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The hypocricy of the Abbott Government on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 13 May 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (13:12):  I rise to speak on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013, and I say, on behalf of the Australian Greens, that the Senate should reject this bill.

The Abbott government's hypocrisy is evident in this bill: on one hand pledging to remove red tape while on the other doubling the layer of regulation on employer associations and unions is utterly shameless. If we needed any further evidence of hypocrisy it is here in this bill as well in that the government states that it is committed to protecting so-called 'traditional' rights, yet this bill would see overreaching intrusions into the lives of those people who are involved with unions and other registered organisations. These are rights which I think anyone would agree are traditional rights, like freedom of association, the presumption of innocence and the right to privacy and reputation. It is hard to think about how much more traditional you could get than those rights.

The bill's compliance burden alone is enough to make this bill unworthy. It will inflate organisations' training costs and it will submit them to a regulatory burden which is so unrealistic that it just makes no sense. This is what the Senate Education and Employment References Committee found in recommending that the bill be rejected, and I call on the Senate today to heed those recommendations.

Just so we can be very clear about what the government is proposing to do here, let us look at what the bill does. Registered organisations are unions and employer associations that are registered under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. That act was already amended in 2012 to enhance registered organisations' financial accountability as well as that of their office holders. Those amendments included rules for disclosure of remuneration and pecuniary and financial interests, increased civil penalties, strengthened investigative powers for Fair Work Australia and requirements for education and training to be provided to the officials of registered organisations about their governance and accounting obligations.

Many of those amendments only took effect from 1 January this year-less than six months ago and after this current bill was introduced. So the government did not even wait to see the efficacy of those previous amendments.

This bill proposes to go even further. It will establish a new stand-alone agency called the Registered Organisations Commission, which will have powers to monitor and regulate registered organisations, enforced by extensive investigative and information-gathering powers. So here we are today, standing on the brink of a budget which, all the indications suggest, will see the abolition of many long-standing and respected cultural and environmental agencies-just to mention one sector-in the name of so-called efficiency, deregulation and removal of red tape. Yet, if this bill is to be passed we will see the creation of a new government agency to oversee, essentially, unions. That shows the real ideological agenda that is at play here.

What will this commission-and this bill-do? It will increase reporting obligations, including by amending requirements about material personal interests. I will come back to that. As well, the bill proposes to increase civil penalties, create offences relating to investigations, and introduce criminal offences for breaches of officers' duties.

The Australian Greens say that this bill should be rejected. It has significant unintended consequences, which were revealed in the course of the Senate Employment and Education References Committee inquiry, and it imposes major training and financial burdens on organisations. In this, it contrasts with the government's posturing about reducing red tape and protecting traditional rights. It will establish an onerous regulatory regime, on top of regulation already present under the Corporations Act.

A good case study can be taken from the submission and the evidence that came before the Senate Employment and Education References Commission from an organisation in my own home state of South Australia-the South Australian Wine Industry Association. In their submission that association said that this bill will impose 'excessive compliance and disproportionate monetary penalties on all registered organisations'. They make the point that they are a not-for-profit incorporated association. They have board members who provide a great deal of unpaid time each year, which is a fundamental aspect of the effective work of that association. They attend meetings across regional South Australia, which involves not only the meeting time but the travelling time. They read board papers, meet with the government and consult with their members. All this is fundamental to conducting the meaningful activities of SAWIA, the South Australian Wine Industry Association. The association points out that the role of these board members cannot be directly compared to listed public companies, which are commercial operations with well remunerated directors. Yet, in many cases, the proposed amendments under this bill will result in far greater penalties and requirements being imposed. It makes no sense.

The hypocrisy of this government in pledging to remove red tape, while doubling the layer of regulation on registered organisations, is not lost on the Australian Greens, and it was not lost on the stakeholders who made submissions against it in the two Senate inquiries since its introduction.

Stakeholders who made submissions to the Senate committee inquiry supported the need for good governance, but not in the form proposed by this bill. The Australian Council of Trade Unions noted it supported the passage of the 2012 legislation because it supports a legislative regime promoting the operation of accountable, democratic and effective trade unions which are member governed. However, it described the provisions of this bill as 'poorly conceived, badly motivated, and entirely unnecessary'. That was the tenor of most of the submissions before the inquiry.

Other submitters said that this bill would interfere with and impede registered organisations' abilities to carry out duties on behalf of their members. Maybe that is where we get to the essence of this legislation. Maybe that is the government's intended purpose-to make it more difficult for trade unions to service the needs of their members in a pluralist society.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation said the bill was 'unnecessary, poorly structured and excessive'. The Australian Air Traffic Control Association suggested that the establishment of a commission effectively disregards all of the processes that organisations had implemented to comply with legislation changes in 2012. This goes to the heart of this legislation: it is not based on necessity; it is based on ideology. The Senate Employment and Education References Committee concluded that these 2012 legislative changes need to be implemented fully, before further interference with registered organisations' governance is considered.

Fair Work Australia gave evidence that its updated approach to regulation, since 2012 has delivered a marked increase in registered organisations' compliance levels. And that is what we are looking for here. For example, it stated that there was a lodgement rate for annual returns of 96.2 per cent in the 2012-13 financial year, which by May of 2013 had increased to 99.5 per cent. Fair Work Australia also stated that a proactive election audit that it conducted with respect to all registered organisations required to lodge election information with the Fair Work Commission has, for the first time, shown a comprehensive compliance picture across 503 election entities. All this has occurred before the legislation has been enacted.

The Australian Privacy Foundation criticised the proposed disclosure regime in this bill, saying that it is unnecessary, it erodes privacy protection and is out of step with the government's stated commitment to traditional freedoms. So, they were calling the government on their hypocrisy.

Submitters also said that the compliance burden proposed by the bill would impose significant training costs. The committee agreed that the regulatory burden proposed by the bill is excessive and inappropriate. It also agreed that the proposed disclosure regime for material personal interests is not only inappropriate; it is wholly unworkable. It is impractical. The committee concluded that the bill poses a great threat to the ability of registered organisations to provide services for the advancement of their membership if it means they will be occupied with the degree of extra regulation and red tape it proposes. It does lead one to wonder if this is the government's intention when it comes to the important work of unions in defending and promoting the rights of their members.

There is a broader picture here, though. The Australian Greens are not only concerned about the impractical compliance burden associated with this bill, in contradiction to the purported intention of this government. We are also seriously concerned about its encroachment on traditional rights and liberties and the fact that it is totally inconsistent with the government's purported commitment to these. Do not judge a government by what it says; judge it by what it does.

In relation to the new criminal offences that this bill would establish, the committee concluded that these duplicate existing crime legislation. The committee also shared the concerns of submitters regarding the fact that the proposed structure and powers of the commissioner are inappropriate. The commission's proposed investigative powers are too extreme and go far beyond what is appropriate to ensure adequate regulation of registered organisations. It is clear that the regulatory framework which was enacted by the 2012 legislative changes is sufficient to empower the current regulator to do its duties.

The Australian Greens are very clear that the proposed powers of the Registered Organisations Commission are excessive, draconian and completely unnecessary. The Australian Greens condemn the government for introducing this legislation before the amendments under the 2012 act have had a chance to operate effectively. It discloses an ideological agenda operating here. This is bad legislation because it increases registered organisations' compliance burden far out of proportion to any necessity and it undermines the very traditional rights and freedoms which the government claims to be committed to.

This legislation was not introduced in good faith but rather to undermine unions, their members and their ability to achieve outcomes. Let's be clear about that. The Australian Greens are committed to free, independent and democratic unions as an essential pillar of civil society. We believe that the present legislation for registered organisations is appropriately rigorous, without denying unions the ability to achieve important outcomes for their members.

This would be the creation of a new commission when we are standing on the brink of the government abolishing many other longstanding and respected organisations, commissions and agencies, such as the National Library, the National Gallery and the National Museum. They are all in the crosshairs of the budget. We will wait to see whether that occurs, but there will certainly be some that will be dismantled or merged on the basis of efficiency and reducing red tape, regulation and duplication. Despite that, we have this bill proposing to create a brand new commission to make sure that the government can sufficiently intrude into the unions and the way they operate on behalf of their members to reduce their effectiveness. That is what will happen if the government has its way. So I call on the Senate to reject this bill and affirm the rights of registered organisations to get on with the job.



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