THE Australian Labor Party’s announcement yesterday of a policy to strengthen the accountability and transparency of unions was met by underwhelmed responses from government and industry.

The announcement came not long after allegations surfaced of National Workers Union officials misusing union funds, and among ongoing evidence of wider misappropriation heard by the Royal Commission into Trade Governance and Corruption.

A joint statement released by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor, and Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, said revelations of theft and misuse of union members’ money required a ‘tough, fair and effective response’.

“This new package of reforms will help ensure that criminal conduct is detected at the earliest opportunity and dealt with by the full force of the law,” the statement said.

The package includes:

  • Giving the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) responsibility for breaches of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act.
  • Allocating an additional $4.5 million to the Fair Work Commission for increased monitoring of registered organisations.
  • Reducing the disclosure threshold for political donations from $13,000 to $1,000.
  • Extended protections for whistle-blowers in line with those that exist in the public sector.
  • Doubling maximum penalties for criminal offences under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act.
  • Requirements for registered organisations to rotate auditors every five years, consistent with requirements under the Corporations Act.

Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash said the timing of the ALP’s policy announcement was ‘suspicious’ and ‘contradicts its long held position that there is not an endemic problem within section of the union movement in Australia’.

“Bill Shorten and Labor have serious questions to answer as to why they have maintained a protection racket for their union masters by denying the existence of widespread governance issues in the trade union movement to the detriment of workers,” Minister Cash said.

“Under Mr Shorten’s leadership, the Opposition has been given numerous opportunities to support greater accountability for registered organisations in the Parliament but chose not to.

“Labor instead voted against the government’s Registered Organisations Bill to clean up union governance on three separate occasions.”

Responding on behalf of resource industry employers, AMMA executive director, policy and public affairs, Scott Barklamb labelled the policy an ‘overdue and inadequate response to governance failures and criminality that are increasingly tarnishing Australia’s trade union movement and harming hard working union members’.

“Mr Shorten claims that Labor has zero tolerance for criminality and corruption in the union movement, but actions speak louder than words. For more than two years the Opposition and their fellow addicts to union funding, the Greens, have held up essential reforms to how unions are governed and overseen by regulators,” Mr Barklamb said.

“These reforms would have made a real difference. As Labor has dissembled, prevaricated and blocked reform, they have unfortunately in effect run protection for the sociopathic fringe of the union movement that is robbing hard working union members and displaying wanton disregard for the law.

“By repeatedly blocking the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014), Labor has enabled parts of the trade union movement to perpetuate financial and administrative practices that would be completely unacceptable in corporate Australia.”

Mr Barklamb called on Bill Shorten and Brendan O’Connor to demonstrate that the announcement is not designed to delay reform.

“If it is serious about reform and stamping out the ‘bad apples’, the Opposition should commit to urgently passing the new rules for the governance of registered unions and employer associations currently before Parliament when it resumes in the new year,” he said.

The final report from the Royal Commission is expected to be handed down later this month.