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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5333


Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (6:25 PM) —I suppose you almost have to be a union member to be qualified to speak in this debate on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002 and related bill, so my credentials as a former member of the BLF, although under duress, probably qualify me on this point. I would just like to make a few passing comments. During the contributions made, I was struck by how so many people on the other side seem to feel an absolute obligation to defend the union movement, right or wrong, and the extent to which in canvassing the Cole inquiry there was not even a hint that there was any untoward activity in the construction sector, which I would have thought was a classic case of burying your head in the sand. The other comment I would make is that, to the constant defence that somehow there are too many lawyers or a surfeit of lawyers over here, there are degrees of lawyers—aren't there, Mr Acting Deputy President Brandis?—starting with barristers and working down, but that the great virtue about the law is that it gives you a very broad experience of life.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Brandis)—That is quite right, Senator Alston.


Senator ALSTON —In fact, we would probably regard ourselves as small business people more than anything else. We do not come in here and spend the rest of our parliamentary time defending the legal system or the law society, yet on the other side we seem to have something like 25 absolute world champion experts on every piece of minutiae about the union movement and industrial relations. Fine, we need a few people with those skills, but not to have virtually the entire other side of the chamber all experts in one shape or form on a subject that is part and parcel of the Australian political fabric but is not the be-all and end-all. So all I say to you is that you are very narrow while we regard ourselves as very broad, and no doubt the debate will continue indefinitely along those lines.

I acknowledge also this is a historic moment, and we very much appreciate the support that the opposition gives to this legislation. I think Senator George Campbell, in his typically lazy manner, had not even bothered to read it and came in here absolutely shocked and horrified to think that his colleagues had let him down to the point where they were actually saying yes. So I took that as very grumpy support, but the rest of it, I think, was pretty constructive and I would certainly acknowledge that there have been some sensible contributions to the debate.


Senator Mackay —You are in for a long committee stage now. You've just got yourself a long committee stage.


Senator ALSTON —I hope not. I do not know what we will be debating. I do not think there are any amendments—or are there?


Senator Ludwig —We're all going to hang out for them now.


Senator ALSTON —Oh, dear. I was about to say that these bills are largely housekeeping or technical in nature. I hope they remain that way. The detail certainly reflects the government's broader policies in relation to workplace relations frameworks—so, again, we are very grateful for the support. Given the dramatic reform to the workplace relations system over the last decade, it is appropriate that the technical rules governing the registration and internal administration of registered organisations should be modernised to reflect the new requirements of the system. Amendments under the Hawke Labor government in 1988 were the last significant amendments to these statutory provisions. Indeed, some of the current regulatory provisions have remained unaltered for decades.

I think the key provisions of the principal bill are well known. The government believes the bill is timely, focused and proportionate. The bill does contain sensible measures that are capable of increasing the confidence that members and potential members have in the administration of industrial associations. It implements the government's commitment to modernise the regulation of employee and employer relations. The government did consult widely with unions and employer groups and accounting bodies in developing the bill. The consultative process included a discussion paper, an exposure draft bill and ongoing formal and informal meetings. The government has sought to address opposition concerns and the bill accordingly contains amendments accepted by the government when an earlier version of the bill was before the parliament last year. The government has also agreed to additional amendments to address issues raised by the opposition in the House of Representatives. The bill gives effect to the government's commitment to provide greater choice and flexibility to registered organisations and their members.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.