Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014

It is a great honour to stand up in support of this bill. It is an opportunity to support stronger regulations in what is a very important sector in our economy.

It is also an opportunity for the Labor party to demonstrate to the Australian people whose side they are on—whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the worker who has to work hard to pay their union dues? Are you on the side of people who want proper protection in the workplace; or are you on the side of the people who run unions currently? Are you on the side of people who have been exposed as mishandling and misusing members' funds?

It will be very interesting to see which way the Labor Party votes on this, because it will reveal whose side they are on. Are they on the side of the workers as they actually say in this chamber over and over again; or are they on the side of their political puppet masters who control the strings of their positions here in the Senate and sometimes in the lower house? We all know how many senators here from the Labor Party owe their positions to unions. It is almost all of them and, because they do, they are somewhat conflicted on this bill. They say that they stand up for the worker. They say they stand up for people who do it tough and are on or below average wages, and they want to get a better deal for them.

I do not think it was a good deal for the nurses of New South Wales who have to empty bedpans and work hours away from their families.

They have to do all of those things and pay their dues to their union and then have people like Mr Williamson and Mr Thomson defraud them of their money by going and spending that money on fancy dinners, travel, some establishments we will not mention here in this chamber and also just little incidental things. I remember when that report by the Fair Work Commission came out on the conduct of Mr Thomson in particular. I remember that it was not just that he was living large, living on the hog from the work of ordinary health sector union members. It was also that he was using his corporate credit card, or his trade union credit card, as his own personal piggy bank. You could see in the transactions exposed by that report that day after day he would go to the local service station and buy a chocolate bar or buy a soft drink, all on union money. It was all personal expenditure, all with a complete lack of care and fiduciary duty for his own members' money.

It will be very interesting to see on which side the Labor Party comes down on this because these changes here have their genesis in those allegations from a few years ago. They are a specific response that the coalition crafted after those sordid details were exposed. It was something that the coalition took to an election. We took a promise to the Australian people that we would get tough and we would strengthen the requirements on trade union officials to make sure that people who do the wrong thing are held to some form of account. That is all that this bill does. All this bill does is try to make sure that the behaviour and actions of trade union officials are disclosed to their members, as they properly should be, and that, if they are found to be doing the wrong thing, they are subject to appropriate sanction and discipline by the law, as they should be.

So whose side are the Labor Party on? Well, maybe I should not ask, because I think I am going to be disappointed. I do not think they are actually going to be on the side of the worker here. I think they are going to come down, once again, to favour the trade unions and to favour officials in very well paid and secure jobs, against the interests of their own workers, who do not necessarily share those same benefits.

Unions were set up for a purpose. In my maiden speech I mentioned that trade unions have done good work over a number of years in our community and in other countries to improve the lot of workers, but some have travelled far from that original purpose, no longer have the interests of their own members at heart and seem to act for their own personal gain before they act for the collective interest. I believe that is often a consequence of the fact that we have substantially protected trade unions in our legislation over the years.

We have a registered organisations act from this parliament which provides trade unions with very special privileges. They are somewhat exempt from competition from other unions establishing to try to get members in their area. You can take the Health Services Union as an example. Notwithstanding the conduct of Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson, particularly in the New South Wales branch of the Health Services Union, because of the way the registered organisations act is written, no other union could be formed to offer membership to workers in that sector if they could conveniently belong to the health sector union as it stood. There is a provision in the Fair Work Act which says that, if someone can conveniently belong to an existing union, someone cannot set up and establish a different union to compete with them.

That is the economic equivalent of saying: 'You must buy milk from this supermarket. That's it. That's the only supermarket you can buy milk from. You've got no choice.' What do you think is going to happen to the price and quality of milk in that environment? It will fall because there will be no discipline; there will be no choice on the part of the consumers; and you will get bad outcomes. One of the greatest things we have in this country, if not the greatest thing, is our choice: our choice to do as we feel like in our lives, to buy what we like and to live with whom we like. If Senator Nash did not like her cup of coffee this morning, she can go to a different cafe tomorrow and get a better cup of coffee. Through that process we get good cups of coffee. We have pretty good cups of coffee in this country because we have choice.

If you do not have choice, you get bad outcomes. If you do not have choice on who your political party leader is, you get someone like Bill Shorten, because the Labor Party do not have a choice on who leads them now. They have locked themselves into Mr Shorten because they have taken that right away from themselves, and then you get bad outcomes. You get bad outcomes like the current Leader of the Opposition. That is what happens when you do not have choice. I would encourage the Labor Party to embrace the concept of choice and once again open up the leadership of the Labor Party. You might get a better outcome, not that I would wish for that, but at least choice would be returned to their membership.

I want to mention one more thing. Not only do we have a Fair Work Act which protects trade unions from a competitive environment but we also exempt trade unions from various provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act that other organisations are subject to—in particular, collective bargaining and collusive behaviour. If farmers want to collude, if farmers want to get together and bargain in a collective fashion like a union does, they need to meet certain public interest tests under the Competition and Consumer Act before they enter into a collective bargaining arrangement. Unions are lucky not to have those restrictions placed on them. Once they are a registered organisation under the Fair Work Act, they can be exempt from those particular provisions and legally collude as often as they like.

We are not arguing against that in this bill. As I said earlier, unions have played an important role in our society and continue to, and if this bill is passed we will continue to have unions that are exempt from provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act and that can collectively bargain with their employers to get the best deal for their workers. What this act is all about is providing a more effective, more transparent and more accountable trade union sector than currently exists. This is a pro-worker bill because it will help return power to the members of unions, who are actually the workers. The members of unions are the ones who should be able to run and hold accountable the people who run their unions. This bill will help them do that.

The only people who should be afraid of this bill are those people who are doing the wrong thing, because all this bill does primarily is increase penalties for people who are doing the wrong thing. So, if you are a trade union official who is doing the wrong thing, you should be afraid of the legislation passing through tonight. But, if you are not doing the wrong thing, if you are acting in the interests of your members—and I would hazard a guess that the majority of trade union officials are doing the right thing and, as usually happens in society, it is just a few bad eggs—you will have nothing to fear from this bill. So why are the Labor Party so afraid of this bill, Senator Nash?

Senator Nash:  "I do not know."

I do not understand why they are so afraid of this bill. It must be because they get support from some people who are doing the wrong thing. That is why they are afraid of this bill and that is why the Greens are afraid of this bill, too. We know that they get significant support—not just some support—from people who seem to be doing the wrong thing right now. We know that the CFMEU bankroll the Labor Party and the Greens. They provide substantial amounts of money. The serious allegations of misconduct that have been revealed in the royal commission and the serious and contemptuous behaviour of some CFMEU officials, particularly with regard to women—absolutely disgraceful conduct—should be condemned by all sides of politics but unfortunately it is not strongly condemned by those opposite because they get bankrolled by the union.

These days many political parties do not take donations from certain sectors—like tobacco and other sectors we feel are not doing the right thing. The Labor Party and the Greens often sanctimoniously stand up and say they will not take donations from particular sectors—because they are pure and they are nice and they stand up for what is good and right in the world—but when their financial masters, the CFMEU, engage in conduct much worse, much more beyond the pale, than many of those other sectors, those opposite do nothing because they rely so heavily on that money. In my view, their vote on this bill will be reflective of the money they receive from the CFMEU.

In the time available to me, I should outline precisely what this bill will do. The Labor Party would have you believe that this is some retrograde, almost fascist, piece of legislation, when in fact all this legislation does is make the obligations on trade union officials somewhat comparable to the obligations that are placed on directors of corporations. We provide corporations with certain privileges, particularly limited liability, and it is right and proper that we place serious obligations on the directors of corporations in return. It is the same principle here. We protect trade unions from competition and from having to justify their collusive activities and, in return, we should expect the highest standards of conduct from those officials.

This bill will establish an independent registered organisations commission to oversee the obligations of the Fair Work Act to make sure that registered organisations are doing the right thing. The bill will also strengthen the disclosure requirements placed on officials of trade unions, so that their members can be informed of what they are up to and what their conflicts of interest are. I will say upfront that the conflict of interest obligations we are imposing in this bill go somewhat further than the Corporations Act, because we think it is really important that trade union officials, in particular, show their members what conflicts of interest they have. Most significantly, this bill will increase the civil penalties associated for breaching the registered organisations provisions of the act and it will introduce some criminal offences as well—again comparable to the Corporations Act.

The coalition, in opposition, developed these proposals very soon after the allegations with respect to the HSU were exposed a few years ago. These proposals were rejected at the time by the then Labor-Green government, and I imagine they will be rejected again by the Labor-Green opposition. They were rejected when the Labor-Green government were in power. They were rejected when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was there. She relied heavily on union support to maintain her leadership of the Labor Party and—surprise, surprise—they opposed these very moderate, very reasonable and very sensible responses to that particular crisis. And they are going to reject these proposals again because they still rely heavily on the unions.

I was a bit young to remember, but I have read about a former Prime Minister of the Labor Party, Bob Hawke. I remember reading that former Prime Minister Bob Hawke took some serious and strong actions against unions that were doing the wrong thing in his time. He actually had guts. He actually stood up against people who were clearly acting beyond the bounds of reasonable conduct. He deregistered the Builders Labours Federation for conduct not dissimilar to the conduct that the CFMEU engages in today. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke also stood up to the pilots who, in the late 1980s, were on strike about certain reforms. He stared them down and won a great victory for our country that has provided us a much more competitive and efficient airline ever since—something which has not been opposed by any Labor government since that time. He did that because he had guts and he did not just follow. The unions were not just playing Pied Piper to his followers. He was not leading a government of lemmings.

Unfortunately, we now have a Labor Party that are lock, step and barrel constantly tied to the unions. They will not deviate one iota—will not step off their right foot—to sometimes do what is right for the country rather than what is right for their own sectional interests. It is very unfortunate that we now have a Labor Party like that, because these kinds of reforms are something that we should be able to bring in in a bipartisan way. We should be able to respond to serious misconduct in the union movement. No-one could deny that the behaviour of certain union officials in the last few years has been deplorable. We should be able to respond to such activities with a sensible and strong response, by strengthening the penalties and requirements of the act, to make sure that such activities do not happen again.

Why is it important that we make sure that this sort of misconduct does not happen again? Well, we don't just want to stop it happening again—that is not good enough; what we actually want to do is give members of unions the confidence that it will not happen again and confidence that the officials who are meant to represent their interests will look after their interests first and foremost.

Unfortunately, I do not think union members can have that confidence right now, given the last few years. It is an unfortunate outcome, but that is the reality of where we are. This bill, by strengthening penalties and increasing transparency, will help to restore that confidence. I said earlier that it is a pro-worker bill, and I absolutely stand by that. It is a pro-worker bill because it helps to strengthen the rights and accountability and the information that flows to workers who are members of unions. I also think that this is a pro union bill, because these provisions will help to provide greater certainty and greater security to unions so that they can sell their own benefits to their members. They can stand up and say: 'We are held to a high standard by the parliament and by the government because of this bill and because of these amendments. You can be confident that we will act in your interests, because, if we don't, we'll have a serious slap-down by the law.'

And it is not just me who believes that this bill will be pro union and will help to restore the community's confidence in trade unions; it is also the view of Mr Paul Howes, the former leader of the Australian Workers Union. He supported the then opposition's amendments—now the government's bill—at the time, in November 2012, when he told the ABC:

I actually believe there is a higher responsibility for us as guardians of workers' money to protect that money and to act diligently and honestly …

Those are the sentiments that this bill tries to capture. Those are the sentiments that are driving the objectives of this bill. If this bill comes in, it will help to provide greater trust and security that union officials are acting as guardians of workers' money, that they are protecting that money and that they are acting diligently and honestly.

As I said, I want to conclude by stressing that I do believe that the majority of trade union officials are probably doing the right thing and do hold their workers' interests in the best regard. It is almost always the case that there are only a few bad apples that spoil the lot, and what we need to do with laws and regulations is to ensure that we can identify those bad apples, root them out and appropriately penalise them so that there are not the incentives in the system to act like a bad apple in the future. I generally hope that the crossbenchers can support this legislation. We will not get the support of the Labor Party and the Greens, given who pay their bills, but if the crossbenchers can support this bill it will be a great development. It will be a significant development in the regulation of trade unions in our country. It will help to increase confidence and support for the trade union movement and, most importantly, it will protect the workers of our country who often earn less than the average wage. And it will help to make sure that the money they pay in union dues is used to protect their interests and not anyone else's.

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