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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 4522

Senator RONALDSON (Victoria) (17:18): What a remarkable day—the day on which we have a so-called bill for accountability. What was the first thing that the Australian Labor Party and the Greens did when they had the opportunity to vote for accountability? They voted against the notice of motion moved today by the Leader of Opposition in the Senate, Senator Abetz. Just for the benefit of those who may not have seen this, I will read that notice of motion:

That the Senate—

(a) notes findings by Fair Work Australia that Mr Craig Thomson misused Health Services Union members' funds for sexual services, personal travel and entertainment and to secure a seat in the Federal Parliament; and

(b) condemns the misuse of union members ' funds as found by Fair Work Australia.

The Greens and the Labor Party fell at the first hurdle in relation to accountability and their support for it. I have brought into the chamber 1,100 good reasons why something urgently needs to be done about the misuse of union funds—the misuse of funds that affect the most low-paid in this country. That 1,100-page document details a litany of the misuse of HSU members' funds. I have said in this chamber before that I would like to see most of us go and do what those HSU members do. I would like to take the members of the Senate and put them into a hospital to clean bedpans and floors and to do jobs that are absolutely necessary but that are low paid.

Senator Polley interjecting—

Senator RONALDSON: What utter disrespect for those Australian workers have we seen by the behaviour of the HSU. I am amazed that Senator Polley is interjecting in relation to this matter. I would have thought that an interjection by someone with Senator Polley's background in the union movement, effectively supporting the activities of Mr Craig Thomson and the misuse of union funds, is a remarkable interjection in this debate.

I want to go back a couple of years to when I first raised this matter in this place on the back of a Fairfax article. I want to go back to the inquiry by Fair Work and I want to go back to what did not happen and the time that it took for that report. In doing so, I want to talk about the coalition's issue with the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012 and the coalition's very strong view that, if the Australian Labor Party were serious, they would adopt the coalition's plan for better transparency and accountability of registered organisations. Senator Cash quite rightly indicated that this bill was manufactured by Minister Shorten, who had previously shown no interest in relation to accountability, no interest at all. He was one of those running around the country protecting and defending Mr Craig Thomson, the member for Dobell. Stunned by the findings of the Fair Work report, which Minister Shorten hoped would never see the light of day, he was forced to put some legislation into the other place, and we are debating that today.

As Senator Cash quite rightly said, had it not been for our plan for better transparency and accountability of registered organisa­tions, we would not be seeing this bill before the Senate. We would not be seeing this bill before the Senate, because the so-called Prime Minister of this country, who set up Fair Work Australia, failed the test of propriety in relation to the Craig Thomson matter. She failed the one test that every Prime Minister should stand by—that is, the propriety of their own members. She failed to make sure that she knew what Mr Thomson's real position was in relation to this misuse of HSU funds and she continued to support a man who should have lost her support some 12 months before.

The litany of untruths in relation to this matter started with the member for Dobell writing to caucus members telling them that Fairfax had settled this matter in his favour. And the two caucus members opposite know full well that they received a letter from Mr Thomson pleading his innocence in this matter and alleging that Fairfax had withdrawn their proceedings. What do we now know? We now know that the Australian Labor Party went $250,000 into hock to pay the legal bills of Mr Craig Thomson, which included payments to Fairfax necessitated by Mr Thomson not having the intestinal fortitude to proceed with his defamation action against them and being required to pay their costs. The litany of untruths started there and continued through until Mr Thomson's statement in the House of Representatives.

The best that could be said of Mr Thomson is that he is a great actor. He is not quite as good at telling the truth but he is a great actor. When we saw the member for Dobell standing there talking about the actions of others in this matter and again falsely pleading his innocence, we only had to look at the Fair Work Australia report to see that it was absolute nonsense. This is the same pathetic individual who said, 'Enough is enough', who tried to garner public support. Within a week of that, this pathetic individual pulled a stunt in the House of Representatives designed to embarrass the coalition by voting with the coalition. 'Enough is enough' lasted for one week. If there was any better indication of the bona fides of this man, it was that cheap political stunt.

I want to talk about some of the matters in the Fair Work Australia report in the context of the bill that we are debating today. Probably the most galling aspect of Mr Thomson's statement to the other place was his allegation that he had been set up, that there were other issues surrounding people in the union who had been gunning for him, that they had used his credit card and that they were indeed responsible for this. When you are interviewed about serious allegations involving receiving email messages and text messages, as Mr Thomson was in his discussions with Fair Work Australia, is that not something that you might think about raising? When you get a report from Fair Work Australia with their findings, might that not also be a good time to urgently raise with Fair Work Australia that someone else had been responsible—the upmarket, updated version of 'a dog ate my homework'? Except it was not about a dog eating homework; it was about a man who was misusing union funds. The first indication that was given by Mr Thomson that a dog had eaten his homework was on 2 March this year—an allegation in a letter from Holding Redlich. But, if one had been listening to the 'a dog ate my homework' defence in the House of Representatives, one would have assumed that this was a matter that had been raised by Mr Thomson and that had failed to be investigated. Not only that, but there was a quite personal attack on the investigator in this matter, Mr Nassios, accusing him of bias, of failing to interview certain people—one of whom, it was later alleged, would confirm this union conspiracy. Mr Thomson demanded that a Mr Robertson should have been interviewed. But, when push came to shove, was Mr Robertson prepared to support the member for Dobell in relation to this matter? No, he was not.

So here we have a man who had the opportunity to clear his name in Fairfax defamation proceedings, squibbed it and then required union members in New South Wales to bail him out financially. Then we had another opportunity in a 2½- or three-year inquiry for the member for Dobell to clear his name with allegations that others had been involved in this and that he was subjected to a union campaign. There was not a word in those 2½ years. At the eleventh hour, in a solicitor's letter, the member for Dobell raised this final disgraceful defence.

There should not be one person who is listening to this debate who has been watching these proceedings over the last 2½ to 3½ years who will be left in any doubt as to what motivated the Prime Minister personally, the cabinet and the Australian Labor Party in relation to the way this matter has been handled, the abuse of process that occurred as a result of it and the shutting down of Mr Nassios in Senate hearings by the then minister. It was all designed to extend this matter, all designed in the hope of taking it past the next election.

What we found out in this 1,100-page report and what we found out in subsequent evidence given to the committee is that the last registrar had recommended referral to the police. He said 3½ years ago that there should be a referral to the police. One of the serious issues that we have with this bill is that it still fails to enshrine in legislation the obligation on Fair Work Australia to cooperate with federal and state police authorities. No-one listening to this debate would believe—but it is true—that a government body would fail to and refuse to provide state and federal police authorities with appropriate information to allow them to conduct their inquiries. What an extra­ordinary abuse of process. What an extra­ordinary undermining of the expectations of the Australian community in relation to the responsibilities of organisations such as Fair Work Australia.

Why aren't we seeing this in the bill? As Senator Abetz has said, there is no express provision to allow Fair Work Australia to provide a brief of evidence to the DPP. Given the previous problems with this, it is important to give express powers to allow for this to happen. If state police authorities believe that a government body has information which may assist them with their inquiries, surely it is incumbent upon that organisation to provide the information. Isn't it important for the Prime Minister of this country, having been alerted to this matter? Given there is no specific clause in the Fair Work Act which precludes the provision of that information, what a gross dereliction of duty for the Prime Minister of this country not to demand of her minister a direction that Fair Work Australia cooperate with the police. What a remarkable dereliction of responsibility of the so-called leader of this country. It would have been as simple as a phone call to Minister Shorten to direct Fair Work Australia to assist the police authorities with their inquiries.

We know full well why that was not done: because this government has relied on Mr Thomson's vote. This whole process has been driven by the protection of the Prime Minister's majority. This has been a cheap political exercise by a Prime Minister who will go to any lengths to maintain a majority in the other place and therefore a majority to keep her in government. In five, 10, 15 or 20 years, when this whole murky debacle becomes known to a younger generation of Australian, they will look back and ask, 'This is surely not an indication of what happened between 2009 and 2012, is it? How could a Prime Minister charged with the responsibility of appropriate accountability and transparency allow such a thing to happen? How could a government that pretends to fight for and represent Australian workers allow such gross abuse of union members' funds? How could people who clearly knew what was going on sit back and allow this to happen?'

I return again to the bill. If this bill in any way did what was required to address the 1,100 pages of this report then it would have been supported by this side of the chamber. It has glaring omissions which many of my colleagues have already alluded to, and I will not repeat them now. This bill does not meet the requirements— (Time expired)