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Monday, 26 November 2012
Page: 9751

Senator THISTLETHWAITE (New South Wales) (17:24): This motion is a ruse. I have not had one email, one representation, one phone call, one conversation with any of my constituents, any of the people of New South Wales regarding this motion or this matter or, in the words of Senator Fifield, 'The need for registered organisations to be subject to equivalent standards of governance and financial accountability as companies under Corporations Law.' In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find any representatives of employer associations, unions or other organisations who support this change. Do not believe me. Look at the Senate inquiry that looked into this matter. The Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee investigated this issue thoroughly in respect of the reforms that the government has made to strengthen transparency and accountability provisions in relation to registered organisations. When this matter was before that Senate committee on Friday, 22 June 2012, and in particular when the employer representatives were appearing, Senator Abetz did his best to try to elicit from those witnesses an agreement with the coalition position that officers of registered organisations should face the same penalties and financial accountability standards as corporations. He tried his best to get his friends in many of these employer associations to agree with him. But, guess what? They did not. They said, 'No'. I refer to page 6 of the transcript, where we can read that Mr Greg Smith from the Australian Industry Group was asked whether or not it was appropriate for the parliament to pass laws which place corporate obligations on an organisation such as the AiG, or any other registered organisation. Mr Smith, the head of the Australian Industry Group, had this answer to what Senator Fifield has moved in this parliament today:

No, we think that registered organisations have had a long history and they have a special place not only in Australia but globally. We are a representative body for employers, as a union is for employees. There is a specific exemption under the corporations legislation for the industrial relations system, and it would not be appropriate to suddenly deem all registered organisations as corporations. They are a completely different type of organisation. Some industry groups have chosen to become corporations, but they have never been registered organisations. We do have a special role and special responsibilities.

That is the view of Australian industry. That is the view of Australian employer associations. They do not want this motion to succeed. They do not want the laws to be changed in any way. So it begs the question: why are the opposition doing this? Why are they moving this motion when representatives and stakeholders in the industry do not want the government to do it, do not want the opposition to do it and do not want that change to be implemented? Rightfully, they recognise that there are distinct differences between corporations and registered associations in this economy. The real reason why this motion has been moved is that, again, it is part of this smear campaign to try to pin the Prime Minister to what is going on on the sidelines, smearing the role of trade unions and diverting from the fact that they are not willing to come into this place and debate true policy. They are not willing to put their money where their mouth is in terms of policy development.

There are differences between corporations and employer and employee associations for good reasons, and there is a century of difference when it comes to the roles of representative industrial associations and corporations. Companies were established to create limited liability for directors in respect of their financial obligations and their legal obligations. They were established to provide the notion of the corporate veil—that is, that directors, acting on behalf of shareholders, could not be sued personally for their financial dealings or legal obligations.

Now for the last century we have had a different system in respect of the regulation of the actions, financial arrangements, conduct of officers and legal affairs of trade unions and employer associations, and they have served our nation well. International businesses have faith in the integrity of the Australian legal system, particularly as it relates to the regulation of industrial organisations. In fact, our system of regulation of industrial organisations is much studied, copied and implemented in other nations throughout the world, so we have a hallmark system when it comes to integrity and delivering a fair and reasonable system of regulation of industrial organisations. When Tony Abbott was the minister, he established a new system in 2002 when Work Choices came into being. When they had those massive reforms to our industrial relations system in the late 1980s, they did not touch the registered organisation provisions. They did not change those provisions.

The other reason that this motion is irresponsible is quite simply the fact that registered organisations do not fit within the definition of a corporation under section 51(xx) of our Constitution. They are not 'foreign', 'trading' or 'financial' corporations. And that is why there have been distinct and different regulations associated with registered organisations. However, the government did recognise that there was an issue associated with what has occurred in one particular union. And in the wake of that, we did what all good governments do: we acted quickly and decisively to strengthen those regulations, and we now have some of the strongest provisions that regulate industrial organisations—stronger than they have ever been before. Our financial accountability and transparency standards for unions and employer associations have never been higher. Fair Work Australia's powers to investigate breaches of these professions have never been tougher.

So the government have acted in the wake of what occurred in a particular union, and we have done it in a manner that is consistent with the regulation of industrial associations in this country. We have done it in a manner that is consultative, taking on board the views of those I mentioned earlier—in particular employer associations in this country—and we have done it in a manner that ensures we will get trust, confidence and integrity in our system of industrial relations for employers who are members of employer associations and workers who are members of unions.

In respect of that, once again this motion needs to be seen in the light in which it is brought into this Senate—that is, it is a ruse. It is hiding the fact that the coalition do not want to debate policy, they do not want to enter into the contest of ideas about what is in the best interests of our nation when it comes to the issues that affect the livelihoods of Australians. As I said, I have had no representations from constituents about this issue, and I imagine that many senators would be in the same or similar positions. But we do get a lot of representations about our education system, about our health system, about our dental health system. Let us look at those issues, let us talk about the plan that Labor have to ensure that we are pricing carbon in our community and reducing our emissions, and the differences between our parties on policies and issues that really affect Australians.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Stephens ): Order! The time for the discussion has expired.