Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 [No. 2] - 17 August 2015


Senator SESELJA (Australian Capital Territory) (19:42): I will respond briefly to some of Senator Lambie's contribution before I move to other aspects of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill. It is good that Senator Lambie acknowledges that there is serious corruption on our construction sites and in other parts of union activity. Issues around deregulation are certainly worth rising. I am not sure of the legalities of that. I would have thought it would need the support of parliament, although I could be wrong; obviously, it is not simply within the remit of government to make a decision like that. Whether or not support from the parliament would be there is an open question.

In relation to this bill, to say that you acknowledge some of the corruption—and some of Senator Lambie's contribution suggests that—but then to vote against this bill is to try to have a bet both ways—saying that you are against corruption but you will not support any serious penalties that would help prevent it. Let us be clear: when it comes to issues in Australian building and construction, obviously deregistration of one union, which is Senator Lambie's preferred option, does not actually address the issues. In the past when unions have been deregistered, they have come up again in a different form and as a new entity. The rule of law should be that, regardless of whether it is the BLF, the CFMEU or any other entity representing construction workers, to the extent that they represent those workers well, they should be protected by the law. They actually have a special status under the law at the moment, and that would continue. But, of course, to the extent that they misuse that status and to the extent that they engage in the kinds of practices that we have seen outlined at the royal commission and well before that, they should have the rule of law applied to them.

You should not just be able to make it a financial decision, which is what, unfortunately, organisations like the CFMEU have made at times. They are prepared to wear the fines because they see more benefit in breaking the law, knowing what the maximum fine is. I think that to sit here and say that you are against those kinds of practices but then actually to vote against any sort of reasonable sanctions and penalties simply does not make sense.

What I wanted to do was just go through what the bill actually does and then, of course, talk about some of the practices to which we want to see serious penalties applied. It is why we believe it is important that we actually have proper sanctions. And just finally on Senator Lambie—she talked about corporate criminals being held to account. The reality is that the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill is actually about saying that those in some of these organisations, like unions and employer groups, should have similar penalties, or the same penalties, to those that apply in the corporate sector. If you actually want to be fair dinkum in saying that it should be the same—whether it is wrongdoing in the corporate sector, in a union or in another registered organisation—then I agree with that. That is what this bill does. If you actually believe that, you may well support this legislation because that is exactly what it is a designed to achieve.

It says that this type of wrongdoing, in whatever form, should be dealt with similarly—with serious penalties. I do not care if you are corporate crook or a union crook. If you are doing the wrong thing—if you are deliberately breaking the law or if you are not complying with your duties at law—then you should have the same penalties, regardless of whether you are representing workers, shareholders or anyone else. That is what this legislation is about. So let's not pretend that this is about one versus the other. This is actually about applying a level playing field to wrongdoing. It is extraordinary to me that people can come into the Senate and argue that when the Craig Thomsons of the world do the wrong thing that they should be treated with a lesser penalty—

Senator Conroy: And the Kathy Jacksons—your friend!

Senator SESELJA: Well, Kathy Jackson. Do you want say it's Kathy Jackson or Craig Thomson? If you are found guilty—and I am not sure that Kathy Jackson has been found guilty of anything. Craig Thomson has.

Senator Conroy: She's declared bankruptcy to avoid the decision.

Senator SESELJA: We have the interjections from Senator Conroy, but this is for anyone who is found guilty of wrongdoing. I am not aware whether Kathy Jackson has been—I do not believe she has. But whether it is Michael Williamson or Craig Thomson or anyone else—whether it is a corporate crook who is found guilty of doing the wrong thing—

Senator Conroy: She's declared bankruptcy to avoid it.

Senator SESELJA: Sorry—we are actually talking about serious penalties here. What you are saying is that there should be a different sphere, where if you rip off the workers you should not pay the same sort of penalty as if you rip off the shareholders. I actually think that if you rip off the workers then surely it should be a penalty that is just as high. What the Labor Party is arguing today, and what the Greens and others are arguing, is that ripping off workers is worth a lesser penalty. That is what they are saying, because that is actually what this bill addresses. They are saying that workers being ripped off by their representatives should bring a lesser penalty, that it is not as bad as if you rip off the shareholders. How do you justify that? How do you justify that to your community?

Those who claim to represent the workers are saying, 'Well, look—it's fine. We know that those union officials were meant to represent the workers, but when they ripped them off it was not as bad as when that corporate crook ripped off the shareholders and the creditors.' In my opinion, that is actually putting the workers below those others. That is what the Labor Party is doing today. They are saying, 'Your rights don't matter. You've paid your union fees, you've expected fair representation and you've expected those union fees will be used for the purposes of representing you and not for feathering the nests of some of those who represent you.' And here we have a piece of legislation that would actually hold some of those people to account if they do the wrong thing—and we are talking about knowingly doing the wrong thing. We are talking about people who set out to rip off those who they represent. Well, I say that if you are a union crook or a corporate crook then you should be treated in the same way. You should have the law applied to you fairly. Those who vote against this legislation are, of course, denying that.

That is what this does. This bill would establish an independent watchdog with enhanced investigation and information-gathering powers to monitor and regulate registered organisations. Of course, we already have ASIC, which has those kinds of powers. It will strengthen the requirements for officers' disclosure of material personal interests in related voting and decision-making rights and charge grounds for disqualification and ineligibility for office. It will strengthen existing financial accounting, disclosure and transparency obligations under the Registered Organisations Act by putting certain rule obligations on the face of the RO Act and making them enforceable as civil remedy provisions. It will increase civil penalties and introduce criminal offences for serious breaches of officers' duties, as well as introduce new offences in relation to the conduct of investigations under the Registered Organisations Act.

Now, what part of that is objectionable? There has been very little in this debate that would provide a rational, coherent response to that question. What part of those provisions is objectionable? They claim some ideological divide. What they are doing is making an ideological divide, where they say that workers being represented should hold their representatives less to account—and that the law should hold those people less to account—than those who are representing shareholders. Because those who are representing shareholders already have these obligations.

Let's just remind the Senate of what the Labor Party's position is on this, backed by the Greens. Of course, the Greens increasingly draw their funding from unions. They often talk about donations and how that affects things. Well, of course, we know that the Greens are funded by the unions almost as much as the Labor Party are these days—they are indeed.

They are saying that, if they—their funders, the union representatives, the union bosses—do the wrong thing, if they fail to properly represent their members, if they fail to comply with the law, then they should just have a little penalty, they should just have a slap on the wrist. They are saying that, if they do the wrong thing, they should have the kind of penalty that we see applied to the CFMEU often, and which they ignore because they can pay the fine; they have the financial resources to pay the fine, time and time again, so they keep engaging in the conduct. You are holding the representatives of workers to a lesser standard than the representatives of shareholders.

So let's go to some of what is being defended here. Some of what is being defended here and some of what we have seen emerge at the royal commission needs to be exposed. It has been exposed in part, but we need to highlight the type of behaviour that we are talking about. Senator Lambie said she does not hate union members 'like some members of the Liberal Party do'—and that statement about Liberal Party members is simply not true. Some of us have even been members of unions, and when we have been members of unions we have expected they would do the right thing. And many do—in fact, most do. And those that do the right thing would have nothing to fear from legislation like this. If you go out there and you represent your members to the best of your ability, if you work hard to get them the best deal, then you would actually welcome legislation like this. And, if there is someone dodgy working in the next union, maybe someone you do not know about, then they should be held to a high standard when they do the wrong thing.

We have seen too many examples to say that we should not have a legal response—because that is what this is about. It is about saying: is there a reasonable legal response to this issue? We say there is, and we put this legislation forward to simply level the playing field. But let's look at some of the examples of what we have seen in the royal commission.

We have seen that CFMEU officials Brian Parker and Darren Greenfield consorted with underworld crime figure George Alex, whose friends and colleagues include Mick Gatto, former Comancheros, senior Rebels bikies, standover man Vasko Boskovski, recently murdered career criminal Joe Antoun, and famous ISIS jihadists Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar. These are some of the connections we are seeing. We have seen Comancheros being used as debt collectors.

Assistant Commissioner of Victoria Police Steve Fontana confirmed that they have evidence showing the overall infiltration of the building and construction industry by organised crime. He indicated that 'outlaw motorcycle gangs, including the Comancheros, have been regularly engaged as debt collectors on behalf of the industry. He said:

Victoria Police is concerned that the methods for debt collecting in the industry involve criminal conduct such as assault, threat to assault and intimidation.

This is the kind of thing that is being defended by the Labor Party, the Greens and others in this place. This is the kind of thing they do not want to see reasonable penalties for. There is a range of pieces of legislation to deal with this—whether it is the Australian Building and Construction Commission, whether it is the Fair Work registered organisations legislation—that would actually apply some proper penalties so we can stop this at source, instead of having some of this wrongdoing become endemic in parts of the industry. This is what the Labor Party and the Greens are defending. We have heard it time and time again.

Senator Conroy interjected when I mentioned Craig Thomson's name—

Senator Conroy: Did I? No, I just want balance.

Senator SESELJA: You did interject. You said there were others. If there are others, Senator Conroy, let the law deal with them.

Senator Conroy: Unlike the royal commission, which wouldn't. It wouldn't even take submissions on it.

Senator SESELJA: Wouldn't you want to see the law deal with them as well? If you are aware of others that we are not aware of, then bring them forward. Expose them. But what you are saying is that the likes of Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson, who have clearly been shown to have done the wrong thing by their members.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator O'Neill ): Senator Seselja, it would help if you directed your comments through the chair.

Senator Conroy: It would help if you stopped talking to me.

Senator SESELJA: Absolutely, Acting Deputy President. I appreciate your advice and I will go through the chair.

Senator Conroy: I know we are family, but that is taking it too far. Family! You know what they are like. You marry into them and this is what they are like.

Senator SESELJA: It will help if I do not hear this chirping in my ear from Senator Conroy. It will be easier not to respond to him. Therefore, I will certainly take your advice, Acting Deputy President, and go through the chair.

But this is the kind of behaviour that the Labor Party is saying is okay. These interjections are saying: 'What about others?' Well, absolutely: what about others? If they are shown to be doing the wrong thing—I do not care who they are; I do not care if they claim to be a whistleblower or if they are a whistleblower or if they simply got caught out doing the wrong thing—there should not be just a slap on the wrist for this kind of behaviour.

I again go to the point that we rightly say—and Senator Lambie has raised it and I am sure others have raised it in debate—to corporate criminals: 'There are serious penalties.' People can lose their life savings. People invest in companies, expecting that the directors will do the right thing. We have a legal framework to make sure that you do your best. If you get it wrong, if you fall a little bit short, maybe there are some consequences. But, if you deliberately fall short, if you deliberately do the wrong thing, if you knowingly do the wrong thing, then that is when we really need to have the serious penalties, and say that that is absolutely unacceptable. We need to have confidence as a community in corporate leadership. We have those laws. At the moment they are much stronger than what applies to some of these registered organisations.

What we are saying is: let's level that playing field and let's make sure that we do have serious penalties. Whether you are ripping off the workers or ripping off the shareholders, it is the same principle. It is absolutely the same principle. We have seen this lawless attitude of some unions, whether it is with Boral and construction sites in Melbourne, with the law being effectively determined by the CFMEU. There are numerous examples of secondary boycotts, cartel behaviour, racketeering, intimidation and illegal black-banning. The CEO of Boral, Mike Kane, lashed the CFMEU as 'an organisation that openly admits it has and will continue to break the law'. He stated:

On construction sites in Melbourne the law doesn't apply, the law is determined by the CFMEU…

That simply cannot stand. We can look at all the economic costs of having a situation of lawlessness on our construction sites and in other industries but there is also the moral fabric; the rule of law actually has to mean something. We could go through all the evidence that we have heard so far about Cesar Melhem, Bill Shorten's close friend; the false invoices; the Industry 2020 slush fund; the CFMEU receiving leaked details from Cbus members; the threats and the intimidation—and here in the ACT we have heard damning evidence into some of this behaviour.

 

I would ask senators, as part of this debate and as they consider their vote on this issue, to simply look at what this legislation does. The claims by Senator Lambie are wrong in terms of what it does and what it does not do. And certainly you cannot claim to want to stand up against lawlessness, corruption and wrongdoing and then vote against the very measures that would ensure we have a serious legal framework to deal with those breaches. What you are effectively saying is that ripping off the workers will be treated as a lesser offence than ripping off shareholders and other members of our community. Who here who claims to stand for the workers could actually let that stand? This legislation, as part of a suite of legislation, should be supported to ensure that we have the rule of law across the board and that union officials and other representatives of registered organisations are held to account and to similar standards to what we have for leaders in the corporate world. I commend this important piece of legislation to the Senate.