DAN TEHAN | Australian Financial Review | May 25, 2015
Yet as the latest discussion paper from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption has found, what Gough dreamed of is sadly more distant than ever.
The discussion paper clearly shows unions increasing their political influence, with more money and less transparency than ever.
With union membership having fallen from 46 per cent of those employed in 1983 to 17 per cent in 2013 this seems almost too absurd to be true.
True it is though. Take the Australian Senate.
The Royal Commission revealed in its paper that unions have “a very significant role in determining the composition of the Australian Senate” with 71 per cent of Labor senators being former union officials.
Worryingly, the discussion paper highlights that this political influence is inextricably linked to union governance and the activities of their officials.
As the paper outlines, “donations are capable of being used by senior officials in a union as a way of establishing patronage, exercising influence, or obtaining agreement from ALP parliamentary representatives to adopt a particular legislative course”.
It is no doubt why the ACTU’s secretary, Dave Oliver, will move at next week’s ACTU Congress to collect an extra $10 million from affiliate unions for campaign funding.
The ACTU’s current wish list includes legalising the ability for industrial action without a secret ballot and before a union has even met with an employer.
Union influence is also permeating the current race for the ALP federal presidency.
Victorian minister Jane Garrett, a candidate for the presidency, has tried to court the influential and militant CFMEU’s support by backing their stance against the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement.
In a globalised world, these myopic views on industrial action and free trade should be dead and buried, particularly for a trading nation like Australia.
What is becoming more and more obvious is that the financial structure used to provide this patronage has become increasingly complex as union revenues have diversified.
As the Royal Commission argues, unions have become sophisticated businesses with investments and interests that provide revenue streams through trusts, incorporated and unincorporated associations, and investment funds.
The discussion paper makes particular reference that at very least the use of these structures should require union officials be held to the same level of accountability as their corporate counterparts.
One only has to look at what the Royal Commission has found in relation to the keeping of accurate records and minutes by the Health Services Union and the Electrical Trades Union to see how the unions could be made more accountable.
Transparency in governance should be bipartisan common sense, particularly when it is the custody of members’ funds at stake.
Yet unlike the corporations they have mimicked to increase their cash flows, it is the unions’ ability to influence their former colleagues in the Senate that has blocked any possible reform in this area.
With the influence of unions growing within the ALP almost daily, surely the time has come for Bill Shorten to act.
For its own good and that of the nation, Labor needs to help create more transparency around union governance.
The government still has legislation waiting in the Senate that would provide the same levels of transparency to the unions as their corporate counterparts.
It is the height of hypocrisy to selectively regulate positions of significant responsibility and financial, political and public influence.
If these regulations are good enough for the private sector, surely they are appropriate for the unions. In Bill’s year of ideas here is a suggestion that would demonstrate fortitude, and change some of the focus group commentary.
On June 9 he could use his address at the “Gough Whitlam – Labor Reformer” commemoration dinner to outline his bipartisan support for the industrial relations reforms the government took to the last election.
It’s time, Comrade Bill.