Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 - Second Reading

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:30): I am pleased to enter this debate after my colleague Senator Roberts's address, which was very interesting and highlighted some of the real issues. We have heard in this debate from Senator Paterson, who I think said it all, but perhaps I could contribute somewhat as well.

I do note in passing that the contributors from the other side so far have been Senator Cameron, Senator Dastyari—both very involved in the union movement—and Senator Rhiannon, whose party was the recipient of quite generous donations from the CFMEU and other unions, I think.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So you should be proud of it, Senator. But you would not be proud, perhaps, of some of the things that some union bosses have been involved in over the years. I notice Senator Dastyari made an impassioned plea in this debate—and well he might, because he has been involved on the fringes of this issue in more than one capacity.

I will relate to the Senate a story about Mr Paul Gibson, a former New South Wales Labor member, who did some so-called consultancy work to allegedly improve the relationship between the New South Wales ALP and the National Union of Workers in New South Wales. One would wonder why you would need a specially employed consultancy to improve relationships between the Labor Party and one of their biggest backers, but let us overlook that for the moment. Mr Gibson was paid $250,000 by the union—that is unionists' money. That is money that unionists, ordinary workers, contribute to their union for what they would hope would be things that the union might do to improve their conditions. They did not do it expecting that Mr Paul Gibson would receive $250,000 for a consultancy. The consultancy was not in writing, so we do not know exactly what it was about. No invoices were produced in support of two of the largest payments, of $16,500-odd and $44,500-odd. Where the invoices were produced, the services performed were simply described as 'consultant services' with no other details about what the payments were or when the services were supplied. This all came out in the royal commission, I might add. The consultancy fee continued to be paid for eight or more months after harmony between the National Union of Workers in New South Wales and the New South Wales ALP had been reached. I am quoting, again, the royal commission.

This arrangement was overseen by none other than the then General Secretary of the New South Wales ALP, who interestingly was my colleague Senator Dastyari, who spoke previously in this debate. So he well knows about how unionists' money—the membership fees they pay—was used in that instance. An amount of $250,000 was paid to a former New South Wales Labor MP to make things better between the National Union of Workers and the New South Wales ALP. I am sorry, but that does not pass any accountability test and it certainly does not pass the pub test.

This arrangement was a bit like the one involving Michael Williamson, who we all know from the Health Services Union, back in 2008. The Senate might recall that in the first half of 2007 Mr Williamson made a payment to Mr Mark Arbib. There is a name we all remember here too. He was also, as I recall, the General Secretary of the New South Wales Labor Party. He came into the parliament. He did not have a terribly distinguished career; he was not here very long. He was appointed a junior minister in the then Labor government and a few months later retired under circumstances which were never fully explained. Anyhow, that is a subsequent happening. Mr Williamson paid Mr Mark Arbib some money for a purported consultancy in relation to a supposed upcoming dispute with the New South Wales government. The dispute never eventuated, but Mr Williamson still paid Mr Arbib for six months, at about the rate of what a senator would have received in this place, until he entered the Senate. His remuneration, as I say, came from the Health Services Union. But isn't it interesting that around the same time Mr Arbib was strongly supporting Mr Williamson's candidacy to be the ALP national president. There you have it all: six months pay to try and get Mr Williamson up as the ALP national secretary. I think he succeeded before he fell into disgrace. I am not sure where he is now—perhaps in jail—but, certainly, he has been the subject of legal proceedings.

When you listen in this debate to people like Senator Cameron, Senator Dastyari and Senator Rhiannon, you have to understand what their backgrounds are. In this debate, I prefer to listen to union leaders who are respected, who did a good job for their members and who did a good job for the ALP in various forms over the years. I did not like that about it, but they did a good job, a professional and an honest job. But they are the sort of union leaders who you really want to take notice of, rather than people who have spoken in this debate who seem to have conflicts of interests in the contributions they make.

Let me refer to Mr Paul Howes, who was the AWU secretary. He said:

I can't see any reason why anyone in the [union] movement would fear having the same penalties that apply to company directors.

He said, quite rightly:

If you're a crook, you're a crook …

Mr Paul Howes was correct.

Former ACTU president Martin Ferguson, who went on to become one of the better ministers in the Labor government—again, unfortunately for my side of politics!—was a good minister and an honest man. He said in relation to this bill:

There is an absolute obligation on the union movement to clean up its house. There is an obligation on the unions to put their house in order.

Former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty said:

I was always on that side of the debate which said that unions are public bodies so they are accountable to members for their management …

Former ALP Attorney-General Robert McClelland said there is 'unquestionably a case for further legislative reform'.

That is what this bill is all about. The Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 contains measures to improve the standards of governance of registered unions and to deter wrongdoing. The provisions in this bill that we are debating include a focused regulator—the Registered Organisations Commission—with appropriate resources and powers modelled on those of the corporate regulator. It will be exactly the same as what happens for corporations and public companies. This will now happen, should this bill be passed, for those registered organisations involved in the fair work and industrial relations area.

The bill also requires enhanced financial accountability provisions and meaningful sanctions that can be applied when wrongdoing is revealed. The new accountability measures for unions—for both employer and employee groups, I might say— requires registered organisations to disclose remunerations paid to their top five highest paid officers in their head office and any branches. What is so bad about that? How could you object to that? We are parliamentarians here. Everybody knows every single cent that any person who works in this building receive, whether they be parliamentarians or secretaries of departments. So how could you object to the top five union officers or employee organisation officers in head offices or any branches being made public?

I know the ABC had a different view. Years ago, they did not like to tell us how much their top presenters received, although in a roundabout way Senate estimates committees did find that out. We have learnt that some of the top front-of-house ABC announcers are in the $700,000 and $800,000 bracket—a bit more than the poor old ABC people up in regional Queensland who I interact with. Even the ABC were forced, kicking and screaming, to account for their top paid presenters, but for some reason those on the opposite side seem to think that that is not appropriate for unions.

These accountability measures also require officers with duties that relate to financial management to disclose material personal interest. Again, that seems to be standard in public companies, in this business and in the Public Service. But for some reason—and Senator Rhiannon might explain this to me—the unions do not seem to abide by the same rules. I cannot understand that, Senator Rhiannon, unless it has something to do with the fact that those unions are fairly big contributors to the Greens political party. I can think of no other reason why one would object to that.

The provisions will also ensure that officers do not make decisions on matters where they have a conflict of interest. Again, it is a no-brainer. It is so basic. It is organisations 101. Yet, for some reason, the Labor Party here and their mates in the Greens political party are railing against it. I will just ask if any of them are going to contribute to explain to me why these rules should apply to public companies, corporations, federal parliament, the Public Service and state governments. Even local authorities have these accountability measures in place. But for some reason the union movement seem to think that they do not need to comply with those fairly common standards of honesty and propriety that apply to the rest of the world.

Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, I do not want to take unfair advantage of you as you are in the chair, but I am curious about the TWU officials who spent over $300,000 on luxury cars. They were not just luxury cars. We hear Senator Carr and others railing against the closure of the Australian car industry, but we then find that these TWU officials not only spent $300,000 on luxury cars but were purchasing modified American utes which were for their personal use. One of the officials even had a personalised number plate put on one. The other one apparently had the union's redundancy policy redrafted so that he could take the car with him when he finished work with the union. That, I understand, happened not long afterwards.

We then have the examples of National Union of Workers officials and staff using corporate credit cards to buy holidays worth over $18,000, sports tickets worth over $4,000 and toys worth $670. Over $2,200 was spent on dating websites and over $1,500 on hairdressing and iTunes purchases. It is not just money they are spending. This is money contributed by workers as union levies and dues. I am sure they did not expect that by paying their union dues they would be sending one of the union bosses overseas for an $18,000 holiday. Why would you not want to stamp that out? Please, Senator Rhiannon, please Senator Dastyari, please Senator Cameron, tell me why you would not want that sort of rort to be interrupted? We have all heard about Mr Shorten when, as a union official, he accepted a $40,000 donation from one of the companies negotiating a pay deal with the AWU—the company was Unibilt. At that time he was the AWU National Secretary, and was campaigning to become a member of parliament. The donation was used to pay the wages of Shorten's campaign staffer.

Senator Bilyk: Mr Shorten.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Mr Shorten's campaign staffer. Thank you for that. I emphasise that it was Mr Shorten MP, the current Leader of the Opposition. The $40,000 he got from that company negotiating a pay deal was used to staff Mr Shorten's campaign office in 2007, but it was not disclosed until just two days before the royal commission asked him about these matters in sworn evidence. Senators would also have heard of Cesar Melhem, who is well-known in Labor circles and in this building. He repeatedly issued false invoices—marked 'Training', 'OHS' and similar—to companies, when they were actually payments for union membership to the value of hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are not just monetary figures that roll off the tongue; these are contributions paid by workers who go out, do a day's work, get their pay and then contribute a certain amount of that pay towards union memberships, because they believe that the unions will be doing the right thing by them. It is those sorts of people who are being ripped off by this, and I cannot understand that any party that claims to look after these workers could possibly oppose this sort of accountability that will bring honesty—

Senator McKim: The coalition has such a proud track record!

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay, you say the coalition has such a proud record, but, Senator McKim, if you are going to speak—if you are game to speak on this—you might first of all tell us exactly how much the CFMEU gave you, how much any other union gave you, and why you would oppose any legislation that required some accountability and honesty.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): Senator Bilyk, on a point of order?

Senator Bilyk: I would like to point out that Senator Macdonald is talking directly to Senator McKim and should be making his comments through the chair.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Bilyk. I encourage Senator Macdonald to ignore the interjections and direct his comments through the chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You always know when you are getting somewhere in a debate and people are very embarrassed about what is being said—you have these stupid points of order to try and shut down a senator's speech.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Macdonald, I will get you to reflect on Senator Bilyk's point of order. It was not a stupid point of order; it was actually a correct point of order.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. As always, you are absolutely correct. Another point of order, of course, is that there should not be any interjections—but, Mr Acting Deputy President, I do not see you stopping Senator Bilyk. That is okay; I do not need you to. I do not need protection from types like Senator Bilyk. Certainly you should not address senators directly and you are quite right, Mr Acting Deputy President—it is a most important standing order that must be observed on all occasions, and I am glad—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Macdonald, are you reflecting on the chair? I ask you to carefully choose your words.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Not at all—I am in fact congratulating you, Mr Acting Deputy President, on abiding by those standing orders and applying them so religiously. That is what we expect our chairmen to do. It is a rule that sometimes perhaps is not as observed as it should be. But I am glad, Mr Acting Deputy President, that you are doing it, because it is an important one. We should not talk directly to other senators. But I ask Senator Rhiannon and Senator McKim to explain to me just how much they get from the unions and why they think all of these things—the Williamson stuff, the—

Senator McKim: Your party has been shafting the workers for a century in Australia.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I beg your pardon?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator McKim, order. Senator Macdonald, I ask you to ignore the interjections.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The Greens and the Labor Party supported Craig Thomson, and we now know that he was ripping off ordinary workers and using their money for his own personal gain—some of it pretty nefarious. That seems to be the sort of activity that Senator Polley, Senator Rhiannon, Senator Dastyari and Senator Cameron, and, I suspect, Senator McKim, might be—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Bilyk, on a point of order?

Senator Bilyk: I am well aware that most women over 50 look the same to Senator Macdonald, but, if he was referring to me, my name is Senator Bilyk, not Senator Polley.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: That is not a point of order.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Again, I raise the point that you know you are getting close to the bone when the Labor Party continue to interrupt in any way possible on these things. Can I ask any speaker who is about to participate in this debate: how much have you got from the unions, how much are they supporting you, and why is it that you think that some of their activities—only a few instances of which have been mentioned by Senator Paterson, Senator Roberts and I—are good? Why don't you think unions should abide by exactly the same rules as public companies and corporations? Why should the unions be different, when they get involved in these sorts of rip-offs—this lack of honesty, this stealing of workers' money? I cannot believe that anyone can seriously oppose this bill if they have any interest in the workers of Australia.

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