One of those, Adelaide MP James Stevens, said that while he awaited the introduction of the bill, “there could definitely be a sensible reason why the behaviour and activities of unions are within the remit of the ICAC, particularly given the other important watchdog for them, being the ABCC, has been completely emasculated”.
“Systemic issues in the union movement are clearly there. We’ve seen that with the HSU [Health Services Union], there’s obviously ongoing issues with the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union], they are types of institutions with large memberships that shouldn’t be opaque,” Stevens said.
Victorian Liberal MP Jason Wood agreed, citing the disbanding of the ABCC, as well as the millions of dollars in donations from the CFMMEU to Labor, while NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg said the watchdog should have the ability to look into transactions made by union-led super funds.
All three men agreed there should be limitations drawn around the scope of public hearings. Bragg took aim at former prime minister Scott Morrison’s branding of the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption as a “kangaroo court”, saying he didn’t think “bashing up” the ICAC in that way was appropriate.
“But we need to learn from the mistakes being made over the past 30 years of NSW ICAC. I think there have been cases where people didn’t need to be dragged through public hearings,” he said.
Crossbenchers want the agency’s powers to be broad enough so that it can capture instances of potentially corrupting conduct by third parties in relation to government policies, rather than just being able to examine third parties with government contracts.
Victorian MP and integrity campaigner Dr Helen Haines and Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie have both singled out unions as being among the eligible tranche, along with private businesses.
In a joint statement, Wilkie and Haines joined independent senator David Pocock, the Greens, teal independents, and crossbench MPs Dai Le and Bob Katter, among others, in calling for the watchdog to have jurisdiction over third parties, whistleblower protections, budgetary protection, and the ability to own-motion investigations into so-called “grey corruption”.
“We won’t delay the process for political games or point scoring, but won’t be rushed to vote in favour of a bill that doesn’t make the grade,” the statement reads.
Health Services Union national president Gerard Hayes said the union movement, including his own, had already been heavily scrutinised by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in 2014, as well as the Registered Organisations Commission, whose powers will be absorbed by another oversight body.
“There is an ability within unions to address any concerns that are raised,” Hayes said.
In similar statements, Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said unions were more heavily regulated than many financial institutions, while Transport Workers’ Union national secretary Michael Kaine said unions had been subjected to “repeated, aggressive use of coercive powers.”
Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union national secretary Steve Murphy said the public support for a federal watchdog “is about restoring trust in public institutions and public officials”.
“Calls to interfere with its purpose and power are being used as a distraction and delaying tactic – this undermines public confidence that politicians are serious about political integrity,” he said.
Cut through the noise of federal politics with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Subscribers can sign up to our weekly Inside Politics newsletter here.