Paula Matthewson this week argued in Crikey that all Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s supportive talk about a federal ICAC actually “signified nothing”. She did so on the very same day Labor voted against a measure introduced by the Australian Greens on just that subject. On Tuesday, during the second reading of the Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017, Greens MP Adam Bandt moved that the bill not receive a second reading and called on the government instead to “establish a National Independent Commission Against Corruption”. Only Bandt and independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan voted in favour of this — Labor unanimously voted against it.
The legislation — to the extent it was enforceable at all — was aimed at what the government called “sweetheart deals” between business and unions. It set fines of $4.5 million for union backhanders (more than an employer would be fined for a workplace death, spying on their employees or illegally employing children). Unions at the time were furious, with Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus telling Crikey the laws could “criminalise legitimate union business”.
And anyone looking for signs of just how strong Labor’s aversion to a federal ICAC really is could have found it earlier this month, when the Senate Committee on Employment and Education quietly waved this bill through. The committee handed down a report recommending the bill, subject to some amendments, be passed. Labor offered some additional comments, recommending some amendments in addition to those of the full committee, but found themselves “broadly agreeing with the objectives of the bill”.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, however, was scathing in her dissenting report, saying:
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“We have seen revelations of misuse of political entitlements and we have seen evidence of systemic exploitation of workers amongst some of Australia’s major employers. The Fair Work Amendment (Corrupting Benefits) Bill 2017 will do nothing to prevent this from continuing … It is clear that anti-corruption measures at a federal level are inadequate. The Federal government is now the only jurisdiction without the infrastructure to confront corruption. A serious approach to tackling corruption in Australian must include the establishment of a federal, broad-based anti-corruption watchdog.”
The Greens’ recommendation was that the bill not be passed, and instead that the government “establish a permanent National ICAC that has federal jurisdiction to prevent corruption occurring and investigate claims as they arise”.
Not only did the Greens recommend a federal body to deal with issues of corruption (one not soley aimed at unions/employer relationships) but their dissenting report extensively cited the concerns expressed in the Electrical Trades Union and ACTU submissions, particularly those around a lack of consultation with relevant stakeholders, and the “unprecedented placing of criminal offences in the Fair Work Act“. Labor’s additional comments, notably, do not mention any of the four union submissions — all of whom oppose the bill — nor those of the Law Council or professor Andrew Stewart, both of which expressed serious concerns about the content of the law. In fact, the only submission cited in Labor’s recommendations is that of peak employer body, the Australian Industry Group.
Labor’s opposition to a federal ICAC is such that the party appears more willing to throw trade unions under the bus than vote in favour.