Senate debates

Thursday, 15 March 2012


Fair Work Australia

10:40 pm

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

If I wanted to pull teeth for a job, I would have become a dentist. Little did I realise in coming into this place that the skills of dentistry would be an essential requirement in the pursuit of Fair Work Australia. To get anything out of Fair Work Australia, Labor's new workplace relations body, designed and built by Ms Gillard while she was workplace relations minister, has been akin to pulling teeth when it comes to the saga of the member for Dobell, Mr Thomson, and the Health Services Union.

Fair Work Australia has two simultaneous inquiries into the activities of the Health Services Union. They are now in their fourth year of investigation. The management of Fair Work Australia, the body charged with the task, was handed to a Mr Tim Lee, an ex-trade union boss. When he was put on the commission by Labor they backfilled his job with yet another ex-trade union boss. And when the presidency of Fair Work Australia became vacant another ex-trade union boss was appointed. That is the setting; that is the background.

This body, Fair Work Australia, is actually charged with overseeing registered organisations in the workplace relations space. That is right, including trade unions. So here we have a smorgasbord of ex-trade union bosses holding current trade union bosses to account. It works a real treat. It could not have been designed better but for the fact that Ms Gillard herself was an ex-trade union official.

Highly complex and detailed are these investigations, we must understand. They are so detailed that Fair Work Australia has spent over $1 million just on legal fees. It seems they seek legal advice to determine how to turn the page or where to place the staple in their documents. Even the Wood royal commission into the New South Wales police corruption issues only took two years and nine months. The Fitzgerald inquiry into police corruption in Queensland only took two years and two months. And yet the scandal swirling around Mr Craig Thomson, the member for Dobell, and the Health Services Union has been investigated and inquired into by Fair Work Australia for longer than the Wood and Fitzgerald inquiries into police corruption.

The administrative incompetence or institutional go-slow by Fair Work Australia has left it tarnished and belittled as a public regulator. During this incredible journey of obfuscation, delay and defiance by Fair Work Australia we have witnessed the refusal by Fair Work Australia to comply with the rules surrounding freedom of information, we have witnessed the refusal to comply with Senate requirements for correcting the public record, we have witnessed the refusal to cooperate with the fraud squads of New South Wales and Victoria police and—just when you think things could not get worse, yes they do—Fair Work Australia now refuses to expeditiously cooperate with a Senate committee request to make the report into the HSU No. 1 branch publicly available. We know the report is ready; we know Fair Work Australia said they will make the report available upon request; we know the report was requested; we know a Senate committee has confirmed this request; and we also know that Fair Work Australia, as at close of business today, still has not delivered the report.

Given the public embarrassment to which Fair Work Australia has subjected itself through these inexplicable delays in the Thomson and Health Services Union matters these last three-plus years, you would have been forgiven for thinking Fair Work Australia might actually respond immediately and expeditiously to a Senate committee's request made earlier today—but, no. For Fair Work Australia it seems there is no urgency at all. Late this evening I ventured that Fair Work Australia's ongoing stalling tactics were unacceptable. I also suggested that it might not necessarily all be Fair Work Australia's fault today. I made the suggestion that the report might be with Minister Shorten's office. This plan was categorically rejected as 'absolutely wrong' by Minister Shorten. It transpires that the minister's department has actually received it. What tricky sophistry. What devious obfuscation. It is a glaring example of telling the literal truth whilst telling the moral lie. The minister's office does not have it, but his department does. My apologies for getting it so absolutely wrong! Why could the minister not tell us that his department was actually in receipt of the report?

This is a government whose reflex reaction is to distort the truth whenever under pressure. Remember: Ms Gillard employed exactly the same tactic about whether Mr Bob Carr would be appointed as foreign minister. The reflex reaction was that the suggestion was completely wrong, but we know that this same Bob Carr fellow is now Senator Bob Carr and is foreign minister. Yet the suggestion was completely untrue. It is the same with Senator Wong and the appointment of Mr Gonski to the Future Fund. 'It was not the board's recommendation that someone else be appointed,' she claimed. You see, the board did not recommend; it simply said it wanted someone else—school debating sophistry at its absolute worst. Now we can add to this sorry saga of obfuscation Minister Shorten's fig leaf defence of denying his office has the report when his department does.

The delays, the obfuscation, the denials have gone on far too long. It must stop not only to restore some degree of confidence in the public regulator and institution that is Fair Work Australia; it must stop so that the long-suffering low-paid workers who are HSU members, courtesy of high paid fees to their union, get justice. The report into the Health Services Union No. 1 branch must be released urgently and the Thomson report must follow without any further delay.