Release type: Transcript


Media conference on union Royal Commission report


Senator the Hon Eric Abetz
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for Employment
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
Senator for Tasmania

Media conference on the release of the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption

Australian Parliament House



***Check against delivery***


MINISTER ABETZ: The Royal Commissioner delivered his interim report to the Governor General earlier this week and earlier today the Government tabled this two volume interim report with the Parliament. The interim report is worth some 1800 pages of very considered information that came to light throughout the hearings thus far. The significant findings and significant recommendations include that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions considered criminal charges against a range of union officials, especially in the CFMEU, and that the ASIC considered charges against the Queensland State Secretary of the CFMEU for breaches of the Corporations Act. The Commonwealth DPP should also consider criminal charges against the range of HSU officials for making false statements contrary to the Commonwealth criminal code. And relevant authorities in Victoria and Western Australia consider laying fraud charges against the former officials responsible for the AWU Workplace Reform Association slush fund.


All these recommendations will now be a matter for the relevant authorities to consider. There is also a third and confidential volume of the Royal Commission report. That deals with serious criminal matters and will not be publicly released due to the risks to the safety of certain individuals referred to in this volume. Disturbingly, the Royal Commissioner has stated that in relation to these matters that the conduct which is part and parcel of the third and confidential report reveals grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian State. And that can be found at paragraph 99 on pages 29 and 30 of the report.


The interim report also identifies five key concerns about the current use and operation of union election slush funds. They operate largely in secret; are characterised by deficient or non-existent record keeping, contributions to them may not be voluntary; they give a disproportionate advantage to incumbents; and candidates commonly plead ignorance in relation to the funding sources, expenditure and debts incurred.


In relation to these matters and sections dealing with the CFMEU, the report concludes that, and I quote, there is a culture of wilful defiance of the law which appears to lie at the core of the CFMEU. That, of course, is a very similar finding that Commissioner Cole made all those years ago, that Justice Wilcox found during the previous Labor government, as to why the powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission need to be maintained.


Largely, the report speaks for itself. It does not need me to amplify it, but what I would call upon is for Bill Shorten and the Labor Party to reconsider their position in relation to opposing the Registered Organisations Commission and opposing the re-introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.


There are now 1800 pages worth of evidence that provide support for the Government's approach in this area, and I would have thought that anybody that is committed to the trade union movement would want to see a clean trade union movement – one where there is not criminality, where there is not thuggery, where there is not funny money dealings going on, and where the hard workers that make their weekly or monthly contributions to the union can have absolute confidence that the money they contribute actually goes to their welfare, as opposed to the welfare of certain union bosses.


The list of examples outlined in the interim report clearly shows that the excuse that there's just one rotten apple here or there, as some have described it in the past, is regrettably not the case. There does seem to be a systemic culture within certain elements of trade union bosses that seem to believe that they are running their own personal fiefdoms and that the concept of fiduciary duty and obligation to the membership is something that can be either completely ignored or treated very lightly.


This is a very serious interim report. I commend it to you. I also commend to you the seriousness of the comments of paragraph 99 of the report indicating that there is a confidential report which was deemed to be necessary because of the safety and security of potential witnesses.


So, in conclusion, can I call on all parliamentarians, especially Mr Shorten and the Labor Party, to for once stand up for the national interest and accept that, on this occasion, the national interest actually coincides with the sectional interests of the trade union movement. Because the trade union movement, which is a vital part of our industrial landscape, a vital part of our society – if it is to survive, it needs to be clean, it needs to be responsible, and those that have the privilege of being office-bearers within the trade union movement owe an obligation to the membership to be clean and to genuinely look after the interests of their memberships. Thank you.


QUESTION: From your readings of the report, is there any legislative or regulatory or policy measures that the Government wants to take forward into the New Year? [Indistinct] inquiry to kick off shortly. From a framework of the industrial policy, is there something that you want to come out of this?


MINISTER ABETZ: Yes, and that is to establish the Registered Organisations Commission, and we put that up as one of our first items of business on being elected. That is that within the first week of the new parliament of the new government we would introduce legislation for a Registered Organisations Commission. We did that and the Senate blocked it. We will be putting that up as one of the first items of business in 2015, and I encourage Mr Shorten, faced with all this information, and the crossbenchers to accept the time is up, the time is now, to clean up the trade union movement where there are regrettably elements of illegality, thuggery and intimidation. And might I also say that in relation to a lot of the findings in this report – and I said this, in fact, at the time that the Royal Commission was being announced – that this is a sword that might cut both ways, and, of course, there are a number of employers who have been involved in allowing payments to be made to certain trade union officials and organisations associated with the union and with certain officials that I don't think are seen in very good light.


QUESTION: Minister, the confidential volume talks about grave threats; does the Government intend – or the legal authorities intend – to take any action as a result of that? And, second question, as we haven't had a chance to really read the report, can you tell us what it says regarding former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.


MINISTER ABETZ: The police taskforce will undoubtedly deal with the issues that are contained in the confidential report. It is important that the Royal Commissioner's view in that regard be fully respected, that it should be confidential, but of course there are other matters, one suspects, that need to be investigated, as a result of which the police taskforce will undoubtedly deal with those matters that are of genuine concern to the Commissioner. In relation to Ms Gillard, the report speaks for itself, and there are the relevant passages there very early on in the two volumes, and what I think it shows clearly is that our request and desire to have all these issues ventilated has been vindicated, and there is the recommendation that the two people that ran that slush fund be referred to the Directors of Public Prosecution in Western Australia and Victoria to ascertain whether or not criminal charges ought to be laid.


QUESTION: Can you… just to confirm, though, Ms Gillard herself hasn't been found to have done anything wrong?


MINISTER ABETZ: Well, the report speaks for itself, and there was no finding of criminality if that is what you are referring to in relation to Ms Gillard.


QUESTION: [Indistinct] Confidential volumes, Minister, without naming names can you give us a flavour of what that contains, and can you also explain what it really means when the Commissioner talks about grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state? Does that mean some kind of subversion of the legal system or the body politic?


MINISTER ABETZ: Well, I think you should have been able to answer your question straight up. No, I cannot say any more about the confidential report; it is confidential for a reason. The Commissioner has used some words in paragraph 99 to give you a flavour of it, and I would not seek to, in any way, elucidate further on that which the Commissioner himself has said. He has spoken, his words stand there and as somebody as highly respected…


QUESTION: [Speaking over] [indistinct] politic, is it somehow an attack on the Parliament and the corruption of the Parliament?


MINISTER ABETZ: As a very highly respected judicial officer, I'm sure that the words of Commissioner Hayden don't need any expansion by myself and I do not wish to make any further comments about the confidential report…


QUESTION: Senator Abetz, you said that you were calling on the Opposition to get behind this – these changes – in the interest of a cleaner trade union movement. Have you considered going to the ACTU yourself, but going around the Opposition and effectively making that argument to the ACTU that it's in the interest of the union movement to have these things cleaned and that the Government has the goodwill and the good officers to actually help that [indistinct] out?


MINISTER ABETZ: Look, there have been many people who have been associated with a trade union movement in the past who see the need for a Registered Organisations Commission. For example, the former ACTU president Martin Ferguson, he actually says good idea for anybody that is honest and clean in the trade union movement, nothing to be scared of. Paul Howes, former secretary of the Australian Workers Union, similar commentary, former Labor Attorney-General Robert McClelland, similar commentary. So, there are many people from doyens of the Labor movement who have devoted a lifetime to the trade union movement who are horrified by the revelations that have been coming out in dribs and drabs and now in a torrent in this two-volume, interim report. I believe it is time to clean this area of public and social life up. I think most Australians would want to see it cleaned up.


QUESTION: Will you do it? Will you talk to ACTU directly about it?


MINISTER ABETZ: Of course, and these matters have been discussed with the ACTU in the past and they will continue to be discussed. I would welcome any support for the Registered Organisations Commission and, indeed, I have had previously discussions with the Shadow Minister Brendan O'Connor when we were putting the legislation up earlier this year in the Senate as to the likelihood of Labor's potential support for it.


QUESTION: [Indistinct] the new Senate, you said that you'd put this legislation for Registered Organisations and ABCC in 2015, have you already lobbied the crossbench or will you use the support to lobby the prospect of support?


MINISTER ABETZ: As most of my Ministerial colleagues have, I have written to the crossbenchers with the list of legislative items that I would like to see progress through the Parliament. The ABCC and the Registered Organisations Commission bills are two of those matters that I have written to the crossbenchers about and I have spoken to some of them about because there have been questions raised so discussions have taken place.


QUESTION: And what's the reception been?


MINISTER ABETZ: Oh, I'm not going to comment on the private discussions with individual Senators, other than I think there is a growing mood within the community that we do need to clean up the building and construction sector and also the registered organisation sector.


QUESTION: Just on a slightly different topic, can I ask you do you believe that Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos should be [indistinct]…


MINISTER ABETZ: Well, now, that's not a slightly different topic…[Laughter]…with great respect. Let's deal with the Royal Commission first and then I'll take just a few questions on other matters.


QUESTION: Reports are back that the report talks about the mending the Superannuation Guarantee Administration Act. There's a lot of criticism in here about union super funds. Does the Government intend to go down that track of finding some – identifying problems with union super funds and making some changes to super laws?


MINISTER ABETZ: We will consider every word and every recommendation of the Royal Commission very, very carefully and determine what our approach will be. But some of the revelations of trade unions determining and requiring that certain funds be paid into by the workforce from which there is then a substantial spinoff financially to the union is something which is canvassed at some length and then, of course, you have conflicts of interests, fiduciary duty, those elements that clearly the Royal Commission has found wanting.


QUESTION: Minister, does the Commissioner recommend directly at any stage the reinstatement of the ABCC and the Registered Organisations Commission?


MINISTER ABETZ: The interim report does not refer to those matters on my current reading of it, and I don't pretend to have read every one of the 1800 pages that are before us today. However, the evidence – the evidence that the Royal Commission has adduced – makes out, I believe, a very, very strong case that the issues within the trade union movement are not the odd rotten apple in the barrel, as one Labor apologist once described it, but there are regrettably many, many rotten apples at the very highest levels of the trade union movement and anybody who has a genuine interest for the longevity of the trade union movement in this country and its reputation would be wanting to see this area of public life cleaned up.


QUESTION: Does the report say that the former Prime Minister did anything wrong at all? And just a second question, you talk about systemic culture, are you saying that this report shows a systemic culture across the trade union movement or in certain parts of it? I mean, precisely what are you saying this tells us about the trade union movement?


MINISTER ABETZ: What this report tells us about the trade union movement and it is in the press release that the Royal Commissioner has made a number of significant recommendations, including criminal charges against a range of CFMEU officials, HSU officials and Australian Workers Union officials. We then also have commentary by the Royal Commission on a host of other trade unions, so it's not just the odd one person indeed with the CFMEU at – this commentary is made, in relation to three significant CFMEU officials in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.


QUESTION: Are you suggesting it's a systemic culture across the trade union movement, is that what you're saying?


MINISTER ABETZ: Within elements of it, clearly there is from the reading of this. There are hundreds of good honest shop stewards and higher union officials right around this country who will be highly aggrieved and rightly aggrieved with some of the findings and recommendations of this Royal Commission because they have embarked on a life of service to their fellow workers only to see, regrettably, the sort of behaviours of the Michael Williamsons and Craig Thomson’s being engaged in by others as well.


QUESTION: And does it [indistinct] Julia Gillard…done anything wrong at all?


MINISTER ABETZ: Look, I will leave that for people to read and make their own determination. I don't – we don't…


QUESTION: We don't have the report, why don't you just tell us?


MINISTER ABETZ: The report is publicly available and I don't wish to make any…


QUESTION: You're accountable at this moment and we haven't got the report. So what we're asking you, and you would have taken a keen interest in this, the Government always has, what does it say about Julia Gillard? Did you do anything wrong?


MINISTER ABETZ: I'm not going to use that sort of language. Certain observations have been made in relation to Ms Gillard, her activities and her evidence that…


QUESTION: [inaudible question]


MINISTER ABETZ: No, I decline to do that. As – from my point of view the important thing is that those who that have done wrong – criminal activities according to the Royal Commissioner should be brought to justice. Ms Gillard does not fall into that category. Now we as a Government are interested in saying this is the past, this is what has been ventilated, this is what's been exposed, how can we fix it for the future and that is why we are so anxious to advocate for the Registered Organisations Commission legislation, and the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation because that will help bring the rule of law, the sense of fiduciary duty, obligation to membership back into this arena which has been sadly missing.


QUESTION: [indistinct] about Ms Gillard when you were in Opposition so now why can't – now that it is all ventilated, why can't you just tell us what it says about her and what [indistinct].


MINISTER ABETZ: As I've said in relation to this 1800-page report, I do not intend to amplify that which the Commissioner has found and observed in his interim report.


QUESTION: The report says, on page 151, that there was a lapse in professional judgement on Julia Gillard's part and that criticism is justified. Does that really justify the amount of money you've thrown at sort of prosecuting Gillard over this case over the last couple of years?


MINISTER ABETZ: The premise of your question is wrong. Can I quickly come back – that is, has Julia Gillard done anything wrong?  Very broad question, that is one of the findings, you can decide in your commentary whether that should be written up as being either right or wrong. I'm not going to comment on that, suffice to say that is one of the comments. Let's be very clear here. In relation to the Australian Workers Union Welfare Association, this was not about the pursuit of Ms Gillard. This was about the pursuit of hundreds of thousands of dollars being obtained by fraud and nobody ever having been brought to justice. People had gone to the police. People had made complaints and nothing had occurred. This Royal Commission has now ventilated a lot of the evidence and that is why – and keep in mind these hundreds of thousands of dollars was what 20-plus years ago so put in today’s dollar terms even greater. The recommendation is that two people be referred to the directors of Public Prosecutions. In West Australia and Victoria for potential charges, and the Royal Commission, I think, was quite right. Sorry, the call for a Royal Commission or judicial enquiry by us was right because many, many people did want answers as to how did the money come about, who saw the money disappear and dissipate, what actually happened. And all these matters, might I add, and you know keep in mind who called for a judicial enquiry into this? Commissioner Ian Cambridge, a former Australian Workers Union official, Rob McClelland, a former Labor Attorney-General. So please don't try to suggest to me that this was a Coalition beat up. There was strong support from the labour and trade union movement for such an enquiry because they did realise something was terribly rotten in the heart of the Australian Workers Union and one assumes honest union officials wanted that to be brought to light and the people responsible brought to justice.


QUESTION: Can I just ask you a couple questions on the – firstly on the confidential volume – who decided to make it confidential? And secondly, just on the – on the full motion of the AWU workplace reform association – what does the Commissioner find with regards to the companies that willingly paid that money presumably for industrial peace, like [indistinct] and the others?


MINISTER ABETZ: Look, once again the report speaks for itself, I don't want to amplify that it's all there in the report.


QUESTION: [indistinct] one indication – can you tell me what you know of it? What does it say of Thiess and the companies that were involved in the payment of tens of thousands of dollars?


MINISTER ABETZ: Like with the comment about Ms Gillard from your neighbour, I'm not willing to make any further comment about specific findings other than the whole host of the evidence here clearly shows the need for stronger regulation in the area of registered organisations and also in the construction sector. I'll take one last question there from the back in relation to this.


QUESTION: The report recommends that the DPP and the Commonwealth DPP investigate charges against union officials. What specific recommendations has the Commissioner made against company directors or those leaders of the employers – those companies?


MINISTER ABETZ: As I understand it, none, in relation to the findings, but I might stand to be corrected. It was important that we get this out as quickly as possible once it had been provided to the Governor-General and say that is why we are providing this report today, and every single page of it is as we speak on the Royal Commission website, easily accessible.