BILLS;Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012;Second Reading – 21 Mar 2013

After some of the absurd contentions and dramatics from the other side, can I say that it is a matter of another day another stunt from those in the opposition! I should point out that I do not believe the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Towards Transparency) Bill 2012 is a serious bill at all. I do not believe that this bill was crafted by those opposite with the intention of getting it passed into law. The opposition are not serious about getting crossbench support for this bill and they are not serious about having it passed. This bill has one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to beat up on the unions. I say to those opposite: if you are going to bring legislation into this place, then please stop doing it as a cheap political stunt. When you introduce legislation that is purely about making a political point, then you treat this parliament with contempt.

Government is serious work. It takes more than just a series of set piece stunts, but that is all we get day in day out from the coalition, because they are too lazy to come up with any serious policies. We know the opposition is not serious about this bill because the leaders of the opposition in both the House and the Senate, Mr Abbott and Senator Abetz, said on 26 November that they would suspend standing orders to urgently introduce the bill in both places. Mr Abbott briefed the newspapers and restated his position in a doorstop interview. Such was the urgency of getting this legislation passed, it was introduced to the Senate the following day, and to the House of Representatives—do you know when?—more than two months later, in February. So while Mr Abbott puffed up his chest about the urgency of this legislation, he could not match his words with actions. What better indication is there that this is no more than a political stunt?

Before I go into what is so fundamentally wrong with this bill, I will explain a bit about the political point the opposition is trying to make. This bill is part of a political strategy where the opposition will talk about allegations of mismanagement and corruption within the union movement. The idea is to plant a seed in the public’s mind that this behaviour is widespread throughout the union movement. They will then point to the fact that we oppose this bill as some kind of evidence that we are not serious about tackling corruption or financial mismanagement within the union movement, when nothing could be further from the truth. It is just another example of dog whistle politics from an opposition that will say anything and do anything to get into government—that is, except for developing serious policy.

We saw this worn-out tactic tried during the 2007 federal election with ads attacking our ‘union dominated front bench’, as if there is something wrong with representing workers and being part of the largest grassroots social justice movement in Australia. Embarrassingly, they even gave the title ‘ex-union officials’ to Mr Wayne Swan and Mr Craig Emerson, at the time two shadow ministers who had never worked for a union. During the 2007 campaign, a video was produced by Manic Studios which provided an excellent parody of the kinds of scare tactics used by the Liberal Party. It was titled How to make a scare campaign, Liberal Party style.

The instructions outlined in the video were: first, find some deeply disturbing music with threatening undertones; continue this throughout the commercial because it lends a subliminal sense of menace and foreboding. Next, find a voice that is male, deep, paternal and speaks at a hypnotic pace. Find photographs of your subject that show them in the most unflattering light; make them black and white and grainy to further enhance the menace. Introduce red, the colour of alarm, into all your backgrounds. Repeat terms laden with dark meaning—’heavies’, ‘thugs’, ‘union bosses’, ‘takeover’, ‘domination’! I quite like this video because it highlights in a comical way the modus operandi of the Liberal-National coalition when they try to demonise the union movement and, by extension, the Labor Party.

Of course we see this kind of campaign continuing in a subtle way with the coalition jumping like a pack of ravenous hyenas on every allegation of improper behaviour within a union. Yet, you have to wonder why we hear so little from those opposite when it comes to corporate law standards. Where is the outrage when the Australian Securities and Investments Commission successfully prosecutes company directors? Over the last 10 years to 30 June 2012, as was mentioned by my colleague Senator Urquhart, ASIC has completed 2,454 court proceedings and secured 385 criminal convictions, 212 of which included prison sentences. But we do not hear a peep out of those opposite about instances of fraud, misappropriation and corruption within corporations—and why not?—because it does not suit their political purposes.

Well, contrary to the picture the opposition would like to paint, Labor are very serious about the accountability of registered organisations to their members. We are very serious about the proper conduct of officers of registered organisations on whom the members rely for the proper management of their membership dues to advance their interests. It is this Labor government which introduced substantial amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act to improve the accountability of registered organisations, including unions. It is this government which acted to appoint an administrator to the Health Services Union. These are not the actions of a government that takes the accountability of unions lightly.

Registered organisations already have a number of clear and strict obligations. These obligations, and the associated penalties, were developed through consultation with both trade unions and employer organisations. The act requires officials to act in good faith and exercise due care and diligence in their work. It prohibits members’ money being used to favour candidates, internal elections or campaigns.

The act already provides for statutory civil penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly contravenes an order or direction made by the Federal Court or the Fair Work Commission under the registered organisations act or the Fair Work Act. It allows for criminal proceedings to be initiated if funds are stolen or obtained by fraud and also ensures that Fair Work Australia can share information with the police as appropriate. There are significant penalties for breaches of the act. In fact, last year our amendments to the registered organisations act saw the penalties triple.

Under the Gillard Labor government the financial accountability standards for registered organisations have never been higher, the powers of the Fair Work Commission have never been stronger and the penalties have never been tougher. Yet, despite this, the opposition introduced this ridiculous bill into the House and the Senate. This bill is no more than a solution looking for a problem.

This has been such a huge issue for the public that a whopping seven—yes, seven, Madam Acting Deputy President—submissions were received by the inquiry into this bill. Could there be any better indication that this bill is motivated by no more than a political stunt than the fact that only seven organisations were actually interested enough to comment on it? Not even the Australian public think that the opposition is serious about passing this bill.

Of those seven submissions only two support the bill. One was from the Institute of Public Affairs, which we all know is a right-wing think tank whose views are not to be taken seriously on any policy matter and is not even a registered organisation. The IPA supported tougher penalties, yet had nothing to say about the effectiveness of changes to the registered organisations act introduced by the government last year.

The other submission was from the New South Wales government—the New South Wales government whose own legislation does not include penalties at the level proposed in this bill. What a joke! It begs the question: who are the coalition actually responding to when they put forward this legislation other than some focus groups or internal polling? Who have they actually consulted on this legislation? Even employer organisations do not support this bill. That is right, Madam Acting Deputy President—even employer organisations do not support this bill. Both the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group in their submissions recognised that there has not been time to assess the government’s 2012 amendments. In fact, some of our amendments are yet to take effect. ACCI and the AiG believe that any changes at this stage would be premature.

The stated purpose of this bill is to align obligations and penalties of registered organisations with those of corporations. The problem with this approach is that unions and corporations are entirely different types of entities. A corporation exists to generate wealth and to advance the interests of its shareholders. A registered organisation is established to look after its members and to advance their interests at work, including fair pay and conditions, health and safety, and a variety of other industrial rights.

The fact is different types of organisations are subject to different regulatory regimes—a fact acknowledged in the coalition’s own dissenting report to the inquiry. If we are going to start treating corporations as being the same as registered organisations then what about charities, unincorporated associations or partnerships? Should companies like Telstra or Rio Tinto, for example, be subject to the same regulations as charities like St Vincent de Paul or partnerships like your local store? This makes no more sense to me than those corporations being subject to the same regulations as a union like the Australian Services Union, for which I very proudly worked for over a decade looking after the working rights and interests of Australian people. Should they be subjected to the same regulations?

It is not just the purpose and operation of corporations and registered organisations that make them different. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations noted in its submission that, unlike directors of corporations, who in most cases are remunerated for their work, many officers of registered organisations perform the role voluntarily and not on a full-time basis. In evidence given to the Senate inquiry into our changes to the registered organisations act last year, concerns were raised by employer organisations that if penalties were increased or criminal penalties were imposed then they would find it difficult to attract qualified people to volunteer to be officers and employees of their own organisations. When you look through the coalition’s dissenting report into the inquiry into this bill, there is no explanation as to why these entities need to be treated in the same way. I am yet to hear this explanation in the contribution of those opposite or in their public statements.

We know that the majority of union officials act honestly and in good faith. In a small number of cases where they have not, this government has taken firm actions. Our changes last year to the registered organisations act have strengthened the enforcement and penalties for officials of registered organisations who breach their duties. Those changes have the support of both employer and employee organisations, whereas both groups are opposed to this bill.

Like I said before, the bill is a solution looking for a problem. It is a political stunt and a shameless political tactic. We have been waiting five years for the coalition to come up with a workplace relations policy other than Work Choices and they come up with this. The fact is the coalition do not want to talk about the real issues in workplace relations. They are pretty quick to have a whack at the trade unions for the sake of political expediency, but we never hear them speak about the rights and conditions of working Australians.

When it comes to true workplace relations policy, those opposite seem to go into hiding. When they finally release their workplace relations policy are they going to adopt their previous form? Are we going to see the removal of penalty rates, overtime and public holiday pay? Are we going to see further attacks on unfair dismissal protections for millions of Australians? Are we going to see statutory individual agreements?

It is, and always has been, the Australian Labor Party that stands up for working Australians. We have created over 900,000 jobs since coming to government. We have legislated to boost the superannuation guarantee from nine to 12 per cent. We have cut income taxes, putting more pay in the pockets of Australian workers. We have increased productivity and kept the economy growing through the global financial crisis. We have increased the childcare rebate to 50 per cent and expanded jobs, education and training childcare fee assistance. We have introduced Australia’s first national Paid Parental Leave scheme allowing parents to spend more time with their newborn children.

I am really proud to have worked for the Australian Services Union because they were the union that brought the social and community services equal pay case to the government. We supported that, providing a pay increase to 150,000 workers. We have torn up Work Choices and introduced the Fair Work Act, restoring the rights and entitlements for millions of Australian workers. Through the Fair Work Act we reinstated for 2.8 million workers the unfair dismissal protections that had been taken away by the Howard government. We reinstated the basic safety net and the right to collective bargaining. We have introduced other rights for workers such as the right for a parent to request part-time work when they return to work after taking unpaid parental leave and an expanded right for workers to request flexible working arrangements.

If the opposition want to see an example of what a government does when it is standing up for the rights of workers, including members of unions, then they can look to this Gillard Labor government’s list of achievements. These achievements were made through hard work and serious legislation. All the opposition can come up with is cheap political stunts like the bill we are debating today. From the absolute absurd comments of the previous speaker we know that this is nothing more than a political stunt. The first question that the previous speaker asked was, ‘Why is it up to a coalition senator to bring this bill to this place?’ That is because it is just a cheap political stunt. It is just a circus. They have no idea. They would not really defend workers’ rights. We know that they will go back to Work Choices, we know they will take away penalty rates, we know they will try and cut leave, we know that they will not make the lives of working Australians any more comfortable than they are at the minute. In fact, we know that they would make their whole lives worse.

We also think it is fairly ironic that the coalition senators on the committee that was reviewing a bill in the same terms as this said that the amendments were needed in the national interest. Give me a break. If you were really concerned about the national interest you would come up with some policies, you would come up with some ideas, you would not be putting up these political stunts that basically waste time. Yesterday I heard huge debates from those on the other side about time wasting in this place and today we have this private member’s bill from those opposite which is not going to go anywhere. We all know it. Last November we had Mr Abbott puffing up his chest, getting all excited about how important this was and saying what a matter of urgency it was but here we are in March and it has finally come to the table.

I will just say in my concluding comments that we know that those opposite are out of touch when it comes to workplace relations. We expect that they will bring forward bills like this and we expect that in the next election we will see more of what we saw in the 2007 election with dramatic advertisements trying to scare the people. That is what they are about. They are so negative. They just want to scare the Australian people. They think if they say these things often enough that people will believe them. It is a tactic. That is all it is. It is a circus and I think this is one of the most atrocious things I have seen in my nearly five years in this place.