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Wednesday, 14 May 1980
Page: 2238


Senator BUTTON (Victoria) -The Opposition has a number of qualifications about this legislation. I propose to move an amendment to the motion for the second reading of the Bill. Before doing so I want to make some general observations about the Bill. The first thing I should say is that the Bill amends Part VIIIAA of the Conciliation and Arbitration Act which was added by an amendment in 1977- an amendment in which the Government had such confidence that it has not yet been proclaimed. The main changes to the 1977 amendment are made to deal with a number of matters regarding the accounting of registered organisations. I should like to indicate the general nature of those changes which are incorporated in the legislation. The first change is to require both organisations and branches of registered organisations to comply with the financial accounting provisions of the Act. This means that branches of organisations will be required to prepare and file separate financial accounts and audit reports in addition to the returns filed by the federal organisation.

The second main provision is that accounts are to be prepared and certified as soon as practicable after the end of each financial year. That is in a sense to be provided for by regulation. The Minister for Industrial Relations, Mr Street, in his second reading speech in the House of Representatives indicated that the regulations would require, in addition to an auditors' certificate, the committee of management of the organisation itself or the branch to certify the accounts. The third important provision provides that information shall be given to members of the organisation or the Industrial Registrar. The fourth provision provides for the appointment of auditors who are required, not surprisingly, to be 'competent persons'. The fifth main provision relates to investigations by the Industrial Relations Bureau in relation to any deficiencies in accounts and the need to investigate the finance or administration of organisations and so on. That is, in essence, what the provisions of the Bill are about. In a sense, the Opposition does not oppose those sorts of provisions because they are important in terms of accountability of organisations.

I want to make some very general and, I hope, relevant observations about these provisions. First of all, the amendment which I will move to the motion for the second reading of the Bill relates to the question of consultation with the trade union movement about these provisions which are being inserted in the Conciliation and Arbitration Act relating to the keeping of accounts. It is true that some of the Government's amendments were taken to the National Labour Consultative Council but other amendments were not. There was very little opportunity, I am instructed, to arrive at a consensus based on a common commitment to the notion of accountability. The Government has in fact relied heavily on accounting firms rather than on consultation with the trade union movement in drawing up these provisions in the regulations. The objection of the trade union movement, which I think is important and has to be stated, is a rather heavily excessive technicality. I do not know whether this is correct, but I think it might well be correct when one looks at the requirements of the legislation. It is true that the Administrative and Clerical Officers Association- a large registered organisation of employees- has estimated that it would cost that organisation about $30,000 a year to implement these proposals. That is an onerous burden for any organisation to have to bear. In relative terms- a much smaller sum would be involved- it would be a very big burden for a small union to have to bear.

In this context I remind the Senate of this Government's repeated opposition to union amalgamations and to the fact that in five years of Fraser Government, while there has been all the noise under the sun about industrial relations, nothing has been done about the crucial question of union amalgamations which has resulted in any constructive solution to the problem of an excessive number of unions in Australia about which every industrial relations commentator talks and to which the Government turns a deaf ear. It is a problem unique to this country. I think the number of unions in Australia is exceeded only by the number in India where any five people in that enormous population can form a trade union. That seems to me to be taking democracy to excess. We have a very large number of unions in Australia, taking into account the population. Many of those unions are small. This legislation is a costly imposition on the trade union movement. I think that is a fact which has to be borne in mind.

The Opposition supports the notion of accountability. It draws attention to the fact that union executives, committees of management and so on are already financially accountable under the various existing reporting provisions of the Act. The union executives are accountable also to their members through regular elections. In our view, the Government's position on the general question of accountability is very inconsistent. Trade unions are to be made accountable by this legislation in a very detailed way. I wish to make a point which is probably beyond the understanding of Government senators. Unions are voluntary associations and the committees of management of trade unions by and large serve in a voluntary capacity. Committees of management of branches are required under this legislation to certify the accounts. This is an onerous burden to impose on laymen working in a voluntary capacity. I would be grateful if Senator Walters who is following me in this debate could inform me whether any other organisations have this sort of burden imposed on them by legislation. In my view this does not happen to other organisations. I think this Government pays no regard to the voluntary nature of trade unions and the voluntary nature of participation in the management of trade unions and the fact that it is not a professional or full time commitment by the majority of people concerned.

I say again that one cannot object to the notion of accountability. One has to look at it in the broad context and in the circumstances in which it will prevail in any particular situation. I make the point that this Government is singularly inconsistent about the notion of accountability across the board. For example, the National Companies and Securities Commission Bill does not require any committee to investigate accounting standards to ensure that companies' accounts give a true and fair reflection of their positions. There is no requirement in the National Companies and Securities Commission Bill to that effect. The small shareholders in companies like Associated Securities Ltd and the Gollin group of companies know to their cost that there is no provision in the legislation for supervision of the accounting of companies like that.


Senator Mulvihill - Look at the misfortune that flowed from some of those things.


Senator BUTTON -I thank Senator Mulvihill for reminding me. That is certainly so. A very great hardship and misfortune flowed to thousands of small shareholders in companies like that as a result of the absence of any requirement of accountability in terms of the accounts of those companies. The Government has very double standard on this matter. Of course, a double standard applies to a number of other matters relating to trade unions. There is no accountability or requirement at all by members of this Parliament to disclose their pecuniary interests. This issue has been debated on and off in the Parliament for five years. The Government is very shy about providing for accountability in those circumstances or in legislation concerning companies. There is no provision for accountability as to the pecuniary interests of judges in this country, including chief justices. That is something which perhaps the Parliament ought to consider if it is concerned to lay down evenhanded and fair guidelines on the general question of accountability.

This legislation imposes on the branches of trade unions particular responsibilities concerning certification of accounts and so on. This Government has done nothing in five years to implement the legislation which was recommended by Mr Justice Sweeney following the case of Moore and Doyle. It has been said that it is very difficult for the Commonwealth to legislate because it must obtain the concurrence of the States. Little has been done about obtaining that concurrence. In this matter the Government has strengthened the notion of the federal structure of trade unions with national councils and State committees of management and imposed additional burdens on the State committees of management without doing anything about that crucial question which is extremely important in the context of a trade union's capacity to function and the burdens of cost which are imposed on trade unions by the Government's failure to do anything about the consequences of that decision.

Let me make one other point about these amendments. I have said that they were basically prepared on the advice of accountants. I cannot think of a group in this society which would know less about the affairs of trade unions than a collection of chartered accountants. But the amendments are, in our view, excessively technical. I refer to the costs of the amendments as estimated by some industrial organisations. I remind the Senate that the amendments are essentially based on the report of the Sweeney Royal Commission into Alleged Payments to the Maritime Unions. The findings of the Sweeney Royal Commission cannot please any Australian. One recognises that governments properly had to examine very closely and do something about this matter. But there were no terms of reference or directions for looking into the affairs of trade unions across the board. For example, is it fair and reasonable to impose exactly the same conditions on all trade unions in relation to accountability irrespective of the industries and activities in which they are involved? It is an important question which, one suspects the Government has not adverted to.

The other important point about the Sweeney Royal Commission was that in dealing with that particularly difficult situation which it had to deal with in the maritime unions, the Royal Commission recommended training of union officials in accounting requirements so that they would be able to fulfil obligations which might properly be imposed on them in terms of accountability because they had relevant knowledge of the subject matter of accounts. That proposal has not been implemented by the legislation. So, the Government is imposing a set of burdens on trade unions which is highly technical and difficult for voluntary organisations and their members to understand. In a sense these burdens have been imposed at the whim and on the advice of accountants. They are very onerous obligations which are costly to administer. The Government imposes these obligations on trade unions but is completely unprepared to impose similar obligations on companies or members of this Parliament, for example, in relation to questions of accountability. There we see the so-called 'even-handed' nature of the treatment of the Fraser Government of these issues.

There are many matters of great concern about this legislation. Of course the real nub of what I have to say goes to the question of consultation. As I have said, we are not opposing the legislation because we recognise the importance of accountability in democratic organisations which are catered for by legislation such as the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. If the Government is to impose in this uneven way obligations on particular organisations in the way it has with this organisation there should be much fuller consultation about all these provisions and there should be provisions which provide assistance for trade union officials to be able to meet the requirements of this legislation by accounting training. The requirements, as I have said, are quite onerous.

This is another example of double standard legislation- legislation which in a sense can be compared with cracking a nut with a steamroller. It has not clearly been thought out. I have very strong qualifications about the legislation. The main one is the absence of consultation. Consultation may have resolved some of these problems to which I have referred. As an amendment to the motion that the Bill be now read a second time, I move:

Leave out all words after 'that', insert 'the Senate is of the opinion that the Bill should not be proceeded with until further consultations are held between the Government and the trade union movement'.

In moving that amendment I draw attention to the fact that the Government moved amendments in 1977 which were adopted but never proclaimed so, on the basis of precedent there is no reason why some time should not elapse on this occasion, in order that consultations may be held between appropriate bodies of the trade union movement to try to iron out some of the very obvious difficulties which we see in this legislation. I repeat that the Government is imposing very technical requirements on persons who serve in a voluntary capacity, in most cases in voluntary associations, and who are trying to do a difficult job in complex and difficult industrial situations. The effect of this sort of legislation could well be to make people who wish to serve in that capacity on behalf of their trade unions say: 'This is getting all too complex for me. I am only a layman and I really cannot serve on the committee of management of the union if I have to comply with all this stuff as well as doing my normal job on behalf of the members of the organisation'. I draw that very real danger to the attention of the Senate in order that some consideration might be given by the Government to the spirit of the second reading amendment.







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