Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Education and Employment References Committee; Reference

5:06 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Wong, I move:

(1) That the following matter be referred to the Education and Employment References Committee for inquiry and report by the last sitting day in March 2014:

The provisions of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013, with particular reference to:

(a) the potential impact of the amendments to interfere with the ongoing operation of registered organisations in Australia; and

(b) the potential of the amendments to impede the ability of employees of registered organisations to carry out their duties.

(2) That for the avoidance of doubt, standing order 115(3) applies to the consideration of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 and any related bills.

We heard earlier, when we asked for this motion to be heard in an earlier part of the debate, that it was denied formality. Now we have the chance to talk more fully about the reasons we have decided we want to refer this particular bill to a references committee: to have more discussion and more consideration. One of the key reasons was that this, along with a number of other key pieces of legislation, was referred at the end of the first sitting of parliament; then we went through a week of Senate estimates. Then we had one week in which this committee had the chance to have a public hearing for one day. Funnily enough, a whole range of these important pieces of legislation, which we first saw in that first sitting of parliament—to be fair, this bill has been working around for a while, but we first saw it absolutely in front of us in the first sitting—all had completion dates of 2 December. There is only one reason for that: it was the intent of the government, which I have to admit they did not hide, to make sure that all these pieces of legislation could come back and be forced through the parliament in these two weeks of sittings. We do not believe that this bill should be able to be rushed through in that way.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We learned from you.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald, I take that interjection. I take that statement. Governments of all flavours at different times during the course of their government have had reason to try to get through things very quickly in this parliament. Of course that happened when we were in government—

Government senators interjecting

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Moore, resume your seat. I remind senators on the right that senators have the right to be heard in silence under standing order 197.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

That happened in our government. That happened in the previous government. That probably happened in governments straight through from about the time of Andrew Fisher. But nonetheless there is a process in terms of debate coming to this place. Allegations are made about the speed of things going through and then quite rightly, if there are concerns about those allegations, we bring them back into this chamber. Sometimes the decisions are changed, sometimes not. But every time our system allows us, when there are concerns, to bring them back into this chamber. That is exactly what we are doing about this particular bill.

We are saying that, because of a whole range of complexities of interests involved in this area, there is a need for further consideration beyond one public hearing day and a report that has been presented to come back into this place. This is not a statement that I alone am making. This is a statement that has been made by a number of the witnesses that came to the hearing last week, by people in the press and by people in the discussion around the Senate inquiry. Unsurprisingly, when that Senate report was brought down on time, on 2 December, there was a government report and there was a dissenting report. This is often a standard practice in this place. But the issue about the concerns with the content and the complexity was not in the dissenting report from the opposition senators; it was in the core part of the document. It clearly states that there were issues raised by submitters about the time frame in which they were asked to bring forward their submissions and their concerns, and there were also concerns about the background of the bill, the process of the inquiry and the impact of the bill on associations.

We know that the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 applies not only to workers' organisations—to trade unions—but also to a whole range of registered organisations. What we are saying is that the concerns are of such a nature—these issues have been on the agenda for a long time and there have been a series of pieces of legislation passed over the last few years purporting to respond to the same issues, and now we have this one that came in very early in the life of this government—that we believe that time needs to be taken to consider what has gone before; the range of issues that were raised about the need for more scrutiny; and what has happened so far through the normal interactions of reviews, through the establishment of institutions within the Fair Work Commission and through the various discussions that have gone on looking at the very important issues of transparency, accountability and responsiveness to members. All of those things are of critical import to the organisations themselves, to the members of the organisations and to the wider Australian community. On that basis, we believe that there needs to be more time, there needs to be a wider consideration and there needs to be a chance for all those involved to look effectively and closely at what has gone before.

Certainly a lot of the concerns I personally have are to do with organisations that I know well and that I know are currently working through the previous legislation about compliance and governance. That work is going on as we speak. Only on Saturday of last week I was visiting an organisation. On that day the organisation, a trade union, was having compliance training for its volunteer delegates to see what was in place in the previous legislation, which was concluded only in 2012. So what has happened? That organisation and other organisations, at considerable expense—these issues came out during the hearing—have put in place their responses and their accountabilities under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Act 2012 and are working through those processes. Now, within two to three weeks of it first being raised in the lower house and coming here, there is an expectation that another range of impositions and accountabilities, all looking at the issues that were originally raised as concerns, will impose on organisations further training, further expense and further personal scrutiny of those people who are choosing to be involved in the organisations.

I know that when he has the chance Senator Cameron will talk, because he was on the committee and he will be able to refer to both the submissions and the evidence that was given to that committee. I was not part of that, but I have spoken with some of the people who were there. Certainly it is important that we understand that a key point was that there was no doubt and no lack of commitment to the principles that any bill that is looking at fairness and scrutiny and accountability is being designed to meet. Not one submission or piece of evidence said that there was any doubt that people who are part of registered organisations should have a very structured, transparent process in place to look at accountabilities to their members and to the community to ensure that responsibilities in relation to money are fulfilled.

That process has already started. There are already quite strong elements of scrutiny in all the organisations that gave evidence to the committee. They know that previous legislation required registered organisations to have processes that prohibit members' money from being used to favour particular candidates in internal elections or campaigns. That is already in place. That issue was raised as part of the urgent need for new legislation. The current registered organisations act allows for criminal proceedings to be initiated when funds are stolen or obtained by fraud. That is a standard expectation. Not one organisation came forward during the hearings or through the submissions and said that, if one of their organisers or one of their people in their union were involved in criminal activity, it should not be exposed and subject to the law. No-one denies that. Those provisions are already in place. What is needed is full training about how that works, and that is happening now.

Also, the registered organisations act ensures that the Fair Work Commission can share information with the police as appropriate. Again, we are looking at ensuring that the operations of individuals and registered organisations are accountable, that they are subject to scrutiny and that, should anything occur that is illegal or thought to be illegal, the same processes occur as already happen in most areas—that is, that they are subject to criminal prosecution. The onus of proof is then before the legal system, as would happen with anyone accused of breaking the law. That is how it works and there is no argument about that.

The registered organisations act already provides for statutory civil penalties where a party knowingly or recklessly contravenes an order or direction made by the Federal Court or the Fair Work Commission under the registered organisations act or the Fair Work Act. That is already in place. A range of organisations are under scrutiny—and they should be. I can only speak from a trade union perspective, not from an employers' organisation perspective, and I have no particular knowledge of the Corporations Act. In many ways, they are moving through this process to make an alignment between registered organisations and corporations. I openly state that I have not worked in the corporations area and do not have knowledge about it, but I do know about how trade unions operate.

We know that there have been individuals and trade unions that have been the subject of public scrutiny. Some individuals have been found to have done the wrong thing and some individuals have been the subject of criminal investigation and prosecution. No-one argues with that. That should be the natural process. However, we are talking about changes that have put expectations on organisations that are already working within fairly tight budgets—organisations that operate to a large extent on a volunteer basis. Certainly, in my own union there were very, very few employed officials. We relied absolutely on a network of workers in our industry who volunteered to take a role in the organisation as delegates or on management committees. The kind of scrutiny that seems to be in place with this new round of expectation under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013, I believe, puts extra scrutiny on these volunteers. There is already an expectation on paid officials. There should never be any time that issues around conflict of interest or accountability with funds should not be fully accounted and fully explained to the membership. Certainly, I can say that in my union that was held as law, and we can go back and see it. Our books are open to that.

We fear that the degree of personal scrutiny that is explained in this particular change—and this was raised in the hearing—could be a disincentive to individuals working in an industry taking on extra work in their trade union on top of their job. It could be a disincentive to them saying, 'Yes, we'll do that extra work and we'll take on this extra scrutiny and accountability.' That would be a real shame in terms of building skills and engagement. We want our membership engaged. We want our membership involved. We want the knowledge and skills base of our membership.

As I said earlier, organisations are already responding to the expectations of previous legislation. My understanding is that that has been going relatively smoothly. There is an expectation that certain things are done by organisations and that they report back to Fair Work through that process about what they have done. They are not able to pass the test until they can attest that everybody who was expected to take on these roles has had the training and knows what they are doing. I have seen the forms. They have to make a very strong statement that that has been done. It has to be signed off and it says what people have done.

However, within a very short time frame—I imagine six to seven months—another range of expectations are put forward in a new bill which, in many ways, only repeats what they are doing but gives organisations the message that the work they have done has been inadequate and that they are not trusted—work that, in many ways, is done very enthusiastically. Whilst extra workload is not often celebrated, the rationale behind the need for accountability and transparency was well made. My understanding is that registered organisations have accepted that as a mark of their importance and as a mark of their own commitment to the valuable work that they do. There needs to be industrial as well as community faith that they are running well trained, skilled and transparent organisations.

That was the mark of the 2012 legislation. Faults had been identified. There had been enormous public and media coverage of the very few officials who were subsequently found to have been acting illegally. However, it seems to me that we are using the wrong test, as the percentage of people who were found to have broken the law and who have earned the distrust of members is very small as a proportion of the large number of organisations and their membership. In some ways, even more sadly, those people who have broken the law have betrayed the trust of the very people they represent and serve.

We have had this debate in this place on a number of occasions. I do not remember any difference in the views of people in this chamber on the need for organisations to be legal and responsible and so having the respect of their members and the community. We all expect the same thing. There is agreement in this chamber on what the expectations of organisations should be. The background to this motion wanting to refer a particular issue to a references committee is building on that goodwill. We want to build on the common ground to ensure registered organisations work well within the Fair Work Act for their membership and are seen by the community to be doing their job. Organisations must earn respect through the work they have done.

We believe this process deserves more time than one day of public hearings. We believe the process should engage much more widely with the organisations themselves to give them a chance to put on record what they have done in response to the previous legislation. That needs to be matched to the proposed recommendations of this legislation to see whether there is a need for a new set of regulations, examinations and processes.

It seems to me that we have heard the terms 'overregulation' and 'red tape' many times in this chamber and I remember hearing those very terms used often during recent Senate estimates with regard to a whole range of operations. There was a commitment by the current government to cut through the overregulation, over-examination and onerous workload of a range of organisations and individuals. This would make sure that the balance is right between effectively doing their job and the required scrutiny to ensure they meet expectations of performance. That is a huge battle. My view is that by imposing the expectations of this legislation, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013, we would be putting another level of regulation and scrutiny on organisations that are already subject to significant regulation and scrutiny. Some of these regulations have only been brought in during the last 12 months.

We note that this issue is of great importance. It demands greater scrutiny by the parliament, as it demands greater engagement of the people at whom this legislation is directed. Those people must have the chance to ensure that the regulation put through does the job we expect and organisations can feel part of it, not punished and overregulated but not respected for the efforts they have already made.

5:26 pm

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

The Australian Labor Party are shameless. I am sure that if the former Labor member for Dobell, Mr Craig Thomson, and a former National President of the Australian Labor Party, Mr Michael Williamson, were listening to the contribution just made then they would have been cheering. They would have been cheering because they are part and parcel of the corruption that has now, regrettably, become endemic within the Australian Labor Party.

Let us be very clear on a few fundamental issues. We campaigned on this bill for well over 12 months and we promised the Australian people that we would be introducing this bill into the parliament in the first week. It was a high priority for us. The Australian people knew that and they voted for it. We now have the Australian Labor Party and the Greens using an abuse of process in this place to ensure that the will of the people cannot be achieved. Let us be very clear: when Mr Shorten tried a patch-up job on registered organisations, he rushed the bill through this place. Do you know how many days the Senate committee was given? Five days from beginning to end. This was a clear election policy on our part, and we gave it eight days. Our eight days are an abuse; the Labour Party's five days are due process. Give me a break.

The dissembling in this place by former trade union officials is very obvious. It is obvious for all to see other than, pitifully, themselves. The real reason they are seeking to delay this legislation is the penalty provisions. That is the reason, and that alone is the reason. We said during the campaign that we have a very simple view on this: a company director ripping off his or her shareholders is to be treated in the same manner as a leader of a registered organisation ripping off his or her members. Under corporation law, if you are a director ripping off shareholders, you can face five years imprisonment or a fine of $320,000. If you are a union official, it is a princely fine of $10,000.

I wonder why these trade union officials opposite are so anxious not to have a new penalty regime come in. Why would that be when there are people—I have to be careful because I will be talking about a member of the judiciary—who I think it would be fair to say are not necessarily seen as sympathetic politically to the coalition side of politics? Federal Court Judge Anthony North was reported on 13 July 2013—there was a smile of acknowledgement from the other side that Justice North, chances are, would not be seen as favourably disposed towards the coalition—

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

A fine judge.

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

If he is a fine judge, why do you not take these words into account, Senator Moore? An article on page 11 in the Australian Financial Review on 13 July 2013 said:

A Federal Court judge has criticised the penalties available under laws governing misconduct by union officials who are found to have inappropriately used members' money or failed to comply with governance regulations.

…   …   …

… Federal Court Judge Anthony North said he was unhappy at the relatively small penalties on offer, particularly in relation to the cost of the court proceedings.

His Honour said:

The penalties are rather beneficially low ... beneficial to wrongdoers

I wonder why the Labor Party is against the higher penalty regime when even His Honour Mr Justice North sees that higher penalties need to be applied.

Do you know what? This push by the coalition has received support from the Australian Workers' Union National Secretary, Paul Howes. He even wants to clean it up. From the discredited Australian Workers' Union, with the scandal of the early 1990s and of the early 2000s, even Mr Howes sees the need for a clean-up. But those opposite and the Greens absolutely do not. They do not want to go anywhere near allowing this legislation to pass. Do you know what? There are a couple of Labor people with a trade union background who served in this parliament and who rose above their former career as trade union officials: Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson. They became ministers of the Crown. They rose above it. As former ACTU presidents, they were willing to go public and say there had to be tougher penalties applied.

So why do we need this Senate inquiry when His Honour Justice North—not from our side of politics—the Australian Workers' Union National Secretary Paul Howes and two former ACTU presidents say that there is this need for higher penalties? The reason is that the people sitting opposite and in the other place sitting opposite are still the beneficiaries of being bankrolled by the sort of funny money that we were exposed to courtesy of the Fairfax media on the weekend. Let us not fall for Senator Moore's suggestion that it was just one or two. We now know about the Australian Workers' Union scandal. We know about the multiplicity of scandals in the Health Services Union, the Transport Workers Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the MUA, the CFMEU—the list goes on and on and those opposite know it. We knew it, we took it to the people and we got a resounding endorsement. Indeed, so serious were we that we said, 'If you elect us, we will deal with this matter by bringing it to the parliament in the very first week of its sitting.' That is what I was charged to do as the Minister for Employment by the incoming Prime Minister. Thanks to departmental and other staff, we were able to achieve it.

Now, not content with continuing to protect the racketeers, Labor are now abusing the process of the Senate to allow the protection. Let us be very clear. The Senate has two Senate committee systems. One is the legislation committees set up specifically to look at legislation—hence the name. Then we have another set of committees called the references committees to which you refer issues as opposed to legislation.

I asked the keeper of the records in this place: how often and by whom had legislation been referred to a references committee? Since 1996 it has been done on 13 occasions—I am proud to say never once by the coalition. Even when we had the numbers in the Senate, we did not do that between 2004 and 2007, because we actually believe in the system. What happens here is that the Labor Party and the Greens have the numbers on the references committees and therefore they will seek to delay this legislation until late March next year. Why would you want this delay in this situation?

Senator Moore raised matters in the debate about the complexity and the problem with volunteers. Indeed, members of the CPSU general council that I had the privilege of addressing the other day have indicated to me the problem with the legislation governing trade union officials and volunteers. Do you know whose mess that was? It was Mr Shorten's legislation. If given the opportunity to introduce and pass this legislation into this place, we could amend Mr Shorten's mess and clean it up for the benefit of those whom Senator Moore professes to be concerned about. But she is denying us that opportunity—and deliberately so, because it is just a ruse. It is just an argument, a straw man to be put up to try to justify the delay. Senator Moore has exposed herself as one who is protecting the racketeers in this debate by not allowing this bill to proceed until March next year. She knows that many trade union officials and other volunteers in registered organisations have been unreasonably entangled in the mess Mr Shorten created just before the parliament rose, in a desperate attempt to show the Australian people that he had cleaned up the show. And he did everything but increase the penalties. That is the one thing the Labor Party is scared of: seeing increased penalties.

It is interesting that those who have risen above it—like Martin Ferguson, Simon Crean, the AWU national secretary and Justice North, all from the Labor side of politics—can see the need for these increased penalties. Why is it that the Labor Party want to deny the will of the Australian people and abuse their numbers in this place? Sure, they are entitled to the numbers they enjoy in this place until 1 July, but they must admit to themselves that the numbers here in this place no longer reflect the will of the Australian people. They cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it on the carbon tax, on the Australian Building and Construction Commission, on the mining tax or on the registered organisations commission. They will use and abuse their numbers right up until 1 July next year.

I say: when you have made a mistake, acknowledge it; when you have your policy positioning wrong, fess up and let the new government get on with its task. That is what we as a coalition did after 2007. We recognised that Work Choices was wrong; we recognised that the people had voted and had made a determination. We still enjoyed the numbers in this place up until 1 July the following year, but we accepted it in a mature and considered manner, respecting the will of the people, and we said that the Fair Work legislation, Labor's alternative, was entitled to go through this place. That is the big difference between the coalition and the Labor Party. We accept the people's verdict but Labor cannot help themselves. It is within them: if you have got the numbers, use them and abuse them for your own personal benefit. That is what the Labor Party have done consistently, and here we are again. They will now add another bill to the sheet of bills being referred to references committees. Since 1996 it has only been done 13 times and, if the vote goes as I suspect, it will now be 14 times. To the great credit of my predecessors in this place, the coalition have never done that, and I think that is a great credit to coalition senators. We respect this place. We respect the forums, we respect the committee system and, indeed, our legislation was before the committee for eight days. Labor's legislation was before the committee for five days. Excuse me? Where is the fault in process there? But it is this immature argument: Labor use their numbers for a five-day hearing, good; the coalition have an eight-day hearing, bad—despite the fact that it is so much longer for the committee to consider these matters.

I recall again that most of the evidence before the committee in relation to the difficulties with reporting was in relation not to the coalition's proposed legislation but to Mr Shorten's legislation. And here we are saying: 'Look, let's work together. We can clean up this mess together.' I must say that the evidence from the committee to me as minister was very persuasive, and I thought there should be some changes made to overcome the problems that the trade union leadership were saying should be sorted—and, if possible, before 1 January. And yet the Labor Party are deliberately stopping that from happening. Why? Because the trade union officials are more than happy if more volunteers get knocked out of the system, just as long as the highly paid professionals—who run the slush funds, who have the funny money—are not subjected to higher penalties. That is what this is all about, and it is a shame on the Labor Party and all those who vote with them and for this motion, which seeks to defer further consideration of this legislation until later on in March next year. There is no reason for it. It is not a surprise. We had a specific policy paper in relation to registered organisations; it was there for all to see. The now Prime Minister announced it at a Victorian state conference well in advance of 12 months before the federal election. It was out there for all to see and talk about. And we said that within the first week it would come into this place.

The people voted for us, we delivered on that promise, and the greatest election promise betrayers, the Labor Party—the party of 'no carbon tax', who then introduced the carbon tax—are seeking to deny this new government the opportunity to implement its policies. Be it on the carbon tax, on temporary protection visas, on the mining tax or on anything we are seeking to do to clean up the mess Labor left us, they are standing in the way. Having trashed the house, they are now standing at the doorway refusing entry to the repairmen and repairwomen who have been charged with cleaning up the place—with repainting, recarpeting and getting the show back on the road.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

New bookshelves.

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

Can I simply say to the interjection: a beneficiary who used trade union members' money for the benefit of his ICAC appearance, dealing with the corruption of one Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald—not Senator Ian Macdonald but the Ian Macdonald of New South Wales

Honourable senators interjecting

And why did AMWU members have to pay for his appearance when all that that good senator was doing was manipulating numbers for preselections to ensure that this corrupt Ian Macdonald got re-endorsed? Why should hardworking AMWU members have to pay for that? Those are the sorts of things we want to cut out, because the average trade union member who I speak to tells me that they are a member of the union because it is like an insurance policy, if you like. They do not want to hold hands and sing Solidarity Forever. That is not why they are a member of the union movement. They are simply there to protect their interests. They see the corruption and the rip-offs. And it is not only the former National President of the Australian Labor Party, Michael Williamson, and the former Labor member for Dobell involved in these sorts of corrupt activities; it is a whole host of Labor officials and it is now coming out more and more.

The current national vice-president of the Australian Labor Party has been caught up in the latest slush fund allegations. It is endemic; it is corrupt. Australia deserves to be rid of it. That is what we campaigned on, that is what we got a mandate for and that is why I encourage the Labor Party to search their souls and say: 'Enough of this corruption. Let's get rid of it once and for all and clean up the mess.' (Time expired)

5:46 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I think anyone who is listening in should always remember the modus operandi of the coalition in relation to workers' rights in this country. No-one ran harder against workers' rights than the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Eric Abetz. Senator Abetz was the main proponent to take rights away from workers in this country and he is now the main proponent to take away longstanding rights of the organisations of workers in this country. So let us not get carried away with all the nonsense that we have heard from Senator Abetz in relation to this debate. I am absolutely shameless—no shame—in standing up here for workers' rights and for the trade union organisations in this country because, without the trade union organisations in this country, workers around this country would be much worse off. They would be subjected to terrible laws, implemented by the coalition in their last term of government—the laws that dare not speak their name from anyone in the coalition: Work Choices.

That is why you need strong trade unions in this country and it is why you need debates on the demolition of workers' rights. You need debates in this place on the demolition of the rights of registered organisations in this country. You need to examine every aspect of industrial legislation put forward by the coalition because underpinning every aspect of the coalition's industrial legislation against the trade union movement is the need for them to pay homage to the big business groups which support their election in this country and which pay their bills when it comes to election time. So this is payback time to big business, which want to reintroduce Work Choices. The government are not game to reintroduce Work Choices quite yet, but anyone who is listening in knows that this legislation is the precursor to Work Choices. So make no bones about where they are coming from on this.

I am absolutely shameless in standing up here and supporting the trade union movement in this country and actually supporting the business organisations in this country, which have overwhelmingly rejected the propositions that are being put forward in this bill and which have been pleading for more time to have the implications of this bill analysed in a full and frank manner. That is why the opposition are saying that a reference committee should deal with the issue. It is quite easy to stand up here and look at Mr Williamson, Mr Thomson and the HSUA and say: 'This is the reason why we should introduce these draconian laws.' But you do not make laws because of the criminality of one small group in an overall establishment. That is what is happening here. Both Williamson and Thomson are before the criminal courts of this country. That is the reality. If you actually fiddle the books, the same as if any businessperson or unionist fiddles the books, then you deal with that through the criminal courts.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What's the penalty?

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald has asked what the penalty is. The penalty is jail, if you are corruptly operating within a business organisation, a union or any other establishment in this country. There are criminal laws to deal with that. But what the coalition want to do is to try to impose corporate laws on the trade union movement and it has been quite clearly demonstrated by submissions to the legislation inquiry that it is not appropriate, not effective and should not happen.

We hear from Senator Abetz that there is dissembling by former trade union officials. The only one who is dissembling is Senator Abetz in his contribution because he did not argue that, if someone is found taking illegal actions in the trade union movement, they should be dealt with through the laws that are being proposed here. The reality is that the Labor Party, the coalition, the Greens, the Independents and the Nationals would argue that, if someone breaks the law, if there is criminal activity, that criminal activity should be taken to where it can be dealt with, the courts of this land, and you could end up in jail. That is the bottom line. This argument that union officials should be treated the same—

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cameron, please resume your seat—I am sorry, I thought Senator Macdonald was seeking to raise a point of order.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was just leaving. I can't stand it anymore.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I apologise, Senator Cameron. I thought you were being called to order.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I will take that comment from Senator Macdonald that he is leaving because he cannot stand it anymore. The reason he cannot stand it anymore is that he really cannot stand common sense—common sense from the trade union movement and common sense from the employer organisations, who say that this bill is fundamentally flawed.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. My understanding is that the question before the chair concerns the reference of a matter to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee, not a debate of the bill per se.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I can say that I think Senator Cameron is being as relevant as the previous speaker in relation to that question, so there is no point of order.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Through the chair, for Senator McKenzie's information, I have basically been following through the points that were made by Senator Abetz in his speech, so, if I am not being relevant, you could have showed an even hand and interrupted Senator Abetz in his contribution. So I will continue on with Senator Abetz's contribution, if that is okay, Senator McKenzie.

Senator Abetz spoke of people rising above being trade union officials. I think one of the highest things you can be in this country is a trade union official, looking after workers' rights against some terrible bosses in this country, working with decent bosses in this country to improve productivity, doing the right thing day in, day out, protecting workers rights and entitlements and making sure they get their penalty rates. I think rising above that is a big rise. You have to rise a long way to be above trying to ensure the rights of workers.

Then Senator Abetz spoke of the AWU, the HSU, the TWU and the CFMEU without any evidence of any corruption or criminal activity. I remind the Senate that the current coalition government spent over $60 million on a royal commission into the building industry—and what was the outcome of that? Not one trade union official was charged with a criminal activity. Sixty-odd million dollars of public money was spent to try and prove some corrupt activity in the building industry and not one union official was charged with any corruption.

The other interesting point that Senator Abetz raised was abuse of the process of the Senate. Well, hasn't Senator Abetz got a short memory! If you listened to his contribution, you would have thought that they actually really believe in the processes of the Senate and did not abuse the power or processes of the Senate. He gave us a little lecture about the difference between legislation committees and references committees. We got a little homily from Senator Abetz about references committees versus legislation committees and how important it was to respect the different roles of the legislation committees and the references committees. But what Senator Abetz forgot to say is that, when they were in power last time and had complete control in the Senate, they got rid of references committees. They abandoned the references committee approach because it might just have been a little problem for them in their complete and utter control of the Senate. So they got rid of them. I am not sure if I was listening carefully enough, but I do not think Senator Abetz mentioned that huge abuse of process of the Senate when he was telling us how the coalition respect the processes, functions and history of the Senate. Senator Abetz might come back and explain that little abuse of process—or not so little; a huge abuse, actually.

I want to go to this issue of the criminal versus the civil approach. Registered organisations, whether they are employers or employees—the AiG, the ACCI, the ACTU, the MUA and the CFMEU—have all said: if there is criminal activity in any form, then deal with it through criminal laws and make sure it is dealt with expeditiously. No-one in the trade union movement is covering up, as Senator Abetz would have it, any alleged criminal activity in the trade union movement.

Senator Abetz continually raised the suggestion that this was the trade union movement trying to protect itself from laws that would bring about better behaviour and expose criminal activity. Well, I did not see one submission from any employer organisation to the inquiry that took place that actually said they agreed with that analysis. I will come back to the AiG position because they go through in some detail the weaknesses and problems with this bill. Actually, Senator Abetz did alert us to the fact that this was done very quickly, that it was only through the hard work of the department that this was put together. So what he is foreshadowing in my view is that this is quick and dirty legislation. When you see the analysis from both the trade union movement and, more importantly, the employer organisations on this issue, you will see that it was quick and dirty legislation. The drafting is incomplete, the drafting is vague, the drafting has massive amounts of consequences that have not been thought through by the government.

The ACCI, certainly no friend of the trade union movement, said:

As the impact of the recent changes to the Registered Organisations Act cannot yet be assessed—

and remember, there have been significant changes made with significant increases in penalties—

ACCI does not support further changes to the Registered Organisations Act at this stage.

They do not support this bill. The ACCI, the allies of the coalition on so many issues, do not support this legislation. They are saying basically that they would welcome the opportunity to participate in a review, should it occur, and will consider proposals which would amend the registered organisations act within that context. Well, what we are arguing for is an inquiry that would give them the opportunity to do that in a considered and timely way. So, the ACCI agree with us; they do not agree with the coalition.

The Master Plumbers have requested a further period of consultation. They have done that because they know there are problems with this bill. So, the Labor Party agrees with the ACCI and the Master Plumbers, but the coalition do not and they want to rush this through.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia—you would not think they would be arguing in support of a proposition that is not about accountability and doing the right thing—are saying there are more detailed examples of the ambiguity and confusion with aspects of the bill. And then they lay them out—all the ambiguities and confusion. 'This bill is full of ambiguities and confusion'—that is not from the ACTU, the union movement. The Labor Party agrees with the Pharmacy Guild that there are ambiguities and confusion in this bill.

We should be fair dinkum about this and not make holier-than-thou speeches, as Senator Abetz just did. We should be clear that you are making laws in this place and they should not be based on ambiguity and confusion or about targeting individuals because there are some criminal activities that are being dealt with in the courts. The registered organisations act has been longstanding in this country.

I now want to go to what the AiG are saying—the AiG I have had fights with all of my industrial life as a union official. What they say is that 'overwhelmingly the officials and staff of registered organisations of employers and employees are dedicated and ethical people who work very hard for the benefit of their members'. Let me say that again: 'overwhelmingly the officials and staff of registered organisations of employers and employees are dedicated and ethical people who work very hard for the benefit of their members'. So, they have got no doubts. They are actually in the area of industrial relations doing the business on behalf of their members, on behalf of employers. They play it hard, they play it tough, they have got a reputation of taking every chance they can get to make it tough for the union movement if that is to the benefit of their members. But they do not do that here. They say there are huge problems with this bill and it is unfair.

I do not have time to go through every point they raise, but they make point after point. They say, 'What is the definition of "serious contravention"? What is the definition of "serious"?' There are no definitions in this bill as to those issues. They go on and basically say the penalties are over the top and that you cannot compare the operation of a voluntary organisation, such as an employer organisation or a union, with a corporation. They are two completely different things, and the history of this country has always treated them differently. They go on to point out a number of provisions of the bill that are a real problem. There is a clause in the bill that says if an organisation—an employer organisation or a union—does not respond within 28 days to a member request for a statement of membership they can be fined $80,000. They accept that that is over the top.

So that is the AiG, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, the ACCI and the Master Plumbers. Let me tell you, when we have a further hearing into this the employer organisations will be queuing up to say you cannot and should not treat these registered organisations as criminal organisations, you should not treat them as organisations that do not do the right thing—because they can see that, overwhelmingly, the employee organisations in this country, the union movement, are made up of people who do the right thing. This is an ideological agenda and we should support this proposition.

6:07 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, I will not keep you long. I indicate that we will be supporting this referral. But I have been sitting in this chamber for a period of time listening to this debate, and I did listen quite carefully to Senator Abetz when he went through at length the fact that they had never referred provisions of bills to a references committee. However, I have been in this place for a period of time now, and I was here when they had control of the Senate—and I am sure that others in this chamber remember this as well—and the then government actually changed the whole committee system so that they could in fact control the committee system and so did not need to bother referring things to a legislation or a references committee. If we remember right, they got rid of references committees and just had standing committees. So it is very disingenuous of the Leader of the Government in the Senate to say that they have never done this. Of course they have, because, during that entire time that they had control of the Senate and they changed the committee system, all those bills were effectively referred to committees that were both references committees and legislation committees.

So the Leader of the Government in the Senate should be articulating correctly what really happened during that time. Perhaps he could go and count those bills that were referred. I have done a quick check of just one of those committees, the committee that is very close to my heart, the community affairs committee, and a large number of bills were referred to that particular committee, which was effectively functioning as a references committee as well. So, when he is laying into the Greens and the opposition, he really should make sure that he gets those facts correct.

6:10 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak after that tirade from Senator Cameron—and, for the public's listening pleasure: that is about the third time I have had the pleasure of that particular tirade; I chaired Senate estimates when the department came before us and Senator Cameron had a lot of leeway and a lot of conversations with officials around these particular issues—similarly, last week, during the inquiry. So whilst Senator Cameron wants to argue the toss, he did not actually address the question before the chair.

When I look at the reports that we have been talking about, I note that these bills were inquired into last week with a one-day inquiry—fully consultative, with all the usual players. The Greens were actually a no-show. It is funny that they are supporting the opposition on this reference, because when I sat down to chair the inquiry into this bill by the legislation committee there were name cards for Senator Rhiannon and Senator Siewert but neither were there. When I look through the report into this legislation, there is a dissenting report from the opposition, rightly stating their long-held objections on industrial relations matters—it is an ideological issue, as Senator Cameron touched on—and stating the opposition's perspective on this and the other bill we inquired into that day. What is not in the report is any comment from the Greens on this piece of legislation, and I would ask whether we are here today putting this reference to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee simply because the Greens could not quite get it together to get their comments on the legislation before the committee.

As to Senator Cameron, I want to address one of Senator Cameron's comments about abuse of the Senate. We actually saw that today. When we talk about checks and balances in this place, there is no greater check and balance on government in the Senate than the Privileges Committee. It is interesting to note that earlier this week the opposition sided with the Greens in their desire to change the balance of the Privileges Committee. When the opposition was the government, a few months ago they rejected that proposition—as rightly they should. It is a check and balance for opposition on the government of the day in this place. So when you want to talk about abuse of the Senate, I do not think it gets much higher than that as an attack on the integrity of the Senate.

I will now turn to the matter and the reference before us. It is in my role as Chair of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee that I want to highlight the blatant disregard that the ALP-Greens continuing alliance has for this Senate convention—and, indeed, for the will of the Australian people. At our last sitting, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 was referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee for inquiry, as is usual and appropriate. There has been a lot of noise around the haste of this inquiry. I think the road of the previous government is littered with examples, but I would actually like to turn to an example which, in looking at earlier instances of oppositions referring bills to references committees, I came upon, with the good help of the Senate clerks: the Senate Economics References Committee's Report on Consideration of the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 1996.

Back then, the reason given by the Labor Party in complaining about why they had to put it through the references committee was that, No. 1: it was an explicit breach of the government's pre-election commitments, that the then coalition government had not explicitly made a core promise, if you like, to the electorate prior to the election that they were actually going to look at changes to the IR law. I think that the issue on the table was unfair dismissal laws for small business. So because the coalition back then did not make it a clear election promise, the No. 1 issue for the newly minted opposition in 1996 was that it breached the government's pre-election commitments. I quote, 'At no time prior to the election did the coalition foreshadow an exemption for small business from the unfair dismissal laws'. That was the No. 1 reason why it had to go off to the references committee.

Nos 2 and 3 reasons were that it was unnecessary and unfair. I think that goes, essentially, to the nature of the discussion before us—the content, if you like, of the issues. The coalition and the Labor Party are never going to see eye to eye on industrial relations matters. It is a polarising topic for us, and that is why we have democratic processes—to help us, as political entities in this nation, to sort through particularly polarising issues. We have processes, we have elections, we have parliaments and we have committees to protect the people from the very edges of our ideology. I think that sending a bill that has already been inquired into—not once but a couple of times—and that was foreshadowed 17 months prior—everybody knew it was coming—to a references committee, with the help of the Greens, to ensure that they get to ask their questions, is an abuse.

Essentially, this reference is unnecessary and unwarranted because it is a delaying tactic by an opposition that is still in denial about an election held many months ago. They are unwilling to accept the clear will of the Australian electorate, that was very aware of this policy intent by the coalition government—17 months prior; very aware of what we intended to do in this space. And yet—and I know you cannot believe it and I know you do not want to believe it—they still cast their votes in the manner in which they did. That ended up with the government actually being able to put before the parliament the election promises that we made in our desire to keep up with the Australian people.

The reference before us seeks to investigate the potential impact of the amendments to the registered organisations act to interfere with ongoing operation of registered organisations in Australia. It also wants to examine how potential amendments will impede the ability of employees of registered organisations to carry out their duties. I am not quite sure how we think this evidence that we will get before this inquiry will be any different to the evidence submitted in previous inquiries and, indeed, in the inquiry conducted last week. And it is good to see Senator Lines in the chamber, because she was there last Tuesday. The Greens were not, but Senator Lines was there, as was Senator Cameron and Senator Tillem, prosecuting the case for the opposition. But in terms of who actually presented, I am not sure we will get any different perspectives.

I will just read through the submissions received for the inquiry. I think there is a bit of smoke and mirrors going on, that this was what I think Senator Wong likes to call a 'quick and dirty inquiry'. But we got a fair number of submissions, reflecting the full diversity and ideological positions of this particular area. We had the Queensland Nurses Union, the Timber Merchants Association of Victoria, the Maritime Union of Australia, Master Builders Australia, the Department of Employment, the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Services Association of Australia, the Australian Industry Group, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia—and I really appreciate Senator Cameron getting in behind the Pharmacy Guild—the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Fair Work Commission, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Unions New South Wales, the Australian Public Transport Industrial Association, the Australian Community Services Employers Association, the Finance Sector Union of Australia, the Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the Timber Trade Industrial Association, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the National Union of Workers. That is a pretty comprehensive list!

I think that all of us in this place who have argued about industrial relations approaches could pretty much back it in; we have all the usual players, and some. We have the whole gamut of perspectives on this particular issue and, indeed, we were able to prosecute that through those who appeared before the committee on Tuesday. They included the department and, obviously, the ACTU, who headed down even though they were in an executive meeting—and that was very good—AiG, ACCI et cetera. So we were able to actually investigate. They also all took on, kindly, some questions on notice and got the answers back to us in a timely manner. And so it was a full process for an inquiry into a bill that we have actually looked into more than once—if we think about private senators' business in the last parliament—and we produced the report. And yet, here we are seeking to refer it on.

When I go to the reference itself—the potential impacts and impeding employers—some of the issues are what the inquiry turned up. We looked at disclosure requirements. We looked at the level of regulation and, indeed, the minister has been persuaded, as he said. If only all ministers would consult as widely as this minister has with the range of stakeholders that he has, not only in coming to a position around the evidence before the committee on this particular bill but, indeed, in his construction of the policy we took to the federal election in the first place.

If you go to the coalition policy document on this area you can see that we did not just talk to our friends. We did not just talk to the people who agreed with our position on this matter. We went to a wide circle and tried to get an holistic perspective on how to fix the issues with the registered organisations act and to fix, as we said, some of the mistakes in the earlier iterations.

We also looked within the report at increased accountability issues. Training of officers was raised by some of the submitters, as was the engagement of the ILO—the International Labour Organization—and how this bill addresses that. We looked at the Registered Organisations Commissioner and the special account and we also looked at the financial implications and the financial penalties for noncompliance. So we did not just tick-and-flick this. We actually listened to our submitters, took their evidence on board, highlighted the issues that they raised and then made some recommendations. It is those recommendations that I commend to the Senate.

So, rather than pursue this delaying tactic so that maybe the Greens can get to the next inquiry in the references, we should actually get on with doing what we have been elected to do. We are in government and this is a core part of the election commitment that we brought to the federal election. Convention would say that if you are elected to government you get to pursue your legislative agenda, particularly in an area where we are so ideologically opposed, where the process of parliament and the mechanisms we have in place in our democracy save us from our worst selves. In referring this to a references committee, we have sought to simply delay and not facilitate the people's will, as much as we may not appreciate it. I am confident that what I heard from Senator Cameron in the last 20 minutes, what I heard from him for a few hours last Tuesday and what I heard for lots of hours last week during Senate estimates we will hear again and there will be nothing new under the sun. The ACTU will critique the methodology, the department will make its defence of the methodology and we will end up in the same place, where the only thing happening is delay around this crucial piece of legislation to fix Labor's issues.

I go to delivering on our election commitments and what an important aspect that is. Senator Abetz mentioned the history of referring bills to references committees. Senator Siewert mentioned earlier that there were a whole lot of other bills referred to references committees for inquiry, but they were from minor parties—from the Australian Greens, from the Democrats and from Senator Xenophon, for instance, not from oppositions. Our whole parliamentary system is set up where we have a government and an opposition and minor parties come and go, as this table reflects, and they have used various tactics in order to flesh out areas of issues. But there have only been three other times when an opposition has sought to put a bill before a references committee of the Senate, and that was on Telstra in 1996, on the Workplace Relations and Other Legislation Amendment Bill in 1996—the report I read from earlier—and on the Gene Technology Bill. Maybe there is a little deja vu here. Maybe a similar, newly elected opposition were struggling with the same realities that this opposition in the Senate is struggling with: irrelevancy and a legislative agenda that the Australian people are no longer in favour of and have made that very, very clear.

Senator Wong put this reference to the Senate. She did not use the same excuse, if you like, that the minority Senate report in 1997 used—that it was a breach of a government's pre-election commitment—because she cannot. So what excuse do the opposition use for breaching process in the way that they have breached it? They argue the merits of the bill—what they like about the piece of legislation and what they do not like about the piece of legislation. They do not actually address why they have done it, because the fact is that no such reason exists. The bill delivers on a clearly stated government election promise. It is legislation that has been effectively examined twice in 12 months, because we have debated a not dissimilar private member's bill. The issues have been raised and they have been wholeheartedly canvassed in this place, in our committees and, indeed, in the construction of the coalition's policy itself.

Let's face it, if we go over the last six years this is in contrast with policy and legislation that was not widely consulted on, that we only talked to our friends about, or we might have got a few famous people in a room with a piece of white paper and some whiteboard markers—there is our legislative framework for the following six years after a 2020 Summit. No—the process we have taken on policy construction, legislation development and legislative program development is with careful consideration, a consultative process, because we seek, as this minister seeks, to govern for all Australians, not just those who voted for us. That is why we consult with whom we do.

We received 20 submissions from unions and employer organisations, so I am not quite sure what the reference is getting at—what else we can dig out. It is a delaying tactic. Because of this reference the Senate cannot actually debate the legislation, so we will have to come back on the last sitting day of March. The bills will not be before us until budget week or beyond. So it is simply a delaying tactic, which I understand when you are as ideologically opposed as the opposition is. However, we must accept the will of the people, and we could not have been clearer about our legislative agenda on this.

I note that Senator Wong this morning withdrew the other inquiry we had last week through the Senate Education and Employment References Committee, in reference to the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill. That reference was withdrawn, but I note that Senator Cameron just cannot stop talking about it—

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

He just can't stop talking!

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

He cannot get on with the new paradigm, Senator Nash, that he is no longer in government. He may be on the front bench, but it is a shadow of his former position. He actually put in a new reference to do exactly what this reference seeks to do, and we will be debating that tomorrow, I am sure. The points he goes to have all been dealt with in the inquiry last week. They were fully prosecuted by Senator Cameron; I am sure if he reads the Hansard he will see that we do not need to go back. He has all the answers. Labor and Greens, this is an abuse of process and it should not happen.

6:30 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to add to some of the comments that Senator McKenzie made about the inquiry we had last week. As Senator McKenzie noted, I was one of the people who went to that inquiry. We had one day where we looked at two bills. When we looked at the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013—and I am happy to stand corrected on this—I think we had just under three hours. In that time we heard from the ACTU, who had about 40 minutes; we heard from AiG; we heard from a range of other employer organisations; and then we heard from the department. I do not think that three hours is anywhere near an adequate time to hear from people.

I do not know if Senator McKenzie has ever been a member of a trade union, but I have spent most of my working life working for a trade union, prior to becoming a senator. I worked for United Voice. I worked as a paid organiser, and then I took on elected positions. In the Western Australian branch I was the assistant branch secretary of United Voice. In early 2000 I became the assistant national secretary of United Voice. I am a trade union official; it runs through my blood. I am now a senator, but 'once a trade union official, always a trade union official'. And I must say that, as a trade union official, I really took offence to what Senator Abetz was saying. A point that has certainly been overlooked is that one of the reasons we need a reference is to give people a fair go. What most of the organisations said last week was that they did not have enough time.

My union, United Voice, for example, has a governing structure of 100 national councillors; it has both a state and federal structure. The governing council of the Western Australian branch is two-thirds ordinary workers, who give their time in an unpaid capacity to manage and govern and comply with all of the requirements under the act to make sure United Voice is a competent organisation. I am talking about people like cleaners. In fact, the president of United Voice is a health worker who worked in the kitchen at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. The vice-president is a worker from the disability sector, a personal carer. The other vice-president comes from the paint industry. Other members of the committee of management are from, for example, the bread industry or the childcare industry; they are from schools; they are cleaners, and so on.

It is ordinary members who take on, in a voluntary capacity, the management of a very large organisation like United Voice. In fact, United Voice is the largest trade union in Western Australia, so there are significant responsibilities there that need to be given voice. They need to be given an opportunity to speak to a Senate inquiry, a references group, to say what it is really like from their perspective to be a manager of a trade union, because that is what they are. That is the role they take on and that is the role that is spelled out in Fair Work. It is time that we heard from those people who, every week, every month, come along to executive meetings of trade unions, who attend branch meetings of trade unions, who attend national meetings of trade unions, in their own time. To get those people to Melbourne last week for a three-hour hearing at which they might have got two minutes is simply an insult. If we are serious about regulating trade unions we need more time than that.

There is not a person in the Labor Party who does not believe that we need strong trade unions and we need regulation. No-one is backing away from that; no-one is backing away from the fact that we need strong trade unions. But I am not going to short-change those members of trade unions who give their time voluntarily, who have my enormous respect, and stop them from having a say. I do want to hear from ordinary committee members of trade unions about what they think, about how they feel about the sorts of onerous regulations that the coalition government wants to impose on ordinary working folk in this country.

They are the voices we need to hear, and we will only hear them if we have a references committee that has enough time; that is able, for example, to go to Perth or Hobart or Brisbane to hear those voices. They are the voices that are missing and they are, by and large, the people who manage all of our trade unions across this country. That is why we need much more than a three-hour hearing at which the ACTU represents the whole of the trade union movement. I have to say they did a brilliant job in a very short space of time to give that evidence. But 40 minutes is an insult for the working people of this country.

I have to say too, after listening to Senator Abetz today, that I want paid trade unionists in this country to be able to talk to Senator Abetz about what it is really like

As the former national assistant secretary of United Voice I can say that, despite its name changes over the years, it is one of Australia's oldest trade unions. As I just described in response to comments made by Senator McKenzie, it has a strong representative structure at branch level, with branches in every state and the territories and at the national level. It takes its obligations under the various state and federal industrial relations systems very, very seriously. It is not unique: it is like most trade unions in this country in taking those responsibilities seriously. And of course, like any progressive organisation, United Voice is always open to new and better ways of undertaking its role, including accountability.

United Voice, along with other trade unions in this country, has always had open and transparent methods of reporting to its membership. That has always been a requirement of trade unions. In many ways, United Voice has reported far more extensively than what was required at various times by state and federal jurisdictions. United Voice is not alone there. Yes, Fair Work would have set out a minimum set of requirements, but most trade unions in this country, because of their own rules, have always reported much more extensively than what was required.

I can certainly assure the Senate that when I was an elected official I had obligations under the Fair Work Act which I took seriously. Again, I am not unique in taking my obligations seriously. If you work in a trade union there are particular obligations and you work within them. Any worker in this country tries to abide by the laws that govern their particular work, and I was not unique in that. As I said, United Voice, like many trade unions in this country, takes its obligations seriously. After all, union budgets are raised from members' subscriptions—in the case of United Voice, low-paid members.

United Voice is a typical Australian trade union that takes its responsibilities seriously, and we need the reference to the committee so that we can talk to trade union officials and elected representatives around the country. I particularly want their voices to be heard in this debate. As Senator Cameron pointed out, if you just listened to Senator Abetz you would think it was all about trade unions, but the AiG and ACCI are very concerned about this legislation too and I would like to give the AiG and ACCI a further opportunity to bring their volunteer board members along so their stories can be heard. I think there will be commonalities between our trade union unpaid representatives and those who sit on the boards of AiG and ACCI. They will have some similar concerns about this new bill.

The ACTU was at pains to point out that it does not want to be above the law and it does not expect to be above the law. On behalf of trade unions it certainly made the point that, yes, trade unions have to be accountable. But we have got accountability through the passage of the bill that became the 2012 act. This current bill, apart from increasing penalties, is quite similar. I certainly would like some of AiG's officers to come to a references committee to talk us through how onerous they are finding the bill. AiG were at pains to point out last week that they were just starting to implement the requirements of the 2012 act and they were finding that act onerous. Let's not kid ourselves—this legislation goes much further. Again, that is a reason for us to have a references committee to give those representatives much greater time to be heard.

Like United Voice, AiG have been around for a very long time. This is a respected employer organisation. I heard Senator Cameron say today that in his former role with the Metal Workers Union he had had some pretty tough fights with AiG, but he too respected them as an organisation. They are to be respected. They were registered in the New South Wales industrial commission in 1902 and gained federal registration in 1926. So this is an organisation, like the ACTU, like United Voice and other trade unions who have been around a long time, who have some expertise in this area, who are worth listening to and who are worth giving more than 40 minutes to.

AiG, a longstanding and well-respected organisation, do not see any need for this new bill—none at all. AiG not only think this new bill is unnecessary from their own organisation's perspective, but they also do not believe it is necessary for trade unions. As I said before, their expertise, the history they have lived through and the experience that their organisation has are worth delving into. They should be given the opportunity to give much more detailed input and for their branches throughout the country to be heard. After all, we saw their key personnel, as we did from the ACTU, but let's go and hear from the branches, big and small, who have to deal with this onerous legislation. The 43rd Parliament, as we have heard today, considered and adopted a bill that addresses much the same things as the bill in question. Again, I take issue with Senator Abetz because if you listened to him today you would think that almost every trade union had some kind of corruption going on. It was quite disgraceful. If that is his view, there are now laws in place to deal with that.

Given the attack that we are getting from the opposition, we should look at corporations. We have had some staggering corporation crashes in this country, but it is just: 'Oh well; it's just another corporation; let's not worry about it.' Why don't I ever hear Senator Abetz talking about One.Tel or ABC, which crashed spectacularly? That is why we need a references committee inquiry, so that we can hear from the ordinary folk managing our employer organisations and our trade unions.

6:45 pm

Photo of Helen KrogerHelen Kroger (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was not actually intending to speak to this motion to refer the provisions of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee, but I was listening to some of the observations that were being made from the other side of the chamber, and that inspired me to come in and make a couple of observations.

I sat on this inquiry last week. I sit on the Selection of Bills Committee. What I could not believe when I saw this reference, which necessitated me looking into the precedents for this, was the abuse of process. This is furthering it. It is a total abuse of process. The purpose of the Selection of Bills Committee and referrals to committees is so that inquiries can be convened in relation to bills and they can be dealt with in the most efficient and expeditious way. I sat through that process. I note that the senators on the other side of the chamber seemed to prosecute the case against the bill, and they were talking about that as opposed to why there was a critical need to have another inquiry. My colleague Senator McKenzie has gone through the background and precedents for this, but it took a lot of homework to come up with the last time that this happened. It really does militate against the proper process that we all, with goodwill and good faith, work together to try and implement.

Listening to the contributions that have been made, the one complaint that seems to be coming from the other side of the chamber all the time is about the lack of time for consultation in relation to this. I would like to remind those on the other side of the chamber that, when the then Minister for Workplace Relations, Mr Shorten, proposed amendments to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act in 2012, the Senate committee at that time had five days to deal with it—five days from the day of referral to reporting, with one very short hearing on a Friday morning, at the end of a sitting week in Canberra. So there were five days from the date of referral to the date that that report was to be tabled in parliament.

We hear—and I just heard the senator discussing it when I came into the chamber—about the disclosure requirements and the fact that some organisations, including the Australian Industry Group, whom the senator spoke of at length, have complained about them. May I direct her to the fact that these disclosure requirements were contained in the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012, which was introduced by the former minister, Mr Bill Shorten, and will come into effect on 1 January 2014. The complaints also go to the requirements in relation to the Corporations Act, and there is the suggestion that they go beyond that. If that was such an issue, why wasn't it raised in the Labor caucus in 2012? Why has it taken this length of time to suddenly have these concerns about the requirements that supposedly go above the Corporations Act? We did not hear about them back in 2012, but suddenly we seem to be hearing about them today. It is just breathtaking, this absolute hypocrisy that we see time and time again, and we have seen it today in relation to other matters in the chamber. I can only suggest that this is an absolute abuse of process.

Debate interrupted.