18/04/2012 - 11:00

HSU case reinforces need for transparency

18/04/2012 - 11:00

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The controversy engulfing the big health union exposes issues of governance and accountability.

The controversy engulfing the big health union exposes issues of governance and accountability.

It is not often I feel vindicated but the alleged rorting by officials of the Health Services Union is day by day strengthening the case to have greater governance around the sector, especially the industry superannuation funds linked to them.

I have written a few times about the lack of transparency in industry funds, which are often required to have a certain number of union and industry body representatives on the board. 

My concern is that super fund boards, like parliamentary positions, become some form of right of passage, or even a retirement earner, for people who are being rewarded for past roles.

Those are not the people you want overseeing governance.

But industry funds are not just opaque in this regard. Their reporting requirements are low compared to public companies, many of which are much smaller and have far fewer shareholders/members as these massive funds.

The worst thing is that, through their links with the Labor party, they have engineered a market advantage by becoming the dominant force in default funds through the legal requirements of the federal industrial award system.

I have always thought this was wrong.

HSU official Michael Williamson not only draws a huge salary from his union (even when on enforced leave of absence) and appears to have had union credit cards to fund his lifestyle but he is also doubtless getting paid to be a director of the union-linked super fund.

Most people in public life would have relinquished all these positions on the understanding it is untenable to have someone under such suspicion for so long paid to not perform. Clearly this man thinks differently.

Let’s hope there are not too many more of these.

Annual reports

The governance issue raised by the HSU is not just one for super funds, it is for unions as well.

The transparency of union accounts is poor, given the huge numbers of people and vast sums of money involved. 

This is especially the case as, in many workplaces, union membership is not exactly a choice, nor is the ability to have a say even if you are a genuinely volunteer member.

I have trawled through quite a number of union annual reports, which I have discovered are disclosed on the Fair Work Australia website.

In my view, they are similar to many large private company accounts, lacking in detail and containing vagaries, which make it difficult to understand what is really happening.

In the case of private companies, that might be fair enough. The detail is between them and the tax office.

But unions represent workers. In many cases, the workers they represent are the least able to look after themselves, which is the prime argument for unions to exist at all. 

In that regard, these people are also likely to be the least able to understand complex accounts or ask hard questions.

For that reason they need others to be able to scrutinise these records on their behalf. Clearly, FWA is not up to the task, even with its special powers.

It is, therefore, up to journalists and other observers to do that job.

Unions, given their special place in this society and the huge numbers of people they represent, ought to have to prepare accounts more akin to a top 200 ASX-listed company.

The HSU example is hardly likely to be the only bad apple. It is time these influential and powerful people stopped getting away with using union funds for their own political (and lifestyle) ends and showed Australia just how they put all the millions of dollars to work for the common good.

I am firm believer the federal coalition went too far with work choices. But one thing they should have done was demand unions produce accounts like an ASX company.

While there is a huge regulatory cost, as ASX companies know, it is unlikely anything like what has happened at the HSU could have occurred. 

In fact, maybe we ought to have a union stock market, in which membership numbers make up the key index. 

We could watch them go up and down based on the decisions and activities of union leadership and their political bedfellows.

That would be fun.

Bob Brown

I feel a little sad about the decision by Bob Brown to quit parliament and stand down as the leader of the Greens.

Mr Brown has been a distinguished parliamentarian who, until recently, had a gift for sounding sensible and making all those other politicians look like they were in it for themselves.

But recent years have brought new power to the Greens and additional prominence, which means the leader could no longer get away with glib and clever one-liners.

People had started taking note of his views and realised he was not just a simple conservationist who had a practical view on other matters.

His recent comments about needing a world government are just one example.

I remember years ago arguing with some mates against centralisation of Australian power to Canberra. 

Western Australia would get forgotten and exploited as the voting base of the east made decisions that suited them.

That has come to pass. It is bad enough in a federation of states where we have so much in common. Imagine what would happen if the world was run from Brussels. 

Once the power had passed, Australia’s needs would be usurped by much greater populations. Our share of the resources and land would be better and more fairly distributed. More people would move here and more natural resources would be harnessed to help the world.

It would be Mr Brown’s worst nightmare.

The only people I can think of that share this one-world vision were the communists and those with similar ‘internationale’ spirits.

I think Mr Brown and the Greens were being found out in that regard. It is a pity he’s leaving before the voters could vindicate my view. I will miss the opportunity for further exploration about his deeper views.

mark.pownall@wabn.com.au

 

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