DAN TEHAN | Herald Sun | January 11 2016
It is time individual union officials who break the law are held to account for their actions. Two important recommendations of the Heydon Royal Commission Final Report call for this important reform which all sides of politics should support. If not, the clear message our parliament would be sending to officials in organisations like the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is we are happy for you to break the law with impunity.
In the last 13 years the CFMEU has contravened industrial legislation on more than 100 occasions. In a recent federal court case Justice Jessup asked has there “ever been a worse recidivist in the history of the common law?” The MUA is currently holding the town of Portland in Victoria to ransom by breaking the law. By refusing to accept a Fair Work Commission decision and a Federal Court injunction it is wilfully seeking to harm the town’s largest employer and the local economy.
It beggars belief that not only can these two unions continue to behave in this manner but also this year their officials will seek to merge the two entities – a matter that also needs addressing. This is clearly a situation that can no longer be tolerated and it is why the Heydon Royal Commission is right to recommend that we need to start targeting individuals to ensure the law is upheld.
As its final report highlights currently there are no provisions in the Fair Work (Registered Organisation) Act that prohibit unions paying fines imposed on their officers for breaking the law. In other words, the consequences for union officials of breaking the law are non-existent if their union simply pays the fine.
For officials of the CFMEU this means they laugh every time the gavel is banged and they are on the losing side. Take the most recent case lost by the CFMEU where Ralph Edwards, the boss of their construction division, was fined $7,500 for a contravention of the Fair Work Act. This amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist given his division of the CFMEU can pay the fine and they had an operating surplus of $2.9 million in 2014 and declared assets to the sum of $14.3 million. The MUA’s finances are in equally good shape. Given the record of these unions, it is not surprising that recommendation 30 of the Royal Commission would prohibit unions paying their officials’ fines and make it a criminal act.
Likewise, recommendation 37 would make it a criminal offence for a person who is disqualified from holding an office in a Union to continue to do so. That this is currently permitted is beyond a joke. How can it be that union officials who deliberately flout the law can remain in charge of a union? Is it little wonder that other lawless organisations like bikie gangs and crime syndicates are infiltrating the worst elements of our union movement? In Victoria the climate of lawlessness in the construction industry has become so grave that it is now a domestic security issue with state police calling for action to prevent union officials wearing fines as ‘badges of honour’.
This situation is made even worse when you consider the CFMEU and MUA are considering merging this year to build a super union and make it nigh on impossible for the CFMEU to be deregistered. There is clearly no community of interest in a merger of these two organisations. Sadly, given the inadequacy of the law in this area, it will matter little unless the relevant legislation can be strengthened.
Surely we should be looking at a public interest test for union amalgamations. One possibility would be to legislate so that a union which has received a serious penalty from the Federal Court for the breaking of industrial laws is prohibited from making an application to amalgamate with any other union for a period of five years from the date of the penalty.
Consideration of such a law is necessary when you recall that the predecessor to the CFMEU, the Builders Labourers Federation, was deregistered by the passage of legislation through the Federal and Victorian parliaments. At the time, responsible Labor leaders, Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Premier John Cain, had the courage to act in the national interest. As recent history clearly shows Bill Shorten and CFMEU love child Daniel Andrews have no such instincts.
In 2008, Federal Court Justice Gyles remarked that a number of findings involving unlawful behaviour by officials related to the CFMEU illustrated that the organisation had been negligent in ensuring its officials acted in accordance with law. Eight years later nothing has changed and other unions are beginning to borrow from the CFMEU play book. The Royal Commission has provided us with the recommendations to deal with this unlawful behaviour. It’s time to act.