|25.6.12 Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012|
|Written by Alex Hawke|
|Tuesday, 03 July 2012 05:47|
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (16:41): I rise also to speak on the amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012. Once again in the chamber we find ourselves at an interesting juncture in the politics of our nation. In the past few weeks in the parliament, we have seen lateral transfers for defence families moved by the opposition and adopted by the government; and the victims of terrorism bill, a private member's bill of the Leader of the Opposition, adopted by the government. Here, 10 days ago, we saw the Leader of the Opposition announce the coalition's better plan for accountability and transparency for registered organisations and, 10 days later, we have a bill introduced by the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Shorten, to address just that matter. It appears that the opposition is governing with its ideas and programs. Once again we see a bill in response to something. In the act-react cycle, we seem to act and the government reacts, rather than doing what it is elected to do—that is, to address the very serious problems that we have seen with the Health Services Union and unions more broadly in Australia today.
Given that we apply such stringent rules to corporations in the Corporations Act, it is not unfair in the light of the stunning and explosive revenue elations made by Fair Work Australia in their report into the Health Services Union that we look at legislation to improve the transparency and quality of registered organisations including unions. That is exactly what the Leader of the Opposition proposed in the coalition's plan for better accountability and transparency for registered organisations. In this bill, we see the provisions lacking in a number of ways, and that is attempting to address a problem when you are not really addressing a problem. That is why we have proposed some very serious amendments. I am going to outline some of those shortly.
We believe, however, that the coalition has a better plan to make sure that the money of the members of these very serious organisations—which are now responsible for large amounts of money and investments and responsible for the lives of so many poor and other people at the bottom end of the scale—is spent responsibly and properly. We require the same thing from corporations and boards of directors. In the same way, when we see a Lehman Brothers style collapse, we say: 'That is terrible. Those people mismanaged their risk and their money, and those people should be dealt with.' In the same way, as the Health Services Union has, explosively, revealed serious problems and fraud, we ought to now apply the rule of law. That is why in our amendment we are bringing penalties in line with the Corporations Act, and seeking to bring across to the registered organisations act section 184 of the Corporations Act, which would make it a criminal offence for bosses of registered organisations to not act in good faith, to use their position dishonestly or to be reckless. I do not understand how that could be opposed by the government considering that is what governing is all about.
Applying the rule of law means extending the power we apply from government to negate behaviour, and the main mechanism with which we can negate this style of behaviour is the law. The Corporations Act into the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act's section 184 would provide for that, thereby negating these acts of people in registered organisations. It is an appropriate and a fair way of addressing this matter.
Further, with regard to the government's increases to the civil penalties proposed in this bill, we are seeking to further increase those penalties in line with the Corporations Act. In this modern approach to dealing with registered organisations and unions, given the seriousness of the role that they occupy in today's society, it is appropriate that the penalties mirror those in the Corporations Act that apply to boards of directors and other office bearers in corporations. That does not appear to be controversial, but the fact that it is missing from this legislation is a big gap in the government's approach.
Other issues that we have with this bill include the fact that Fair Work Australia is still in control. The approach that Fair Work Australia has taken in recent times in these investigations highlights the need for legislation to improve the situation in how Fair Work Australia addresses matters. We feel that putting Fair Work Australia in charge without considerable increases in its ability or the provision that we would make on it from this place is a weak approach. We want Fair Work Australia to have the ability to make sure its investigations are done properly. We saw three years of failure to cooperate with police, for example, with Fair Work Australia claiming it could not produce a brief of evidence. From our amendments, and from what is missing in the government's legislation, how we can take this bill seriously when it is not proposing to give specific permission for Fair Work Australia to prepare a brief of evidence, given that this was one of the main criticisms of the approach that Fair Work Australia has taken? So in our amendments we are seeking to give Fair Work Australia the appropriate requirements to make sure it cooperates with police and that it can produce a brief of evidence.
We also want to make sure this parliament has a mechanism, if Fair Work Australia is not delivering on its obligations to investigate in a timely fashion, to prevent us from seeing a repeat of the situation where Fair Work Australia could take as long as it likes and be open to the perception or the accusation, which it was, that there was political interference. Whether there was or not is not my place to say, but the accusation and the perception could be made about Fair Work Australia because the parliament has no mechanism to ensure that it is acting in a timely fashion. Having reports to parliament at the year mark, and then every six months after that, as to how an investigation is going and what the expected progress will be would provide accountability and transparency into the future.
Once again, this is not subjective or targeted at anybody, and there is nothing for the government to really object to except proper transparency and accountability. That is what we are providing for with our amendments. I do not understand, and I would love to hear the government argue, why it would not be appropriate in future investigations to ensure that Fair Work Australia's investigations are held to a high standard and perceived to be at a high standard, and that at least confidence can be held in the operation of Fair Work Australia.
As I discussed, we propose increasing penalties for misusing members' funds, and the stories that we have seen out of the Health Services Union have shattered public confidence in that union, particularly for those very hardworking people in the health sector who do such a great job and who decide to contribute by joining a union. It may surprise the government and others to know that I am not against people joining unions. I think, inherently, a person's right to join a union and collaborate with others to collectively bargain to improve their conditions in the workforce is an appropriate use of their time and an appropriate choice for a person to make.
In a free society, trade unions would operate effectively on behalf of their members. I think, though, it is an inherent mistake made by unions that they are affiliated with one political party in Australia—I put that right out there. That mix of politics and unionism in Australia has led to a situation where every member of the Labor Party in this place is a trade union official, where vast sums of members' money from lowly paid workers end up in a political party's coffers, and where the Health Services Union is mixed up at the centre of a national political scandal. In a way, that is unedifying not only for the parliament but also for unions, workers and trade unionists. There is no accident in all of that; a series of mistakes have been made.
This bill could go much further in what it is doing to make sure that this situation is rectified in some way. I do not believe we can take the government seriously with this bill when we consider that the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency was the head of the ACTU and the minister responsible for this bill, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, was in the ACTU at a similar time as many people who have been caught up in this problem. There are too many of these issues going around, and while there is nothing specific that we would level at anybody here, these amendments are designed to give strength, purpose and meaning to a real agenda to make registered organisations transparent and accountable. It is an appropriate and important use of this parliament's power and privilege to make sure that we do so when given the opportunity.
We have seen, given the scandal that has surrounded the Health Services Union—whose report is 12,000 pages, 900 of which deal with the former secretary of the Health Services Union—that there is real cause for concern about penalties. The coalition's amendment, particularly in relation to the disclosure of information to police, is something that ought to be supported by everybody here to make sure that in future, where there are allegations of serious misconduct, people have to cooperate with police and disclose information, and that people and officers at Fair Work Australia can cooperate fully with police at all stages of an investigation.
It is important that we clarify the position, that we ensure that we signal to Fair Work Australia that, like every other citizen, corporation or entity in Australia, we ask of them that they cooperate with law enforcement agencies. We do not want any obstacles in the way of that cooperation, and if there are any obstacles from this parliament we want to ensure, through an amendment, that they are removed so that every officer of Fair Work Australia can then cooperate.
We find with many of these amendments before us that are proposed by the coalition that they would provide a very fair platform for the operation of registered organisations to ensure a minimising of criminal activity and other incorrect conduct, to put it politely. That this bill is designed by a former union boss to regulate other union bosses is a valid criticism and many members have made that comment in this place. I do not think it is appropriate that former union bosses design the rules for the next generation of union bosses. That is the flaw in this legislation. They may think this is something that will address the situation, but, when you go through it and look at how this bill came about—literally, the Leader of the Opposition proposed the coalition's plan, Minister Shorten came to this parliament and announced this legislation and now, here we are, debating it a short time later—it highlights that, really, this is a reaction rather than an action.
The government did not choose to act, despite how long this Fair Work Australia investigation has been going, how long the report has been in the public domain and how serious it is in nature. The government did not say, 'This is quite serious. We really want to act on this. We'd prefer to do something. We're not going to let the opposition get a jump on us. We're not going to let them propose what to do and then react to it. We're going to propose some pretty serious measures and ensure that this does not happen again.' That way, everyone would be better off. The parliament, the union movement and registered organisations in Australia would improve in quality and be more transparent.
I think we have seen the government's agenda exposed a little. That is what is important to realise here. I guess the government's agenda is not so much about fixing this problem; it is about being perceived to be doing something about it. There is a very big distinction here, because the coalition's amendment underscores, line by line, issue by issue, that if you were serious you would be much tougher. If you were serious you would give force to what you are saying. If you were serious, provision by provision, you would have much more detail and there would be many more actual powers to ensure that Fair Work Australia had to cooperate with the police and had the power to provide a brief of evidence, ensure that, if reports were taking too long, there was a mechanism for the parliament to address them and ensure, of course, that penalties applied—that the main force and power we can give to legislation, the power to penalise, was the same as in the Corporations Act and was there to be used when this sort of situation came up.
While we do not oppose the bill itself, we have proposed these amendments. They are serious, measured amendments. They are not unfair to anybody. They are to give effect to what should be a bill to improve transparency in registered organisations in Australia to ensure that this situation does not arise again without any real recourse in law to address it effectively and quickly, where Fair Work Australia took so long to do so little about something so serious. That is why we need better legislation.
The coalition are proud to have flagged our plan for the government, and we are happy to see the government react. If they do not have the ideas, we are happy to see them react our ideas. But, when you have that reaction, I think you also have to look at the people who originated the transparency and accountability plan and listen to us very carefully about the serious strengthening amendments that we are proposing to ensure that this legislation can work effectively.