$1m to pursue union 'a waste'

Release date: 24/03/2011

The workplace regulator has been accused of wasting more than $1 million in taxpayer funds while prosecuting a union over strike action that was already being pursued by Qantas.

Ewin Hannan, The Australian

The Transport Workers Union said the Fair Work Ombudsman had committed significant public funds to engaging a team of lawyers, flying them from Melbourne to Sydney and putting them up in an expensive hotel to prosecute the union -- but they had just 15 minutes' involvement in the 20-day trial that heard the matter.

Qantas has taken legal action seeking more than $1m in compensation and damages from the TWU as a result of industrial action by baggage handlers at four capital-city airports.

The Ombudsman joined the airline in an effort to have financial penalties imposed on the union and its senior officials, including TWU federal secretary Tony Sheldon, over the 2009 industrial action.

The legal dispute is a source of tension between the union and the airline, which are involved in a public stoush ahead of direct bargaining over a new workplace agreement.

The union's assistant national secretary, Michael Kaine, said the Ombudsman was seeking statutory penalties "even though Qantas, one of Australia's richest corporations, is pursuing the same penalties".

"For nearly two years, the Fair Work Ombudsman has been trying to butt in to a safety dispute between the union and Qantas," Mr Kaine said.

"They've retained one of Australia's most expensive law firms, Clayton Utz, and flown a team of solicitors from Melbourne and put them up in Sydney's Westin Hotel -- all expenses paid -- for every day of the 20-day trial.

"On top of that, they've retained an expensive senior counsel and flown him up as well at a cost of what could be $10,000 per day. And what are taxpayers getting for their money? Fifteen minutes -- that's how much time the Fair Work Ombudsman has appeared in this trial."

After the union objected to the Ombudsman's involvement, the Federal Court issued orders that included a requirement the Ombudsman pay the union's legal costs where they were additional to those incurred defending the Qantas action.

The Ombudsman was unable to call any witness or adduce any evidence without the leave of the court.

He was also unable to cross-examine any witness at the trial.

Mr Kaine said the Ombudsman had used special executive powers to obtain documents from the union, which were subsequently handed to Qantas.

However, the Ombudsman had declined to exchange any Qantas documents with the union, he said. "Private corporations using government regulators to stop workers standing up for proper safety is too dangerous for our democracy," Mr Kaine said.

The office of Fair Work Ombudsman Nicholas Wilson declined to specifically respond to the union claims yesterday.

Instead it released a brief statement from Mr Wilson, which said: "It is inappropriate to make specific comment on a matter currently before a court and we are disappointed the union has made public comment that does not respect its obligations to the court."

Click here to read it on the Australian website

All Media Items Share This