First up this morning we had the bill to revive the ABCC, and now we have this bill. In addition to the Abbott government’s farcical Omnibus Repeal Day, they appear to have instituted a new legislative tradition—attack the union movement day. Should this be any surprise from the sworn enemies of the trade union movement—the Liberal Party—who will do anything for their mates in big business? However, ask them to support workers, which is who the unions represent, the working people of this country—no way will they do it. As sad as I am to say it, the National Party, who once at least pretended to represent rural Australia, now just follow blindly after their Liberal masters.
It follows a pattern of behaviour of failed political attacks against workers and the union movement from those opposite. The latest failure—the Abbott government’s $80 million political witch-hunt in the form of the trade union royal commission—has spectacularly failed. It has been revealed to be the partisan exercise that Labor always knew it was. It was clear from the outset, from the terms of reference of the inquiry and the intentions of this government, that this royal commission was an exercise in politics, not justice. It has been made clearer by the fact that the commission has been going beyond its brief of exposing corruption instead of starting to pursue legitimate industrial activity.
You would think that anyone who took on the job to conduct such a blatantly political inquiry would have already shown their true colours. But the fact that royal commissioner Dyson Heydon accepted an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser exposes this inquiry for the political exercise that it is. The invitation was very clear that it was a political fundraiser. It said that any funds raised were to go to the state Liberal Party, so there could have been no mistake regarding that. Justice Heydon should now seriously consider whether his position is tenable.
Of course, when the royal commission is concluded, those looking at its conclusions should do so through the prism of the political nature of the inquiry and the man leading it. Not just content with using the royal commission as a proxy for its attack on unions and workers, the Abbott government has also used the Productivity Commission and the parliament. The bill we are debating now is the fourth version of the government’s attempts to silence the union movement by burying it in red tape. We have had one private senator’s bill and three government bills in as many years trying to introduce this very regime under the guise of regulating registered organisations. But don’t be fooled: this is not about good governance for registered organisations. There is no policy justification for this bill. It is a political exercise aimed at attacking the political opponents of the Abbott government and using employer organisations as collateral damage.
It is deliciously ironic that one of the bills listed for debate after this one on the red is the Omnibus Repeal Day Bill—a bill where the government goes through the farcical exercise of removing outdated provisions and correcting punctuation under the guise of reducing red tape. They come in. They make a huge song and dance about it They are actually removing commas and full stops and putting the correct punctuation into the bill, but they make it sound like they are doing something glorious. The government love to trumpet their pretentious attempts to cut red tape for business, but when it comes to the business of being a registered organisation they go in the opposite direction, introducing onerous requirements and exorbitant penalties for the failure to meet those requirements.
Labor, in government, already strengthened disclosure requirements, accountability and transparency for registered organisations through legislative changes in 2012. At the same time, we tripled penalties for breaches of the legislation. Let me remind those opposite, as I did in my speech in February this year, of the governance and accountability provisions that are already contained in existing legislation in the Fair Work Act and the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. Officers of registered organisations already have fiduciary duties similar to those for directors of corporations. Officers are required to disclose their personal interests and when payments are being made to related parties. Officers are required to exercise care and diligence, act with good faith and not improperly use their position for political advantage. It is prohibited to use the funds of members of registered organisations in internal elections. Criminal proceedings can be initiated where funds are allegedly stolen or obtained by fraud, and the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police as appropriate.
These provisions are tougher than those that existed when the current Prime Minister was minister for workplace relations under the Howard government. To see that this bill is a blatant political exercise, we need only look at the timing of it in relation to the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. The government have initiated an inquiry into the governance of, and corruption in, trade unions, yet they have introduced this bill to this place four times. Why would you spend $80 million of the taxpayers’ money on a royal commission if you claim to already have the answer? That is what they do by trying to reintroduce this bill.
Of course, there is plenty of further evidence that this bill is ideological. Take, for example, the fact that the government puts so much political capital into tackling corruption and malfeasance in the trade union movement, yet in the financial services area, where corruption was vastly more widespread, this government proposed legislation that would actually water down the regime designed to protect consumers. It actually wanted to water it down. You can tell that the Abbott government has overreached with this bill when, time and time again, even its friends in business have criticised it.
There was a Senate inquiry into the second iteration of this bill, the 2013 bill, and I will remind you again what the Australian Industry Group, a registered employer organisation, said about this bill. The Ai Group submitted:
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.
Just let me repeat that last line again:
… the Bill would seriously impede many organisations from carrying on their daily business operations.
It is not that this should be a surprise to any of those sitting opposite. It is exactly what this bill is designed to achieve, so they should understand that.
There are onerous requirements in this bill that will be imposed on individuals who choose, often on a voluntary basis, to dedicate their time to a body which represents employers or employees. These requirements are akin to those that would apply to the board or CEO of a major company. We should recognise that corporations and registered organisations serve very, very different purposes. Corporations are designed to generate wealth and advance the financial interests of their shareholders. Registered organisations are established to represent the rights of their members. But this regulation goes even further, extending to every branch of every organisation, regardless of size—every branch of every organisation, regardless of size. As the Australian Council of Trade Unions has pointed out, it is like saying that the rules that apply to the board of Woolworths also apply to a management committee in each individual store. It is just bizarre.
Those who take on official roles as officials and board members in trade unions rarely, if ever, receive the sort of remuneration of board members and executives in for-profit companies. As I have said before, many of them work in a voluntary capacity and receive no remuneration at all, yet the onerous reporting requirements imposed by this bill and the penalties for not meeting those requirements are so great that there are many roles within registered organisations that will simply go unfilled because there is too much risk in taking them on.
This, as I said, is the coalition’s fourth attempt to kill the union movement by regulation, because the other three were most rightly rejected by the parliament. You have to wonder why this government persists with its attack on workers and the trade union movement when every attempt is a spectacular failure.
When they introduced Work Choices in government without a mandate to do so, they faced a fierce backlash not just from the union movement but from the Australian public broadly and were voted out of government. They have released a series of failed bills aimed at attacking the rights and entitlements of Australian workers, which have rightly been rejected by the parliament. Their politically driven trade union royal commission has been exposed as the expensive political witch-hunt that it is with the commissioner’s acceptance—as I said—of an invitation to a Liberal Party fundraiser being exposed. One wonders what the outcome would have been if his acceptance had not been exposed. Would he have turned up? Would he have spoken? Who is to know?
The exposure of the royal commission as a partisan political exercise has absolutely destroyed the effectiveness of this $80 million attack on the government’s political rivals. That is $80 million basically down the gurgler. When it comes to workplace relations, this government is like Monty Python’s black knight, continuing its attack again and again despite having each and every limb hacked off. That is what this government remind me of. They persist with their ideological attacks against workers’ rights and unions, even when they are routinely rejected by the parliament and the Australian public—but I suppose they cannot help it. A bit like Pavlov’s dogs, who salivated every time they heard a bell ring, this government salivate at the mere thought of attacking the union movement and, in so doing, attacking the working people of Australia who are members of those unions and reintroducing elements of Work Choices. It is in their DNA.
This bill is a solution waiting for a problem. When Labor introduced the Fair Work Act and associated bills, we reduced industrial disputation, we increased labour productivity and, through later amendments, we increased compliance for registered organisations. Labor do not support this blatant political attack on the union movement, and we will oppose this bill. This is a bad bill from an even worse government.