Mr RAMSEY (Grey–Government Whip) (17:18): I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017 and the amendment to the bill. Australia is recognised as being generally honest. It is an honest place to grow up in. It was certainly an honest world that I grew up in. I do not think I knew what corruption was, to be quite honest. I still live in a community where people neglect to lock their doors and leave their keys in their car. We have an inherent trust in people-a man’s handshake is a deal. We trust that other people will treat us the same as we treat them. We trust that they will not rip us off. I often say when I am speaking to constituents and people who feel as though this nation’s parliament may not serve them as well as they would hope that we should be very proud that in this parliament-that I am aware of, at least-we have never had what I would describe as a major corruption scandal. Sure, we have had people that have done the wrong thing with their travel benefits and their work expenses claims. We have had people that have done the wrong thing with colour TVs and teddy bears, if my mind goes back to the right era, but one would hardly call that a corruption scandal. We have not seen huge Defence contracts led on a wink and a nod. We have not seen process frozen out. And those that have transgressed, even at that lower level, have generally paid a great political price-they have lost their careers. We set a very high bar and it is one of the reasons we should be proud of the parliament and proud of the job that generally this parliament does for Australians.
Corruption is cancer. It is the disease that stops the advancement of so many nations. It is why Australia has an important part to play in the developing nations within our region. Australia is trying to help them to learn from our experience how to manage their parliaments. I remember a family holiday in a South-East Asian country-that shall remain nameless for the point of this exercise-with our children 15 years ago. I can remember my children were aged at that stage about 15 and 21, so they had an appreciation of the world at least. We were on a tourist bus and were pulled over by the police. The driver stopped to talk to the police for a while and then the driver reached into his pocket. They reached a suitable arrangement and we moved on. The kids said, ‘What was that?’ The driver said, ‘We had to pay the police to continue on the road so that we did not get defected or arrested or put off the road.’ My kids said: ‘They can’t do that. They are the police.’ I said, ‘Unfortunately that is the case we are dealing with in much of the world.’
In Australia we need to kick back against those corruptions. We need to ensure at every level we try and stamp it out. That is why many of the findings of the Heydon royal commission are in fact so disturbing, because they go to that very point of trust that we have in the people who are supposed to work for us and with us when in fact they have been taking advantage of the workers in this particular case. Unions should be able to cut a deal with businesses and with the employers, and it may even entail trading away wages or certain benefits for other certain benefits as long as it is a good honest deal, a quid pro quo.
For instance, if you were to say to a worker, ‘We are going to take $5 an hour off you but the kickback is we are going to help finance your children’s education,’ that might be a good deal that the workers might approve of-they might not but they might. If they cut a deal that said, ‘We will take $10 an hour off and at the end of the year every one of the workers will get a new BMW,’ that might be a good deal or it might not but the workers should know about the deal that is being cut on their behalf. It might entail a deal that sees them greatly increase the company’s superannuation contributions.
Mr Deputy Speaker, if you were employed in a workplace and I said to you, ‘What if your $10 were to go off and contribute to a $300,000 payment for unspecified services that the union was supposed to provide but in fact never delivered upon?’ I think you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would feel pretty upset about that. But the Heydon royal commission told us that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you had been working in that workplace, would not have known about it. I think the issue here is the secrecy. It is the secret deals, the kickbacks. What can we expect from officials and companies that reach deals that workers do not know about? The way to fix this is to shine the light in, to provide some sunshine, to offer full transparency, and that is what this legislation is about.
The story is if you want to know what is going on here, if you want to know if these are corrupting benefits, we need to follow the money trail. The money trail always takes you to the real cause, the net effect and net benefit. When we see who might benefit from these deals, it really starts to expose how corrupting they can be. Did members of the AWU, for instance, really want to trade away their benefits in order that the member for Maribyrnong could have a $32,000 benefit to his election fund? I think they should have been told about that. I think that would be the answer. Perhaps every union member would like to have done that-it is quite likely they would have-but they certainly should have known about it, and they certainly should have known what it is they lost for that to happen. This bill will make such secrecy a criminal offence. We are not actually targeting one particular sector of the community, even though the legislation has come about as a result of the findings of the Heydon royal commission, we are trying to stamp out corruption generally. That will force unions and companies to tell their workers what they are doing with the workers’ money. We are letting the sunshine in.
There are a number of things this legislation does. The criminal penalties will apply equally to employers and unions. I think that is a very important part. The penalties and payments for benefits intended to corrupt a union official will be a maximum of 10 years in prison. We are not pussyfooting around; this is a serious penalty. If you are talking serious amounts of money you need a serious deterrent. So it will be a maximum of 10 years imprisonment or a $900,000 fine for an individual or $4½ million for a company. I would think that those kinds of penalties should make most individuals and most companies think again before they undertake that kind of activity. The penalties for other illegitimate payments and benefits will be up to two years in prison or $90,000 for an individual or $450,000 for a company.
I think most importantly, the bill will also require that any financial benefits obtained by an employer or a union through an enterprise agreement negotiation be disclosed to the employees before they vote on the agreement. That really must be the most important part. There is nothing particularly wrong with people making sensible agreements that benefit all parties-in fact, it makes sense. This parliament, this government, is committed in another sphere to developing free trade agreements, for instance. One of the things that free trade agreements do is benefit all parties. So it should be that when agreements are made within the workplace, if it benefits all parties, if people come to a good, mutual understanding, they should be able to strike that deal, but the negotiators absolutely have to tell the people on whose behalf they have acted exactly what has been done on their behalf and what has been traded off to achieve that deal. If money changes hands between the employer and the union then both parties have an obligation to honestly disclose these payments to their employees and members.
On balance, I think this bill rings well with some of the lines we have heard in relation to the budget in the last couple of days. It is about fairness. It is about making sure that everybody gets a fair go. That is certainly one of the great slogans of Australia, that we believe that everybody gets a fair go. If somebody is going to do a deal on our behalf then a fair go is that we know what it is. I absolutely commend this legislation to the House and I look forward to it making a real difference in our workplaces and to it not just affecting workers but setting an example to the rest of our community that says, ‘This is the standard by which we live in Australia. It is the standard we expect all Australians to meet.’