Unions and workers need to be part of the solution
Published: January 7, 2016 – 9:00PM
The final report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was released just as 2015 was drawing to an end.
The betrayal of union members by officials abusing their positions is something that cannot be ignored and is a disgrace. Despite some extreme language used by Dyson Heydon, the evidence from the royal commission and the fact that many recommendations relate to individuals shows that there are very few people involved in the bad conduct exposed by the process. This is not a systemic problem in the union movement.
Unions exist to organise, campaign and bargain for the people they represent and to advocate for a fairer society. Clearly this objective is undermined when individuals behave in a corrupt fashion, and when the structure of governance and accountability actually obscures wrongdoing from detection and intervention.
For all of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s claims of moving away from simple political slogans and engaging in robust discussions to inform public policy outcomes, the rhetoric deployed on the release of the final report was Abbott-esque in its clunkiness and simplicity.
Workers’ lives are going be a key issue during the next federal election; Turnbull told us this during his press conference. But only through a campaign focusing on the wholesale adoption of Heydon’s report, which essentially leaves workers out of a conversation about their fundamental human rights to organise, campaign and collectively bargain. It is disappointing, but hardly surprising given his antipathy to unions, that Heydon’s recommendations will undermine workers’ rights to organise and protect their rights.
It would be wrong for a government to legislate in a manner that restricts or prohibits what unions and employers should be allowed to bargain about in their workplaces. Heydon’s recommendations proposing that superannuation arrangements be removed from bargaining is just one example of this impediment to bargaining.
The recommendations, and now the government policy, seem to show a misunderstanding of what unions do. Unions play a crucial role in any proper functioning and free democracy. Unions are the means through which ordinary people are able to affect change in their lives, to influence political representatives to legislate for change and to transform Australia into a fairer country. There have been countless achievements that prove this such as annual leave, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage and superannuation.
Of course, there are many recommendations to emerge from the report that are about making unions more accountable and transparent, and these need to be taken seriously. Any recommendation that ensures we are better able to work for our members and give them the support they need to organise their workplaces, should be welcomed.
Unions are collective, membership based organisations and when individuals take advantage of any position of influence they have in a union there needs to be swift action.
South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon has commented that the royal commission offers an “opportunity to bring in other issues that are related to issues of corruption, not just in the union movement, but within corporate Australia”.
Senator Xenophon has long been a proponent of a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption, a body that in NSW has uncovered and punished many individuals who have abused their positions for personal gain. A federal ICAC is an idea that may have its time, now.
Individuals in corporate Australia, government, parliament and in registered organisations such as employer groups and trade unions, who participate in corrupt behaviour should be appropriately exposed and penalised. All of us should be held accountable to the Australian people.
If we are to take anything from the royal commission, it is that we need to ensure transparency and accountability across all sectors of Australian life – not just organised labour, but in corporations, too – and that we need to allow ordinary people to have a voice and agency in protecting our Australian democracy and belief in a “fair go”.
These things won’t be achieved through a wholesale adoption of Heydon’s recommendations, but rather through a wide-ranging discussion about working people and corruption in Australia. This is the challenge before Prime Minister Turnbull. It is one he cannot shirk.
We are ready to talk, because our members need organisations that support them and promote their interests.
Tim Kennedy is national secretary of the National Union of Workers.