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Thursday, 12 May 2005
Page: 12


Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (10:03 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

CRIMINAL CODE AMENDMENT (SUICIDE RELATED MATERIAL OFFENCES) BILL 2005

This bill—the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Bill 2005—introduces important new measures that will criminalise use of the Internet to encourage others to take their own lives.

The bill will make it an offence to use a carriage service, including the Internet, to access, transmit or make available material that counsels or incites suicide.

The bill will also make it an offence to possess, produce or supply such material, with intent to make it available on the Internet.

There is a real need to protect vulnerable individuals from people who use the Internet with destructive intent to counsel or incite others to take their own lives.

The Internet contains readily accessible sites and chat rooms that positively advocate suicide and discourage individuals from seeking psychiatric or other help.

Many of these sites also provide explicit instructions on methods of committing suicide.

There have been instances where Internet chat rooms have been used by a person, or even a group of persons, to urge another to commit suicide.

Recent studies have shown that in some cases such Internet chat room discussions have lead to a person attempting suicide, sometimes successfully.

This research points to evidence that vulnerable individuals were compelled so strongly by others to take their own lives that they felt to back out or seek help would involve losing face.

Disturbingly, ABC Online recently reported on a trend in Japan towards strangers arranging suicide pacts over Internet suicide chat rooms.

According to that report, over a three month period in late 2004 at least 35 people made suicide pacts online.

Tragically, these people then met in small groups in remote locations and died together.

The proposed offences recognise the harm that can be done by those who use the Internet with destructive intent.

The bill seeks to protect vulnerable individuals by preventing the use of the Internet in this way but does not seek to stifle legitimate debate on euthanasia or suicide related issues.

Clarifying provisions have been included within this legislation which provide that a person is not guilty of these offences merely because the person uses a carriage service to engage in public discussion or debate about, or advocates reform of the law relating to, euthanasia or suicide.

These provisions make it clear that the offences only apply where the person intends to use the material concerned to counsel or incite suicide, or to promote or provide instruction on a method of committing suicide.

These offences complement existing Customs regulations prohibiting the physical importation and exportation of suicide kits and information related to those kits.

The new offences will carry the same maximum penalty as the Customs offences of $110,000 for an individual.

This bill was initially introduced on 4 August 2004 but lapsed with the prorogation of Parliament.

The Government remains committed to the protection of the vulnerable in our society.

The importance of the bill is reflected by its early re-introduction.

This bill contains important measures that will protect our most vulnerable and help to prevent the Internet from being used for destructive purposes towards those individuals.


TAX LAWS AMENDMENT (IMPROVEMENTS TO SELF ASSESSMENT) BILL (No. 1) 2005

This bill implements the first part of the Government’s response to the Report on Aspects of Income Tax Self Assessment. The report, which was released on 16 December 2004, identified a number of legislative refinements to the self assessment system. They are aimed at reducing uncertainty and compliance costs for taxpayers, while preserving the Australian Taxation Office’s capacity to collect legitimate income tax liabilities.

Schedule 1 to the bill introduces a new interest regime—the shortfall interest charge—that will apply to under-assessments of income tax. For income tax shortfalls, the shortfall interest charge will replace the existing general interest charge for the period before the taxpayer is notified of the under-assessment. The shortfall interest charge will be set at a rate that is four percentage points lower than the general interest charge rate.

This reduces the interest consequences for taxpayers who may make errors in their returns. The changes will apply to amendments of assessments for the 2004-2005 income year and later income years.

Schedule 2 amends the administrative penalty provisions of the tax laws.

Firstly, this Schedule will abolish the penalty for tax shortfalls resulting from a failure to follow a private ruling issued by the Commissioner of Taxation. This is because of fears that the penalty was acting as a disincentive to applications for rulings.

Secondly, the Commissioner will be required to provide an explanation of why a taxpayer is liable to a penalty and why the penalty has not been remitted in full.

Finally, the bill clarifies the definition of ‘reasonably arguable’ in the provision which says that a taxpayer can be charged interest in relation to an underpayment, where a claim was not ‘reasonably arguable’.

These amendments will broadly apply from the 2004-2005 income year and later income years.

Full details of the measures in this bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum.

I commend this bill.


SHORTFALL INTEREST CHARGE (IMPOSITION) BILL 2005

This bill accompanies the Tax Laws Amendment (Improvements to Self Assessment) Bill (No.1) 2005 just introduced.

The Imposition Bill will impose the new shortfall interest charge as a tax to the extent to which the charge cannot be validly imposed other than as a tax.

Details of this bill are contained in the explanatory memorandum to the Tax Laws Amendment (Improvements to Self Assessment) Bill (No. 1) 2005.

I commend this bill.


WORKPLACE RELATIONS AMENDMENT (EXTENDED PROHIBITION OF COMPULSORY UNION FEES) BILL 2005

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Extended Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill 2004 was introduced into the 40th Parliament. The bill lapsed with the dissolution of the Parliament. The Government is reintroducing this bill in line with the continued commitment to the elimination of bargaining fees in industrial agreements.

This Government’s commitment to the principle of freedom of association is a cornerstone of a workplace relations framework that is providing for more productive and more prosperous workplaces. The Workplace Relations Act 1996 reflects the principle of freedom of association with broad legislative recognition of the freedom for employees to join, or not to join, an industrial association.

This fundamental freedom is violated by union attempts to impose so-called ‘bargaining agent fees’. Bargaining agent fee clauses in agreements purport to impose an obligation to pay a fee on an employee who is not a member of a union for bargaining services that they did not request. This means non-union workers have to pay for union negotiations at their workplaces even though their concerns may not be represented at all. Effectively, bargaining agent fees act as backdoor compulsory unionism. They are contrary to the principles of freedom of association and should not be included in any form of industrial instrument.

To halt the re-emergence of compulsory unionism in the federal sphere, the Government introduced the Workplace Relations (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill which was eventually passed through the Senate with support from the Australian Democrats.

The Workplace Relations (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Act 2003 amended the Workplace Relations Act and prohibited compulsory union fees in federal certified agreements. The amendments expressly provided that a bargaining services fee clause in a federal agreement is void. It also provided that a bargaining services fee clause is an ‘objectionable provision’ for the purposes of the Workplace Relations Act. This means that an agreement should not be certified if it contains a bargaining services fee or, if an agreement has been certified, the bargaining services fee clause may be removed.

The legislative change also addressed conduct designed to compel workers to pay such fees. The Compulsory Union Fees Act prohibits the making of false or misleading representations about a person’s liability to pay a compulsory fee. This was necessary to prevent unions, or employers, from using other methods to create an impression that employees are legally obliged to pay compulsory union fees.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Act 2003 has been successful in addressing bargaining agents fee clauses in federal agreements with bargaining fee provisions removed from 10 certified agreements in January and February of 2004. A further 572 applications made by the Office of the Employment Advocate are currently being considered by the Commission. However, as progress is made in the federal jurisdiction, a number of unions have sought to include such clauses in agreements made under State legislation. Recent cases in State jurisdictions have confirmed that bargaining agent fees clauses can be included in State agreements.

As State Governments appear unwilling to prohibit compulsory bargaining fees in their jurisdictions, it again falls to the Australian Government to show leadership on the issue of protecting freedom of association rights. The Workplace Relations Amendment (Extended Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill 2005 will extend the prohibition on the inclusion of bargaining agents fee clauses in agreements beyond agreements certified under the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to also cover any state employment agreement to which a constitutional corporation is a party. I now turn to the main provisions of the bill.

This bill will amend the freedom of association provisions to provide that a bargaining agent fee clause in a State employment agreement to which a constitutional corporation is a party is void. This will apply to agreements entered into on or after the commencement of the amendments made by this bill. The bill will also extend the prohibition on conduct related to the payment of such fees to the widest constitutional extent possible to protect employees from coercion or misleading conduct about their liability to pay such a fee.

To achieve these aims, the bill will:

  • amend the definition of bargaining services to include services provided by an industrial association in relation to a State employment agreement, and
  • provide that a provision of a State employment agreement to which a constitutional corporation is a party is void to the extent that it requires payment of a bargaining services fee.

Australian law recognises that there is an important statutory role for registered organisations and the law confers upon them significant rights and obligations. But the legal standing of unions should not come at the expense of individual employer’s and employee’s right to freedom of association and to protection from coercive or discriminatory conduct.

Unions and employer associations are service providers and should rely on the competitiveness and value of the services they offer to attract members. Trade practices legislation prevents ordinary businesses from providing someone with an unrequested service and then demand payment for it. The same principle should apply to unions and employer associations.

The Government has a strong, proven, commitment to freedom of association and the right of employees to choose whether or not they join a union. Bargaining agent fees are compulsory unionism by stealth and should not be included in any form of industrial instrument. The re-introduction of this bill demonstrates the Australian Government's ongoing commitment to upholding employees’ freedom of association rights and its willingness to act to protect those rights.

Debate (on motion by Senator Ellison) adjourned.

Ordered that the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Bill 2005 and the Workplace Relations Amendment (Extended Prohibition of Compulsory Union Fees) Bill 2005 be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.