BILLS;Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013;Second Reading – 14 May 2014

  In rising to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 I would like to make one thing quite clear: this is a bill designed to silence unions. It is a bill designed to impose so many bureaucratic reporting requirements on unions that they have barely enough time to focus on their core business, and that is representing and defending the rights of workers.

When John Howard was Prime Minister, savage dogs and security people were on the docks. This government has decided to employ more subtle means of breaking the unions. But make no mistake about it: when the Liberal-National coalition is in government they will do all they can to attack the union movement. They will attack unions because the union movement is standing in the way of their ultimate ideological goal: stripping the rights and conditions of Australian workers.

This is a government led by an ideological Prime Minister with an historical grudge. He is continuing to fight a workplace relations battle that was comprehensively won in 2007, and this time he is fighting it by stealth and subterfuge. Instead of taking the union’s head-on he is going to do it under the guise of tackling misconduct and corruption. And if you think Mr Abbott has abandoned WorkChoices, let us recall that in 2008 he said:

… it was good for wages, it was good for jobs and it was good for workers. And let’s never forget that.

That is his quote.

In 2009 he said:

… workplace reform was one of the greatest achievements of the Howard government.

That is what this bill is really all about. It is about crippling the union movement with burdensome regulation so they lack the ability to fight against the Abbott government’s ideologically-driven workplace reform.

The bill that is now before the Senate is a broken promise. Once again, we see a coalition that says one thing in opposition and does another in government. The Abbott government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations, and now they have broken that promise. This bill places more onerous reporting requirements and higher penalties on officers of registered organisations than those imposed on company directors.

For example, corporations face a late fee from ASIC of $299 if their annual reports are lodged more than a month late. Yet this bill seeks to impose penalties of up to $85,000 if a registered organisation fails to lodge their annual report within the required time. The bill sets higher penalties for officers of registered organisations for a number of other breaches, such as noncriminal breach of good faith obligations, noncriminal misuse of position and noncriminal misuse of information.

For those who believed the Prime Minister when he said he would not touch workplace relations and when he said he would not reintroduce WorkChoices, just look at the trail of broken promises he has left behind so far. And just look at the ideological campaign that is being waged against unions right now, with this bill as a weapon, and you will see where the Abbott government stands on the interests of workers.

Those opposite like to pretend that this bill is about standing up for union members, but how can you stand up for union members if you mute the organisations that are supposed to represent them and fight for their rights? I want to make clear that this is not a debate about whether union corruption is acceptable. I and the rest of my colleagues in the Labor Party not only opposes corruption, we abhor it and have zero tolerance for it. Officers of registered organisations, just like directors of companies, are placed in a positions of trust and responsibility, to provide for the interests of their members—just as company directors are to act in the interests of their shareholders. Anyone who engages in corrupt behaviour, who is put in a position of responsibility and authority and abuses that authority for their own personal benefit, must be prosecuted with the full force of the law. I hope that the government is fervently opposed to all corruption, despite the fact that they seem to have an obsession with focussing on corruption in one particular sector—that is, the union movement.

But let us not pretend either, as those opposite would have us believe, that this is a debate about who is serious about tackling corruption. If the government cannot get this bill—this ideological instrument—through this place, then they will, at the very least, use it as some kind of political tool to claim that those of us on this side are not serious about tackling corruption in the union movement. We are serious about tackling corruption and misconduct, and we have demonstrated our seriousness through the legislation we passed in government in 2012.

In fact, Labor introduced stronger accountability measures and tougher penalties for misconduct in registered organisations than those introduced by the current Prime Minister when he was Minister for Workplace Relations in 2002. And do not forget, it was Labor in government that forced the Health Services Union into administration.

The conduct that those opposite claim they are targeting is already prohibited in the Registered Organisations Act. The act already prohibits members’ money from being used to favour candidates in internal elections. It allows for criminal proceedings when funds are stolen or obtained by fraud, and ensures the Fair Work Commission can share information with police. There are statutory civil penalties in the act for parties who knowingly or recklessly contravene an order or direction made by the Fair Work Commission or Federal Court. Officers of registered organisations have fiduciary duties similar to those of company directors, and are required to disclose their personal interests. In trying to justify this bill, the government point to instances of alleged corruption that are being dealt with effectively by the current provisions.

If those opposite were really serious about tackling corruption and misconduct, then they would do so across the board. Despite the hundreds of prosecutions brought by ASIC each year against company directors, despite all the material that has been dealt with by ICAC in New South Wales, we do not hear a peep out of this government about corruption and misconduct in the corporate sector. Yet if you listened to the rhetoric of the coalition over the past several years, you would think that corruption and misconduct is entirely confined to unions.

The challenge for the government in prosecuting the case for the bill is this: explain to the Senate how and why the system that is in place already is not working; explain to the Senate how this bill will improve the system in any meaningful way; and explain to the Senate how you justify the enormous regulatory cost that you are seeking to impose on the very organisations whose members you claim to be protecting. They have failed to do this in the House, and I doubt they will succeed here. This is a poorly constructed piece of legislation. Not only is it poorly constructed, but its sole purpose is the pursuit of an ideological crusade—although I would consider it is more like the stuff of the sheriff of Nottingham than of Robin Hood.

As I said before, this bill imposes more onerous requirements on the officers of registered organisations than those which company directors are subject to. Why won’t the government support the same onerous reporting requirements, the same steep penalties, for corporations and their directors as they do for registered organisations? If they are going to claim that by opposing this bill we are not serious about tackling union corruption then, surely, by their own standards they are not serious about tackling corruption in the corporate sector.

Of course, this is the government that apparently is all about cutting red tape and letting businesses get on with business. But they are not interested in letting unions get on with their business. Instead, they want to drown them in regulatory requirements so they cannot get on with their core business—representing workers. That is what the coalition’s mates in big business want them to do. If they cannot bring Work Choices back, then they will at least have a go at breaking the back of the union movement.

Business is often regarded by those opposite as their natural friends, but has the Abbott government considered how employer organisations feel about this regulatory approach? Employer organisations are, after all, registered organisations who would be subject to the same requirements as employee organisations under this bill. Perhaps the Abbott government is so hell-bent on this ideological crusade that they are happy to sacrifice employer organisations in the process. Perhaps they consider weighing down employer organisations with the same regulatory burden to be worth the collateral damage. Perhaps to them this is the cost of winning their ideological war against unions.

Well, these organisations obviously do not like it any more than employee organisations do. The Australian Industry Group made the point that directors of companies are typically small in number and well-remunerated for their role in returning a value on shareholders’ investments, whereas registered organisations, being not-for-profit entities, typically have many elected officials and committee members who are unpaid. The Ai Group, for example, has 78 volunteer councillors deemed officers under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act, who give up a great deal of their time working on the policy and financial management of the group while also trying to run their own companies. I know this is also the case for many other registered organisations including unions and yet the bill imposes excessive reporting requirements on these unpaid volunteers.

One such requirement is the obligation to disclose their material personal interests, including those of relatives, to every member of the organisation and the penalty for breaching this requirement is over $1 million—I think that in fact it is $1,020,000. By contrast, under the Corporations Act, company directors only have to disclose their material interests to the other directors and only those interests that relate to the affairs of the company. Let me just reiterate that. One requirement is the obligation on one group to disclose material personal interests including those of relatives to every member of the organisation and the penalty for breaching that requirement is around $1 million. By contrast, under the Corporations Act, company directors only have to disclose their material interests to other directors and only those interests that relate to the affairs of the company. Here is what the Australian Industry Group said in their submission in relation to the disclosure of material personal interest:

The provisions of this Bill in this area will operate very unfairly on registered employer organisations and their officers, and it is essential that the Bill is amended. The Bill would impose a far more onerous regime for officers of registered organisations than what applies to directors of public companies. The regime, if enacted, would undoubtedly deter persons from standing for office in employer organisations. In practice the provisions of the Bill would seriously impede many organisations from carrying on their daily business operations.

That was from the Australian Industry Group in their submission to the Senate inquiry.

Will just drop this year and then I can work on I would like to compliment the Ai Group on what is a very comprehensive and well-thought-out submission, which points out the many flaws in this bill. Concerns about the regulatory burden this bill will place on registered organisations have been echoed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions and several other employer organisations, including the Master Builders Australia and the Pharmacy Guild.

By introducing these onerous reporting requirements, the government is not just imposing costs on unions but is imposing costs on the whole workplace relations system. Of course, the government must have known that these concerns were going to be brought up. Maybe that is why they were in such a hurry to rush this bill through.

Many employer organisations, including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, have raised concerns about the lack of time they have had to review the legislation and lodge a considered submission. Surely it would send a clear message to this government, when both employer and employee organisations are united in their stance on this bill, that something is seriously wrong with it?

While looking through the second reading speeches to this bill in the other place, I think the member for Moreton made an interesting point—that the increased compliance costs resulting from this bill could be passed on to the members of registered organisations. In the case of unions these could include low-paid employees, such as retail workers, or cleaners, or childcare workers or aged care workers. Far be it from those opposite to care about low-paid workers, but many employer organisations that represent small businesses may also be forced to pass these costs onto their members, resulting in increased costs for small business. Of course, we know that if that happens that cost will be passed on to consumers.

I doubt the government, on the other side of this chamber, who trumpet their business credentials and their war on red tape, have considered the cost burden this legislation could potentially have on small businesses. You would think this is exactly the kind of legislation that the government would include in one of their ‘red tape repeal days’. But then this government really only pays lip service to repealing red tape. Not only are they not serious about reducing red tape they are intent on using red tape as a weapon.

Labor will oppose this legislation, and we have many good reasons to do so. We already have a very good regime in place for ensuring the accountability of officers of registered organisations, including reasonable penalties for failing to meet their duties to their members As a number of submitters have pointed out, it is this rushed legislation that is causing problems. The government’s royal commission into the trade union movement will be making recommendations about the regulation and governance of registered organisations, so why not wait for those findings? Is it because this bill is a stunt?

This is the same stunt the government pulled in opposition when Senator Abetz introduced a similar bill. I remember when I spoke on that bill: I described it as a ‘solution looking for a problem’. The bill that is currently before the Senate is no different.

This is not just Labor’s view, or the view of the union movement, and I point again to the Australian Industry Group’s submission which said:

It is a transparently political Bill in an area where there is no extant public policy problem.

Unfortunately, what the government has demonstrated with their royal commission is that they are willing to spend millions of dollars in pursuit of their political witch hunt. They will spend millions of dollars in taxpayers funds while also imposing millions of dollars of costs on registered organisations, including employee and employer associations.

Why does this government insist on attacking unions? Because they want to silence the voices of those opposed to their real agenda, which is bringing back WorkChoices. If the government wants to introduce serious, adult, measures to combat misconduct and corruption, Labor will support them. However, Labor will not support childish stunts, we will not support a political witch-hunt and we will not support unnecessary regulation and red tape. And we will not support actions designed to cripple and silence the union movement.

For these reasons, Labor opposes this bill.