October 20, 2016

SUBJECTS: Registered Organisations; ABCC.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Can I just go to the issue in relation to registered organisations. Today the Government is introducing the Registered Organisation Bill to regulate organisations that represent unions and employer bodies and we want to see very significant amendments to this Bill.

In December last year Bill Shorten and I foreshadowed a series of changes to the Bill and announced policies to improve the transparency and accountability of registered organisations. That’s on top of, of course, what we did in Government where we increased the penalties and increased the accountability for those organisations.

We want to Government to seriously consider the following amendments, in relations to this Bill: Firstly, we want them to consider, rather than setting up a new body, the Registered Organisations Commission, a smaller body, we’d like to see ASIC be the regulator for unions and employer bodies, in the same way it’s the regulator for companies.

The Government has been rhetorically arguing that such bodies should be treated the same way as companies. Well, the best way for that to happen is for ASIC, a mature, longstanding regulator that will resist the interference by Government, to be the regulator.

We cannot see any reason why the Prime Minister and Minister for Employment in this Government cannot accept that that’s a better form of regulation than the idea of setting up an expensive new bureaucracy to deal with organisations like this.

Secondly, we’d like to see whistle blower protections improved in organisations. We’d like to see the requirements on auditors to be stronger so that they must report any wrong doing, or any criminal behaviour so that we do detect any wrongdoing at an earlier stage, we’d like to see that happen.

And we’d also like to see transparency in relation to donations to candidates of registered organisations so that disclosures of donations to candidates of registered organisations in their elections must be provided once a donation is of $1000 or more. And we believe that law should apply equally to candidates of federal elections.

Now, Malcolm Turnbull has been talking about transparency of donations. Firstly, he won’t disclose whether in fact he has paid $2 million of his own money in the last election campaign to the Liberal Party. He won’t disclose it. He knows it’s either true or it isn’t, he won’t confirm or deny the fact that he has donated that $2 million.

Secondly, he likes to lecture transparency and accountability of registered organisations. Well, he has an opportunity to provide better disclosure laws for candidates in those elections, but he has to accept that the same law applies to him as applies to those organisations.

Therefore, if there are people who want to run a union or want to run an employer body, and they want to run in the elections, they must disclose after $1000. And so too, federal candidates in federal elections should do the same. I mean, if it’s good enough for people who want to run a union, it’s good enough for people who want to run the country.

So these amendments will be moved in the Senate when the Bill goes to the Senate in three weeks.  At this point, today, we will be debating the Bill. I also want to make the point as was the case yesterday where the Government gagged the debate on the ABCC legislation, the Government is intending to gag the debate on this Bill again. This is a very serious point. It’s very rare that we have double dissolutions in this country and it’s very rare that there are two Bills ostensibly the basis upon which that election was called. And neither of these Bills it would appear are we in a position to properly debate these matters.

There are new Members of the House of Representatives. The Member for Burt is here right now, about to speak. He was on the speaker’s list to debate and contribute to the ABCC legislation, and was denied his right as a Member of Parliament, as were many Members of Parliament. And today, the same thing is going to happen.

So firstly, we want our amendments that we proposed to be properly considered by the Government. We’re talking to the crossbenches about them because they will strengthen the laws in relation to registered organisations but will make sure the same law in relation to disclosure applies to federal candidates. And we want the Government not to gag the debate today on Registered Organisations the way in which they gagged it in relation to ABCC legislation. Happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST: What have the negotiations been like with the crossbenches? How do you rate the chances of blocking both the ABCC and Registered Organisations Bills?

O’CONNOR: Well I make the point that the ABCC Bill has passed the House of Representatives in two Parliaments three times, but it never passed the Senate. Certainly on its track record I don’t think the Government should be assuming that it’s going to pass. I’ve had some very good conversations with crossbench Senators who have raised some serious concerns and we have some concerns that that legislation if enacted will undermine the rule of law in this country which is completely contrary to what the Prime Minister is saying. Eminent lawyers, Professor George Williams, Professor McCallam have said that it is indeed in breach of our civil rights, it’s contrary to the manner in which this country conducts itself.

You have to remember that the regulator does not apply to criminal behaviour, and yet the Government’s rhetoric is full of dealing with criminal behaviour. If the Government wants to deal with criminal behaviour, in the building sector, or the banking sector or any other sector, they use crime fighting agencies, the Australian Crime Commission, the Australian Federal Police, Austrac, so many other federal and state agencies that fight crime. The ABCC does not. I think the crossbenchers have heard that argument and are seriously contemplating our concerns in relations to those issues. And most importantly, the coincidence of the ABCC when last implemented and the increase in fatalities and injuries in the building industry were so that we should seriously consider the correlations between deaths and injuries in the building industry and the introduction of the ABCC.

It is a very difficult and in many occasions dangerous sector to work in. There’s been too many deaths. There’s been three deaths in the last couple of weeks in the building sector and we do think, whilst there are other reasons why these tragedies occur, there is a correlation between the way in which workers are cowered into not raising health and safety issues and the greater levels of injuries and fatalities. So we think there’s some serious arguments that we could put forward, we believe the crossbenchers are listening. In relations to the Registered Organisations amendments we think our position is stronger than the Government’s and I believe the crossbench will be listening to our arguments, particularly in relations to ensuring that the disclosure laws that apply to the Registered Organisations that we’re proposing apply to federal candidates at federal elections too.

JOURNALIST: Isn’t it a bit rich to be crying foul over the Government’s gagging debate on this legislation when Labor used the same tactic when it was in Government?

O’CONNOR: I mean there are times in which you reduce the time for debate on a particular Bill, and every government has done that, and I’m not suggesting that you don’t use that procedural mechanism on occasion. But it’s quite remarkable, in fact it’s quite rich, of the Government to close down debate, only allow one opposition member to speak on a Bill that was subject to a double dissolution election. I mean it’s quite remarkable that they say this is in the national interest, that’s it’s so important that these Bills pass and yet they are seeking to close down debate and not allow contributions, not only by members of parliament that were here last parliamentary terms, but the many members of parliament that were not here and have only been elected this year, and they have every right to represent their constituency and put their case.