Registered Organisations - Speech in Parliament

Mr GILES (Scullin) (20:43): I rise in opposition to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014. Deputy Speaker, I hope you will forgive me for saying that I am not pleased to do so, because I am not. This is an unnecessary debate concerning unnecessary legislation.

As other contributions in this debate have already noted, this is not the first time this place has considered those matters that are the substance of the bill which is before us. Last year, I spoke in opposition to an identical bill, as I believe many of my colleagues did. I fear to some extent that I may be going over old ground, but this is worth repeating—or so it would seem. Perhaps this time the members opposite will listen. I note that the few of them that participated certainly did not have much to say in this debate.

The other place, wisely, in my opinion, rejected this bill. The government dominated Senate committee made a series of amendments to the original bill which the government agreed to. Then that bill was also negatived by the Senate in May. Bizarrely, the government, having accepted the recommendations for amendments from that Senate committee, has now introduced the bill essentially in its original form and has reintroduced the amendments instead of redrafting the current bill to incorporate those amendments. Surely this is just another sign of this government's dysfunction? This is a long way from what could be described as situation normal. This is incompetence and it cannot—although I suspect that it will—be blamed on everyone else.

But it is a bit more than dysfunction and incompetence; it is also a sign of this government's desperation. As the member for Griffith put it so well earlier in this debate, we see here before us a government determined to talk about everything but their cruel, unfair budget of broken promises. At one level, it is hard to blame them for that. The budget is toxic and it has caused a reversion to their basic DNA and make-up for members opposite—their ideologically driven aversion to collective action and unionism.

This debate today is another example of this government's twisted priorities. In this case, it is a distraction from debating the substance of the budget that people in my constituency—and I am sure people in the member for Lalor's constituency—want to talk about and want to hold members opposite accountable for. Whatever else this government is, this government is not, as the minister stated in his second reading contribution, 'staunchly committed to improving protections for members of registered organisations'. Rather, it is simply reverting to type, breaking yet more election promises while attacking not just unionism but ordinary working people. I think about the people spoken of by the member for Throsby and the member for Bendigo in their excellent contributions to this debate—ordinary working people taking voluntary roles to oversee the management of the organisations they are proud to be members of, people who are a long way from the boardroom, decent people who should be supported in these important voluntary roles. The rhetoric of the minister suggests that that is his concern, but his actions fly in the face of those statements.

Regardless of the government's confusion in this space, Labor's position is clear: we have zero tolerance for corrupt much less criminal practice, as the member for Lingiari just said, and support proper accountability of registered organisations for their members and the community. So we oppose this bill and its associated amendments.

I will turn very briefly to the structure and substance, such as it is, of the legislation which is before us. The current bill, like the previous bill, seeks to create a registered organisations commissioner and a registered organisations commission within the Office of the Fair Work Ombudsman. This commissioner would supervise the conduct of employer and employee organisations that are registered under the Fair Work Act 2009. Interestingly, as the member for Gorton has noted, it would pay no heed to those unregistered organisations that are amongst the very few cheerleaders of this legislation. The bill also provides for: increased disclosure requirements for registered organisations and officers; stronger coercive investigatory powers—they have been described as 'draconian'—for the commissioner, with very limited restrictions on their use; and also increased penalties, including criminal penalties.

I note that, even with the proposed amendments, employer and employee organisations alike still have significant concerns with the bill—and rightly so. I also note the concerns of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills in this regard, concerns the minister has done little to allay. The government promised to regulate registered organisations in the same way as corporations. However, like many other promises, the coalition has broken this one as well, because those provisions which are contained within this bill exceed those penalties contained in the Corporations Act. This is unnecessary legislation. It contains extensive duplication. I am reminded of being in this place when the member for Kooyong and other members opposite celebrated with their little tea party red tape repeal day. It is astonishing that a government that took such pleasure in a deregulatory agenda could be putting forward legislation such as this. I note in this regard that, moreover, regulation of registered organisations has never been stronger. Last year in December and today we heard much sensationalism in this debate from the very few members inclined to participate on the opposite side but with very little grounding in the substance of those matters which are contained within the bill that is before us.

I am reminded that in 2012, before I was here, the 43rd Parliament considered all of those substantive matters that are the subject of this bill before enacting into law the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012. So I ask myself: why are rushing into this new regime? It is proposed, in effect, that we discard one regime, an evidence based regime, before it has had a chance to do its work and for that work to be appropriately scrutinised. I said last year that the government was proceeding with this bill with undue haste to remedy a problem it has been unable to properly articulate. Save to recite a predictable list of failings and breaches—including certainly some very serious matters but which are irrelevant to the present debate—the government is still yet to justify this legislation.

I say again: Labor takes a zero tolerance approach to union corruption and criminality and remains committed to ensuring accountability of all registered organisations—those representing employers and those representing employees. That is we properly toughened the legislative regime as well as making it more open and transparent. We enacted properly what this minister talked about disingenuously. I asked last year and I ask again: where is the evidence that these present arrangements have not worked? What specific aspect, if any, can the government point to that is not working today? If there is something specific that is not working as best it can then why not take the time to work with the system to ameliorate any problems? The government have not made the case. In fact, they have not even tried to engage with these questions.

Eight months on from that debate, I am concerned that members opposite do not seem to appreciate that registered organisations, be they reflecting the concerns of employers or employees, are fundamentally different from for-profit corporations. This difference is about purpose as well as structure. So we say to the avid deregulators opposite that regulation must be fit for purpose. Before us in this debate I can see a lot of unnecessary red tape.

I am reminded that in his original second reading speech, the Minister for Education stated:

Many registered organisations control assets worth millions of dollars. They are effectively dealing with cash flow and investments similar to those of large businesses.

I take this opportunity once more to remind him that this is a misleading assertion. Usually, the biggest asset that a union might have would be its premises, so to compare this to the investment of a large business is, at best, meaningless. And I also note that the proposed increased penalties are, to say the least, vastly disproportionate to the assets of most registered organisations, particularly those representing the concerns of employees. What may be right in relation to the regulation of large companies is unlikely to suit these types of not-for-profits. In this regard I again refer to the concerns of the Australian Industry Group, who say, 'It is unfair to subject non-profit organisations to the same disclosure rules applying to listed company executives. Much less, of course, more onerous obligations.' And it is unfair. It is as simple as that for anyone without ideological blinkers firmly affixed or for someone who is not desperate for a distraction.

I note in this regard that that bastion of the sensible centre beloved of the former workplace relations minister, now Prime Minister, the Institute of Public Affairs, gets star billing as one of the very few strong supporters of the bill before us. What a surprise that is! The IPA, according to the explanatory memorandum, believes that 'further measures should be taken to strengthen the financial management and regulation of registered organisations, commensurate with their considerable financial resources'—repeating that canard of the minister's. Maybe the IPA is where he got it from. It is one thing to support this principle—a principle, I remind members opposite, that is presently enacted in law. Regulation is currently fit for purpose. But it is quite another to use it to attempt to justify these onerous, unnecessary provisions. And, of course, it is just wrong as a matter of fact.

I spoke last year about what I hoped might be unintended consequences of the legislation before us. I note that non-registered organisations continue to be, unsurprisingly, much keener on this bill than registered ones. It creates a real disincentive against office-holding and a powerful incentive for those registered organisations that can—that is not employee organisations—cease their registration under the act. And so I say that surely we should be encouraging democratic participation in the governance of registered organisations, if we are sincere in our concern for their members. We should be, if the words of the minister are more than just words, if our actions in this place are to match our rhetoric here and outside. But instead we see, in the words of the socialist sect the Australian Industry Group, this 'unfair' commitment, that will, I am sure, push ordinary members—those people spoken of so movingly by the member for Bendigo and the member for Throsby—away from involvement in governance, involvement in being a meaningful check and balance on the operation of those who act on their behalf, and from a meaningful role in organisations that are at the core of our democratic system, in trade unions.

It is worth remembering that the current regulatory regime for registered organisations already provides for obligations and duties very similar to those applying to corporate directors, as many previous speakers on this side have noted, but it is a fact which seems to elude members opposite. Financial disclosure and transparency rules for registered organisations have been dramatically improved under the process Labor embarked upon in 2012 and that I spoke of earlier. Training has been underway for some time since that legislation passed. It has been improving the operation and accountability of registered organisations. So it is, to say the least, disappointing that, in having this unnecessary debate again, we cannot have regard to the efficacy of the regime which is presently in place. We are not considering the lived experience of those presently subject to it after only a very short amount of time. I noted in December that some of the provisions we were proposing to repeal had not yet become operative. That is the contempt which this government has for the process of this place and for evidence based decision making.

We have already provided under the 2012 legislation for the disclosure of remuneration, including board fees, of high-paid officials of registered organisations, and these are aligned with the usual reporting periods for annual reports and the filing of financial returns. Again, this is creating a system of obligations and duties very much like those applying under the Corporations Act. Labor has recognised and acted upon appropriately the seriousness of complying with workplace laws, of looking after members' interests, and so increased penalties but kept those penalties proportional to the distinct nature of registered organisations. This was fit-for-purpose regulation, made in response to circumstances and enacted following appropriate consultation with stakeholders across the whole spectrum—employers, employees, registered organisations and unregistered organisations—not just the IPA and certain unregistered organisations. This is in stark contrast with the bill before the House now and in December last year. This bill is at odds with its stated justification. This bill, as it has been reincarnated, albeit with very little life breathed into it, was an attack on trade unionism then and it remains so today.

If members of the coalition care about union members and people on low to middle incomes more generally, then they would not have supported a budget that attacks their way of life, their ability to see a doctor or to get an education. We are being asked on the one hand to have regard to a royal commission, but with this bill we are being told the government has already made its mind up anyway. I oppose this bill, which has at its core an attack on the very notion of collective action.


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