Demerits to bust rogue union chiefs
Union officials who breach workplace laws would be banned from holding office under a new demerit-points system the government will adopt in a bid to get its union-busting Ensuring Integrity Bill through parliament as early as next week.
The new system would involve a 180-penalty-unit threshold for law-breaking trade unionists, and could lead to Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union officials being banned for just one breach of civil laws, while other officials would be exposed to ban applications for multiple, minor breaches.
Attorney-General Christian Porter told The Weekend Australian that proposed amendments, resulting from negotiations with Centre Alliance, meant penalty units would accumulate for breaches across three separate pieces of workplace legislation.
Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick said on Friday he was “close to an agreement” on the bill, which significantly expands the grounds for banning union officials and deregistering unions.
The government said on Friday the bill could be brought on for a Senate vote as early as next Wednesday. One Nation is due to meet Mr Porter on Tuesday. A spokesman for senator Malcolm Roberts indicated on Friday that One Nation supported the demerit-points system in principle but had questions about how it would work in detail.
Senator Jacqui Lambie declined to comment but her office maintained she intended to vote for the bill if CFMEU Victorian leader John Setka continued to refuse to resign.
Senator Patrick confirmed the 180-penalty-unit threshold for union officials under the deal with the Coalition. He said officials could be subject to a ban application for “multiple, minor breaches”. He said the proposed trigger for a deregistration application for a union was 900 penalty units but that figure was “ballpark” and yet to be agreed.
Under laws applying across the building and construction industry, conduct including coercion and unlawful industrial action and other offences attract 200 penalty units, meaning a CFMEU official would be exposed to a Federal Court ban application if found guilty of one civil breach.
“Many of the serious breaches that we see by members of the CFMEU — and which have prompted Federal Court judges to describe the union as one of the most recidivist offenders in Australia’s industrial landscape — can now attract 200 penalty units per contravention and so, under the proposed approach would, if the CFMEU officials continue to reoffend, give rise to potential disqualification action,” Mr Porter said.
The points system would apply to breaches under the Fair Work
Act, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act and the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Act. The three pieces of legislation have multiple tiers of breaches that impose a range of penalty units according to the seriousness of the offence.
Under the Fair Work Act, serious contraventions attract 600 penalty units for an individual and 3000 for a registered organisation while 60 penalty units for officials and 300 units for unions apply for offences including right of entry breaches, coercion and unlawful industrial action.
ACTU president Michele O’Neil said the points system would result in union officers being disqualified and unions shut down for minor paperwork breaches. “A union where an administrative officer made a simple mistake in updating details of financial members of a union could see the union shut down,” she said. “Contrast this with corporate Australia where companies who file records late with ASIC face an $80 fine. Unions for the same mistake under existing laws face $63,000 fines and if this bill is passed could see leaders sacked and the union shut down. The Morrison government is trying to scam the Senate crossbench into believing they have improved this bill. In reality they are simply giving it a coat of paint.”
Mr Porter accused the ACTU of “complete” misrepresentation. “There is absolutely nothing in the current bill or the proposals recommended by the Centre Alliance report … which would lead to a union — or any registered organisation which includes employer associations — being shut down for a simple mistake made by an administrative officer,’’ he said. “This is just not true and dents the credibility of their entire position on the bill. The fact the ACTU appear unwilling to recognise the importance of the role played by the courts under the bill is incredibly concerning — though it perhaps goes some way to explaining why they and some of their members have failed to respect its findings for so many years.”
Mr Porter said the government was prepared to back the demerit-points system and the existing penalty unit regime in the Fair Work Act provided a “sound basis for this type of approach”. He said he was prepared to relinquish the ability of the minister to make applications to the Federal Court against registered organisations and their officials.
But the government is pushing back against Senator Patrick’s call not to subject union mergers to a public interest test.
Mr Porter said the government was also prepared to “refine” the test but maintained it was important to prevent “economic harm by spreading toxic, law-breaking cultures among registered organisations via amalgamations”.