The Queensland branch of the Electrical Trades Union appeared in the Brisbane Magistrates Court on 6 February. The union faces seven charges under laws introduced last year by the LNP state government. It is accused of refusing to detail publicly political donations and spending on campaigns. Each charge carries a fine of $340,000 (just short of the deputy premier’s annual salary).
The ETU is the first organisation to be charged under the laws, which require that unions open their books to the state and declare any spending over $10,000 made for political purposes. The laws also require that unions conduct a ballot of all members before spending any amount over $10,000 for a political purpose.
Four other unions and nine employer organisations have also been found to have failed to comply with the laws, but it is unclear if any of them will be charged.
The ETU leadership is not willing to comment on the case while it’s before the courts. Queensland Council of Unions secretary John Battams is quoted by AAP as saying, “They are keeping tabs on unions in a Gestapo Nazi way to try to figure out how much they are spending on various campaigns.”
Battams says there are reports of government investigators scrutinising newspapers and billboards, trying to find grounds to charge unions. “In a democratic society there should be no constraints on a union's ability to campaign for its members”, he said. It is clear that the purpose of these laws is to undermine the ability of unions to mount a political opposition to the agenda of the LNP.
The Queensland attorney-general’s office has released a statement saying that the laws were introduced to “allow the light to shine in on how industrial organisations spend their members’ money”. This type of rhetoric, about transparency and democracy, has been the government’s line on these laws from the start. Rank and file unionists can see these claims for the lies they are.
State intervention in the trade union movement is never about democracy or accountability. It’s about trying to weaken our strongest unions, financially and industrially. This is why the ETU has been targeted first. There are a host of right wing and industrially weak unions, not to mention anti-worker employer organisations, which these laws will never be used against.
The ETU has democratic structures in place, a developed delegate network and an active rank and file membership. That the LNP government has brought the first charges against a militant union that has been one of it most strident critics should come as no surprise to those who've been following the government’s actions since its election in 2012.