Trade Union Royal Commission: A Labor Left Analysis

Blair Boyer from the SA Left writes on the Trade Union Royal Commission: 

The festive season has come and gone in a flash of riotous consumerism, cricket, celebrity Twitter rants and B grade political scandals.  But amidst the post-Christmas sales, ill-advised trips to Hong Kong bars and the odd SMS sent astray, an event with long term significance also occurred; the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (TURC) delivered its Final Report on 28 December.  When one considers that the Commission had been running since March 2014, it was somewhat surprising to have such an immense Report (Volume I is 336 pages alone) land when most people were disengaged from current affairs.  Having said that, many of the people named in the Report were no doubt thankful it emerged in the off-season.  And, predictably, the headlines were all about a series of individuals who are now household names.  

But the timing of the release has meant that relatively little attention has been paid to the substance of the Report's 79 recommendations.  Whilst I don't wish to downplay the seriousness of the allegations made against the likes of Kathy Jackson, Michael Williamson and Craig Thompson the issues surrounding misappropriation of HSU funds have been covered extensively in the media over a number of years.  And TURC has addressed misappropriation of union funds in the recommendations - largely around increasing checks and balances, regulation, training and penalties whilst strengthening whistleblower provisions and automatically disqualifying some people from holding office.

Considering the incendiary allegations against the likes of Jackson one would expect the recommendations from the Report to be equally explosive; perhaps ankle bracelets for union sympathisers or cavity searches at worksites.  But away from the high profile cases is a more demure, pragmatic, set of recommendations that deal largely with legislative change to ensure more accountability and training.  Hardly ground-breaking stuff.  And, as some commentators have observed, not dissimilar to recommendations from previous royal commissions into trade unions.  

A few theories are kicking around about why this occurred; it could be that those aforementioned pariahs represent just a tiny fraction of the union movement and that, by and large, most of this country's unions and unionists go about representing workers in a professional manner day in, day out.  Or it could be that Commissioner Heydon's near death experience courtesy of the Liberal Party fundraiser encouraged a more balanced set of recommendations less likely to make the commission look like the witch-hunt cum election-campaign-dynamite Tony Abbott undoubtedly intended.  

So, now that the dust has settled, what do these 79 recommendations mean for the daily operation of unions in Australia?  To begin with, the recommendations are broken down into 9 categories: Regulation of Unions, Regulation of Union Officials, Corrupting Benefits, Regulation of Relevant Entities, Enterprise Agreements, Competition Issues, Building and Construction Industry, Rights of Entry and Royal Commissions Act 1902.  For the purposes of this article I will focus on the recommendations pertaining to unions and union officials, as I think they will be of most interest to the broader party membership.

The big ticket item from the first category is a proposal to transfer the functions of the Fair Work Commission to a new Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) that would act as an independent stand-alone regulator based on the structure of ASIC.  Complementing this would be commensurate powers of investigation.  Another theme running through this chapter is approved training for all officers whose duties relate to financial management.

Unions would be required to adopt policies binding on all officers and employees covering topics including: financial decision making, receipting of money, credit cards and hospitality and gifts.   Furthermore, unions would be required to lodge with the ROC audited financial disclosure statements covering, amongst other things, loans, grants, donations and credit card expenditure.  

Recommendation 16 would introduce a civil penalty provision requiring unions to make and keep (for a minimum of 7 years) minutes recording the proceedings and resolutions of committee of management meetings. It would also require those documents to be available upon request by members of the union free of charge.  

Whistleblower protection is also bolstered with the categories of persons who can make a protected disclosure broadened to include former officers, employees or members of a union.  Reprisals against whistleblowers could lead to two years imprisonment and any person convicted of such an offence would be automatically disqualified from holding office.

The second category of recommendation concerns the regulation of union officials.  There are 14 recommendations here that propose a civil penalty regime requiring officers of unions to disclose personal interests that they or their relatives have in relation to the affairs of the union, and officers of a union who have a material interest in a matter to recuse themselves from any deliberations.  Recommendation 37 proposes an offence carrying a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment be created for anyone disqualified from holding office in a union who continues to do so.  

Of particular note in this category is a series of recommendations proposing new powers for the Federal Court to disqualify a person from holding any office in a union for a period of time considered appropriate by that Court.  Although most of the scenarios in which the TURC has recommended this new power be used are uncontroversial (liable for contempt, twice in contravention of the Fair Work Act 2009) the final recommendation provides the Federal Court with very wide scope to disqualify an officer of a union who the Court deems "...otherwise not a fit and proper person to hold office."  

Although there are 41 more recommendations in the remaining 6 chapters, the nature of those recommendations is largely consistent with the ones I have covered here.  

If one who has been blissfully unaware of the high profile cases that led to this Royal Commission were to read these recommendations they would probably find it particularly dry material.  They may even be surprised that some of these recommendations were not in place already.  However, those who have followed the cases of Jackson, Williamson and Thompson closely are likely to be surprised at the low-key aspect of these recommendations.  The truth is that despite the actions of those people, the vast majority of union officials are honest, diligent people who have chosen to work for a union because they genuinely care about preserving the rights of working people.  In some respects, it is hugely ironic that it takes 79 recommendations from a Royal Commission to remind people of that fact.  


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