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Stick for union bad boys

Date

Michelle Grattan

Bill Shorten.

Bill Shorten. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

THE government has rushed out planned measures to crack down on rorting in unions and toughen the investigative capacity of Fair Work Australia, as it tries to limit the fallout from the highly damaging report into the conduct of the Health Services Union.

Workplace Minister Bill Shorten put the proposals to cabinet last night, briefing ministers on the Fair Work report into former HSU secretary Craig Thomson, now an MP but suspended from the ALP, and current senior officials.

Accountability and transparency requirements for unions and employer organisations would be enhanced and penalties for breaches strengthened, Mr Shorten told a news conference.

Mr Shorten said the findings were ''disturbing''. As a former union official himself, he understood the union movement was ''overwhelmingly honest'', but the conduct reported ''has no place in a modern democratic and honest trade union movement. Corruption is unacceptable.''

The dysfunction in some parts of the HSU showed that the actions of a few, if unchecked, could jeopardise the functioning of a union.

The government will:

■Improve financial disclosure by officials, including their remuneration and other financial benefits. ■Increase financial penalties for breaches including in relation to obligations of care and diligence, acting in good faith and improper use of an official's position.

■Empower Fair Work Australia to conduct its own investigations into compliance with reporting and other obligations.

■Give Fair Work a role in promoting compliance.

Mr Shorten will take his plan to a meeting of the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council, which includes union and employer representatives, on May 25. Asked what the penalties would be, he said this would be discussed with the council.

Mr Shorten said the public needed to be confident breaches would be investigated quickly, adding that the Fair Work inquiry had taken too long.

The government will legislate so Fair Work can share information with the police - which it said it could not do in the HSU inquiry - and clarify what information can be provided to other agencies and to the Parliament.

It will also embrace the recommendations that come out of the KPMG review that is being conducted into the Fair Work investigation into the HSU. This will be concluded by the end of July and will be published.

As Mr Thomson continued to vehemently protest his innocence and attacked Fair Work, the opposition renewed its call for the government not to accept his vote. Although he is on the crossbench, he has promised to vote with Labor.

Opposition workplace spokesman Eric Abetz said that if, as Mr Shorten said, the conduct reported was unacceptable to the union movement and unacceptable to the Labor Party, ''it is also unacceptable for Ms Gillard to continue to accept Craig Thomson's vote in the House''.

But Mr Shorten said: ''Others have sat in the Parliament whilst they've had charges defended.

''As difficult as it might be for some people to accept, Mr Thomson should be afforded the same right to defend himself as anyone else. Mr Thomson has the right to presumption of innocence and I understand that he is strenuously and fiercely denying matters in this report.''

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