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Australian union members deserve and will get the highest standards

A message from ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver


I’ve been a union member all my working life. The union movement I believe in is one that fights every day for fairness and which puts its members’ interests first.

Recent allegations against a few individuals, the most prominent being Craig Thomson and Michael Williamson, have shocked and saddened me.

There can be no place in the union movement for corruption or the misuse of members’ money.

Last year the ACTU appointed an independent expert panel to produce a report into union governance. We did this because we want to make sure that Australian workers can be members of unions with the highest possible standards. The panel, chaired by former Federal Court Justice Rod Madgwick QC and made up of experts from academia, business and the law, delivered its report to union leaders this week.

This report is available here.

The report has found that despite the recent publicity there is no widespread misuse of members’ funds by Australian unions, and unions are honestly run. It has also found that our unions are among the most tightly-regulated in the world and that there is no case for changing the way unions are regulated, including Tony Abbott’s half-baked idea to treat unions like major profit-making corporations.

I don’t think it will be a surprise to union members, who see hard-working delegates and officials in action, that the vast majority of the movement is doing the right thing.

It is deeply unfair for all unions to be tarred by allegations made against a few.

This report is a challenge to us to make sure that we have the highest standards of governance.

The report covers areas of financial oversight and planning, policies and procedures, reporting and transparency, employment and remuneration policies, conflicts of interest, training, best practice and membership grievance procedures.

I know that many unions already have strong standards of governance. The report itself noted that its recommendations were already in place in many unions.

We want to make sure that unions learn from each other and these standards of governance are adopted across the movement.

The ACTU will set up an implementation committee to lead and assist unions in improving their processes, and the establishment of a Governance Advisory Panel.

The union movement has supported last year’s changes to the laws which cover registered industrial organisations, including tougher penalties for officials who do the wrong thing, but

we realise that it is far better for members if procedures are put in place to prevent the wrong thing being done in the first place.

As Justice Madgwick noted in his report, “the greatest disinfectant is sunlight”. Transparency to members will do more to prevent any malpractice or breach of standards than more regulations or penalties.

Tony Abbott has predictably sought to use a couple of high-profile cases to demonise all unions.

The proposal by the Coalition for further regulations is a politically motivated attempt by a party with businesses’ interests at its heart to weaken the union movement. Because strong unions are an anathema to the Liberal Party.

Tony Abbott is not interested in making unions move effective, he is interested in reducing their ability to represent our members and protect their rights at work.

Don’t believe his crocodile tears for a second. He has tried to re-invent himself, but Tony Abbott is still the same man who once said that a bad boss was like a bad husband – doing more good than harm.

Or that the law that protected workers from being unfairly dismissed was just a monkey to get of small business’s backs.

Or calling workers who were fighting to protect their entitlements – “economic traitors”.

Where is Tony Abbott when hundreds of thousands of union members’ money is stolen by company directors responsible for corporate failures that leave hardworking employees not only jobless, but without the entitlements they are owed? It is left to unions to pick up the pieces in these events.

Where was Tony Abbott when the James Hardie company shifted its assets offshore to avoid the reach of Australian law and the payment of adequate compensation to victims of asbestos-related disease? All he had to say on that matter was to vilify the late Bernie Banton.

The profound silence from the Coalition about reforms to corporate governance, despite hundreds of cases of company collapses which have seen individual workers lose tens of thousands of dollars each, is evidence of their true motivation to attack unions, not protect workers.

This report is not an ending, it is the beginning of a process which will see a lift in the standard of union governance in Australia.

Unions asked for this review and we are looking forward to implementing the recommendations.

Many of our members are on low wages. They deserve to know that when they make the decision to pay for a union membership their money is spent on fighting for a better deal for workers.

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