Thursday, September 18, 2014

Corrupt union's sweet Coca-Cola deal adds cash to slush fund

A militant construction union's slush fund booked more than $300,000 in revenue over five years under a deal struck with Coca-Cola to take a cut of the sale of soft drinks and chips on building sites.

The unusual deal emerged as part of royal commission hearings into the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's Victorian construction branch. The inquiry heard on Tuesday of the cashed-up  Building Industry 2000 election fund, which was set up by senior officials from the CFMEU.

Documents tendered to the inquiry showed a number of lucrative revenue streams and events – including an annual grand final breakfast – held by the Building Industry 2000, and counsel assisting, Michael Elliott, said there had not been an audit of its accounts for a number of years.

Under the deal with Coca-Cola, dozens of vending machines were placed on building sites across the state, with Building Industry 2000 taking a cut of as much as 20 per cent on every sale. Coca-Cola also agreed to give 20 cases of water to the union.

Mr Elliott questioned at length Bill Oliver, former secretary of the CFMEU and a director of Building Industry 2000, about the blurring of lines between the union and the slush fund. It is unlawful to use union resources in union elections.

Mr Oliver said along with builders and sub-contractors, other attendees at its grand final breakfast included workers, unions and companies not in the building sector.

Documents provided to the royal commission list major builders, including Baulderstone Hornibrook; Brookfield Multiplex; Westfield Design and Construction; and Probuild, spending thousands for tables and tickets in recent years. Also listed buying a table was underworld figure Mick Gatto's Elite Cranes.

Mr Oliver denied builders attended to maintain a good relationship with the union. He said it was to "enjoy" the football.

"The grand final breakfast promotes itself every year," he said.

Mr Oliver described an ad hoc process of meetings of Building Industry 2000 including having casual discussions about its affairs with directors at the pub, on the street or in the lift. He said he made "mental notes" and said he had  "trust in people" involved.

Mr Oliver said it was set up in 2000 as an election fund to ward off challenges from rivals to the union's leadership, as the union had a history of internal battles after the deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation in the 1980s.

Among its directors are current union secretary John Setka, Ralph Edwards, former official Tommy Watson, and Mr Oliver.

In its latest accounts for 2013 it had more than $1 million in cash, or cash equivalents, and annual revenue of more than $300,000.

Mr Oliver said money from the fund was spent on helping workers in need, and donations.

"The one thing I didn't agree with was giving it to the ALP," he said. "We would help people in the need, we would help workers in need."

Later, the union detailed more than $200,000 in spending from the fund on a range of community causes such as $21,000 on funeral costs for some victims of the 2013 Swanston Street wall collapse, as well as medical costs for a person well known to members of the union, and $46,000 on a memorial fund.

"The fund has never donated to the ALP, or provided funding towards elections in other trade unions," the CFMEU said in a statement.

Mr Elliott said union staff were used to organise events and business deals for the slush fund including a Race Day and the grand final breakfast, which was badged as a Building Industry 2000 and CFMEU event.

Mr Oliver repeatedly sought to deny the CFMEU's role and said one CFMEU administrative staffer did work for it after she retired from the union.

Of the grand final breakfast, he said. "No hiding from the fact CFMEU people were there. But it was the Building Industry 2000 plus who was putting the event on."

Other events that raised money for the fund were the sale of CFMEU merchandise and a golf day, where people were invited to attend on union letterhead. "I drive around with a beer cart giving them beer and a soft drink," Mr Oliver said. "Maybe they get a bit of a kick out of the CFMEU secretary driving around giving them a soft drink and can of beer."

Meanwhile the commission on Tuesday afternoon heard more claims that Kimberley Kitching, an unsuccessful ALP candidate, had completed online right-of-entry tests on behalf of other Health Services Union staff.

Ms Kitching is the general manager at the union's number one branch in Victoria and took the role after the election of Diana Asmar in 2012.

The commission heard evidence from a number of witnesses that Ms Kitching had done the tests - something she has denied - and her lawyer,  Remy Van der Wiel, said it was part of a "political conspiracy" by opponents of the current leadership of the union.

The Federal Court recently delayed elections in the HSU after allegations about the eligibility of two candidates opposing Ms Asmar's ticket.


Muslim Branding on Our Food: Dick Smith

We have received a number of letters from people asking if we will be putting the Muslim Halal logo on our food.

To acquire Halal certification, payment is required to the endorsing body and involves a number of site inspections of both our growers and processors in order to ensure that our practices comply with the conditions of Halal certification.  It is important to note that this does not reflect the quality of the food being processed or sold – it only means that the products are approved as being prepared in accordance with the traditions of the Muslim faith.

We are aware of an increasing number of large companies both in Australia and overseas, such as Kraft and Cadbury, who have obtained accreditation to use the Halal logo.  We don’t believe they have done this because of any religious commitment but rather for purely commercial reasons.  Perhaps these large organisations can afford to do this.  While we have a choice however, we would prefer to avoid unnecessarily increasing the cost of our products in order to pay for Halal accreditation when this money would be better spent continuing to support important charitable causes where assistance is greatly needed.

We point out that we have never been asked to put a Christian symbol (or any other religious symbol) on our food requiring that we send money to a Christian organisation for the right to do so.


Parasites evicted from Millers Point

They had stocked the kitchen with food, hauled in crate-loads of belongings and even brought their tortoiseshell cat.

But the two-month long rent-free bliss enjoyed by a group of squatters at Millers Point ended abruptly on Tuesday, as the state government pushed ahead with its plan to empty the harbourside suburb of vulnerable residents.

The small group of 20-somethings left the Argyle Place property about midday after being ordered out by police.

Banners draped from the balcony read "Millers Point Not 4 Sale" and "Communities Not Commodities".

Tayce, a 27-year-old squatter who declined to give her last name, said the eviction was a "farce".  "I'm homeless - there are so many people on the waiting list for [public] housing and this house was empty for two years," she said.  "There is nothing wrong with the house, it's beautiful. I don't think houses should be sitting empty."  The house was connected to electricity and, despite a bit of mould, was otherwise "amazing", Tayce said.

About four squatters had occupied the terrace house after finding the back door unlocked and the property empty. Squatters are also known to be occupying other homes in the area.

Scores of properties at Millers Point are lying idle as the government embarks on a two-year program to evict public housing tenants and sell hundreds of homes.  The first four sales well exceeded price guides and netted the government $11.1 million.

The government says the homes are too expensive to maintain, and sale proceeds will be reinvested into the social housing system. However, welfare advocates question why all properties must be sold, rather than letting some elderly and long-time residents stay on in the area.

Housing groups have also called on the government to ensure the proceeds are used to build new social housing in inner Sydney areas.

Millers Point community spokesman Barney Gardner said the squatters evicted on Tuesday had not caused a nuisance, and should have been allowed to stay until the property was ready for sale.

"The property has been vacant for some time and will remain vacant for some time. These people ... are not damaging the property, they are just living there," he said.  "They haven't had anywhere to live and now they are being turfed out on the street again."

It is understood no charges will be laid, because the squatters left voluntarily.

Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich said the vacant properties at Millers Point "should have been used to house people in need".

He said public housing residents had previously raised concerns about other squatters, however the government was only taking action now the sell-off had begun.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Family and Community Services said the Argyle Place home had been vacant since late 2011 "and is being prepared for sale".

"The government has continued to carefully monitor the safety and security of vacant Millers Point properties and any illegal occupancy or squatting will continue to be subject to action by NSW Police," she said.


Federal push to make Victorian schools independent labelled 'privatisation'

Principals and teachers fear they are headed down a path of privatisation by stealth, after Victoria signed a contentious deal to enhance Tony Abbott's push to create 1500 "independent public schools" by 2017.

Schools will get access to extra funds if they become more autonomous; parent-based councils could get new powers to select principals and acquire property; and administrative work in small schools will be increasingly outsourced as part of the $16 million agreement.

The changes form part of the federal government's plan to entice at least one-quarter of Australian public schools to become more "independent" over the next three years.

Unlike Western Australia, where the idea was pioneered, Victorian schools opting into the program will not be rebadged as "independent public schools", but will still get access to the money if they adhere to targeted activities designed to make them self-govern and be more accountable for their results.

"We know that great schools have leaders and teachers who have the independence to make the decisions and develop the programs that best meet the needs of their students," said Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne.

Modelled on the US charter school system, the concept of independent public education generally allows government schools to operate like private schools, with boards appointing principals and leaders having greater control over budget and staff decisions.

But while the concept differs between jurisdictions - and Victoria already has high levels of autonomy - it is nonetheless contentious because critics fear it could exacerbate the gaps in education and lead schools down the path of "privatisation by stealth".

"We already have the highest level of independent schools in the developed world and on the basis of OECD results we aren't near the top at the moment. It could be argued that we should in fact be moving in the opposite direction. Worse still if this is an attempt to further privatise our school systems," said Berwick Lodge Primary School principal Henry Grossek.

The state-federal agreement, obtained by The Sunday Age, shows that funding will be used to:

 *   Train principals, assistant principals and business managers to "assume greater decision making powers" over their school and staff.

*   Give school councils extra powers, which "may include, with appropriate safeguards, an enhanced role in relation to principal selection, acquiring property and assets, and investment".

*   Expand the government's so-called Local Administrative Bureau program, which outsources time-consuming paperwork for small schools to education department experts.

Schools will be encouraged to "opt in" to the program, with about 250 schools expected to benefit within the first 12 months. State Education Minister Martin Dixon said the federal money – almost $16 million over four years – would "build the capacity of principals, school leaders and school communities to take full advantage of the level of autonomy already available to them".

The funding deal would also support schools embracing the Napthine government's new governance reforms, which includes moves to merge school councils, overhaul membership, and give parents more say in the performance reviews of their principals.

Ringwood Secondary College principal Michael Phillips said he was open to the changes, pointing out that some schools could have an opportunity to be more innovative and creative with curriculum programs, for example, "without being constrained by bureaucratic decisions".

However, others are already worried about the ongoing push towards self-governing, and the new agreement is likely to exacerbate their concerns. Australian Education Union state president Meredith Peace accused the government of using its autonomy agenda to shift more responsibilities on to schools without extra support.

Tarneit Senior College principal Michael Fawcett agreed, saying he was unconvinced that the latest state-federal deal would improve student outcomes.

"Where's the Gonski money?" he asked. "I'm still waiting for resource funding, let alone some other mythical funding to make us an independent public school system."

But Mr Pyne said the independent public schools funding initiative would "allow Victorian schools to better meet the needs of their student communities".


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