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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 698

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment) (17:26): The Australian Labor Party are shameless. I am sure that if the former Labor member for Dobell, Mr Craig Thomson, and a former National President of the Australian Labor Party, Mr Michael Williamson, were listening to the contribution just made then they would have been cheering. They would have been cheering because they are part and parcel of the corruption that has now, regrettably, become endemic within the Australian Labor Party.

Let us be very clear on a few fundamental issues. We campaigned on this bill for well over 12 months and we promised the Australian people that we would be introducing this bill into the parliament in the first week. It was a high priority for us. The Australian people knew that and they voted for it. We now have the Australian Labor Party and the Greens using an abuse of process in this place to ensure that the will of the people cannot be achieved. Let us be very clear: when Mr Shorten tried a patch-up job on registered organisations, he rushed the bill through this place. Do you know how many days the Senate committee was given? Five days from beginning to end. This was a clear election policy on our part, and we gave it eight days. Our eight days are an abuse; the Labour Party's five days are due process. Give me a break.

The dissembling in this place by former trade union officials is very obvious. It is obvious for all to see other than, pitifully, themselves. The real reason they are seeking to delay this legislation is the penalty provisions. That is the reason, and that alone is the reason. We said during the campaign that we have a very simple view on this: a company director ripping off his or her shareholders is to be treated in the same manner as a leader of a registered organisation ripping off his or her members. Under corporation law, if you are a director ripping off shareholders, you can face five years imprisonment or a fine of $320,000. If you are a union official, it is a princely fine of $10,000.

I wonder why these trade union officials opposite are so anxious not to have a new penalty regime come in. Why would that be when there are people—I have to be careful because I will be talking about a member of the judiciary—who I think it would be fair to say are not necessarily seen as sympathetic politically to the coalition side of politics? Federal Court Judge Anthony North was reported on 13 July 2013—there was a smile of acknowledgement from the other side that Justice North, chances are, would not be seen as favourably disposed towards the coalition—

Senator Moore: A fine judge.

Senator ABETZ: If he is a fine judge, why do you not take these words into account, Senator Moore? An article on page 11 in the Australian Financial Review on 13 July 2013 said:

A Federal Court judge has criticised the penalties available under laws governing misconduct by union officials who are found to have inappropriately used members' money or failed to comply with governance regulations.

…   …   …

… Federal Court Judge Anthony North said he was unhappy at the relatively small penalties on offer, particularly in relation to the cost of the court proceedings.

His Honour said:

The penalties are rather beneficially low ... beneficial to wrongdoers

I wonder why the Labor Party is against the higher penalty regime when even His Honour Mr Justice North sees that higher penalties need to be applied.

Do you know what? This push by the coalition has received support from the Australian Workers' Union National Secretary, Paul Howes. He even wants to clean it up. From the discredited Australian Workers' Union, with the scandal of the early 1990s and of the early 2000s, even Mr Howes sees the need for a clean-up. But those opposite and the Greens absolutely do not. They do not want to go anywhere near allowing this legislation to pass. Do you know what? There are a couple of Labor people with a trade union background who served in this parliament and who rose above their former career as trade union officials: Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson. They became ministers of the Crown. They rose above it. As former ACTU presidents, they were willing to go public and say there had to be tougher penalties applied.

So why do we need this Senate inquiry when His Honour Justice North—not from our side of politics—the Australian Workers' Union National Secretary Paul Howes and two former ACTU presidents say that there is this need for higher penalties? The reason is that the people sitting opposite and in the other place sitting opposite are still the beneficiaries of being bankrolled by the sort of funny money that we were exposed to courtesy of the Fairfax media on the weekend. Let us not fall for Senator Moore's suggestion that it was just one or two. We now know about the Australian Workers' Union scandal. We know about the multiplicity of scandals in the Health Services Union, the Transport Workers Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the MUA, the CFMEU—the list goes on and on and those opposite know it. We knew it, we took it to the people and we got a resounding endorsement. Indeed, so serious were we that we said, 'If you elect us, we will deal with this matter by bringing it to the parliament in the very first week of its sitting.' That is what I was charged to do as the Minister for Employment by the incoming Prime Minister. Thanks to departmental and other staff, we were able to achieve it.

Now, not content with continuing to protect the racketeers, Labor are now abusing the process of the Senate to allow the protection. Let us be very clear. The Senate has two Senate committee systems. One is the legislation committees set up specifically to look at legislation—hence the name. Then we have another set of committees called the references committees to which you refer issues as opposed to legislation.

I asked the keeper of the records in this place: how often and by whom had legislation been referred to a references committee? Since 1996 it has been done on 13 occasions—I am proud to say never once by the coalition. Even when we had the numbers in the Senate, we did not do that between 2004 and 2007, because we actually believe in the system. What happens here is that the Labor Party and the Greens have the numbers on the references committees and therefore they will seek to delay this legislation until late March next year. Why would you want this delay in this situation?

Senator Moore raised matters in the debate about the complexity and the problem with volunteers. Indeed, members of the CPSU general council that I had the privilege of addressing the other day have indicated to me the problem with the legislation governing trade union officials and volunteers. Do you know whose mess that was? It was Mr Shorten's legislation. If given the opportunity to introduce and pass this legislation into this place, we could amend Mr Shorten's mess and clean it up for the benefit of those whom Senator Moore professes to be concerned about. But she is denying us that opportunity—and deliberately so, because it is just a ruse. It is just an argument, a straw man to be put up to try to justify the delay. Senator Moore has exposed herself as one who is protecting the racketeers in this debate by not allowing this bill to proceed until March next year. She knows that many trade union officials and other volunteers in registered organisations have been unreasonably entangled in the mess Mr Shorten created just before the parliament rose, in a desperate attempt to show the Australian people that he had cleaned up the show. And he did everything but increase the penalties. That is the one thing the Labor Party is scared of: seeing increased penalties.

It is interesting that those who have risen above it—like Martin Ferguson, Simon Crean, the AWU national secretary and Justice North, all from the Labor side of politics—can see the need for these increased penalties. Why is it that the Labor Party want to deny the will of the Australian people and abuse their numbers in this place? Sure, they are entitled to the numbers they enjoy in this place until 1 July, but they must admit to themselves that the numbers here in this place no longer reflect the will of the Australian people. They cannot bring themselves to acknowledge it on the carbon tax, on the Australian Building and Construction Commission, on the mining tax or on the registered organisations commission. They will use and abuse their numbers right up until 1 July next year.

I say: when you have made a mistake, acknowledge it; when you have your policy positioning wrong, fess up and let the new government get on with its task. That is what we as a coalition did after 2007. We recognised that Work Choices was wrong; we recognised that the people had voted and had made a determination. We still enjoyed the numbers in this place up until 1 July the following year, but we accepted it in a mature and considered manner, respecting the will of the people, and we said that the Fair Work legislation, Labor's alternative, was entitled to go through this place. That is the big difference between the coalition and the Labor Party. We accept the people's verdict but Labor cannot help themselves. It is within them: if you have got the numbers, use them and abuse them for your own personal benefit. That is what the Labor Party have done consistently, and here we are again. They will now add another bill to the sheet of bills being referred to references committees. Since 1996 it has only been done 13 times and, if the vote goes as I suspect, it will now be 14 times. To the great credit of my predecessors in this place, the coalition have never done that, and I think that is a great credit to coalition senators. We respect this place. We respect the forums, we respect the committee system and, indeed, our legislation was before the committee for eight days. Labor's legislation was before the committee for five days. Excuse me? Where is the fault in process there? But it is this immature argument: Labor use their numbers for a five-day hearing, good; the coalition have an eight-day hearing, bad—despite the fact that it is so much longer for the committee to consider these matters.

I recall again that most of the evidence before the committee in relation to the difficulties with reporting was in relation not to the coalition's proposed legislation but to Mr Shorten's legislation. And here we are saying: 'Look, let's work together. We can clean up this mess together.' I must say that the evidence from the committee to me as minister was very persuasive, and I thought there should be some changes made to overcome the problems that the trade union leadership were saying should be sorted—and, if possible, before 1 January. And yet the Labor Party are deliberately stopping that from happening. Why? Because the trade union officials are more than happy if more volunteers get knocked out of the system, just as long as the highly paid professionals—who run the slush funds, who have the funny money—are not subjected to higher penalties. That is what this is all about, and it is a shame on the Labor Party and all those who vote with them and for this motion, which seeks to defer further consideration of this legislation until later on in March next year. There is no reason for it. It is not a surprise. We had a specific policy paper in relation to registered organisations; it was there for all to see. The now Prime Minister announced it at a Victorian state conference well in advance of 12 months before the federal election. It was out there for all to see and talk about. And we said that within the first week it would come into this place.

The people voted for us, we delivered on that promise, and the greatest election promise betrayers, the Labor Party—the party of 'no carbon tax', who then introduced the carbon tax—are seeking to deny this new government the opportunity to implement its policies. Be it on the carbon tax, on temporary protection visas, on the mining tax or on anything we are seeking to do to clean up the mess Labor left us, they are standing in the way. Having trashed the house, they are now standing at the doorway refusing entry to the repairmen and repairwomen who have been charged with cleaning up the place—with repainting, recarpeting and getting the show back on the road.

Senator Cameron: New bookshelves.

Senator ABETZ: Can I simply say to the interjection: a beneficiary who used trade union members' money for the benefit of his ICAC appearance, dealing with the corruption of one Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald—not Senator Ian Macdonald but the Ian Macdonald of New South Wales—

Honourable senators interjecting

Senator ABETZ: And why did AMWU members have to pay for his appearance when all that that good senator was doing was manipulating numbers for preselections to ensure that this corrupt Ian Macdonald got re-endorsed? Why should hardworking AMWU members have to pay for that? Those are the sorts of things we want to cut out, because the average trade union member who I speak to tells me that they are a member of the union because it is like an insurance policy, if you like. They do not want to hold hands and sing Solidarity Forever. That is not why they are a member of the union movement. They are simply there to protect their interests. They see the corruption and the rip-offs. And it is not only the former National President of the Australian Labor Party, Michael Williamson, and the former Labor member for Dobell involved in these sorts of corrupt activities; it is a whole host of Labor officials and it is now coming out more and more.

The current national vice-president of the Australian Labor Party has been caught up in the latest slush fund allegations. It is endemic; it is corrupt. Australia deserves to be rid of it. That is what we campaigned on, that is what we got a mandate for and that is why I encourage the Labor Party to search their souls and say: 'Enough of this corruption. Let's get rid of it once and for all and clean up the mess.' (Time expired)