BILLS;Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014;Second Reading – 21 Nov 2016

Here we are, in the fifth week of this parliament, considering the so-called urgent legislation that was the rationale for a double dissolution election. And the other double dissolution trigger—the ABCC bills, which we were also told needed to be passed urgently—has been pushed down the agenda even further. Apparently these bills were so urgent back in July that it has taken the Turnbull government until November and the penultimate sitting week of the year to introduce them to the Senate. The timing of this bill and the ABCC bills just goes to show that the double dissolution was not about these bills. Combined with the proroguing of parliament, they were a convenient trigger for Mr Turnbull to get the election timing that suited him. It was the first time in recent history that the parliament was prorogued for a purely political purpose. Mr Turnbull knew that the Australian people were slowly waking up to the fact that he was not the leader they thought he was and had abandoned his true ideology so he could pander to the conservative base in his party. He knew he was sliding in the polls because of this and had to get an election behind him as soon as possible. An ordinary election would have been too late. Had the government held on until August, it is very likely that they would not have achieved their very slim majority in the House of Representatives.

Wasn’t it curious to see, having justified the double dissolution on the basis of this bill being urgent, and on the basis of the ABCC bills being urgent, how little these issues were mentioned by Mr Turnbull during the election campaign? They were certainly mentioned heavily in the lead-up to the election being called but barely at all during the campaign proper. This demonstrates that the registered organisations bill was a convenient excuse for calling a double dissolution election. When it comes to this bill, there is something blatantly political about the government’s agenda, and that is their desire to attack trade unions, to attack the organisations that represent ordinary workers. I am very proud to have been a long-term member—for many decades—of various unions but I am very proud to stand here and say that for the past 25 years or so I have been not only an employee but also a workplace delegate of the Australian Services Union and I continue to be a member.

Those on the other side of the house paint the unions as evil and corrupt and attempt to stymie their ability to organise. Why do they do this? They are doing this so they can pave the way for an extreme workplace relations agenda—because that is what Mr Turnbull’s mates in big business want. Their big-business mates must be offering a very substantial reward. The attacks on unions by those opposite, their cosying up to big business, is so brazen and so blatant that they are not even trying to hide their agenda. They are pursuing their antiworker agenda with all the subtlety of a freight train. I am surprised. I did not know they even knew anything about unions except to bag them. I have been here nearly nine years, and I have never heard them stand up and defend unions or the members of unions in the way I have heard in the past few hours today. There have been other days when they have done it, but only around these bills. Their hypocrisy is blatant. They are the lapdogs of big business, sitting there wagging their tails, waiting for a doggy biscuit and a little pat on the head. When big business says, ‘Jump,’ they ask, ‘How high?’

They demonstrated that when they spent $60 million of taxpayers’ money on a political witch-hunt: the trade union royal commission. Commissioner Dyson Heydon showed his political colours by accepting an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser while he was still commissioner. If this alone were not enough to expose the royal commission for the blatant political farce that it was, let us not forget that we have seen only one conviction—just one—resulting from the 93 referrals of possible breaches of civil and criminal law. That is because the commission spent so much time going beyond its brief of exposing genuine corruption and instead started to pursue legitimate industrial activity. But this embarrassment has not stopped the government from inflating the findings of the royal commission. I guess that, after spending $60 million of taxpayers’ money on a political witch-hunt, they had to get some bang for their buck. After all, it is easier for them to try to pretend the royal commission was money well spent when faced with the prospect of admitting to Australian taxpayers that they just blew $60 million of taxpayers’ money.

The royal commission is also exposed as the political exercise it is by the fact that the government introduced this bill—a bill supposedly about union governance—before the royal commission had concluded. Following the conclusion of this political farce, not one bill has been introduced, nor has an existing bill been amended, as a result of the findings of the royal commission. It is a shocking abuse of power that so much taxpayers’ money was wasted by this government in pursuing their political opponents. As I said, they have a blatant political agenda, and it is about as transparent as cling wrap. So it is when it comes to this bill, a bill which is designed to tie up trade unions in red tape, a bill which is designed to hobble unions and deny them the capacity to effectively do their job, which is organising and protecting workers. This is an exercise in rank hypocrisy from a government which claims to be about reducing regulation but which ties up parliament’s time introducing reams of legislation to remove redundant provisions and to correct punctuation and which then proposes a bill which will bury registered organisations in the very red tape that it promised to cut.

Let me tell you the biggest hypocrisy of the lot for me. The biggest hypocrisy of the lot is that those on that side of the house—within their own mix, within their own group—hid corruption in the Tasmanian Liberal Party by Mr Damien Mantach. They did nothing about it, they let him walk away, they let him resign from his job, and then they gave him a job in Victoria. What did he do there? He blew the money there! They have the audacity to come in and talk about union officials and how some union officials are doing the wrong thing as if all unions are tarred with the same brush. We know for a fact that Mr Mantach’s spending on his party credit card during his time as director of the Tasmanian branch of the party some eight years ago resulted in 15 charges relating to 53 payments from Liberal Party coffers. They have the audacity to come in here and act like they are so pure and they really care about unions, union members and the taxpayers. Well, they do not. I cannot believe that they would have the gall to do it.

Mr Mantach initially racked up almost $48,000 in personal expenses on the card. The then president of the Tasmanian branch, Mr Dale Archer, met with the then Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, who at the time was Senator Abetz, on 5 March 2008 to inform him of an investigation. Senator Abetz’s account of that meeting was:

No advice was sought or offered. No sum of money was mentioned.

That must have been a real beaut meeting! He did not even get told that $48,000 had been misappropriated by Mr Mantach. The following day—6 March—Mr Archer informed the then federal director, Mr Brian Loughnane, that Mr Mantach had resigned. He just gets away scot-free. He gets to resign. How amazing is that! According to the Hobart Mercury,

“Brian Loughnane was informed by me of the full extent of the circumstances surrounding Mr Mantach’s departure,” Mr Archer said. “There is a file note that confirms in writing that the federal director was advised of this issue on the 6th of March, 2008.”

If we believe the accounts of both Mr Archer and the then Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Abetz, the investigation was completed, the amount of money was determined and Mr Mantach had agreed to resign, all in the space of one day. And they come in here to talk about alleged union corruption and how all unions are evil. Give me a break, people!

The Liberal Party’s Tasmanian President, Mr Geoff Page, held a closed-door meeting to discuss the party’s handling of the issue with a select group of members. Mr Page told members at that meeting that a sensible decision was made to negotiate the repayment of money by Mr Mantach. This is the bit where it gets really, really good: the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party had not disclosed to the Australian Electoral Commission Mr Mantach’s repayment of the expenses. The Tasmanian director at that time, Mr Sam McQuestin, filed the request in August and said that the failure to do so seven years earlier was an ‘administrative oversight’. So you can belong to the Liberal Party and steal $48,000 of Liberal Party members’ money and the party can have an ‘administrative error’ for seven years, and they have the gall to come in here and bang on about bad unions!

At least the unions do something for the people. You know what unions do? Unions get you annual leave. Do you really seriously think that kind employers give annual leave away just because they want to? They get you sick leave. They may well end up negotiating you some paid parental leave, depending on what those on the other side decide to do about that. You do not get these things due to the generosity of employers—trust me. They have been negotiated over years and years for people in the workforce. That is why it is important that we stop this complete witch-hunt and the political agenda about trying to reduce the importance of the trade unions.

But let me take you back to the story about Mr Mantach. Section 234 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code states:

Any person who steals anything is guilty of a crime.

So, if money was stolen, repaying the money does not absolve a person of committing the crime. Section 102 of the Criminal Code states:

Any person who solicits, receives, or obtains, or agrees to receive or obtain, any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person, as a consideration for any agreement or understanding that he will compound or conceal a crime, or will abstain from, discontinue, or delay a prosecution for a crime, is guilty of a crime.

I say everybody in the Liberal Party in Tasmania who knew about that must be guilty of a crime. Why was the matter involving the Tasmanian branch of the party not ever reported to the police? Why was it not reported to the police?

This gets even better: the former Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, was part of the selection panel that appointed Mr Mantach to the position of director in Victoria. So he steals $48,000, he uses his credit card for all sorts of things in Tasmania and, funnily enough, he gets to resign. Nobody goes to the police about it, even though a crime has been committed. He then picked up a job in Victoria from the people who knew what he had done in Tasmania. We know that people knew what he had done. So they appointed Mr Mantach to the position of Victorian director of the Liberal Party knowing the circumstances of his resignation as director of the Tasmanian branch. If just one of the many people in the Liberal Party who knew about Mr Mantach’s conduct in Tasmania had come forward and reported the matter to police, it is possible that the much larger alleged crime in Victoria could have been avoided.

I will give the Liberal Party in Victoria a little bit of credence: they did report him. But how can they stand there and talk about corruption in the union movement when it is right within their midst and they knowingly gave someone a job in Victoria. What a joke! Given that public funding of political parties is available in Victoria, this involves not just Liberal Party members’ money but—guess what—also public money.

Let’s go back to the bill at hand. What also makes the bill and the trade union royal commission such a political exercise is that this government is so intent on going after trade unions when, as I said, there is much more evidence of corruption and malfeasance in the corporate and financial services sector. As we have heard, it is right within their midst. And what do they do? They just sweep it under the carpet and let Mr Mantach get away with whatever he wants to do, because he is one of theirs.

 Senator Ryan: He went to jail!

 Senator BILYK: Yes, but not when he was in Tasmania. When he was in Tasmania, you let him resign and you let him get away with the theft of $48,000. If he had not recommitted a crime, if he were not a repeat offender, he would have got away with stealing $48,000 from the Liberal Party in Tasmania. You cannot cover that over. There is no way you can cover that over—absolutely no way.

When we hear so many stories about ordinary customers being mistreated by the big banks while Labor is calling for a royal commission, this government wants to give them a $7 billion tax cut. With 1.8 million members, the trade union movement is the largest social movement in Australia. Many of the rights and conditions that have been gained throughout history that Australians take for granted, as I said earlier, have been won not through the kindness of employers but through the advocacy of trade unions and their members over many, many decades. But those on the other side are very happy to let people lose their working rights and conditions. You are a disgrace. You are all a disgrace! You found unions all of a sudden. What a joke!

The PRESIDENT: To the chair.

 Senator BILYK: What an absolute joke, for you to have found the unions just so you can bag them and you can bring in your new industrial relations agenda. Who know what exactly it is going to be, but I tell you what: I do not want to see what you guys have got to offer, because I remember mark 1. I remember what you put up before and how you wanted to screw the workers over and have individual bargaining. ‘Let the members fend for themselves. We’re an individualistic group—everybody out for themselves.’ You know what? We are not supporting that. We are here for the workers and we will defend the workers to the hilt. There is nothing that we will not defend our workers for. When you can get your own house in order and when you can stop people like Mr Mantach getting away with stealing $48,000—

Debate interrupted.