Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013

I rise today to speak against the amendment to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 currently before the House. As has been previously suggested by my colleagues, the proposed legislation is dangerous. It is dangerous because of its ambiguity. It is dangerous because of its far-reaching implications and it is dangerous because the government is determined to push this through without adequate consultation or examination. But worse than that, it is unnecessary.

Let's look at the current legislation. As it currently exists, the act we now have outlines the standards to be met by registered organisations in relation to their internal rules, their elections, the conduct of office holders and their financial reporting. It also provides the Fair Work Commission with the power to register, investigate and hold accountable these organisations. It does this because the previous Labor government introduced this framework back in 2009. It was amended to make it stronger only last year. The amendment strengthened financial accountability requirements and provided for salary disclosure of top officials and disclosure of financial interests of officials. It introduced mandatory training to ensure that representatives of registered organisations were meeting their governance and accounting obligations. It created tougher penalties for breaches of the act, and the investigatory powers of the Fair Work Commission were strengthened. The 2009 and 2012 act created a fair and workable balance.

Again, all this happened under a Labor government. So, as a result of our reforms, the regulation of registered organisations has never been stronger, penalties for misconduct have never been tougher, accountability has never been greater, and the powers of the Fair Work Commission to investigate and prosecute any breaches have never been wider. Stronger, tougher, greater and wider—this act as it stands is industrial relations for the Olympics.

We did these things because they were necessary, but those opposite are hell-bent on flexing their muscles and trying to prove to the world that they are the toughest—not like the grown-ups they purport to be, but like bullies. This was evident in their rhetoric when the legislation was strengthened by the previous government. On 21 June 2012, the member for Bradfield said in the House that the legislation was:

… nothing but a minor piece of window-dressing produced by the minister and the government in a desperate attempt to try and divert and distract media and public scrutiny from the sorry state of governance in the union movement.
'Divert and distract'—if we want to talk about attempts to divert and distract, I am not sure you could find a finer example than this government. 'Look over there' has become quite the strategy for them, hasn’t it? We see it with their education policy, with their climate change policy and with their economic policy.

We saw it again only yesterday. In her intrepid foray into industrial relations, the Assistant Minister for Education was here, in a state of hysteria, using coalition catchphrases like 'slush funds' and 'union mates', instead of talking about how the government had broken yet another promise, this time on child care. And they are at it again today, making statements that do not stand up to scrutiny. For instance, they talk about how this is not an attack on trade unions and then, in the same breath, they go off on a diatribe—an absolute tirade—about how dreadful our unions supposedly are. The member for Ryan made mention of unions 25 times in her speech—25 times—and yet they claim that somehow this is not about unionism. Then, they want to talk about how necessary this legislation is. But, as the Leader of the House said in his second reading speech:

… the majority of registered organisations do the right thing and in many cases maintain higher standards than those that are currently required.
See what I mean, Deputy Speaker? Is it about unions? Is it not? Is it a necessary change, or are organisations already meeting their obligations? It does not quite add up. They do this because they do not want to talk about what is really happening here, they do not want to talk about why they really believe this legislation is so necessary and they certainly do not want to talk about why they are in such a hurry to get it passed. Like any other conjurer, they are relying on tricks and misdirection.

So let's try and see through the illusion. Let's take a step back—let's look at the current legislation as it stands. I previously mentioned the current powers afforded to the Fair Work Commission. And, as we have heard today, the government say it is not enough, that more needs to be done to make the regulation of registered organisations more like corporations. But, as it stands, the regulation of registered organisations—particularly after our 2012 amendments—is already fairly similar to the existing regulation of corporations. Sections 180 to 183 of the Corporations Act require that officers exercise appropriate care and diligence, that they operate in good faith, and that they do not abuse their position or misuse information. These sections are comparable to sections 285 to 288 of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act in its existing form. In fact, in terms of the requirements for financial reporting, the current civil penalties are higher for registered organisations. The main difference is the existing provision for criminal penalties under the Corporations Act.

Under the proposed legislation before the House, the government have included new criminal penalties which would apply when an officer fails to comply with the registered organisation commission's new investigative powers. Some of these offences are punishable by a financial penalty of up to $340,000, five years imprisonment, or both. By implementing such legislation, the government have clearly forgotten that we have criminal laws to prosecute offences relating to fraud or dishonesty—that we already have a judicial system which independently assesses guilt and innocence. It is simply not necessary for the government to try and superimpose these laws on a system that is already working.

That brings me to my next point.

Mr Nikolic: Madam Speaker, I have an intervention under 66(a). Would the honourable member explain for 30 seconds why, if the regulatory regime is sufficient, it took longer than the Great War to prosecute the case against Mr Thomson?

The SPEAKER: Is the member prepared to take the question?

Ms RYAN: No. That brings me to my next point, about independence and accountability. In recent weeks, the coalition government have demonstrated their unflappable commitment to independent advice, by scrapping 20 advisory bodies! Yes, this government have certainly shown the world how much they value independent and informed advice. Given this complete lack of commitment to independence, why are the government seeking to establish an 'independent authority' like the registered organisations commissioner? Well, under the current bill before the House, the commissioner is to be appointed by the minister. But never fear, because, under the 2013 coalition policy, we are assured of the commissioner's independence. It reads:

The first head of the Registered Organisations Commission will be appointed by the Minister but will not be subject to Ministerial direction.

That sounds reassuring, except, of course, that under proposed section 329FA, we find that the minister is in fact allowed to give direction to the commissioner, but only if it is written. So, first we were assured the commissioner would be completely independent, and then we were told the minister would actually play a role in the commissioner's appointment and, in direct contradiction to the government's own policy document, would be given direction.

What next? It is yet another broken promise from an already broken government. It is also a particularly curious situation when, for all their rhetoric about government intervention and the nanny state, those who sit opposite are pushing this kind of agenda. It is even more curious, given their self-purported hatred of regulatory burden and red tape, that they are also advocating for a system that can only add to an organisation's administration. This was just one of many concerns raised by affected parties.

The Australian Community Services Employers Association, for example, has raised the massive regulatory burden the bill would impose, particularly for small organisations.


I will start where I left off. Further, the Australian Industry Group have that a number of the requirements of the proposed legislation would be far more onerous and time-consuming than those under the Corporations Act. In particular, they brought up the proposed requirement that insists that all material assets—not only those that raise the possibility of a conflict of interest but everything—must be declared. This disclosure is required of all members, not just the committee. If the legislation goes ahead, officers of registered organisations will be subject to higher levels of scrutiny than directors and all officers or committee members of incorporated associations. The Australian Industry Group also called for the removal of all criminal penalties under the proposed legislation, noting correctly that these kinds of matters should be dealt with under criminal law.

Despite all their claims to the contrary, the Abbott government is aware of how much all this could hurt. A spokesperson for the Minister for Employment has conceded that the concerns of multiple employer groups had been raised with the government. The Leader of the House admitted that members of the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council had suggested that this bill needed to be delayed; that more time was needed as more work needed to be done. But not by this government. Even with the Australian Chamber of Commerce saying that with such little time they could only attempt to review the proposed legislation, this government is still insisting on trying to ram it through.

This government knows, then, that this is bad and hurried policy, but just does not care. Thus we see another pattern emerging here: rushed and panicked policy. Despite advice to the contrary, this government rushes headlong into legislation that is unnecessary and, frankly, dangerous. And this 'grown-up' government is behaving like this on all fronts and not as it had promised; not as it had assured us. It is cracking.

Underneath that cracking facade we see what all of this is really about. It is not about administration to improve accountability or the need for additional criminal charges. This is about a government that hates unions. As we have seen in the past and as we see today, a Liberal government never wastes an opportunity to bully unions and workers. It is not just its ideology; it is its passion. Its calculated contempt is what really underlies this legislation: contempt for the hard-fought wages and conditions that we all share; contempt for the unions that won them; contempt for every single worker in this country—nurses, builders, paramedics, teachers, accountants, people who work in car manufacturing. The government has contempt for each and every one. That is what the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill represents.

If their true intentions are not already abundantly clear, maybe we should take a look at the man who is leading this government. He is not a man who has had a proud history of fair industrial relations; he is not a man who has a legacy as someone who cares about workers. While those opposite may stand up on their soapboxes and protest to the contrary, history says more about this than they ever could. They cannot wave their magic wand and have it all disappear, because we have long memories. We know that this is the party that created that policy with the most ironic name of all, Work Choices. We know that this is the party that removed unfair dismissal laws, shunted fair pay and conditions and tried to ban industrial action. And this is the party that is furtively doing everything that it can to wreck workers and undermine unions once again. That is what this is really about. I urge the House to oppose this bill.

Debate adjourned.

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