Bill's Transcripts

Press Conference - Fair Work Australia Report

BILL SHORTEN: As you would be aware the General Manager of Fair Work Australia has concluded her consideration of the Fair Work Australia delegate’s investigation into the national office of the HSU.  And the report has just been made public in the last hour or so.

The General Manager has confirmed a total of 181 contraventions of the Fair Work Registered Organisations Act 2009.  181 contraventions have been found as part of the investigation.

The General Manager of Fair Work Australia has now instructed solicitors to initiate court proceedings in the federal court for penalties and declarations.  So the stage of investigation is concluded, it will now become a matter for the courts.

I wish to be crystal clear.  The Fair Work Australia investigation process has taken too long.  This is unacceptable, I’ve said this before.

There are some serious systems issues that arise from this drawn out process.  I think the other unfortunate consequence is that this process has cast some doubts about the transparency and accountability of the broader trade union movement.

I believe that the problems which are reported in parts of the Health Services Union are not representative of the actions of the broader Trade Union Movement.  I believe what we see here is the action of a few individuals, not the Trade Union Movement.

The dysfunction however, in some parts of the Health Services Union, has shown that the actions of a few individuals, if left unchecked, can jeopardise the effective functioning of a Union in the best interests of its members.

This is why the Government has already applied to the Federal Court, supported by ahh the Union Movement to appoint an administrator into federally registered HSU East’s branch.

Australia has long had a free and independent Trade Union Movement which is representative of, and accountable to, its members.

I believe, as does the Government that our trade union movements are overwhelmingly professional, democratic, and highly effective organisations functioning in the interest of their members.

I also want to be clear, the Gillard Government will also be taking wide ranging action to improve Fair Work Australia’s investigative processes, and also action to enhance the accountability and transparency of registered organisations and strengthen associated penalties.

We believe that, when an individual is found to have done the wrong thing, and its established in court, then there should be appropriate penalties commensurate with the breach of trust these actions represent.    We also believe that registered organisation should be transparent with the remuneration that they provide offices of that association.

This is why, now that the Fair Work investigation stage is concluded its appropriate for the government to act on some of these issues.

This is why the Labor Government will firstly; introduce legislation to improve the accountability and transparency of registered organisations via financial disclosure obligations, higher penalties, and proactive compliance education.  Secondly, we will commit to introduce legislation to implement any recommendations from the KPMG Review into Fair Work Australia’s investigative capacities, once this review is completed.  At the very least, this legislation will allow Fair Work Australia to better deal with the State law enforcement agencies and other regulatory authorities.

Union members deserve employee organisations to represent their interests to the full. Employees deserve employer organisations to represent their interests to the full.

Strong systems of financial accountability and corporate governance are essential to ensure the integrity of any organisation, be it a large multi-national, a Trade Union or indeed a not for profit organisation.

Australians should have confidence that any allegations of breaches of the law will be investigated quickly.  The actions I’m announcing today will ensure that this delay does not happen again.

Happy to take questions thank you.


REPORTER: Bernadette O’Neil has said she can’t forward this report to the statutory bodies and George Brandis is saying this is just a cover-up to slow any possible federal and criminal charges, do you have any comments that Fair Work Australia has been directed by the Government to go slow?

BILL SHORTEN: There is no evidence, and in fact there has been no action that the Government has asked the Fair Work Australia General Manager to go slow. The General Manager has stated on a number of occasions there is no evidence to the contrary. Certainly what the General Manager has indicated is that she believes that the existing acts need to be clarified so as to remove any debates in the future. What we are indicating today is that we agree.

REPORTER: Did this go through Cabinet today and what sort of penalties are you thinking of? Are you thinking of penalties in line with directors penalties?

BILL SHORTEN: It terms of Cabinet deliberations or otherwise I’m not at liberty to disclose that. Certainly what I’m saying today does have the full support of our Prime Minister. Furthermore when it comes to what penalties we’ll settle on, they will be significant with [inaudible], it is my intention to take up our proposition to the national Workplace Relations Consultant Council, which is made up of leading employer associations and trade unions, I’ve convened a special meeting on May 25th in order to finalise these propositions. There will be a significant strengthening of penalties.

REPORTER: Minister Shorten why have you decided to take action now? Why couldn’t this package have been introduced months ago?

BILL SHORTEN: Well first of all, I don’t set the assumption that we haven’t done things. It was myself and the government who took the unprecedented action of intervening in the existing Federal Court disputes in the HSU to make an application to put in an administrator. It was this action which has triggered support from the ACTU from Unions NSW from the functioning branches of the HSU who have all supported this call. That was action; I can tell you our lawyers did not get stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the federal Court in Sydney with everyone else seeking to put an administrator in. I know that since our action, as plenty of people have said this is a good idea but I do repeat we didn’t get stuck in a traffic jam with our lawyers going to the Federal Court to make this application.

REPORTER: no but I’m talking about...

BILL SHORTEN: Now I appreciate that but I just want to put on record that this government has acted in some of the matters where we could and this is unprecedented action and I don’t want to just put that one in the pocket and pretend it hasn’t happened because it has. In terms of the leadership change I think it is appropriate and whilst we we’ve been considering these options it is appropriate to wait until the General Manger, who has been conducting this report, has said today. Some of the actions they are talking about today can only occur, once we’ve seen initially the report and the comments that the General Manager of Fair Work Australia. I should also say that an inquiry of this nature, I think whilst it has taken far too long, it’s unprecedented, and the legislation that we are seeking to amend was the legislation that was introduced by the then Minister for Industrial Relations and I think 2001/2002 to refresh peoples memory who the minister for Industrial Relations was then, who’s that now we realise who we have to improve upon, it was Tony Abbott.

REPORTER: You think you’d be looking at the KPMG inquiry findings, Kathy Jackson said this afternoon that the auditor general should be investigating Fair Work Australia, what’s your response to that rather than KPMG?

BILL SHORTEN: Well I think that it’s fair to say that the HSU is now the subject of a range of investigations, this is an 1100 page report. I think it is quite a thorough report. I must say I find the findings of the report disturbing. I find them extremely disappointing as a former union official. I understand that the trade union movement in Australia is overwhelmingly honest but I think that the source of the findings and the conduct which is the subject of this report has no place in the modern democratic and honest trade union movement. So in terms of the KPMG report the General Manger of Fair Work Australia is an independent statutory office holder has said that she has asked KPMG in a very brief period of time to look at recommendations on how to improve the process. I’ve already flagged some which we can discern already need to be acted on, we are not going to let the grass grow under our feet, now this report has finally, in its long drawn out process the investigations stage by Fair Work Australia has concluded.

REPORTER: In light of the findings of this report how tenable is it for the government to rely on the vote of Craig Thompson in the house, you threw him aside from the Labour party but you still rely on his vote.

BILL SHORTEN: Well first of all, when we talk about this whole matter, I want to put on record the volume of the findings is disturbing, it is concerning and that under no set of circumstances can some of the issues which have been reported can be tolerated in the union movement or indeed in the ranks of employers. The procurement of escort services using union members’ money—that is unacceptable. Corruption is unacceptable. However this is the end of the investigation at this stage. Mr Thomson, who you say we rely upon, has been suspended through his decision and that of the Prime Minister from the Labor Caucus. So he is no longer a member of the Labor Caucus in the Parliament—he is a crossbencher. We owe it to the members of the union to finish the job in terms of the court stage of these proceedings and the Fair Work Australia General Manager has instructed solicitors to prepare matters of a civil nature. The Commonwealth Department of Public Prosecutions has referred this to the relevant state police organisations investigating this, but what I would also say to you, is that others have sat in the Parliament whilst they’ve had charges defended. As distasteful as some of the findings are, I cannot as a politician at a press conference play judge. I’m certainly, and I will also reiterate, that we owe it to people and the members of this union to see the process finished. So as difficult as it might be for some people to accept, Mr Thomson should be afforded the same right to defend himself as anyone else. Mr Thomson has the right to the presumption of innocence and I understand that he is strenuously and fiercely denying matters in this report.

REPORTER: Do you accept that the release of the report today is a huge distraction for the Government with the Budget on tomorrow?

BILL SHORTEN: I believe that this report is deeply disturbing and concerning. I believe that whatever day it was released it’s a matter which needs to be examined, and the sort of actions which I’m outlining today need to be taken. But I also know that the Budget tomorrow is very important and I think the Budget will not be distracted because that’s too important for the nation getting to surplus, building upon the economic achievements which we’ve already seen steering the Government through the global financial crisis.

REPORTER: Minister, the Opposition’s also put forward its own legislation which would introduce tougher laws that would increase net penalties for union officials who don’t disclose financial records and the like. Will the Government consider supporting that?

BILL SHORTEN: Well, I think I’ve outlined today, or I know I’ve outlined today, our propositions on the matter. Of course what the Opposition are proposing is to amend the legislation that they gave birth to in 2002. We will look at all observations and ideas. We are committed to greater financial transparency, we are committed to disclosure of remuneration, we’re certainly committed to ensuring that where individuals have been found to have breached the trust of their members that penalties should be increased. And we will take this to the National Workplace Relations Consultative Committee on 25th May with legislation intended.

REPORTER: Do you accept the broad proposition that union officials should be treated in a similar way? Broadly speaking, in terms of disclosure, to for example, executives of major companies?

BILL SHORTEN: I’ve been very clear. I think the conduct of the sort which has been reported in this Fair Work Australia report is completely unacceptable. I believe that no one regardless of their position is above the law. I believe that we need to strengthen penalties. I believe there should be greater financial transparency. But I also believe that Australia’s trade union movement should not be scape-goated for the actions of a few individuals in parts of one union. I also believe that the trade union movement in Australia continues to contribute to both the welfare of its members and to the economic progress of Australia, and I don’t believe that what we’ve seen in the HSU with some officials, in some parts of even that union, remembering there’s parts of that union functioning very well too, that all should all be tarred because of a few rotten apples.

REPORTER: Kathy Jackson and the NSW State Government said they wouldn’t support Justice Michael Walton being appointed to the administrator. She’s suggested for HSU they [inaudible] jobs for Labor mates. In light of you wanting to get that union fixed would you find someone else to appoint?

BILL SHORTEN: Well I’m not about to accept the smearing and slandering of a judge in the NSW Industrial Relations Commission. If the NSW Government is going to start attacking its own NSW industrial relations deputy president then they’ve got a problem.

REPORTER: So this [inaudible] Mr Williamson?

BILL SHORTEN: Well it’s not, I don’t accept that all. I think that Deputy President Walton just like the rest of the members of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission do their job very well and very effectively. Let’s not tarnish, because the O’Farrell Government was slow out of the blocks about proposing an administrator, let’s not start throwing the mud around about individuals of unimpeachable reputation. Furthermore, we want to work with the O’Farrell Government because their laws for the registration of unions are more opaque than ours. They acknowledge that there is no capacity or debate for them to even appoint an administrator. They have to change the law because of a deficiency in the law which they didn’t follow up until we turned up in the federal court in Sydney. We want to work with the NSW Government because there are clearly complex legal arguments around the registration of state unions. But if the O’Farrell Government is saying that we should do nothing with a federally registered union, we’re not buying that package.

REPORTER: When did you first know about the specific contraventions released in the report today?

BILL SHORTEN: Late this afternoon.

REPORTER: And can you say that the Prime Minister also found out late this afternoon?

BILL SHORTEN: Yes, absolutely. Ok if there’s no more questions, thanks very much.