Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Questions without Notice
Fair Work Australia
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Does the minister acknowledge that the Fair Work Act in fact empowers Fair Work Australia to disclose information that may assist in the enforcement of the law of a state?
I say that Fair Work Australia is cooperating with the relevant authorities on investigations. Why? Because it is an independent body. It is independent from government. It is independent from those opposite.
Again we get ill-informed interjections from those opposite because they do not like an independent body undertaking independent work without government interference. Those opposite are more likely to be complaining because they would want to interfere in the operation of Fair Work Australia. But, in terms of section 583 of the Fair Work Act, it states plainly and simply:
The President is not subject to direction by or on behalf of the Commonwealth.
Equivalent sections like that were in the Workplace Relations Act when the Liberals were in government.
Mr President, on a point of order: standing orders require the minister to be directly relevant. This question was very narrow. It asked whether the minister acknowledged that the Fair Work Act empowers Fair Work Australia to disclose information that may assist in the enforcement of the law of the state. The answer is either yes or no and not this attack about the so-called independence of Fair Work Australia which is not even part of the issue.
Mr President, on the point of order: the question probably should have been ruled out of order in that it sought a legal opinion from the minister. Senator Ludwig, being a cooperative and helpful chap, has attempted to provide as much information as he can in response to the proposition put to him, which goes to the Fair Work Act's powers and its responsibilities. As I say, Mr President, the question was probably out of order, but certainly Senator Ludwig has been directly on the topic and directly trying to assist the senator with a response to his question.
There is no point of order. I have been listening closely to the minister's answer. I cannot instruct the minister how to answer the question. I am listening closely to the minister's response. The minister is answering the question at this stage and has one minute and six seconds remaining.
Mr President, as I was saying, there are three basic propositions: first of all, Fair Work Australia is independent and can investigate matters independently from government. That is confirmed if you go back to the Senate estimates of 15 February 2012 where the general manager said
I am aware of the allegations that there has been political interference in the investigations and take them very seriously. I have absolutely no reason to conclude that there has been any such interference in the investigation.
The General Manager of Fair Work Australia, as an independent body from government, can decide of his own choice how it should operate within its sphere of influence. The advice that has been sought and provided to Mr Shorten is that the act does not expressly preclude information being shared in certain circumstances but, of course, these are matters for the general manager to determine. (Time expired)
Mr President, I have a supplementary question. Given the clear power Fair Work Australia has to disclose and share information, can the minister explain why Fair Work Australia continues to refuse to cooperate with the fraud squads of New South Wales and Victoria in the Craig Thomson and Health Services Union investigations?
Again, those opposite seem to miss the primary point that Fair Work Australia is independent and its own investigation is independent. I do not accept, to begin with, the premise of the question that the provision is there. What I said in my answer to the primary question was that Mr Shorten sought advice and confirms that the general manager—
Opposition senators interjecting—
Thank you, Mr President. As I was saying, Mr Shorten had sought advice and the act does not expressly preclude information being shared in certain circumstances. I do not want to stand in the shoes of the general manager. The general manager would have to determine on their own basis—because they are independent of government—what they can and cannot do, depending on their own advice. It is not up to this government to direct Fair Work Australia— (Time expired)
Senator Ronaldson interjecting—
Senator Chris Evans interjecting—
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Mr President, I have a further supplementary question. I understand Labor is touchy on the issue. I refer to Minister Shorten's observation that the release of information by Fair Work Australia is a matter for the General Manager of Fair Work Australia. Why then does the general manager continue to claim the Fair Work Act does not give her any discretion to release information? Will the minister now finally call on Fair Work Australia to fully cooperate with the New South Wales and Victorian fraud squads?
Again, those opposite miss the three fundamental points that I have gone to. The first is that Fair Work Australia is independent and its investigation is independent. Secondly, Mr Shorten sought advice and confirms that the general manager is independent from government. Those opposite would want to interfere in Fair Work Australia's independence. Thirdly, of course, this is a matter for the general manager to weigh up in exercising their function because they are independent. It is a matter for Fair Work Australia to determine. The government cannot stand in its shoes and determine whether or not information should or should not be provided on what basis because we are not in command of all of those issues, the same as those opposite are not in command of all of the issues. Therefore, it is a matter for Fair Work Australia. (Time expired)