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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 4462


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (13:21): An ex-union boss drawing up the rules for union bosses to be administered by an ex-union boss should be a laughable proposition, yet regrettably that is exactly what is being served up today in this guillotined debate on the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012 and, what is more, it is being served up by the government with a straight face. And we will get a gaggle of ex-union bosses opposite trying to justify the unjustifiable, if not by their words then by their votes. This bill has its genesis in the Craig Thomson scandal, a scandal that has so enveloped this government; that has fouled this government beyond repair—the scandalous support and succour given by the ALP to the member for Dobell, including the provision of legal advice to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars—and that saw him give false and misleading information to Fair Work Australia. The extraordinary efforts this Green-ALP alliance have gone to to keep the member for Dobell on political life support is the stuff of legends.

The member for Dobell in turn keeps this discredited government on life support. It is a truly symbiotic relationship. The facades, the forked tongues and the failure of ethical standards over the Thomson scandal have seen this government's reputation sink, and deservedly so. If the lie about the carbon tax was not enough, if the lie about same-sex marriage was not enough, then to round out the trifecta we have the Thomson saga—Mr Thomson, the ALP member for Dobell, in whom Ms Gillard expressed full confidence and continued to express full confidence. Then miraculously Ms Gillard, who always insisted Mr Thomson should not be prejudged, had Mr Thomson suspended from the ALP just days before the release of the Fair Work Australia report. Very interesting timing because it was a report that found the ALP member had misused the hard-earned union dues of workers on living the high life—for trips, for expensive hotels, for the services of escorts. These are findings the Prime Minister, the government and the Green alliance partners and the ACTU to date have refused to accept. They refuse to accept the findings. They are refusing to acknowledge that those findings are worthy even of note. It is not that they can find anything wrong with the findings; it is just that they do not like them. So in their desperation, we are told by Ms Gillard and the ALP, 'Don't prejudge Mr Thomson; it is not your role.'

We know consistency and integrity of argument and logical thinking have never been Labor's strong suit, but their attempts over the Thomson scandal are genuinely of gold medal proportions. Labor are breathtakingly and audaciously trying to tell us one thing by doing another. So we are told we should not prejudge Mr Thomson when we say that the government should not accept his vote. What Labor and the Greens deliberately ignore is that Fair Work have not made allegations against Mr Thomson; they have actually made findings, including that he gave false and misleading information whilst an ALP member of parliament and had the benefit of Labor funded lawyers to boot.

Despite this injunction not to prejudge Mr Thomson, what has Ms Gillard actually done? She suspended him from caucus and said he would not be re-endorsed, yet we are to believe that we are not to prejudge him. If he is not to be prejudged, can somebody opposite please explain during this debate why he has been suspended and why Ms Gillard has said that he will not be re-endorsed? Methinks chances are they have prejudged him—in fact, I withdraw that: they have not prejudged him, they have judged him on the strength of the findings of the Fair Work Australia report. Labor know that the Fair Work Australia report and findings are damning of Mr Thomson and the culture that existed in the Health Services Union. That Fair Work Australia delayed beyond reasonable excuse, that Fair Work Australia engaged in sophisticated sophistry—if that is not a tautology, that they refused to cooperate with police, and that Fair Work Australia refused to abide by freedom of information requests are all documented. This body was established by Ms Gillard and its personnel appointed by Ms Gillard, and surprisingly they have dragged their feet on this matter to such an extent that the initials of Fair Work Australia have gone into the Australian vernacular courtesy of Senator Nick Xenophon's creative mind. And whilst I am at it, I wish Senator Xenophon well and trust he recuperates.

With this background, let us look at the bill. Having announced the coalition's plan for better transparency and accountability of registered organisations, the hapless Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the would-be Prime Minister, was left embarrassed and flat-footed. So in an attempt to play catch-up, he announced 10 days later Labor's half-baked plan. That it was half-baked should not surprise. Exactly what Mr Shorten did was to take our policy—our plan to assist those over 50 who are unemployed and those wanting to move from a high-unemployment area to where there are more jobs—and bungle it and then announce it as government policy, all as his own idea. Mr Shorten sometimes reminds me of the kid who tries to copy the smart kid's work at school and then tries to improve on it, and as a result still fails. Not satisfied with a half-baked proposal, the Green-ALP alliance guillotine on this bill has meant that the parliament cannot consider this bill in an appropriate manner. What it shows is a contempt for proper process generally and in-depth analysis of this bill in particular.

We were told courtesy of a letter from the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, on 13 June that this particular bill needed to be rushed through because it was 'a budget bill or a key appropriation needing to be passed by 1 July 2012'. When the department was asked that at the Senate inquiry, that was debunked. Indeed, the department could not bring itself to say that the Leader of the Government in the Senate was right. Indeed, the evidence was that it is certainly not a budget related bill. Here we have again the ALP not even able to give it straight in this place as a justification why this bill needs to be rushed through. 'It is a budget measure; it has to be through by 1 July,' according to Senator Evans' letter to me of 13 June. It was completely and utterly debunked by the department. Do we have an apology from the Leader of the Government for misleading or trying it on? Absolutely not. Why? Because it is the standard stock in trade of the ALP. If you were willing to promise no carbon tax before an election and then do it, it is very easy to say something is a budget bill when in fact it is not and try to con the opposition. That is what is now infecting every aspect of this government. They simply cannot give a straight answer, and the people of Australia quite rightly have lost their trust in this government.

Let me talk about the truncated and guillotined nature of this legislation. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Master Builders Association have expressed their concern about the truncated timetable for the committee's process. Keeping in mind that we had less than one week from the Senate saying that we should look into this and report on this bill—less than one week—we were given about three hours of hearing on Friday whilst the parliament was still sitting, meaning that I and other senators had to absent ourselves from the chamber for that period.

The question is: what is the urgency of this bill? No argument has been made out. If this bill were to act retrospectively and reach back into the Health Services Union debacle, I could understand it, but this bill will only be proactive. There are no other investigations on foot, according to Fair Work Australia. Hence there is no need for the urgency. There would be nothing wrong with delaying this bill for another week or a fortnight. But in this sitting fortnight, this Senate will be guillotining 36 bills through the chamber. I wish some of the commentators did not have cramp in their fingers this sitting fortnight or that their keyboards were not malfunctioning. Those commentators were so condemnatory of the coalition between 2004 and 2007, when the Liberal-National party had control of the Senate and we guillotined 36 bills in that whole three-year period. That is what got those commentators' fingers very busy on their keyboards and column inch after column inch was written and published to condemn this abuse of the Senate by the Liberal and National parties. Surprisingly, when it is the Green-ALP alliance guillotining 36 bills, not in three years but in 10 sitting days, it is not worthy of fingers being applied to a keyboard to make comment on it. What is worse is that the 36 bills of this sitting fortnight will now make a grand total of 125 bills that have been guillotined by this Green-Labor alliance. We as a coalition say to the Australian people: next time you get a Senate ballot paper, ensure you protest vote with your Senate vote by voting for the coalition and not for the Green-Labor alliance that has abused this Senate like never before in its history.

One of the clauses of this bill is to allow cooperation by Fair Work Australia with the police. Every decent citizen does that. Every single public servant under the Public Service code of ethics is required to do so. This committee saw the very strong legal opinion of one of Australia's best industrial lawyers, Stuart Wood SC, which completely and utterly debunked the fabricated arguments from Fair Work Australia suggesting that they could not cooperate with police. We are told this is the legislation that is similar to that which existed before and therefore it is all Tony Abbott's fault. That seems to be the argument for everything these days. If the government mucks something up, it was Mr Abbott's fault. What Fair Work Australia did not want to disclose to us and finally had to was an email from Mr Doug Williams of 30 June—not 2012, not 2011, not 2010, but 2009. He was then the Industrial Registrar and Chief Executive of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, acting under the same legislation. As he was leaving his job, he said this:

There should be a clear plan and actions arising from the outcome of the inquiries to date—

and he was talking about the Health Services Union inquiries—

including inter alia any actions and referrals to other authorities (e.g. to the police …

There was no legislative impediment on 30 June 2009 to refer these matters to the police. Indeed, in his email he concludes by saying:

I am happy to discuss these directions, but otherwise anticipate that the actions identified will be implemented expeditiously.

He further said that there was no need for further investigation to refer these matters to the police. That was the standard nearly three years ago. In four short days it will have been three years since those that are charged with the Health Services Union matter were told to report this matter to the police, and it was not. In some amazing sophistry we now have the government saying, 'Oh, we have got to amend the legislation to allow it.' We as a coalition will support that move, but can I say very clearly there is no need to amend the legislation—all it is doing is providing cover for the shonky workmanship and the delay of Fair Work Australia. Another thing that we as an opposition have very real concerns with is the penalty regime under this act. Most people cannot see a material difference—and I confess I am one of them—between a company director and a shareholder on the one hand and a trade union boss and a trade union member on the other hand. The company director, like the union boss, owes a fiduciary duty to the shareholder and the union member. If the company director were to be engaged in a certain course of conduct, that company director, for a malfeasance against share¬≠holders, could confront a $200,000 personal fine or five years imprisonment—as it should be. However, if you are a trade union boss and you engage in similar conduct against your trade union membership, as the aforementioned company director did against the shareholder, guess what your maximum penalty is? No period of imprisonment whatsoever and not a fine of $200,000, not a fine of $100,000, not even a fine of $10,000 but a fine of $6,600. And guess what happened in the other place when we moved amendments to increase the penalty? Guess who was one of the first people to ensure they voted against the increased penalty—not that it would have applied to him—but the member for Dobell, in concert with the ALP and the Greens member in that other place.

We can try to make up all sorts of arguments, but I know the Australian people say that when something is wrong, it is wrong, and just because you are a union boss does not mean that you owe a lesser obligation to your membership than a company director does to his or her shareholders. Indeed, we were told at the Senate hearing, 'Poor trade unions—we are voluntary organisations. We are little businesses. We are not like these big companies.' Excuse me? One state division of the Electrical Trades Union has assets of $42 million and another trade union has assets of $20-plus million. These are not small businesses, as indeed was witnessed by the Fair Work Australia report into Mr Craig Thomson and the Health Services Union. How else could you rip off hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of a few years unless there was a substantial financial turnover?

Time is short. I cannot refer to all the matters that I would have wanted to and, given that there will not be a committee stage, I will not be able to canvass matters further. But what this bill highlights is this: Labor seek to sidestep issues whilst pretending they are dealing with them. Labor seek to talk tough but go soft. This amendment to the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act is exactly in that category—pretending to do something when they are not. Can I ask those opposite: how will a $6,600 penalty dissuade somebody who is so minded from ripping off their union to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, as Mr Thomson did? (Time expired)

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): Senator Abetz, I understand that you are seeking to move an amendment on sheet 7247 to the second reading motion, circulated in your name.

Senator ABETZ: I move:

   At the end of the motion, add "but the Senate notes the Government's failure to:

   (a)   establish an independent Registered Organisations Commission to:

      (i)   enforce and police the reporting and compliance obligations,

      (ii)   provide information to members of registered organisations about their rights and act as the body to receive complaints from their members,

      (iii)   educate registered organisations about the new obligations that apply to them, and

      (iv)   absorb the role of registered organisations enforcer and investigator, currently held by the General Manager of Fair Work Australia;

   (b)   ensure registered organisations face the same accountability and transparency measures as required of companies and their directors under the Corporations Act 2001;

   (c)   ensure registered organisations face the same penalties as companies and their directors under the Corporations Act 2001;

   (d)   express its confidence in the findings of Fair Work Australia's investigation into the Health Services Union National Office; and

   (e)   conduct a Regulation Impact Statement for the bill;

and calls on the Government to conduct a review of the amendments made by the bill within 2 years after it receives the Royal Assent in accordance with Office of Best Practice Regulation practices".