Malcolm Turnbull has opened up a fresh front on the industrial relations battleground, proposing new laws to jail union officials and employers who make illegitimate secret payments.
As Labor leader Bill Shorten stood up in parliament to introduce a private bill to protect the take-home pay of workers, the prime minister strode into a press conference alongside his Employment Minister Michaelia Cash.
The pair unveiled plans to penalise employers and union officials found to have made secret payments other than for clearly legitimate purposes.
It would also require full disclosure of legitimate payments.
“Trade unions have a solemn, legal, moral, fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of their members,” Mr Turnbull told reporters in Canberra on Monday.
“We have seen through the Heydon royal commission and subsequently unions have let their members down and big unions have traded their rights away in return for payments.”
For payments with the intent to corrupt, penalties include up to 10 years in prison and $900,000 for individuals.
Sentences of up to two years and $90,000 would apply for other illegitimate payments.
Senator Cash said there was no consistency across Australia’s bribery laws and the offence was often difficult to prove.
“Employees should be aware and should have full knowledge of any payments that are made between their employer and a union,” she said.
“When you look at the level of penalty, it should send a very, very clear message to any employer or any union who wants to indulge in secretive payments.
“It is wrong and compromises the integrity and lawfulness of the workplace.”
The pair described their announcement as a test for Mr Shorten.
But the opposition leader was already pre-empting the attack as he addressed parliament about his bill aiming to stop future cuts to penalty rates following the Fair Work Commission’s decision to align Sunday rates in the hospitality and retail sectors.
“What I say to the prime minister is use whatever distraction that you think is necessary. Use every possible dishonest distraction you have in your book. Put up whatever story you want,” he said.
“But on this issue, when it comes to defending working families in this country, the living standards of working families, we will not be deterred or put off.”
Mr Turnbull will introduce the payments legislation on Wednesday.