Bill's Transcripts

PRESS CONFERENCE: MELBOURNE - Labor’s plan to strengthen accountability and transparency of unions; Government’s innovation statement

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

PRESS CONFERENCE
MELBOURNE


MONDAY, 7 DECEMBER 2015

 

SUBJECT/S: Labor’s plan to strengthen accountability and transparency of unions; Government’s innovation statement; Mal Brough

 

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Today my colleague Brendan O'Connor, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and I are announcing Labor's new measures to detect and deter corruption in trade unions and employer associations. We take these measures because we believe Australia's trade union movement play a critical role in our economy. There's a lot to thank unions for - everything from the 8 hour day, to better workplace safety, to pushing for equal pay for women, to superannuation and Medicare. And it's because the trade union movement does have a relevance and an important role to play in Australia's workplaces promoting productivity, that it's most important the community can expect the highest standards of governance from trade unions and employer associations.

Now of course we've seen a debate over the last 18 months about the role of unions, and we've seen the trade union royal commission - Tony Abbott's royal commission into trade unions conduct itself in what I believe an objectively is a very partisan political role. That's not to say that they haven't uncovered a few examples of a few individuals who haven't lived up to the standards that the labour movement expect of its leaders, and indeed have disappointed and let down their own members, which they're entrusted to represent.

Therefore today my colleague Brendan will outline a package of measures which include the following features - stronger penalties, greater protections for whistle-blowers, greater regulation and quality control over the role of auditors in registered organisations. There'll also be, I think an overdue push for better disclosure in terms of electoral funding, and indeed in that tone we'll be supporting a proposal which would see that for elections conducted by the AEC, that the disclosure threshold be dropped from $13,000 to $1000, a point I'll return to in a moment.

Also, rather than create new bureaucracy, Labor's proposing that registered organisations, where there's serious breaches should be subject to the powers of ASIC the regulator, and ASIC we believe just as it does with Australia's corporations is best placed to ensure that these measures and the rules are properly enforced.

So there's a choice here for Malcolm Turnbull - does he squib the changes that we propose including decreasing the threshold, because after all, why would Malcolm Turnbull want unions to have a higher standard than his own Liberal Party. So Labor's up for modernising and constantly improving the rules concerning the governance of registered organisations including trade unions. Labor has a good record in terms of lifting and improving the standards constantly, today is another step in that process, and I'd like to get my colleague Brendan O'Connor to take people through the details of the measures that we're announcing today.

BRENDAN O'CONNOR, SHADOW MINISTER FOR EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS: Thanks very much Bill, as you say Labor has no tolerance for people who steal from workers. Whether that be corrupt union officials stealing union’s money, stealing members money or whether that in fact be employers who underpay their staff, we want to make sure that workers are safe from such conduct. And that's why we are introducing further reforms, to build upon the very significant reforms we put in place when last in government, in fact just to recall when last in government, the Labor Government tripled the penalties for registered organisations, increased accountability and transparency for those organisations to ensure this conduct does not happen. But on top of that today, Bill and I are announcing on behalf of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party further reforms.

Firstly there will be increasing the civil penalties for serious transgressions by offices of registered organisations. We don't want to see such actions occuring, such misconduct, such criminal behaviour in some circumstances and for that reason we're going to introduce civil penalties that are akin to those penalties that apply to corporations.

Secondly we will introduce penalties, indeed increase penalties for auditors. We want to make sure that those people who are charged with the responsibility of independently examining the finances of registered organisations do so in a professional and accountable manner and for that reason we're going to ensure that there are greater penalties that would apply, including in the most extreme cases imprisonment if those auditors chose not to report malfeasance, criminal misconduct and conduct similar to that. So we're going to ensure that it's far more likely that auditors are not in a position to be complicit in their silence, and that's a very important part of the regulation and I might add, it's not something the Government has considered doing, and I think it needs to be done.

Further in relation to auditing we would look to rotate the auditors so that there is sufficient turnover to ensure that new parties are coming in to such organisations to examine the books which I again believe as a result of that would see greater scrutiny, a broader level of independence in so far as the oversight of such financing.

Third, we would look to extend whistle-blower protections to registered organisations including unions and the private sector. We will afford more protection to those whistle-blowers, indeed encouraging them to speak out if there's been criminal misconduct or alleged criminal misconduct. Now they'll have to of course report to regulatory agencies first, but they should be afforded greater protection, this is another way that we can ensure that our institutions in this country are indeed if not free from all criminal behaviour, that there's a great likelihood that we'll see a reduction of such conduct and again a very important reform, something the Government hasn't chosen to consider.

As Bill said, we're looking to empower the current Commonwealth statutory agency ASIC, which of course is the prime agency that examines the conduct of directors of corporations, and we're looking to broaden its powers in order for them to examine and investigate serious contraventions by registered organisations officers - of course that includes unions. What that will do is provide more investigative teeth to the Commonwealth to examine the conduct and indeed to report on and respond to serious allegations that might be made.

This is very important, the Government goes on and has been on the record saying they want to see greater capacity to investigate and examine registered organisations, well this reform will mean that the same powers that apply to corporations would apply to unions, and I think that's a very important thin. And of course I think it's important too, and Bill touched upon this - we need to see transparency in all elections conducted by the AEC. So for the first time we will see a very high level of transparency of funding on union elections. That means that if indeed there is expenditure over the threshold amount, and we're proposing $1000 than that needs to be disclosed. That will ensure that there is a great level of transparency. It will mean that whether you're a donor or receiver of such funds you will be providing that information to the AEC, and again of course, Labor is calling upon the Prime Minister to match Labor and reduce the disclosure threshold from $13,000 to $1000. I mean there's something here for the Government too, and they have to respond to this. There are concerns that the threshold for federal elections is too high and it should come down, and indeed it would be ludicrous for the obligations on unions and employer bodies be far, far greater than that for federal candidates in federal elections. So we think it's time now that the Government match Labor in reducing the threshold down to $1000.

These are as Bill said very significant reforms - we're willing to sit down with the Government to talk through these issues, we're certainly going to talk the affected parties and we'll talk to the crossbenchers because we want to make sure, on top of the reforms that were introduced by Labor when last in government, we can build upon that, improve governance and make sure that we have an effective and clean union movement. We know that's what Labor wants to see, we believe that the Government's less interested in an effective union movement but we believe that unions have a role to play in any democratic society; we just want to make sure that they do so with integrity and they do so effectively.

SHORTEN: Thanks Brendan, are there any questions?

JOURNALIST: What will the courts think about increasing the civil penalties for serious (inaudible)?

O'CONNOR: So the civil penalties would go up to $218,000 - that's the current civil penalty amount afforded to directors of corporations. We'd want to make sure that the deterrence factor is such that rather than just detect offences and misconduct that people as a result of the penalties are less likely to fail to disclose. Now one of the great problems we've had in the past in very isolated occasions I might add has been that people have not disclosed a personal material interest. I think the consequences are far greater in not declaring personal material interest with the penalty being as high as that afforded to corporations, I think that's a very significant reform.

JOURNALIST: And why do you think $1000 is an appropriate threshold for a donation?

O'CONNOR:  Well the Labor Party has believed that elections conducted by the AEC, federal elections should be $1000. It provides greater accountability. I think people understand that people have a right in this country to donate to candidates in elections, but they want to make sure they get to see where the money's going and where's it coming from, and that's indeed a reasonable expectation. But what we're saying and we've said all along, we want to see $1000 for federal candidates of federal elections. We are going to extend our position to include union elections for the first time and we've asked the Prime Minister and Government to match our commitment to transparency.

REPORTER: What are the sort of donations that a federal candidate would receive – would they be quite a bit higher than in a union election?

O'CONNOR: Well they can be big and small the point is it doesn't matter how big they are the issue is if they're over $1000 whether they're $50,000 or $2000 they should be disclosed. At the moment given the reticence by the Government to support Labor's reforms they will not support reducing the threshold down from $13,000 to $1000, and for that reason we need reform in this area. So when introducing the reforms to union elections I think it's fair to say that at the same time the Government should support policy that's more transparent, that ensures that people understand exactly where the election funding finances are going, and therefore support us to reduce that threshold.

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, you say on the one hand that the royal commission is politically motivated and yet on the other hand Labor now has a policy that it will take to the election on union governance. How do you reconcile those two positions?

 

SHORTEN: Because people like Brendan and myself have been deeply committed to ensuring that unions are well run and cleanly run for decades. For us what happens to workers in the workplace is not a matter of politics, it’s a matter of what's fair. So we believe fundamentally in the role of trade unions as part of an interest group representing workers in a pluralist democracy, we get it. Let's not kid ourselves; Tony Abbott set up the royal commission to smear his political opponents. The reforms which we are advancing today are consistent with what we did in government, when we called in administrators on the Health Services Union - no-one had ever done that before. They are consistent with the increasing penalties which is what we did when we were last in government. But the other point to make about all of this is, that if the Liberal Government had a modicum of political skill, they could have got the Parliament to do these changes in the manner in which we are suggesting without wasting $80 million of taxpayer money. The truth of the matter is that if this Government was interested in actually making our workplaces more productive, they wouldn't spend $80 million on a trade union royal commission, they could have just sat down and made the Parliament function and Labor is offering a package of sensible reforms which we will negotiate with the Government - they don't have to wait until the next election.

 

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, you say that Labor has zero tolerance for criminality in the union movement, how is it that the CFMEU is still welcome in Labor given that it's led by someone who has just under 40 prior convictions?

 

SHORTEN: Well there’s been reports that I’ve seen in the media in the last 24 hours that the person you are talking about has been charged and is being investigated by police. An experienced person like yourself knows very well that whilst the police investigation is under way there is nothing which I can say about it. But the more general point is that yes, Labor does have zero tolerance for criminality and illegality. That is the standard which we will enforce we will wait to see what happens with this police investigation.

 

JOURNALIST: And will you support the Government’s legislation to re-establish the ABCC?

 

SHORTEN: No, we don't see the case for having separate regulators. Why should some workers in Australia be covered by one set of rules and other workers covered by another set of rules? You know it's inefficient, it’s creating multiple bureaucracies, but what we have also said is that the Government is addicted to creating new bodies. They want to have a separate registered organisations commission for unions – we are saying if you say the case is that unions should substantially be run like corporations in terms of the some of the regulatory environment, well then let's use ASIC, the corporate regulator. Why invent something new, waste taxpayer money on some sort of political vendetta, when we are saying, Labor is saying okay, we get that substantially when it comes to certain matters there should be similarity in terms of regulation, between corporations and unions, so you use ASIC to regulate the largest problems if any problems occur in registered organisations.

 

JOURNALIST: Are you pre-empting the findings by the royal commission in announcing this suite of measures?

 

SHORTEN: No, not at all. The truth of the matter is you didn't need a royal commission to work this out, you didn't need to spend $80 million, you didn't need to engage in the political smears which has been a clear feature of the royal commission's conduct. So no, this is just sensible. We accept that there needs to be constant and continuous improvement in the governance of trade unions and employer associations and that's what we are offering to do.

 

JOURNALIST: Could your measures that you’re proposing change depending on the outcome of the royal commission?

 

SHORTEN: Well the truth of the matter is this royal commission had a political agenda from the get go. It has cost $80 million. Counsel Assisting has been paid nearly $4 million. It doesn't take $80 million of taxpayer money to come up with the sort of ideas which Brendan and others have come up with today.

 

JOURNALIST: No doubt the findings will be damning so what -

 

O’CONNOR: Can I just say firstly it's important to note, just to add to what Bill has said, that the instances in relation to serious contraventions of duties to the organisations in the case of Mr Williamson, for example, it was uncovered well before the royal commission and indeed, however isolated, the most serious cases that have come before us if you like in the public realm have not happened as a result of the royal commission, so it didn't take the $80 million of taxpayers' money to be spent, and we are responding to what we’ve seen through the efforts of the police in the areas of maladministration and what is clearly criminal misconduct by a few individuals, but but even a few transgressions of this nature need to be responded to and that's why we are announcing the reforms today.

 

JOURNALIST: Why weren’t these measures in place when you were last in government?

 

SHORTEN: Well, we put in new measures. Until we acted last time, the laws which applied were Tony Abbott's laws. Why didn't Tony Abbott put in place in his time the laws that were put in place when we were there? We believe in a process of continuous improvement. Labor is not shirking the tasks of ensuring that modern trade unionism fulfils the expectations of the community.

 

JOURNALIST: Mr O’Connor, do you regard union militancy and unlawful industrial action as serious problems, and will the increased penalties apply to those?

 

O’CONNOR: Well firstly, as Bill said, we don't support any lawful behaviour. We have no tolerance for criminal behaviour and I'm glad to say that over time, over the last 30 or so years and increasingly so we are seeing fewer and fewer unnecessary forms of disputation. So industrial strikes and industrial action has been falling over the last few decades and they continue to fall. And as we've said over and over again, we will never tolerate illegal behaviour and that's why in response to the illegal behaviour of officials in misusing union funds, we are responding insofar as the reforms that we are announcing today.

 

JOURNALIST: Will officials be disqualified for repeated unlawful industrial action?

 

SHORTEN: They already can be.

 

JOURNALIST: What happens if John Setka and Shaun Reardon are found guilty? What happens then? Do they be cut loose from the CFMEU or does Labor cut the union loose altogether, like how deep does it go?

 

SHORTEN: I’m not going to pre-empt the police inquiry. More generally I can answer that if you are found guilty and convicted, I think, and Brendan can refresh my memory of an offence carrying a sentence of longer a year and a day, then you are not eligible to hold positions in unions. So the whole thing about the CFMEU in this current matter which is the reason behind your question, is this happened, the legal action which has taken place has all happened under the existing laws. What we’re doing here is we are proposing belt and braces a newer, higher standard. But anyone who is found guilty of a criminal offence carrying a sentence longer than a year and a day, cannot hold office in a trade union, that’s the law now – they were laws which Labor introduced many years ago.

 

JOURNALIST: And how seriously do you rate the charges against those two men? Where does it sit -

 

SHORTEN: In all fairness, I’m not going to start evaluating the police investigation, that is not my role, I am not a judge.

 

JOURNALIST: Do you accept that threats of unlawful industrial action could constitute criminal blackmail?

 

SHORTEN:  I'm not here to give you legal advice.

 

JOURNALIST: They have already been fined over a second boycott. Does that suggest that perhaps there is a case to answer?

 

O’CONNOR: Well look can I just say that matter was settled between the parties, it is a civil matter, one of different jurisdiction, but nonetheless, as always, Labor always wants people to deal with such matters within the boundaries of the law, whether it's civil or criminal, but let's not mistake civil matters with criminal ones. I mean, there has been an attempt by the Government to conflate these matters from the outset. We have no tolerance for illegality, we've made that very clear, and today our announcement will ensure we will have stronger governance for unions and employer bodies if the Government supports our reforms, and indeed we will have better disclosure laws for all elections, federal elections and union elections, if the Government embraces these reforms.

 

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, what do you make of the Government's innovation announcement today?

 

SHORTEN: Listen, there are a couple of good things in it. I also think that, and you know, they say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. There are a number of Labor ideas which we've been outlining since my Budget Reply speech which I'm pleased the see the Government has adopted with a few tweaks. But I can't also help wondering if there is more talk than action here, if there’s more that could be and should be done. I wonder if there is some unconscious irony that holding the event at the CSIRO, when the CSIRO has had much greater cuts than the current Liberal Prime Minister is proposing to put back into CSIRO. Or put another way for Australians, innovation is really important, part of the way we generate jobs of the future. That's why Labor has been working hard on this too. But how on earth can you say that you are pro-innovation when you cut $3 billion from research, science and innovation, and then you put $1 billion back? It doesn't really go towards filling the gap, does it? Put another way: who are the people who are going to do the innovating in the future? I mean if we don't have enough people doing science, and maths and technology at university because they're not going to university because the fees are too high, because we've had the rampant deregulation proposed by Christopher Pyne.  I mean if the people aren't going to be there, the workforce of the future, then the tax breaks become meaningless.

 

Also if you want to look at infrastructure, so it’s not just are the university funding policies are enough – which they're not under this Government, they’re cutting funding to unis so there’s not going to be as many people coming through. But the NBN is probably arguably the greatest sort of highway of infrastructure to allow innovation, and under Malcolm Turnbull – he doesn't like to talk about it now he is Prime Minister, but when he was Communications Minister, before the last election, he said he could do a better, faster, NBN at $29 billion. Now it's at $55 billion and climbing, and it’s not going to deliver on what he’s promised in the past. So if the crucial infrastructure for innovation is double the cost and slower, and if there are higher education and TAFE policies in place which undermine the ability for the workforce of the future and for advanced manufacturing, I think more could be done and more should be done. Today is good as far as it goes, but it really doesn't go to make up the degradation of two years of Tony Abbott's government.

 

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, do you agree with Jason Clare that Mal Brough should stand aside because he is being investigated by police?

 

SHORTEN: I think the key issue for Mal Brough is he went on 60 Minutes, he put his hand up in an interview – which was remarkable television I’m sure you would agree – then he got up in Parliament and said a completely different answer. I think this is one of two big issues that Malcolm Turnbull’s got to confront, he’s got a Minister teetering on the edge. But there’s another issue which I think is causing even deeper seeded problems in the Government – I talk about the case of the missing former Minister Macfarlane. One day he’s in the Liberal Party, the next day he’s joined the National Party. What’s interesting about this is you’ve got the Deputy Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister is the number two – he’s the guy who when the Prime Minister, when Malcolm Turnbull is overseas, the Deputy Prime Minister has been engaging in private discussions to seduce across a Liberal to become a National Party member. That’s not exactly Deputy Prime Minister behaviour. And then today they are in the Toowoomba Ranges announcing the second road down from Toowoomba to Ipswich. So you've got Ian MacFarlane there amongst the bulldozers, you've got Warren Truss amongst the bulldozers and no Malcolm Turnbull. He cancelled last night. I mean, he has got a problem when he is too chicken to show up to see the Deputy Prime Minister. I think this is a real problem in terms of the unity of the Government.

 

JOURNALIST: And do you agree with Jason Clare the person should be – an MP should stand aside if they’re being investigated by the police?

 

SHORTEN: No I think the issue here is that Mal Brough –

 

JOURNALIST: So is that a yes or no – sorry do you agree with Jason Clare?

 

SHORTEN: No I don’t, I think the issue here is that Mal Brough misled the Parliament, not once, not twice, not three or four times but now five times by the end of the last tumultuous two weeks. And also again to repeat my earlier answer, you had Mal Brough go on television, he was asked a direct question by Liz Hayes – you know, did you procure, did you ask Ashby to procure? He says, "Yes, I did." Then he came into Parliament and said, "No, I didn't." Both versions can't be correct, can they?

 

JOURNALIST: Can I put a direct question to you and ask you should Mal Brough stand aside, yes or no?

 

SHORTEN: I’ve said that he should stand aside. He has misled the Parliament, no question. Thank you everyone.

 

ENDS

 

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