the conference table ... where decisions are made which affect the amount of food he—

this was written in 1951, so the reference is only to `he'—

and his family shall consume, the education his children shall have, the clothes they may wear. At the root of unionism is the demand that the autocratic powers of management be leavened by a measure of industrial democracy. This demand can be fulfilled only if unions that sit at the bargaining table are themselves democratic.

The bill we are looking at today will not harm trade unions, because accountable and democratic trade unions are the best organisations to represent workers' rights in Australia. Of course, it is not just through electoral democracy that our trade unions are accountable to their members. In Australia, participatory democracy not only occurs but also is demanded by legislation. This involves members of trade unions themselves being involved in the decisions that affect the union. A University of Queensland academic Tom Bramble said in an article on democracy of the union movement:

In unions which enjoy both representative and participatory forms of democracy we may safely assume that the leadership is accountable. I infer from this that they will also be politically representative. Any union leader ignoring the wishes of members in such unions could not expect long tenure.

Importantly, our courts have also played a significant role in interpreting the internal structures of the unions and in making them more democratic to their members. One area is the development of the concept of a fiduciary duty that the union's officers owe to the organisation and the members. This concept of fiduciary duty was first recognised in the 1977 Federal Court judgment in the case of Allen v. Townsend, where the majority ruling stated:

... members of the committee of management of an organization, a branch of an organization or a sub-branch of a branch of an organization owe a fiduciary duty to members of the organization, to members within the branch and to members within the sub-branch as the case may be.

... ... ...

The courts have developed principles of law of general application regulating the manner in which directors of companies are required to exercise powers conferred upon them. Subject to necessary adaptations, similar principles of law should apply to regulate the exercise of powers conferred upon members of a committee of management of an organization or of a branch of an organization or of a sub-branch of a branch of an organization.

The bill we are looking at today will ensure that the legal principle which I have just set out, as well as many others, is upheld for the benefit of appropriate management of trade unions.

Another founding principle is that members of trade unions will have the right under this legislation—if it is passed—to require that the officers of their trade union adhere to the rules and regulations of that trade union. Chapter 9, part 2, of this legislation sets out some of the duties of the financial officers of unions, which include the need to act in good faith, with due care and diligence and without using the position or information gained in their position for personal advantage. These provisions are important ones and are just one example of the strict conduct that this bill will require from people holding positions of power within the union movement.

Our Australian society is built around the founding principle of a `fair go'. This bill will ensure that, through the strict administrative rules that I have been referring to, our trade union members will get a fair go from their unions. If only this could be true for other sectors of our community. The trade union movement is accountable and democratic and, quite rightly, there is legislation to ensure that this continues to be so. By contrast, as Senator George Campbell stated, many corporations do not have the same accountability or democratic system within their organisation to serve their shareholders. More importantly, very rarely do we see large corporations giving small customers the care and attention that we see trade unions providing to individual employees.

Well may we say that trade unions should have the same standards as corporations, but it is worth considering whether or not this government is as tough on the large corporations as it is on the union movement. While our side of politics has a partnership with the trade unions, which represent some two million working Australians and their families, the government in contrast relies on support from the wealthy end of society including big corporations. As my colleague Mr Tanner said in the other place last month, `this government is selective' about whom it is tough on.

There is no doubt that the government has taken a hard line against unions throughout its six years of office—from dogs on the waterfront to Australian workplace agreements. There is no doubt that the rights of employees have fallen dramatically under this government and this Prime Minister. Despite this, I can say that, fortunately, this bill does not appear to fall in the same category as the previous attempts that I have just referred to. This bill is concerned with proper administration and proper democratic processes. Passage of this bill will make the trade unions more, and not less, attractive to workers, because employees will see that their fees are being used wisely and that their industrial voice is heard within the organisation.

Many speakers on this side of the chamber have said that our unions are needed because, essentially, employees in Australia do not receive their full rights and entitlements. As Mr Snowdon referred to in the other place, Ian Campbell at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology researched Australia's workplaces and showed:

... firstly, Australia has the second longest working hours in the developed world. Only South Koreans work longer average full-time hours and, in that country, unlike Australia, hours are decreasing. Second, Australia has the fastest growing working hours in the OECD, with average weekly hours jumping by 48 minutes between 1998 and the year 2000. Thirdly, Australia has the highest rate of unpaid overtime in the developed world, with one quarter of full-time employees not paid for overtime, averaging 2.7 hours a week.

As you can see, there is still much work for Australia's unions to do in the workplaces of Australia. Unions are organisations that want to fight issues that are gripping our society— matters such as poverty, youth unemployment, underemployment, occupational health and safety, workers' entitlements and paid maternity leave. Without unions, some of the leadership on these issues would disappear. The individual case management of people's hardships, unfair dismissals and workplace harassments would disappear entirely. Unions help Australian workers deal with their more economically advantaged employers in times of need, and they provide a large service to the Australian society in empowering individuals.

The legislation before us today is important legislation, as I have said, and it has received bipartisan agreement following agreement by the government to ALP amendments to the bill. It truly does seem an unusual day when both sides of this chamber agree on a bill whose title begins with the words `workplace relations', but I am happy to report that this government legislation receives the support of the opposition and also the support of the wider Australian trade union movement. I commend the bills to the Senate.