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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1018

Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Government Business in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Social Services) (15:44): The government have a fundamental objection to the referral of the provisions of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee. The reason for our fundamental objection is that we have a system of two very separate and distinct types of standing committees in the Senate. We have legislation committees and we have references committees. The reason that legislation committees were established was—quite self-evidently from their title—to look at legislation. That is why we have those committees. But we are seeing a growing trend from the opposition of seeking to refer legislation to references committees. References committees, by their title, are there to have a reference, determined by the Senate, passed to them—not to have legislation passed to them for consideration but to have references on other matters that are topical and of community interest. We have resources allocated to references committees. We have resources allocated to legislation committees. They have two separate functions. They have two separate purposes.

We know why the opposition are increasingly seeking to send legislation to references committees. It is because the opposition chair those committees, because the nongovernment parties have a majority on those committees. That gives those committees, if they do not receive a reporting date far enough into the future, the opportunity to revisit that reporting date. So the whole purpose of referring legislation to references committees is not to ensure the appropriate examination for legislation; it is to seek to defer; it is to seek to delay; it is to seek to take a partisan and political approach to legislation.

One of the great strengths of the Senate is that, in legislation committees, there have been many occasions when the members of the committee put partisanship aside and actually look at the merits of the legislation, at the drafting of the legislation. In a previous incarnation there were some occasions, when my side of politics was in office and I was not a portfolio holder, that I did on occasion take a common position with members of other political parties that might have been at odds with that of the government of the day. That is one of the strengths of the legislation committees that we have here in the Senate. But it is disappointing that the opposition are seeking to, I think, abuse the processes of this place by referring legislation to references committees.

Obviously this particular piece of legislation that the opposition are seeking to refer to the Employment and Education References Committee is a contentious one in the eyes of those on the other side of the chamber. We understand well that senators from the Australian Labor Party, who more often than not—probably in almost every case—have come into this place by virtue of the patronage of a trade union, are protective and defensive of the unique and protected position, in many regards, of trade unions and trade union officials. We have held the view in the coalition for quite some time that it is appropriate for trade unions and, more particularly, for senior trade union officials to be subject to similar sorts of standards and requirements as company directors are subject to. There is well-established Corporations Law which applies to company directors in this country. Company directors have important responsibilities. There are fiduciary responsibilities that company directors have. There are standards that are expected of company directors. There are very significant penalties, very significant civil penalties, for company directors who do not uphold their duties as directors. We are very strongly of the view that there is absolutely no reason why the same sorts of standards should not apply to senior office bearers of trade unions. The reason for that is that trade unions survive and are run on money that comes from dues-paying members, from fees-paying members. Those dues- and fees-paying members have a right to expect that those whom they have elected, those who hold those senior offices, are acting in the best interests of the union and in the best interests of the membership. That is what the Registered Organisations Commission will seek to ensure.

There is a misconception on the other side of the chamber that we on this side are fundamentally opposed to trade unions. Nothing could be further from the truth. On this side of the chamber, we believe very strongly in freedom of association, with the emphasis on freedom: people should be free to associate or free not to associate. Our issue with the contemporary trade union movement, in recent Australian history, has been where there have been elements of compulsion in relation to membership, where there have been 'no ticket, no start' arrangements, whether they be legislated or whether they be informally enforced as is the case on construction sites. That is one of the reasons why we are bringing back the Australian Building and Construction Commission, because we want the rule of law to apply in all workplaces and we believe that there are particular characteristics and particular challenges in construction work sites. So we believe an organisation is needed to have a focus on that particular sector and to have particular powers in that particular area. We make no apology for that.

I come back to my point that we are not fundamentally opposed to trade unions. I will give my own family background. My paternal grandfather, Albert George Fifield, Bert Fifield, was a professional trade unionist. He was federal secretary of the Printing and Kindred Industries Union for about 30 years. He was New South Wales state president of the Printing and Kindred Industries Union for about 25 years. Former Labor senator Bruce Childs gave the eulogy at his funeral. So I do not want anyone to think for a second that I am against trade unions, against their right to exist, against the right of people to freely associate, to freely join and pay money to an organisation that they think will represent them well. That is something we would defend strongly on this side of the chamber. I want to make the point loudly and clearly that we are not anti trade union. There is an important role for trade unions. There is an important role for representative bodies in our community and in the economy. People should be strongly represented by the people that they elect to do so. They should be strongly represented by the people to whom they pay their membership fees to do so. There is an important role and always will be an important role for employee representative organisations. But I put emphasis on the word 'representative'. There has to be accountability of trade union officials to their members, and the registered organisations amendment bill will go a long way to seeing that that accountability is entrenched once and for all.

I do not think that could be any group of people who have been more embarrassed by the performances of trade union officials over recent times than trade union members themselves. Those people who strongly believe in a role for trade unions, those people who believe enough in trade unions and their role that they pay their membership dues to them, are the people who have been most outraged by the activities of some trade union officials. I will have the good grace not to go into some of the details of what we have witnessed; they have been well and truly canvassed in the press and in this place. I do not suggest that those activities, those behaviours, are representative of the majority of trade union officials. I do not suggest that for a second. I think the majority of trade union officials are good people who are doing their best to represent their members. I might disagree with the particular policy propositions they expound but, by and large, they are people of good faith and good values who are seeking to do the right thing by their membership. But that is not a reason not to make sure that there are appropriate accountability mechanisms in place for those who are not doing the right thing. It is the same with the company law: I think the majority of company directors do the right thing, are well-intentioned, are focused on creating value and wealth so that they can employ people, are focused on getting a return for shareholders where they are a for-profit entity. I think that is the attitude of the majority of company directors. But that does not mean that I do not think there should be appropriate corporations law. There should be appropriate corporations law and by the same token there should be in place an equivalent regime, an equivalent arrangement, for trade unions.

I think it is a pity that whenever we talk about the trade union movement in this place it is often characterised that if you are in the coalition you are against trade unions and if you are in the Labor Party you are for trade unions. I think that is far too simplistic. What the debate should be about is what are the appropriate regulatory arrangements for trade unions, what are the appropriate accountability arrangements for trade unions, what are the appropriate mechanisms to ensure that the will of individual trade union members is given effect in the organisations to which they belong. The reason we are having that debate is because there is a different set of arrangements for companies and more stringent requirements for companies, and there should be no less for trade unionists. I know, Mr Deputy President, that I transgressing a little bit in this debate, which is essentially a procedural one, by talking about some of the substance of the bill. Nevertheless, I thought it was important for context here.

I come back to where I started, that the references committees of this parliament are being used and abused by the opposition. Legislation committees are there to deal with legislation, references committees are there to deal with references from this place, and it is important that we take a stand against the abuse of the committee processes of the Senate. I fear that we will see more of these sorts of references come into the chamber and, when they do, we will oppose them. I know that Senator McKenzie, who is a very diligent National Party whip, did some research to see whether the coalition had sought to use the vehicle of references committees to examine legislation. In fact, she could not find any examples. For us on this side of the chamber, it is a matter of principle that references committees not be used for the purpose of examining legislation.

I encourage the opposition to show some imagination and to actually start to think of areas of public policy that could benefit from examination by the references committees. I guess that is part of the discipline of being in opposition. You have to sit down and think for yourself. You have to nut-out for yourself what the important public policy issues are. That is something that the opposition needs to do. The opposition needs to make sure that the references committees, which its senators chair, are fully occupied, but fully occupied by public policy matters that the references committees were established to examine. Leave the legislation committees for the purpose of examining legislation.

I urge opposition senators to refrain from this growing practice of using references committees in this way. They are there for a reason. As I said before, I think it is important to remember that these committees—references and legislation—are well resourced and that they are well resourced with taxpayers' money. So we have to make sure that we are deploying those taxpayer resources in the way that this Senate actually intended. That means references committees dealing with references from this chamber and legislation committees dealing with legislation.

It is important that we keep these committees occupied. It is important that opposition senators do the hard work of sitting down and mapping out, from their point of view, what the priorities of the nation are and what the public policy areas that need more extensive examination—the sort of examination that only a references committee can provide—are. These committees give senators the capacity to get around the country, to hold public hearings and to call for submissions. That is the purpose of the references committees. I know that some of my other colleagues are keen to contribute to this debate because they also feel very strongly about the appropriate use of the forums and committees of this place.

But let me start again, Madam Acting Deputy President Ruston, as you have just arrived in the chair. We are all for proper scrutiny and proper examination of legislation. That is something that did not happen enough in the last Senate because those on the other side of this chamber too often combined to deny that opportunity for appropriate scrutiny. We recall the carbon tax legislation that breached the hand-on-heart promise of former Prime Minister Gillard. We had barely a week for that particular legislation, and that was legislation seeking to break an election commitment. It is time for those on the other side to pause, to stop, to think and to desist from this pursuit of the abuse of process and the abuse of the forums of the Senate in the form of passing legislation to references committees.

Again, I restate that this legislation, which the opposition is seeking to refer to the references committee, is in no way an attack on trade unions. It is our belief that trade union should be subject to the same requirements, the same accountability and the same integrity that companies are and that union officials should be subject to the same accountability that company directors are. It is in no way anti-union; it is pro-union member. We think that their rights and views should be given effect to and that their dollars that they pay in dues should be well deployed. We believe that the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 would do just that.

I conclude by saying that legislation should not be abused and should not be passed to references committees. If you want to have a fair dinkum look at legislation, then you should refer it to a legislation committee.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ruston ): Senator Kroger.

Senator McEwen: No, excuse me, I was on my feet.

Senator Kroger: I raise a point of order. When I first stood to get the call when this first came up, I was advised that I had already spoken on it and was not in continuation. In checking the Hansard—and this came up for debate on Tuesday—I noted that I started to speak on this referral at 6.45 pm, but the time lapsed for the area and the Senate went to government documents at 6.50 pm. On that basis, I believe that I am in continuation.

Senator McEwen: My understanding of what happened on that day, Senator Kroger, is that you were not in the chamber when debate on the matter resumed, but Senator Ludwig was. Senator Ludwig took the call and spoke until government documents was brought on. Perhaps, Madam Acting Deputy President, you could seek clarification from the Clerk. If that was the case, then Senator Kroger's speech has been curtailed, as I understand it, and it is now time for another senator to have the call, and I am happy to take it.

Senator Kroger: If it helps the Acting Deputy President, I am happy for the Clerk to take guidance on that and to check whether that is in fact the case and whether, if the debate resumed, it commenced with Senator Ludwig.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I have been advised that you lost your right to speak when Senator Ludwig spoke. However, you are entitled to seek leave if you wish to continue your remarks.

Senator Kroger: Thank you for that advice. I do seek leave to continue my remarks in this substantial debate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ruston ): Is leave granted?

Senator McEwen: For how long?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Fifteen minutes, Senator McEwan.

Senator McEwen: It is a highly unusual situation for a senator to give up the call to speak on a matter, and I am inclined to deny leave.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Does 'inclined to deny leave' mean you are denying leave?

Senator McEwen: Yes.

Leave not granted.