Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee; Reference

5:00 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | Hansard source

In summing up this debate, can I simply make the point that this is not any simple inquiry that we are asking for as a coalition? This is an issue of fundamental principle of how the law operates in this country. It will set a precedent if the Labor-Greens amendment gets carried.

The Law Council of Australia has expressed 'serious concerns' about this. Three attorneys-general have come out expressing concern about the precedent that this will set. Just to restate the case, the precedent would be that if you have enough money to buy yourself out of trouble you can escape prosecution. Ms Gillard promised the Australian people that in dismantling the Australian Building and Construction Commission she would maintain 'a tough cop on the beat'. That was allegedly the way it was going to be, all the way through the Senate inquiry and all the way through when the bill was introduced into the House of Representatives. Then in a very sneaky last-minute manoeuvre in the House of Representatives, after the Senate had finished its inquiry into the bill, Labor moved this amendment. It is an amendment which would emasculate the regulator.

In introducing this motion I indicated the Law Council's concerns. They are there for all to see and read. It is interesting that nobody in this debate was actually able to join issue with the concerns on the issue of principle. Sure, we got all the sophistry that we expect from those opposite but we did not get an engagement on the fundamental issue. And the fundamental issue is that just because you have money does not mean you should be able to buy yourself out of a prosecution—a very fundamental principle on which our system of law is based.

The example I used in introducing this motion was that if one runs a red light and has a collision with another car, then just because you are able to pay that other car driver off that should not stop the police from charging you with driving through a red light. Most Australian people would accept that and that that is the proper way to go about things. Now, under the industrial law of this country we are going to have a situation where if a big company or a big union breaches the law and is then able to pay somebody off so that they can say, 'Mr Regulator, the issue is settled,' they can escape prosecution. Take the tip: no individual worker will have that sort of money and no small contractor will have that sort of money. The only people who will have that sort of money will be the big companies and the big unions. And who is championing the cause yet again of the big unions and the big companies in this place? It is the Greens-Labor alliance. Yet again they have forgotten the small people in Australia: the individual workers and the smaller contractors and subcontractors in the building and construction sector.

All they are interested in is the sweetheart deal, the payoff and the funny money. As a coalition we agree with three state attorneys-general. We agree with the Law Council of Australia that that sets a dangerous precedent. Indeed, I would go further and say that it sets a rotten precedent.

In its original form this bill was before this place for a number of years. We did not hear any reason or rationale from those opposite during this debate as to why this last-minute amendment snuck through after the Senate had finished its inquiry and why this all of a sudden became so urgent. We were not told who initiated this amendment. We do know from the previous Senate inquiry into the bill that there were certain provisions in the bill that the unions did not want and that the employers did not want, and that the department had no explanation as to why it was in the bill other than that the minister determined that it should be in the bill. We now know that, clearly, the Labor ministers for workplace relations will make up their own minds in relation to how the law of this country should be developed.

Can I tell you that that is all fine? They are elected to make those decisions, but why are they running away from scrutiny? That is what the issue here this evening is. Why is it that the Greens-Labor alliance do not want this last-minute amendment—this important amendment—scrutinised? I know why, because it is unprecedented and unprinci­pled. The Greens and Labor senators could not sit before a Senate committee and look the Law Council of Australia in the eye and try to argue that this is a good precedent. They could not look the three state Attorneys-General in the eye and say: 'This is highly principled law making. This is good for the rule of law in our country that people should be able to buy their way out of trouble.' The Greens senators know that. The Labor senators know that. They, in all conscience, cannot look the Law Council of Australia or, indeed, the people of Australia in the eye and say that this would be good law.

We are confronted with a situation yet again this evening where the Greens-Labor alliance majority in this place will ensure there is not a Senate inquiry into an import­ant matter of principle. This follows on from their voting earlier today to guillotine 16 bills through the Senate in indecent haste, which follows on from the 19 bills late last year that they guillotined through this place in indecent haste and then cut three days of sitting from the parliamentary timetable. Let no Australian be under the misapprehension that the Greens-Labor alliance in this place is allowing for proper scrutiny of legislation. They are in fact doing the exact opposite. They are ruthlessly using their numbers to ensure that controversial issues are not even vented in Senate committees and that bills are properly debated.

I trust that my prophecy in this regard is wrong and that this motion will not be lost. I fear it will be; nevertheless, the coalition will be putting it to a vote because this is such an important matter of principle that we want to ensure that Australians, especially the Greens, remember that we have taken a very strong and principled stand in supporting the forms of this place so that proper scrutiny of legislation can take place.


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