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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 12787

Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (13:17): I rise to speak on the Fair Work Amendment Bill 2012. I note that the member for Blair managed to get through about nine minutes of his contribution on this bill, so important was this bill, which was tabled with urgency last evening by the minister for industrial relations. The procedures of the House had to be overturned—the normal procedure of the bill sitting on the table had to be overturned—because these matters were so urgent that they needed to be spoken on today.

For most of his nine minutes, the member for Blair did not actually address anything to do with the substance of the bill, which at least is better than the member for Throsby, who, in the rush to get into the House, was given the wrong talking points. You would expect a little bit better from a bunch of former union officials who are in this place to represent their vested interests. The member for Throsby came in and gave a speech on the wrong bill. But this bill is so urgent that we have to debate it today ahead of all other business on this government's so-called agenda.

I have a suspicion as to why we are debating this bill in such a rush. I will not cover the ground that the member for Bradfield so carefully and thoroughly covered in his contribution in respect of the default superannuation issues, because he did it so well. I will focus on the Fair Work Australia provisions in this bill, because I think there are very serious charges against this minister in relation to the provisions in this bill. He has some significant issues to address in his summing-up remarks other than the bit of political fluffery in his second reading speech, which does not answer and explain why it is that this parliament is urgently debating this bill.

The reason, I understand, for the urgency is that the minister says these are the most urgent matters out of the Fair Work Australia report he had done. It is a skewed report based on skewed terms of reference and skewed panel members. Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, you well know that one of those panel members in particular, Professor Ron McCallum, is one of the most partisan actors in Australian industrial relations. Professor McCallum is out and proud about his support of the Australian Labor Party, so much so that in August this year he was on the record supporting the Labor opposition leader in Victoria and predicting the end of the Baillieu government in two years time. We should note that. Professor McCallum is entitled to his political views, but people should be aware that he is a partisan actor. That is why we have great suspicion of a skewed report based on skewed terms of reference by skewed panellists.

But, if you are to believe the minister that these are the most urgent matters we should be dealing with out of that report, let us work through why that would be the case. The first issue is the default superannuation provisions, which, as the member for Bradfield so rightly pointed out, are more to do with favouring vested interests, yet again, in the industry super funds area. It is not about actual reform. There is not a significant provision at all in the report, and it is contrary to the Productivity Commission report.

Then we get to the provisions relating to the changes in the structure of and powers of Fair Work Australia, which has been subjected to some quite serious debate in recent months, as you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would be aware. One issue that has not been subjected to debate is the appointment of two new vice-presidents.

That is not an area in which I have heard there has been criticism of Fair Work Australia. In fact, if you look through the report—it is reasonably substantive, albeit skewed, and the member for Melbourne will be pleased that I have printed it on both sides—there is not a mention of appointment of two new vice-presidents. What would that cost the taxpayer? There is nothing in the bill about costs at all. It says the impact is nil. Well, let us work though that. A vice-president appointed by Fair Work Australia is paid at least $350,000 a year, putting aside on-costs—higher superannuation, cars. They have a special office arrangement within Fair Work Australia, as I understand. Sources within Fair Work Australia have given me a heads-up that there are special office arrangements. They get two appointed assistants, counsels, who are paid around $90,000 a year—again, without their super and without other conditions.

We are talking about a million bucks a year—conservatively—for each of these appointments. That is $2 million a year and $8 million over the estimates, for those who cannot keep up. That is an $8 million decision made on the basis of no evidence at all. Can you imagine what the parliamentary secretary for regional services could do with $8 million out in regional Australia? I certainly can, and I know the member for Farrer knows what she would do with eight million bucks. There is nothing in this report at all, yet the second main reason we are urgently debating this bill is the appointment of two new vice-presidents. Is it because the current two are too busy? The member for Melbourne will be interested to know that one of the current two is Mr Michael Lawler—who, we know, the Labor Party has some issues with, and the President of Fair Work Australia has some issues with. Mr Michael Lawler's partner is Kathy Jackson. Kathy Jackson, of course, revealed so much information about the $20 million of rorting that occurred in the HSU, found by a report—ironically—from Fair Work Australia.

So we have Mr Michael Lawler, who has been sidelined in Fair Work Australia, based on information I have received—completely sidelined. He is far from busy, as I understand. And then we have Mr Graeme Watson. Mr Graeme Watson has two sins. The first is that he comes from Freehills, a legal organisation that largely represents employer organisations. I know the member for Melbourne knows Mr Watson and would not agree with many of Mr Watson's views. But what the member for Melbourne would not do is discriminate against him on that basis. That is the first of Mr Watson's sins that the President of Fair Work Australia is not pleased with. The second is that Mr Watson had the temerity to suggest that after all the scandal relating to HSU, after all the failure in relation to the investigation by Fair Work Australia, after all the scandal and muck that came out about the failure of that organisation to do its job, it should change its name. And the President of Fair Work Australia was not very happy. Mr Ross was not very happy at all. Mr Watson, since that time, has regretted giving that speech, because professionally he is underutilised at this point in time.

So we have two vice-presidents who are there, not particularly busy. Sure, they are not flavour of the month for the current president. But then a piece of legislation pops up into this parliament, out of nowhere—no recommendations in this review, not a single line in well over 300 pages—recommending that $8 million of taxpayers' money, at least, be spent on two new vice-presidents for no good reason. You have to wonder why. Then you look at the bill, and the bill empowers the two new vice-presidents to be more powerful than the current two sitting vice-presidents. It empowers them to be more senior. And you, Mr Deputy Speaker Mitchell, know very well that the way Fair Work Australia—the old Industrial Relations Commission—works is that seniority is very important when handing out full-bench cases. When handing out full-bench cases, seniority rules the day. In this bill, the two yet unnamed—and that is a very important point here—new vice-presidents, which will cost taxpayers at least $8 million over the forward estimates, will be more powerful than the two out-of-favour current vice-presidents in Fair Work Australia. Two are out of favour, so appoint two new ones and give more power to the president to give them more work—because they may just have similar views, dare I say, to those of the current president and the current government.

We know that the current president, Mr Ross, and the minister have been close for a very long time. There is nothing wrong with that; Australian industrial relations is quite a small gene pool, as we know. They have been so close, in fact, that in 2006 the two of them appeared on the stage at a protest against—you guessed it—the former Howard government. The minister, at that point in time a candidate—I am not sure if he was still the AWU secretary—and on a superannuation industry board, along with Mr Ross, an ACTU official, were at a protest together against the Howard government, trying to overturn the laws. They are now working together to empower Mr Ross to be more powerful in respect of—and here is another provision in the bill, which I am sure you are also aware of, Mr Deputy Speaker—decisions for applicants to appeal when a member of Fair Work Australia has been allocated to a case and an applicant, let us say the CFMEU, is not happy with the commissioner who has been allocated. They will be able to appeal to the president to have a full-bench case. Whacko! Guess what you have just done? You have given two new vice-presidents, who just might come from a similar background to what you want, with new powers for the president to allocate cases to them. Are you following me yet? This is what this is about. This has been debated urgently because this minister is trying to future-proof Fair Work Australia.

These are not the two most urgent matters relating to Fair Work Australia—not at all. Having a look at why it took them years and years to investigate what happened with the HSU might be a matter that is urgent; that might be a matter that needs some reform. Do we need two new vice-presidents for Fair Work Australia, when the report does not say a word about it, when the current two incumbents are hardly busy and are capable of doing far more than they are? But what we see, what we know and what we hear on the industrial relations grapevine is that these two positions are being created for none other than Mr Josh Bornstein, a long-time union lawyer, famously depicted in the ABC's balanced take on the waterfront dispute in 1998, a recent op-ed writer, who also represented a member of parliament in a recent dispute, as we are aware.

The second one is Mr Jeff Lawrence. We understand Mr Lawrence has finished up as President of the ACTU. He has a bit of time on his hands, is looking around for new opportunities—and guess what pops up? There we are: vice-president of Fair Work Australia. It pays pretty well—$350,000 to $360,000 a year with a car, superannuation, a nice office, two associates. A million bucks from the taxpayer? That's not much. It is a disgrace. This minister does not mention a word of it in a second reading speech on an urgent bill, where we have changed the procedures of this House to introduce it, and I say to this minister that I charge him with a very serious contempt of this place. This is using legislative power—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! The member will withdraw the word 'contempt' of the parliament.

Mr BRIGGS: I will withdraw the word and change it to 'abuse' of this place, Mr Deputy Speaker—abuse of legislative instruments to give curry to the minister's vested interests in the Australian industrial relations environment, to the union movement. That is what this bill is about: creating two new taxpayer funded positions, to the extent of at least $8 million over the forward estimates, to allow this government to future-proof Fair Work Australia and its operations.

The minister should come in, in the summing up of this debate, before this parliament gives consideration and before this bill passes, and explain: what is the urgent need? There is capacity with the two current vice-presidents to pick up the load. The report itself, the bill upon which we are debating—even though he has had this since June, in the dying days of this year we are debating this bill in an urgent manner, overriding the normal procedures, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you well know. This bill has not been sitting on the table for the required length of time, giving the opposition just hours to consider its position. Thankfully, with the assistance of outside parties, we have been made aware of some of these issues, and the parliament should give consideration to them.

This minister should explain himself. He should explain where this recommendation comes from, what he is trying to achieve, why he is creating $8 million of taxpayer funded positions over the next eight years for an organisation whose biggest issues are not its staffing capacity. By far and away its biggest issues are not its staffing capacity. We know that from what we have seen from the HSU scandal. We know that from what people are telling us within Fair Work Australia. This is a disgrace; it is a scandal. And the minister should explain himself. They are trying to force this through prior to the potential government changing early next year, so they have future-proofed Fair Work Australia, and the minister should answer it. He should answer why he is using $8 million worth of taxpayers' money, and the parliament should not pass this bill until the minister has given a reasonable explanation about why this is being used to assist not the Australian public or its economy but the Labor Party and its friends.