In August 1985 Bob Hawke proclaimed that the Australian government had had enough of “the Building Labourers Federation’s complete disdain for the law, and frequent resort to practices of thuggery and physical coercion”, which “have no place in our society”.
Like today’s government, Hawke was responding to a royal commission report into union behaviour that had found the BLF had placed itself “above the law” by invading offices, destroying property, employing standover tactics and costing the country millions through questionable industrial action.
Fast forward almost 35 years and another royal commission into union behaviour has highlighted deplorable conduct by several unions that has resulted in criminal charges ranging from blackmail and participating in a criminal group to fraud. And a Federal Court judge, Geoffrey Flick, describes a union, now the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union, as an organisation that has “repeatedly sought to place itself above the law”.
The controversy surrounding CFMEU Victorian boss John Setka’s behaviour is another wake-up call. We must not forget the CFMEU’s long list of repeated and wilful contraventions of industrial laws and the 70 or so CFMEU union officials still before the courts.
Now don’t get me wrong; registered organisations, whether they be unions or employers associations, play an important role in our community. Aside from providing advice and support to their members, they can play a central role in ensuring productive communications between workers and management. But just as Australians expect decent conduct from our corporations, not-for-profits and other institutions, we expect the same of our registered organisations and the people who lead them. They enjoy special rights and privileges that other people do not, including tax exemptions and the right to enter private property.
In 2017 the Federal Circuit Court made clear in handing down yet another conviction against the CFMEU that “the court can do no more with the tools available to it to ensure compliance with the industrial regime … If the community at large are not satisfied with the actions of the court to ensure compliance with the Fair Work Act, then the next step is a matter for the parliament.”
Parliament now has a bill before it that would restore balance and rekindle public confidence in the conduct and operation of registered organisations and officials.
The Ensuring Integrity Bill seeks to lift their standards by introducing a fit-and-proper-person test. It brings in a regime to sanction those who repeatedly break the law, act in a corrupt manner or commit serious offences. The government is proposing a significant step-up in accountability by allowing the federal courts to prohibit an official from holding office or cancelling the registration of an organisation. But there must come a point at which the government, on behalf of our community, says “enough”.
Sadly, the last time the bill was before parliament, misleading claims spread by some self-interested parties overshadowed the understanding of how important it is to call out and put a stop to unacceptable behaviour, no matter who is doing it.
When banks do the wrong thing, we expect them to be held to account, as we do when employers do the wrong thing.
The time has come for us to hold unions and other registered organisations to account. Our laws should not tolerate officials who seek to intimidate building inspectors when they enter construction sites, and our laws surely should not tolerate anyone holding office who resorts to physical violence and harassment.
Some no doubt will try again to mislabel the reforms in the Ensuring Integrity Bill “union bashing”.
The reforms, in fact, apply equally to employer associations and unions, and largely mirror the standards we have set for companies and directors under our corporation laws.
Very few groups are ever enthusiastic about being regulated. Both employer associations and unions are equally regulated by the Ensuring Integrity Bill.
The fact unions are opposed to it, while employer associations support it, raises the question: if employer associations are ready to be held to account, why aren’t unions? Why are unions so afraid to clean up their act and remove bad apples?
Australia has come a long way as a free, tolerant and respectful society since Hawke had the tenacity and courage to deregister the BLF “in the interests of society”. But Hawke’s calls for reform to address the behaviour of those in leadership positions in industrial organisations who have shown contempt for the system and values of our society still ring true.
Australians have shown considerable patience in the face of repeated failures by registered organisations and their officials to adhere to our industrial and criminal laws.
However, if we as a society want to see more than emotive headlines and apologies then we should support action by the government to tackle this issue.
Organisations and individuals we endow with special rights and privileges must live up to the standards the community expects and deserves.
That’s why the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is calling on parliamentarians to pass the Ensuring Integrity Bill.
After all, the standard we walk past is the standard we accept.
James Pearson is chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.