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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1027

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:27): Dearie dearie me, if we have not just heard 20 minutes of the old class warfare back from the 1950s and, indeed, the 1890s. We revert back to the days of the squattocracy and the early days of the AWU. I do not think there is a person in this chamber who would not agree that workers in those days had something to collect about and to take on the squattocracy and others.

Indeed, this is a little bit off the track of the debate that I was intending to have but, as Senator Fifield knows, my uncle, Mr Viv Daddow, was the General Secretary of the Australian Railways Union in Queensland. A lovely fellow! He was a communist but a lovely fellow. I have to say that in my own family history I have had another member of my family, my extended family, actually mentioned in the Hansards of this august parliament. That was when Mr Menzies referred to my dear uncle, Viv Daddow, as a fellow traveller when he visited Russia in 1949 at the request of the Communist Russian government at the height of the Cold War. I can understand why Mr Menzies and others at those times thought that my uncle was nothing short of a traitor. But I was not around in those days—well, not around in a way that I took notice of parliamentary debates—

Senator Polley: Madam Acting Deputy Speaker Ruston, I raise a point of order on relevance. I ask you to direct the senator to come back to the topic before the chamber and to keep his comments relevant.

Senator Fifield: On the point of order, Senator Macdonald is being directly relevant. He is providing important context to the subject of the motion that seeks to refer a bill to a committee. The bill relates to registered organisations and Senator Macdonald quite appropriately is talking about some registered organisations that members of his family were part of and I think that is important. Also, I am finding it extremely interesting and I think the chamber as a whole is.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ruston ): Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am disappointed that the Labor Party with their union background are not interested in my family's union involvement. But I do want to continue on the motion before us which is the referral of the matter to yet another Senate committee, to do exactly the same job as the other Senate committee has done.

My dear uncle was a lovely fellow. I knew him later in life. He wrote some very good books, including one called The puffing pioneers and Queensland's railway builders. I do, however, point out he was a communist. Remember, the communist unions during the early part of World War II when Russia and Germany were together. The communist trade union movement in Australia combined with Nazi Germany and communist Russia to try to prevent the proper prosecution of the early days of the war. Whilst I am not suggesting at the moment that unions would have that sort of deleterious goal for the Australian economy, I think all of these things need to be taken in context.

Senator McEwen asked why we did not want the unions. I do not agree that we did not want the unions. But the answer to that question is about the general philosophical divide between Liberal and Labor. The Liberal Party believe in the individual. We believe that people should be allowed to work to their capacity and to earn the rewards. They do not always need big government and Big Brother looking over their shoulder, the collective overwhelming the individual. That is what the Labor Party's philosophy is. I know that is your philosophy. It is a philosophy that most Australians do not agree with, but it is your philosophy. Good on you; continue to have it.

I am told how great the unions are. I do not necessarily disagree. I look at Mr Thomson, Mr Williamson and the HSU and a few other outrageous scandals we have heard about. Talking about ordinary Australians—Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson, ordinary Australians? Not in my way of thinking. If the unions are doing the great job you say they are doing, I ask this of the next Labor Party speaker who gets up to speak: why is it that only 16 per cent of Australian workers in the private workforce think it is worthwhile joining a union? Does anyone have an answer to that? Am I wrong? Is it not 16 per cent? Perhaps it is 17 per cent or 15 per cent. There is deathly silence from the Labor benches for the first time in this debate. Perhaps my figures are correct, that just 16 per cent of workers in private industry who are eligible to join the trade union movement choose to do so. If my arithmetic is right, that is something like 80 per cent of workers who do not see any value in the unions. But for the 15 or 16 per cent who do see value, good on them. I am all in favour of them joining together and doing what they want. But I do not like people being forced into doing anything they do not want to do or things that are contrary to law. Regrettably, I have heard of experiences up in Queensland in the coalfields and elsewhere where people have been ostracised if they chose not to join a union. In fact, I could tell you a story about how the unions ostracised someone simply because a member of their family was an LNP member of parliament. But I will not go there and I will get back to the debate before the chamber.

The legislation under review is legislation which does not do the sorts of things Labor are pretending it might do. What it will do is put union officials in the same category as company directors. If it is good enough to send company directors to jail when they break the law, it is appropriate that anyone who breaks the law should go to jail. It is appropriate that they get very substantial fines. But why does the same not apply to a union director, someone who has the same duties, powers and obligations as a company director but happens to be a director of union? Why should they only be subject to a $10,200 fine when the company director is subject to a $340,000 fine? If a company director breaks the law, he could be subject to a term of imprisonment of up to five years. If a union organiser or a union director breaks the law, there is no possibility of a term in jail.

Any fair-minded person would say that crooks in the trade union movement—and we know there are at least a couple of them—should be subjected to the same penalties as crooks in the corporate world. If you are a crook, you are a crook and you deserve the same sort of punishment. Give me a decent reason why this should be any different. The opposition were very vocal a little while ago, but they seemed to have lost their tongues when I asked them why only 16 per cent of workers in private industry bother to join the trade union movement. That does not make me anti union. If you like, I will tell you the story about my uncle Viv, the communist trade union guy, but you are not interested in that.

Senator Edwards: I would be.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You weren't here, Senator Edwards, so perhaps I can start again, but that would be repetitive.

The debate before the chamber is about whether this legislation should go to a legislation committee of this parliament or it should go to some completely foreign committee. I take some comfort from a 1996 report of the Senate Economics References Committee, chaired by none other than Senator Jacinta Collins, and Senator Mark Bishop was on the committee. They are the only two members of that committee who are still with us today. The committee indicated that a bill should have gone to a legislation committee and the government senators on that committee issued a report saying: 'Further it must be fully acknowledged that Senate parliamentary procedures dictate that the bill should have gone to the Senate Economics Legislation Committee. Unfortunately, for short-term political gain the opposition Labor Party has again flouted the parliamentary process by sending this to a references committee where the Labor Party has a majority in its own right.'

This report was released in 1996. The Labor Party was newly in opposition and could not get over being suddenly out of power. It was at the end of 13 long years of the Hawke-Keating Labor government, the recession we had to have and the huge debts the government incurred. The way the Labor Party ran the economy had me paying interest on my housing loan at 17 per cent. This was Labor Party economic management. I tell my young staff about those interest rates and they cannot believe them and, quite frankly, neither can I. Under Labor Party administration of the economy all of us with housing loans were paying some 17 per cent. It is no wonder the last Labor government ran up bills of more than $300 billion and thought it was good financial management.

Back in 1996 the Labor Party could not work out they were no longer in government. They could not quite accept that the people of Australia had rejected them, so they were trying to flout the system. I understand that happened for a short time after the 1996 election, but eventually even the Labor Party worked out that you had to play by the rules that the parliament had set, more often than not when the Labor Party were in government. The rules are that when legislation is referred to a committee, that legislation is referred to the committee specifically set up to deal with legislation—that is, the legislation committee.

That is what legislation committees are for. They also do estimates, but if you are not going to get the legislation committees to do legislation references, as they are supposed to do, what is the point of having them? Perhaps we should look at getting rid of legislation committees if the opposition and the Greens are not going to send legislation committees any work. Why have legislation committees if we are not going to send anything to them? Perhaps we should have just one committee. Is that what the Labor Party are pushing for? Is that what the Greens want? Do they want just one committee, because the legislation committee is not getting any work? Why do we have legislation committees? Just to give the chairman a bit of extra salary? That can be the only reason if the opposition will not send any work which should go to legislation committees to legislation committees.

The other issue in this motion before us is that the work being wrongly sent to the references committee has already been dealt with by the legislation committee. It has been properly assessed by a committee of this parliament, the legislation committee. I understand that Labor Party members could have attended the committee deliberations, but a lot of Labor senators did not bother to turn up. That is how interested they were. The committee had eight days to conduct hearings and arrange for witnesses, I understand. A number of witnesses were called and the committee came to a conclusion.

This legislation refers to some workplace relations legislation. I remind this Senate that when this legislation was previously brought in a couple of years back under the Gillard government, the Senate was only given five days, not eight days, to conduct a hearing. Now, suddenly, five days was good when it was the Labor Party wanting the legislation through but eight days is all far too short when the Labor Party are in opposition. It just shows the absolute hypocrisy of the Labor Party on this particular issue.

You can always tell with the Labor Party when it is legislation or something that will affect their political masters—that is, the union movement—because, gee, do they fight hard. They never fight this hard about anything except issues affecting the good order, wealth and longevity of their bosses in the union movement. I do not say being an official of a trade union is necessarily an evil occupation. Those opposite used to try and hide the fact that nearly every senator in the Labor Party who sits in this chamber is a former trade union official. Nowadays I see it must be the new strategy to get up and say, 'I am unionist and I am proud of it.' Perhaps you should be.

Labor's political colleague, Mr Craig Thomson, made people stop and wonder just how deep the evils that we learnt about go within the union movement. You see every week in the paper different allegations, not from the bosses or the Liberal Party but from people within the union movement, of misuse of union members' funds. The hospital cleaners I heard someone talking about yesterday pay their union fees—I do not know what they pay, possibly $300 or $400 or $500 a year—and then find that their union officials are flying around the world on their money. You can understand then why only 15 per cent of workers in private industry choose to join the unions. Most of them will say, 'I am doing pretty well. Why should I give my hard-earned money to a union and then find the union officials flying around the world, flying around Australia, having lavish dinners, drinking expensive champagne on our money?' That is why I suggest less than 20 per cent of workers in private industry bother to join the union movement. Perhaps when someone in the Labor Party follows me in this debate they might just explain that to me. If the union movement does such a great job, why do people not join?

I have diverted myself slightly from the motion before the chair. This whole issue has been dealt with by a select committee, by the right committee, by the legislation committee of the Senate. Why now are we going to waste time and reduce our productivity by having the same thing done again by the wrong committee of this chamber to try come up with a different result? It is a farce, it makes a farce of the whole project and it makes a farce of any suggestion that the opposition is responsible.