It is a disgrace to this nation, not to say embarrassing for the union movement as a whole.
Moreover, given the widely criticised role of Fair Work Australia in recent weeks, a better system or policy needs to be set up to investigate any possible regulatory breaches by the unions, while enforcing regulations and any new powers to bring criminal prosecutions directly to the courts.
In his address to the 2012 ACTU Congress on union governance the ACTU Secretary, Dave Oliver, said:
We have a significant responsibility to our members to ensure and make double sure that members’ money is only used for purposes to advance our members’ interests.
I believe Dave Oliver's comments to be sincere and that the union movement want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the sordid affairs of the misappropriation of members' funds. This motion allows that to happen by expecting the same level of accountability for union officials as expected of company directors under the Corporations Act, which is enforced by the relevant regulatory bodies.
Here we have it: even a secretary of the one of the biggest union movements in Australia recognises change is needed to ensure better accountability and transparency for our union leaders. Furthermore, in his opening address the 2012 congress, Mr Oliver said that unions 'have a significant responsibility to our members to ensure and make double sure that members’ money is only used for purposes to advance our members’ interests'.
We have seen shameful actions by union officials time and time again and it is well due that we as federal members do something about it. I can no longer sit back and watch the tireless efforts and hard-earned dollars of mums and dads and men and women—some of whom are in my electorate—who pay their money to these unions allegedly be misappropriated. I am talking about the money that is earned by some of the lowest paid workers in Australia, by people who face an incredible struggle every day just to put food on the table and pay their bills, people who, for the sake of their job security, pay union fees because they believe or are led to believe that union officials represent the interests of their members. Failure to implement this motion would be a grave action of injustice towards the Australian people—towards their integrity and their dignity—because it speaks directly to ensuring that the rights of the Australian people are put first. The union movement in Australia, as I understand it, was constructed to work as a collective group with the aim of bettering workplace conditions. Yet we have seen time and time again, particularly in recent times in relation to the HSU, the misuse of members' funds to the denigration, reputation and personal gain of union leaders. Something has to change and it is time to make that happen.
The regulatory approach of company directors outlined in the Australian Securities and Investment Commission states that company directors are expected to comply with the law. It is backed by the requirement laid out in the Corporations Act 2001. So I ask: if it is good enough for company directors, why is it not good enough for the union officials as well? Well, it is. In fact, it is the intention of union officials such as Oliver and Howes who are calling for this motion.
They are calling for this motion because they know that it offers them a level of protection. They want to be measured by the same levels of integrity that are imposed by the Corporations Act. They want to distance their respective organisations from the allegations of poor governance resulting in 156 alleged contraventions which were identified in the recent Fair Work Australia report. It is these findings that afflict a stench over the whole union movement.
The act also states that they are to comply with statutory due care and diligence, that a reasonable person would exercise their power and discharge duties in good faith in the best interests of the company for proper purpose and not improperly using their position to gain advantage for themselves or someone else or to cause detriment to the company and not improperly use information, and to disclose to other directors any material personal interest. ASIC Chairman Jeff Lucy AM highlighted the importance of these aforementioned points in an address to the 2006 Australian Institute of Company Directors. The address of Mr Lucy also looked at the experiences of companies whose directors were charged with criminal neglect of their duty and their companies obviously went broke.
I am slightly surprised that the task of implementing this motion has not been tackled earlier by my colleagues in this place. I truly believe that the aim of protecting the interests of the Australian people—for me the people of right—through implementing this motion is imperative to safeguarding their rights and future. It is with great honour that I put forward the motion. I say this for two reasons because it concerns the lives of innocent working people that I represent as the federal member for Wright. Their welfare is paramount to my role as the federal member, and tougher supervision of unions in this matter is, I believe, an effective way to stay on top of our game. In a common sense approach in saying this I asked the question: who are the union officials? They are, as I mentioned earlier, representatives of some of the lowest paid workers in this nation. In a recent opinion column published in the Sunday Telegraph on 20 May 2012, Australian Workers Union National Secretary Paul Howes said:
Being a union official should make you less likely to steal money from workers, but that's not always the case.
It is a sad situation for the entire nation when even union officials admit that other union officials would possibly steal funds from their members.
There is no excuse for accepting this type of criminal behaviour. I wholeheartedly endorse this statement when it goes on to say that: The new compliance structures will work to restore our members' trust in their unions.
What a powerful statement to come from a union official. It is absolutely imperative that this motion work to restore confidence of the Australian people. We have, as members of parliament, a duty to work constructively to increase the levels of transparency and accountability of unions to their members. Furthermore, Health Services Union secretary Kathy Jackson has also come out in support of making unions subject to the Corporations Act.
In her speech to the HR Nicholls Society on 12 June she said, 'Union leaders have urged for tougher regulations of companies to protect investors, but union members need to do more to protect.' Finally, in an opinion column in the Australian Financial Review last week, Ms Jackson said: Reform brought in by a Coalition government and resisted by many unionists actually served for the better governance of unions.
There is some fine work done in this nation by unions and there are some fine people who contribute to unions, but there is a stench at the moment around the governance of specific union membership and where the contributions of mums and dads to unions end up.
Here we have two senior union officials—Oliver and Howes—both calling for more accountability and transparency. They support accountability and transparency being brought into line with the Corporations Act.
If it is good enough for company directors, why is it not good enough for these organisations?
In support of my motion, I ask for the government's support in establishing, for the sake of union members right across the nation, the same level of protection that is offered to those who contribute to banks—or anyone whose peak body falls under the regulatory auspices of the Corporations Act.