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ABC Radio AM with Sabra Lane



Subjects: Crown casino, industrial relations reform

SABRA LANE: Federal Parliament will rise at the end of this week for a five-week break. One of the Government's industrial relations bills will dominate much of the week. In part, it aims to ban union officials who regularly break the law from work sites. Meanwhile, over the weekend, serious allegations were made against the casino giant Crown by 60 Minutes, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Age, saying it had brazenly flouted regulations on numerous occasions. Gambling is one of the biggest and most controversial businesses in Australia.

Joining us now is the Attorney-General and Manager of Government Business. Christian Porter, welcome back to AM.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Good to be back.

SABRA LANE: First to the allegations about Crown casinos. Have law enforcement agencies given you a briefing about these very serious claims?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Look, I haven't actually seen the show because I was in the air travelling to Canberra, but I will watch it with great interest. I mean, we receive briefings and there are a range of investigations that go on with great regularity, particularly into financial crimes and money laundering. But I'm not specifically aware of anything that pertains exactly to the terms of the program that was aired last night. But that's no doubt something that we'll be briefed on shortly.

SABRA LANE: Yeah. There were serious allegations of laundering at casinos, fast tracking of visas, claims of ill-treatment of workers. They're serious allegations.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I'm sure they are. And money laundering and the relationship of money laundering and the ability to conduct that through gambling operations is obviously something that federal authorities keep their eye very, very closely on.

SABRA LANE: Would AUSTRAC maybe give you a briefing on this?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I'm sure that there will be briefings coming up, just haven't received them yet.

SABRA LANE: Okay. The Ensuring Integrity Bill, for that to pass, you'll need crossbench support in the Senate. Have you got it?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, we're discussing the matters with the crossbench, but, you know, there's nothing set in stone at the present point in time, but there'd been public comments by a number of the crossbenchers about their concerns around the behaviour of certain rogue militant elements of the union movement. Obviously, they're concerns the Government absolutely shares and we'll be discussing that with the crossbench over the coming days and weeks. But tonight and today will be the House of Representatives passage of the Bill. So you take these things one step at a time. But the point of these Bills is to regulate matters that have been largely unregulated, as they relate to what are known as Workers' Entitlement Funds. Now $2 billion under management, there's all sorts of examples of that money just being utterly misused and misappropriated. And in the first Bill about ensuring integrity for unions is just to ensure that those rogue parts of militant unions, that repeatedly break the law, have proper recourse in the courts, and the courts can stop people from becoming public officials if they're not fit and proper people. We just think this is absolutely basic.

SABRA LANE: The Government repeatedly makes that point, but Senate crossbencher Rex Patrick says that he thinks that there is a political element here, and he's uncomfortable, and he'd like to see remove that provision, for example, that says a Minister can make a referral to make a union deregistration and that does not apply in the corporate world. He has a point, doesn't he?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, that has a long-standing history in industrial law. And in fact the …

SABRA LANE: …but he presumably knows that, and he says he's not comfortable.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well these are things that we'll discuss with Rex, and I think one of the interesting things about Rex Patrick is Rex has long been a campaigner and champion for integrity, and obviously that integrity isn't just about inside government or the public sector. There has to be proper behaviour in unions. And we've had federal court judges note that rogue militant elements of the CFMEU have been such repetitious lawbreakers for so long, and shown absolutely no inclination whatsoever to ever make any effort at all to change that culture, that there's now not sufficient deterrents at Commonwealth law to stop unlawful behaviour on workplaces. And that actually endangers the safety of employees in Australia, and anyone who looks at this with a rational eye and understands the history of it I think is likely to support this bill ultimately.

SABRA LANE: How big a problem is the underpayment of wages in Australia?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: It is clearly an issue. There was a Migrant Workers Task Force which, amongst other things, looked into this and made 22 recommendations, all of which we accepted as a government. We've very significantly increased the resources of the Fair Work Ombudsman, to the tune of in excess of $10 million, which is the body …

SABRA LANE: That point's been made already.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: ..which is the body that investigates these matters. So they're now being policed and investigate more heavily than they ever have been. But it's clearly an issue. But again, part of this is about setting up the right system of deterrent to ensure that when people are caught, that the punishment means that there's deterrent for others not to do the same thing.

SABRA LANE: The Government is now using that term wage theft. That's a pretty big toughening of language.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, it's a term I think that necessarily applies to circumstances where there are large amounts of underpayment - it's done knowingly, it's done repetitiously, so it reaches a standard that doesn't look unlike fraud in the criminal sense, that you could prove that someone has knowingly defrauded people of money that they were owed. So I've got no difficulty in using that type of language for that subset of underpayment that is truly criminal in its nature. Of course, the issue here is going to be how to define that subset so that you don't haul small businesses who did the wrong thing, but did so unknowingly….

SABRA LANE: You said last week - this came to the fore last week because of the George Calombaris fine of $200,000, which you said was light. Some experts say that penalties should be up to around $10 million. Is that kind of thing warranted?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think that the maximum penalty in my view could probably do with some upward work. I think there should be a criminal penalty for repetitious, knowing, and large underpayments. There will always be a range of other considerations, so there is also in this area what they call enforceable undertakings, which is like, if you like, a civil settlement to the matters. Sometimes they will be appropriate so that businesses themselves don't suffer and other present and future employees of businesses themselves don't suffer. So there will always be room for those types of enforceable undertakings. But you don't want to see them overused, if I could describe it that way.

SABRA LANE: Well, that's what got the banks into trouble, isn't it? The use of enforceable undertakings and no one ever …

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well I think it's what got Commonwealth regulators in trouble, rather than the banks. It didn't get the banks in enough trouble, so I wouldn't want to see enforceable undertakings overused. They clearly have a role to play, and you don't want to take the enforcement of a particular civil fine or penalty to court, if it's going to cost people more than the actual fine, the taxpayer I mean there. But there will be obviously circumstances where you really need to argue the nature of the civil fine very hard in court, and clearly there need to be penalties for the worst, most egregious types of this underpayment, which are criminal in nature.

SABRA LANE: All right. Attorney-General we're out of time. We could keep going, I'm sure for half an hour.


SABRA LANE: Thanks for your time.