Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts

It’s hard to follow that outstanding contribution, but I’ll do my very best. I rise tonight with some concerns about this bill, the Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017, which I’ve spoken with the minister about, and I have made some suggested amendments which, contrary to other assertions in this place, the minister has said she will look towards accepting and resolving. I say ‘contrary to other assertions’ because, somehow, there is a mythology about how those on that side of the chamber are supportive of a clean and transparent union movement and those on this side of the chamber are somehow opposed to the union movement—and it’s not quite as binary as that at all.

I and Australian Conservatives support the right of the people to work together cooperatively and to form guilds and trade unions to represent their interests. I, personally, don’t believe that the union movement’s interests or the workers’ interests and the business owners’ interests should be diametrically opposed—in fact, quite the opposite. My experience has been that good employers, particularly in small businesses, go out of their way to look after workers. They go out of their way to look after those who they feel a responsibility towards, both a financial one and a personal one. They accommodate requests and demands that are outside the scope of any formal agreement because it is a cooperative venture. By that I mean, without employers, you don’t have employees and, quite frankly, without employees, you don’t have a union movement—a union movement which has become somewhat engorged and somewhat recalcitrant in some aspects and has become, indeed, a law unto itself. That concerns me, and it should concern a lot of people. That’s why, in principle, I support this bill. I will be supporting this bill notwithstanding the fact that it does need some amending, and I’m confident that will take place in the committee stage, before we get to the third reading.

But I do note that, earlier, Senator Doug Cameron, who is one of the hardliners in the space, said, ‘There will be no negotiation. The minister refused to discuss and negotiate.’ That’s not my experience. I just want to put that on the record. The minister has been very cooperative and very helpful. She hasn’t got everything that she wanted from me as a result. Nonetheless, I found that to be a very positive effect.

The Dyson Heydon royal commission on trade unions had this headline finding:

It is clear that in many parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts …

I don’t know too many people who think that’s a respectable finding from a royal commission or think that’s an appropriate contribution from sections of the trade union movement to Australian business. It is little wonder that our competitiveness is struggling and that we have difficulties with smaller businesses who are competing with larger businesses who, it turns out, in many instances, are in bed, figuratively, with the union movement.

I welcome the decision by the coalition to attempt to legislate their election commitment. It’s worth noting that it took several times to legislate their previous commitments on the royal commission. It takes persistence, it takes courage, it takes resilience in the face of an ongoing diatribe in some respects and public abuse. It took the calling of a double dissolution election to prompt it—

 I, who is one of the hardliners in the space, said, ‘There will be no negotiation. The minister refused to discuss and negotiate.’ That’s not my experience. I just want to put that on the record. The minister has been very cooperative and very helpful. She hasn’t got everything that she wanted from me as a result. Nonetheless, I found that to be a very positive effect.

The Dyson Heydon royal commission on trade unions had this headline finding:

It is clear that in many parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts …

Not that it was really that good of an idea, as Senator Farrell suggests. Although, it did allow Senator Farrell to return to the bosom of the Labor Party where he was previously knifed and treated so poorly on account of his gender—because he was a man. He was knifed because he was a man. I don’t support that. I know Labor may support that. Nonetheless, if you would like to continue to interject, Senator Farrell, I would be delighted to engage further.

Nonetheless, they called a double dissolution election. I have to say, it is a welcome thing that, after so much discussion about marriage inequality, we’re actually returning to what I think is, really, truly important business for the businesses and employees of Australia. We’re talking today about corrupting benefits. Corrupting benefits is something that I don’t think anyone can truly argue for. We need to be arguing against the benefits of corruption, whether it be in the union movement, in the business movement, in politics or anywhere else in life. The government—full credit to them—has got on with the job. It is trying to deliver a result for the people of Australia in the face of what is a rather intransigent Senate at times.

This bill, though, comes in a landscape where we are, essentially, not having a free market. I’m a supporter of free markets. I’m a supporter of competition. I’m a supporter of level playing fields. But this bill is being delivered where there is not a level playing field. We do not have a free market. We have sweetheart deals between big business and the union movement. I could, in some ways, maybe say I could justify sweetheart deals in favour of small business, because they are the ones that have everything on the line. But, no, rather than support small businesses—the engine and the backbone of the economy—the union movement has chosen, instead, to get into bed with big business to trade off employees’ conditions and rates of pay for a benefit for themselves. It is an indictment on sections of the union movement. I am pleased it has been brought to light through both the Dyson Heydon royal commission but also through the detective work of this government and those in the media.

The sweetheart deals are disadvantaging small business. You don’t have to look very far from the existing labour movement to identify some of the key players. Mr Shorten, the leader of the Labor Party and the alternative Prime Minister in this country, was head of the AWU, and he negotiated the Cleanevent deal. This was a deal where the AWU automatically received every new staff member of Cleanevent as a member of the union unless they opted out. It was a manifest benefit to union numbers which increased their weight and influence within the Labor movement itself, and it swelled their coffers. That money, of course, came at the expense of employees. Cleanevent paid the AWU Victoria branch $25,000 a year in return for maintaining a Work Choices era agreement. They did not pay penalty rates. That, in itself, saved Cleanevent an estimated $2 million by underpayments to workers. Let’s get that right. Cleanevent saved $2 million by underpaying workers through a cosy sweetheart deal with the union movement that delivered members to the union and $25,000 a year in cash. That is an indictment upon Mr Shorten. But somehow he likes to think that he is a representative of the workers. It just goes to show you cannot trust what they say but you can rely on what they do, and Mr Shorten’s history speaks for itself.

I also note that there have been other cosy deals done in the union movement, and the SDA, my sometime allies in some matters of critical importance to the country, have nonetheless let me down on this occasion. In some respects, I have a great deal of respect for them because of the views that they’ve generally upheld within the Labor movement, but they did a cosy deal with Coles and Woolworths. It has been suggested that the AWU, Mr Shorten’s union, assisted in the negotiation or brokering of the deal and that it was about getting the SDA members to strengthen their voice in the Labor movement itself. It turned out that the deal was done between Coles and Woolworths, but then, on reflection, the Fair Work Commission threw out the deal and ordered Coles to pay $100 million in underpaid wages. The cost to workers of the sweetheart deal negotiated by the AWU between Coles and Woolies and the SDA was $100 million in underpaid wages. I don’t think that’s alright. Why is it that big business, through its influence or ability to fill the coffers and swell the ranks of the union movement, can somehow pay less than the award rate and compete unfairly against struggling small business owners?

There are also question marks over the deals in place with McDonald’s and KFC, where unions have signed off on workers getting less than the Fair Work Commission’s levels. Under those circumstances, it’s little wonder there is this proliferation of institutionalised fast-food joints, like McDonald’s and KFC, at the expense of small family-run businesses—the local chicken shop; dare I say, the local fish and chip shop that one of my former colleagues used to run. The small business that somehow struggles to survive has to pay $3 an hour more in comparative pricing in competition or they will get savaged by the very same union movement that has sold out the workers in big business. That doesn’t pass the commonsense test, and it’s why this legislation is absolutely important.

We could also ask ourselves: why is it that a company like Target, for example, pays all its staff superannuation into the relevant union’s REST industry super fund? These are not benevolent institutions. These funds now go on to fuel media outlets, they provide jobs to union bosses to supplement their incomes, and they are political players in this space. That may be okay, but let’s not pretend that it should just be accepted as the norm. Let transparency shine upon it and ask ourselves: why is Target doing this? What is the cosy deal that’s attached to it?

There are all sorts of hints and allegations of corruption that have taken place in years past. You have to look no further than what dogged former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in the sense that she assisted in setting up the AWU’s Workplace Reform Association at the request of Mr Blewitt and Mr Wilson which co-opted funds for Thiess, the construction company, under the guise of training that never took place. That money was used to buy a house, it was used to pay solicitor’s fees for Ms Gillard at Slater & Gordon and it was allegedly used for renovations. In the end, it was a dodgy deal. I don’t know if anyone has been charged with that, but it was a dodgy deal and I think it is directly relevant to these sorts of things. If unions can think it is okay to coerce or trade away benefits or entitlements in the name of interest for the union and companies think it is okay and that is the cost of doing business, we need to fix it—not to diminish the union movement and not to diminish workers, but to strengthen business in this country, to strengthen the confidence in the system that there is a level playing field. That is the challenge, and this bill goes some way towards that.

But it is no surprise that many unions are complaining about this bill and they are talking up civil disobedience. In short, like any organisations that have had it too easy for too long, they get a bit lazy about representing their workers’ interests, about recruiting new members and about justifying the positions that they have had. They want sweetheart deals to continue because it is easy for them, and it gets excused and covered up by successive administrations. Even though I am not part of this administration any more, I am proud of the fact that the minister and the government have pursued this doggedly because it is the right thing to do—and I will come back to that.

I’m not here to beat up on the union movement. They have their place. They have played an important role and guilds and associations and freedom of that is part of this country. But we have to make sure that it’s not going to be the dominant part of the future of this country. We want to empower small business to grow into big business. We want to empower people to be able to get in and compete and be innovative and provide good returns whether they are going to generate one job or a thousand jobs or who knows how many millions of jobs in the decades to come. But you can’t do that when you have to deal with potentially corrupting benefits or corrupt bodies. Not all unions are like that but clearly some are—and I think we have to fix it.

I will finish by saying that Minister Cash, on 20 March in the AFR, said that legitimate payments would include those for genuine services provided by a union or genuine payment of membership fees. Genuine services by a union movement can be for anything. It can be for a legal representative for employees. It can be for help with their industrial relations. It can be help with any manner of things. We’re not trying to stop a union from helping people. We are trying to stop dodgy unions from trading away workers’ rights in order to help themselves. Minister Cash also said:

If payment is made into a safety training fund —

a bit like the AWU reform association that Ms Gillard set up all those years ago—

you would need to show that you actually have a program of, basically, safety training —

Who would have thought?

you would need to show that that has been undertaken, but you would also need to show that it has been charged out at market rate.

Not engorged rates—not three times the going rate—but at market rate. In short, if a company is paying a union, it has to be to the benefit of the employees and the company, not just for the benefit of the union or to get the company some sweetheart deal.

Australian Conservatives support this bill. We support a level playing field. We support transparency and our institutions, like unions, functioning within the rule of law and everyone in business getting a fair go.

Chamber Senate on 8/08/2017 Item BILLS – Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017 – Second Reading Speaker: Bernardi, Sen Cory Parliment of Australia Transcript used for News Reporting