Subjects: CFMMEU, John Setka, George Calombaris
LAURA JAYES: The Government will today or this week move its Ensuring Integrity Bill designed to stamp out corruption in the unions.
Joining me now is the Attorney-General Christian Porter. Thanks so much for your time. The Ensuring Integrity Bill has been described as harmful to workers, undemocratic and inconsistent with international law but you're pushing ahead with it anyway?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well those descriptions are actually wrong. I mean the international legal conventions that apply to the freedom of association always say subject to the laws of the land and the reality is that we have rogue elements of the union movement in Australia who don't see themselves as subject to the law of the land and, sadly, behave accordingly.
So the CFMEU has racked up $16 million worth of penalties in the courts for over 2000 contraventions and we as a government just think in those types of circumstances that there should be a reasonable ability of a responsible government to have laws that would allow the Government or the appropriate person with standing to apply to the court and for the court to decide whether or not they should be deregistered.
LAURA JAYES: Okay so these unions-
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: …exactly what you do with companies.
LAURA JAYES: Okay. Militancy within the CFMMEU as you say has cost - is it just New South Wales building workers - $6 million over 15 years but this week Minister we see one company run by George Calombaris underpaid workers to the tune of $8 million over just six years? So what's the bigger problem here?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I think they're both issues, there's no question about that, I mean one doesn't detract from the other and I've said publicly that the contrition penalty that was applied in the Calombaris matter was in my observation very light. And that's an area that we are going to review and consult on and I'm, as a Minister, very open minded to the suggestion that at the upper edge of seriousness of underpayment of wages where it's repetitious, and knowing, and in large amounts there should be perhaps criminal penalties in those circumstances.
But that doesn't mean that you shouldn’t also be dealing with lawfulness on the side of the union movement, particularly the CFMEU. I mean $16 million worth of fines for 2000 plus contraventions just clearly indicates the CFMEU has built fines into its business model and has no intention of operating lawfully. A federal court judge has said in a judgement that they've demonstrated absolutely no willingness to tackle their own internal culture, to have a lawful culture which means that a government has to surely respond in those circumstances.
And we've been trying to do this for two years. This legislation was introduced previously, it's been amended in accordance with recommendations from committees to align it as closely as possible with the Corporations law, but how much is too much in terms of bad behaviour from the union movement. And keep in mind that Anthony Albanese himself is trying to expel John Setka from the Labor Party because he says John Setka brings the Labor Party into disrepute. But at the same time Anthony Albanese wants to vote against a law that would allow for that same question to be asked - is John Setka a fit and proper person to be an official of a registered organisation?
LAURA JAYES: Well the question also needs to be asked though Minister, how much is too much when it comes to wage theft and misappropriation of wages in the business sector? It's not just George Calombaris. Over the last couple of years we've seen 7-Eleven, Pizza Hutt, Dominoes, Red Rooster - these are not small companies. You say you're willing to look at a review - don't you need to do more than that?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well you might add to that list this one; which is a union established workers entitlement fund called Protect which just before the last election transferred $32 million which is supposed to be kept in an account which is protecting severance payments for workers - it transferred that money to a union – with no explanation - called it a sponsorship agreement. That is workers money in an account. Now the Bills right before Parliament now regulate those funds to ensure that those types of transfers can't happen and have to be transparently indicated to members.
So the theft of workers money takes a variety of forms……they should all be dealt with and right before the Parliament today are two critical Bills to deal with many of these issues.
LAURA JAYES: Sure, but what about wage theft more broadly? Is it a review - and you've said you'd like to see criminal charges considered - but what is actually happening in a concrete sense?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, in a concrete sense what you've got in cases like Calombaris is, is you've them being detected, investigates - and in fact we provided very significant increase in funding in the tune of about $10 million to the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate these matters.
LAURA JAYES: But you've just said the $200,000 fine was not at all in line with community expectations.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: No of course but at the same time the monies were repaid pursuant to an investigation which has been funded with increased funding from this Government through the Fair Work Ombudsman. So these matters are being investigated and policed more heavily than they have ever been before. But as to the specific point about whether or not the penalties could be higher, I am very open-minded to that.
But the question is exactly where do you draw the line between civil and criminal penalties? And that's something that I think any sensible Government would need to consult on with all of the people who are involved; small business, small and medium sized business, the union movement - in fact I'm meeting with the union movement this afternoon. So yes, the specific nature of penalties for what is a very heavily investigated area should be looked at. But that doesn't mean that you don't also look at this glaring problem of unlawfulness in the union movement, of the misappropriation of workers money by entitlement funds that have no regulatory system around them which, again, is workers’ money.
LAURA JAYES: Well at the same time business is calling for industrial relations changes - on the list is a change to relaxing unfair dismissal laws. Is that bad timing?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well look, I've been tasked with having an overall review of issues that can be improved and areas that can be improved. But the fundamental common test for anything that we would do as a Government in this area is, does it genuinely benefit employers, employees by putting upward pressure on wages, and create a healthier and stronger Australian economy?
LAURA JAYES: Okay.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: You have to look for areas of improvement that make sure that everyone benefits - the businesses, the people employed by the businesses and the Australian economy as a whole.
LAURA JAYES: Just quickly, is the Government going to fund the Peter Ridd case?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Look I was simply asked a question whether or not there's any capacity to do that. There is a fund that the Commonwealth keeps for sort of extraordinary and novel cases. I undertook to have a look at the ways in which people apply to that fund and what the criteria are because I didn't have it with me at the time I was asked the question. I might note that no applications been made but if were it'd be looked at.
LAURA JAYES: Attorney-General Christian Porter I appreciate your time.