Protecting Australian workers and their benefit funds from the actions of militant unions

29 Jul 2019 speech

Ms FLINT (Boothby—Government Whip) (18:51): It appears to me, just from listening to the last member's contribution, that those opposite were not listening during question time when the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations outlined very clearly the type of dangerous and illegal behaviour that we are trying to address with this bill. The Morrison Liberal government firmly believes in enforcing the rule of law and holding lawbreakers to account. Our reintroduction of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 demonstrates that very important commitment.

Union and employer associations have special and privileged positions in the industrial relations system and in the economy more broadly in terms of how business is conducted and how employer and employee relations unfold, and the members of those organisations place a great deal of trust in them. This bill will ensure registered organisations work in their members' best interests and within the bounds of the law. I don't think that's too much to ask. This bill is specifically designed to target organisations and individuals who fail to take the privileges and responsibilities arising out of registration or appointment as an officer seriously. This bill applies equally to unions and to employer organisations, and only to conduct occurring after the commencement of this bill.

The provisions deal with the consequences of breaking the law or mistreating members. Registered organisations that contribute positively to the industrial relations framework and abide by the law—and, thankfully, there are plenty of them—will not be impacted by this bill. To my mind, it's a pretty simple concept that if you do the right thing you won't have any problems with this bill. If you do the right thing by your members, if you do the right thing by the law, then this bill will not impact you or your organisation.

The bill will give the court more appropriate powers to disqualify officials of registered organisations that breach their duty to act in the interests of members, have a history of breaking the law or are otherwise not fit and proper to hold office in a registered organisation. It will also introduce new offences that currently don't exist in relation to registered organisations, like acting as an official when disqualified from doing so, which has been part of the corporate regime for some time now.

The bill will allow the registration of an organisation to be cancelled or to have rights or privileges removed from specific parts of an organisation where it or its officials have acted in their own interests rather than in the interests of their members; not complied with court orders and injunctions; or committed serious offences or have a record of lawbreaking, none of which is possible under the existing law. The bill also gives the court more flexibility to act to reconstitute dysfunctional organisations and introduces a public-interest test for mergers of registered organisations.

The government has made some amendments to the bill compared with its last version in 2017 to ensure it is appropriately balanced in delivering the outcomes of accountability and integrity owed to an organisation's members while ensuring greater alignment of provisions with the standards that apply to corporate directors and other officers, wherever possible.

I want to take just a few moments to explain and outline why this bill is necessary. I am indebted to the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations, who is also our Leader of the House, for giving some real-world, real-life examples during question time recently as to the sort of behaviour we are attempting to outlaw and rein in and that is currently occurring in workplaces around the nation, putting people at risk. It's making them feel unsafe and it really has to stop.

The Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations recently outlined the behaviour of the CFMMEU's John Setka. I was quite shocked when I heard about the charges that have been laid and successfully prosecuted against this individual. I'm going to repeat them because we need as many people in the community as possible to understand the exact behaviour that we are trying to deal with—that we will deal with by passing this legislation.

As the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations said, 'Unfortunately, the present laws have not provided sufficient deterrents to repeated unlawful behaviour of a small number of militant unionists.' What sort of behaviour are we talking about here? The Leader of the Opposition says that John Setka is not a fit and proper person to be a member of the Labor Party. Why does he say that? Because of John Setka's record of lawbreaking. What is that record? John Setka has, to this point, amassed around 59 court convictions for a multitude of offences, including assault police, five times; assault by kicking, five times; wilful trespass, seven times; resisting arrest, five times; theft, attempted theft by deception and intent to coerce, nine times; and
coercion, 10 times. These things, finally, have now formed the basis of a conclusion by the opposition leader that militant unionist John Setka is not a fit and proper person to be a member of the Labor Party.

Interestingly, the same remarkable record of offending has not also given rise to a view by the opposition leader that it is not fit and proper for Labor to accept the $1 million that John Setka sent to Labor as the Victorian branch secretary. Likewise, it is remarkable that the criminal record doesn't now appear to be the basis for review that it was not fit and proper for Labor to accept $13 million from the CFMMEU in total. What we have here now is a situation where the character of John Setka is rejected fulsomely by Labor but his cash is still warmlyaccepted, as much of it that can flow as possible. Who is actually standing up for workers here? Who is actually on the side of workers?

I think these are very good questions. The Attorney-General and the Minister for Industrial Relations has provided other practical, real-life, real-world examples of the sort of behaviour that unions and, in particular, the CFMMEU, have engaged in. As the Attorney-General said to the House recently, 'Unlawful conduct adds to the costs of infrastructure borne by the Australian taxpayer. One of the very important reasons that unlawful behaviour on worksites must be stopped is that it puts the safety of workers at risk.' These are really important issues. As the Attorney-General went on to say, 'We know that the CFMMEU has racked up $16 million in court fines for unlawful behaviour for over 2,000 breaches'. What is less well-known is that many of those breaches themselves relate to violations of occupational health and safety standards. Last year, the full Federal Court found that a CFMMEU official had acted in an improper manner to a Victorian government occupational health and safety officer. The grotesque behaviour of the CFMMEU to that official was behaviour directed not at another worker or an employer, but at a safety official.

When we look at Queensland, there are proceedings that were commenced in December last year against a CFMMEU organiser for his behaviour towards a Queensland government occupational health and safety inspector. The construction site was the Cairns Performing Arts Centre. The safety inspector was in the course of inspecting exit signage. He was confronted by the CFMMEU official, who, within centimetres of the face of the safety officer, said some terrible things and used some awful language, not once but three times. As the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations has said: 'No-one should have to put up with that language in their workplace. No-one.' The Queensland Public Sector Union now has a list of 17 sites that they will not let their members—their safety inspectors—visit because they don't feel safe. This is just appalling behaviour. Nobody deserves to be treated like this. Nobody deserves to be subject to this sort of behaviour. People must feel safe in their workplaces. They mustn't feel that going to work is going to see them threatened or endangered or subject to vile abuse.

I feel that I had a tiny glimpse of what the unions are capable of during the recent election. There are several things I would like to briefly highlight today: (1), the sort of intimidation, bullying and lies that they like to spread, and (2) the waste of money this involves—and it's not their money; it's their members' money. That's what really infuriates me about so much of this behaviour by the unions. It's not just the violence and the intimidation and the thuggery, it's the waste of hardworking Australians' money—money that they have earned and that is now being wasted by people they thought were representing them and had their best interests at heart. In a sense, it's hard to know where to begin describing the union behaviour during my campaign because there were so many different unions involved: there was the CFMMEU, the ACTU, the SDA, the Australian Education Union, and the Nurses and Midwifery Federation, and combinations of all of those unions coming together under different banners.

But let's just take the Australian Education Union as a quick example. Last year in June, well before the federal election—which was held, as we know, on 18 May this year—they advertised for a union organiser to coordinate the campaign against me and the coalition government in the seat of Boothby. Pretty quickly, they got their union operatives out and about into my local public schools to start spreading lies to my local families about education funding, and to start scaring parents, grandparents and carers with their campaign. I'd like to correct the record right here and right now, once again—as I did throughout the campaign, and during the last parliament: we have not cut funding to education. It's quite the opposite. Quality schools funding to South Australia is currently $1.5 billion in 2019-20 and it will rise to $2.3 billion by 2029. This means, in real terms, that all of my 33 public
schools in Boothby will see increases to funding by about 60 per cent per student for the decade to 2029. That is clearly not a cut. This funding, unlike the wild promises we hear time and time again from those opposite, is fully budgeted. The funding is budgeted. It will be delivered. Schools in my electorate will continue to be very well-funded by the federal Liberal government.

The same unionists from the Australian Education Union also put out a range of print material—flyers, corflutes—and social media content repeating their claims. They sent a unionist out in a very large van to follow me around to my street corner listening posts. I can only assume it was to try to intimidate me and to try to stop me from speaking directly with my local community and from listening to my local community. One of the things I pride myself on is that I listen to my local community and make myself as accessible as I possibly can.

The combined union presence—all of the unions I've already named—more broadly did all of these sorts of things and more. They organised regular protests outside my electorate office and somehow managed to track me down to a range of Liberal Party and community events. They put out multiple fliers and flooded social media with attacks on me. And this is just the work that they did under their official banners. I have no doubt that some of the even more aggressive and threatening behaviour that I had to endure during the election campaign was linked to the unions. Why do I think this? Because I have just provided several really disturbing examples of what, as the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations has outlined in this House, is going on every single day around the nation.

This is why we have reintroduced this bill. It has five key schedules covering disqualification, cancellation of registration, administration of dysfunctional organisations, a public interest test for amalgamations and some minor and technical amendments. At the end of the day, this bill is about making sure that union members' money is spent properly and is directed to supporting them—because it is their hard-earned money—and about making sure that people can and do feel safe in their workplaces every single day. I commend the bill to the House, and I look forward to the bill passing the House and workers and employers around Australia feeling safer in their day-to-day work and their day-to-day business.