Controversial trade union governance bill introduced into Parliament


Controversial trade union governance bill introduced into Parliament

A contentious bill to reform the oversight and control of trade unions was sped through the House of Representatives yesterday.


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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has re-introduced and sped the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 into and through the House of Representatives, where it had its second and third readings yesterday. 

Abuse, rorts and ripping off 

“The government acknowledges the important role registered organisations play in workplaces in Australia. These organisations—unions and employer organisations—stand in positions of trust. To remain strong, it is vital that they are seen to do the right thing by their members.

"Yet the truth is that officials of some of these organisations have been in flagrant abuse of the responsibilities they owe to their members. They have misused union funds for personal gain. They have rorted membership rolls to increase their clout within the Labor Party. They have ripped off hardworking members to indulge their own political or personal interests. Is it any wonder that union representation in the workforce, particularly the private sector workforce, is at an all-time low? Is it any wonder that there should be a crisis of confidence?” the prime minister told the House. 

Trade unions a boon to Australians

Rising to speak in Opposition was Brendan O’Connor (ALP Gorton; Shadow Minister for Employment) who credited trade unions with delivering to Australians “a generous social safety net; decent conditions at work; the weekend itself and penalty rates for working on it or at other unsociable hours; annual leave and sick pay; Medicare and the foregone wage increases to pay for it; universal superannuation; and, perhaps most importantly, occupational health and safety and workers compensation.” 

Mr O’Connor then asserted that the Labor Party is “genuinely interested in passing good legislation” but argued that there is no need for a new Registered Organisations Commission given the existence of the Australian Securities & Investment Commission. 

He added that Labor wanted to increase penalties for behaviour intended to deceive union members, members of employer bodies or the regulators. He added that treating registered organisations, be they unions, or employer bodies, small business people or volunteers in the same way as chief executives of companies is wrong.

Deter participation

“We want people to participate, employer bodies and unions alike. This will deter people participating,” Mr O’Connor told the House, adding, “We are here to offer tougher penalties, higher standards, greater transparency for union candidates and for candidates who want to run in federal elections, and a better way forward for employer bodies and unions. That is the Labor tradition. We are proud to live up to it today. We would ask the government to seriously consider these amendments, because they are moved in good faith.” 

What the Bill will do

Among other things, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014 will: 
  • Establish an independent watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission 
  • Amend the requirements on officers’ disclosure of material personal interests and change grounds for disqualification and ineligibility for office
  • Strengthen existing financial accounting, disclosure and transparency obligations, making them enforceable as civil remedy provisions
  • Increase civil penalties and introduce criminal offences for serious breaches of officers’ duties

The Bill aims to clarify the regulations of registered organisations, assuring members their contributions are working fairly and in their interests. The Bill will ensure the commissioner is in check with new initiatives that enforces the privileges and rights of registered organisations.

What does this mean for employers? 

At first sight, it looks like a fundamental reform of the running of registered organisations and would give HR managers new tools to deal with the misconduct of union officials… if it passes. And that’s the big IF as the government has to get its Bill through the Senate.

The next sitting of the senior chamber is due in early November. One to watch… for now. 
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