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Monday, 20 March 2017
Page: 1365

Workplace Relations


Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (14:17): My question is for the Minister for Employment, Senator Cash. I refer to the recent revelations of secret payments from employers to unions, never disclosed to employees or union members, which corrupt unions and their officials. Can the minister inform the Senate of the detrimental impact of these payments?


Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Employment and Minister for Women) (14:17): I thank Senator Paterson for the question. Unions have a responsibility to deal openly and honestly with their members and to put the interests of their members first. In the same respect, though, employers have a duty to act with integrity towards their employees and not do secret deals that will adversely affect those employees.

It is unfortunate that the Heydon royal commission, like so many royal commissions before it, uncovered rafts of payments collectively worth millions of dollars from employers to unions made for highly questionable purposes. What is worse, they were never disclosed to the members of the union or the employees.

What did these include? Three renovations of a union official's home, bogus payments said to be for training that was never actually provided, and secret deals by which employers paid unions such as the AWU to keep workers' pay and conditions at below award rates. What an absolute disgrace! Others extracted payments to bolster their status and power, particularly within the Labor Party. For example, the current Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, and Cesar Melhem. They were effective at this, to say the very least. They were regularly signing employees up to the union without their knowledge and securing ongoing payments to the AWU in Victoria.

Most people would say, 'How come the law allows this to happen?' The Heydon royal commission recommended that payments like these be criminalised. So we are going to introduce legislation to criminalise secret payments between employers and unions. (Time expired)

Senator Cameron: What about brown paper bags in the backseat of a Bentley?

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, order!

Senator Cameron: What about brown paper bags in the New South Wales Liberals?

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, you asked your question earlier today. Senator Paterson, a supplementary question?






Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (14:19): Can the minister advise the Senate what action the government is taking to protect workers and union members and outlaw these secret payments?


Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Employment and Minister for Women) (14:20): The government will amend the Fair Work Act to ban secret payments from employers to unions. Certain legitimate payments will be allowed, but these payments will need to be disclosed to the employees in the course of negotiating an enterprise agreement.

Criminal penalties will apply to both the employer and the unions. The party that makes or offers the payment will be penalised in the same way as the party that solicits or receives the payment. Criminal penalties for payment with the intent to corrupt will be 10 years in prison and $900,000 for an individual or $4.5 million for a company. Penalties for other illegitimate payments will be two years in prison or $90,000 for an individual or $450,000 for a company. Those who would oppose this legislation need to front the Australian people and explain why. (Time expired)

The PRESIDENT: Senator Paterson, a final supplementary question?



Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (14:21): Can the minister apprise the Senate of the history of secret payments by employers to unions and the influence they can have on union officials?


Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service, Minister for Employment and Minister for Women) (14:21): Let's start with the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten. Unfortunately, the law allowed Bill Shorten to basically negotiate away the penalty rates that applied to the lowest-paid workers in this country at Clean Event in exchange for the employer providing to the AWU a cash benefit of $25,000 per year for three years. Because Bill Shorten, the current Leader of the Opposition, needed to bolster his power in the Labor Party he was also very happy to take on board a list of employees which he then added to his union. Anybody in their right mind who thinks that that type of behaviour should be allowed should, quite frankly, hang their head in shame. This should be one of the most uncontroversial pieces of legislation that ever passes through this Senate. Banning secret payments between employers and unions is in the interests of the workers. (Time expired)