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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1034

Senator CASH (Western AustraliaAssistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women) (17:09): The Senate is currently debating a motion to refer a matter to a committee. The motion before the Senate is that the provisions of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 be referred to the Senate Education and Employment References Committee for inquiry and report by the last sitting day in March 2014.

The motion we are debating is unique for two reasons. The first is that it is highly unusual—in fact, the last time it occurred was in 1996, when a piece of legislation was referred not to the appropriate committee, being a legislation committee, but in fact to a references committee. Basic Senate 101 procedure, which is able to be downloaded from the internet, tells us the purposes of Senate committees. Those opposite clearly have not read Senate 101: basic Senate procedure. The role of Senate committees is very, very clear. A legislation committee has a very specific function, which is to inquire into and report on any bills or draft bills referred to it. The bill that we are currently debating the referral of was appropriately referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee. It was not referred to the references committee, as this motion is asking the Senate to do, for a very, very good reason: it is the wrong committee to refer the bill to.

Again, basic Senate procedure tells us the role of a references committee. The role of a references committee is to inquire into and report upon various general matters referred to it by the Senate—not legislation, which is very specific, but general matters referred to it. In the first instance, other than what can only be, as it was in 1996, purely political purposes that the opposition want to refer this legislation to a references committee, there is actually no ground upon which to refer it, according to general Senate practice.

The second reason that this motion is so unique is that, if one were merely to refer to the motion without any history of the legislation itself, one might think that the bill being referred, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013, had not yet been inquired into. For those who may draw that conclusion from reading the motion, unfortunately I have to inform you that you are completely incorrect. This piece of legislation has been referred to the appropriate committee. An inquiry has been held into the legislation. In fact, I have before me the report of the committee. I quote:

On 14 November 2013, the Senate referred the provisions of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013 to the Senate Education and Employment Committee (the committee) for inquiry and report by 2 December 2013.

An inquiry was then held, witnesses appeared before the committee and the committee has duly handed down a report.

In listening to the comments on the other side, one might be led to believe that there was not an appropriate inquiry into this bill. However, again, if you look at the submissions that were received, you will note that over half of them were from the trade union movement. So the trade unions have well and truly had their say in relation to this piece of legislation. In her contribution to the debate, Senator McEwen stated that other senators from the opposition wanted the ability to participate fully in an inquiry into this legislation, and that is why it had to be referred to the references committee. Again, though, those senators may want to ask themselves just why they did not avail themselves of the normal committee procedure and actually attend the inquiry—which was held, I understand, last Thursday in Melbourne—at which a number of witnesses appeared throughout the day and at which senators were given the opportunity to question the witnesses on what they say the impact of the bill would be, and then were given the opportunity to participate in the inquiry process by writing a report. In fact, Labor senators have written a report in relation to this legislation. And I do not think it is a surprise to anybody that the Labor senators have recommended that the bill not be passed.

But, again, if you go back to the motion that we are currently debating before the Senate, it is incorrect to say that this bill needs to go to the references committee on those two bases. Firstly, the references committee is not the correct committee to send the bill to. Secondly, this bill has been inquired into, and the committee has provided a report. One can only draw the conclusion that the only reasons those opposite now wish to send this piece of legislation to a references committee are politically motivated reasons—because they just do not like the legislation. They just do not like the fact that this government promised the people of Australia prior to the 2013 election:

The Coalition will take strong action to ensure registered organisations are more transparent and accountable.

We also said that if we were elected this would be one of the first election commitments that we acted on in this parliament. We also stated, in relation to our commitment:

Australians who join trade unions or employer associations deserve to have confidence in the conduct and administration of those organisations. Registered organisations are a central part of the Fair Work regime and they must operate to the highest of standards.

And we openly acknowledged:

The overwhelming majority of registered organisations already do the right thing.

So for those opposite who continue to stand in this place and say that those on this side of the chamber have a disregard for trade unions: that is just completely, totally and utterly untrue, and it is witnessed by the fact that in our coalition policy we clearly state that in our opinion the overwhelming majority of registered organisations do the right thing and act in the interests of their members—and, of course, those members are working people in Australia. The reason for this legislation, however—which was voted on by the Australian public at the election of 7 September, when they returned a coalition government to power—is not in relation to the majority of organisations who do the right thing; it is in relation to the clear evidence that the money paid by members to some registered organisations is being used for personal gain and inappropriate purposes. Just so people can be very clear as to why the coalition has brought this legislation to the parliament: there is clear evidence. And that evidence, as we know, is currently being played out on the TV stations at night when you see the allegations against Mr Thomson, who did inappropriately use moneys of the HSU workers. That is now being played out as we go home at night and see the full details of the extent of the abuse of union members' funds laid before the Australian public.

That is why we have brought this legislation to the Australian parliament. We said to the Australian people, prior to the election—and this was a coalition policy document that was available to the Australian public before they cast their vote on 7 September:

If elected, a Coalition government will:

amend the law to ensure that registered organisations and their officials have to play by the same rules as companies and their directors.

I would have thought that was fair, and:

ensure that the penalties for breaking the rules are the same that apply to companies and their directors, as set out in the Corporations Act 2001

Trade union officials and company directors both have access to moneys that are not their own, so therefore one might think that both should be held to the same account. And, thirdly:

reform financial disclosure and reporting guidelines under the Registered Organisations laws so that they align more closely with those applicable to companies.

Let us actually look at the motion that is before the Senate. It states the reasons why this piece of legislation needs to go before the references committee and says that the references committee is to inquire into the legislation with particular reference to:

(a) the potential impact of the amendments to interfere with the ongoing operation of registered organisations in Australia; and

(b) the potential of the amendments to impede the ability of employees of registered organisations to carry out their duties.

Apart from the fact that, as I have stated, this bill has already been properly inquired into through the normal Senate procedures and a committee has already handed down a report in the process of which the Labor senators themselves participated, Labor senators themselves have also handed down a dissenting report in relation to this legislation. But there is nothing to fear from this legislation. It is not going to interfere with the ongoing operation of registered organisations in Australia—unless of course that organisation is doing something wrong, and then it well might, because that is actually the purpose of the legislation, if the registered organisation is doing something wrong: for example, inappropriately using the funds of the members of the organisation.

If the question is: 'Will it impede the ability of employees of registered organisations to carry out their duties?' then the answer is no, because the only people who need to be worried about this legislation are those people who are doing the wrong thing; that is it. As the coalition has acknowledged, in our speeches today and in our election policy, the majority of registered organisations do the right thing. Therefore, it is a little like the Corporations Act: if you are a company director and you are properly discharging your duties—as you should be by law, because you are dealing with someone else's money—then you have no fear of being in breach of the Corporations Act.

All those registered organisations and union officials that do the right thing by their members have absolutely nothing to fear from this legislation. But, as I have stated, if you are a rogue union; if you are a union that is abusing the moneys that are given to you by the workers; if you are, for example, someone like Craig Thomson, who was in a position of power in a union and who took moneys from the members and then abused the trust of the members by using those moneys inappropriately—for example, on prostitutes—then, yes, you have everything to fear from this legislation, because the reason this government has introduced the legislation is to protect vulnerable workers like those in the HSU. We on this side—we the government—do not want to see vulnerable workers, who hand over their money in good faith to registered organisations, abused because a person decides that they are above the law and, at the moment, quite frankly, there is little to no real consequence for that person in relation to the abuse. As I state, officers who are operating within the law, which is the overwhelming majority of them, will have no fear in relation to taking on additional responsibilities.

So when the motion before the Senate says that inquiry should be made:

… with particular reference to:

(a) the potential impact of the amendments to interfere with the ongoing operation of registered organisations …

the answer is quite simply: no, it will not. If you are doing the right thing, you have absolutely nothing to fear from this legislation. The Australian public know that, because, on 7 September, when the Australian public cast their vote, they cast their vote in the full knowledge of our policies and procedures, and this was one of the very clear policies that we set out prior to the 2013 election, and which the Australian public cast their vote on.

The only reason for which you would support a reference such as this is a politically motivated one: you do not want the unions to be held to account. (Quorum formed)

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Whish-Wilson ): Senator Cash has the call, and I remind the chamber that Senator Cash has the right to be heard in silence.

Senator CASH: As I was saying, any party that supports this motion is clearly doing so only for politically motivated purposes. In other words, they do not want to see the passing of this legislation. They do not want to see legislation put in place that will protect the workers of Australia from abuse by rogue union officials. Any political party that refuses to support greater accountability and transparency for registered organisations is merely saying to the people of Australia, is saying to the workers, who have been abused by rogue union officials who have taken their money—money they have been given in good faith and spent inappropriately—'We condone that type of behaviour. We are giving the green light to that type of behaviour occurring again. We are giving the green light to the behaviour of Mr Thomson and Mr Williamson.'

All this legislation does is stand up for the Australian workers, stand up for those people who do not have the ability to stand up for themselves. If those on the other side do not want to stand up for the workers, that is their choice, but we on this side will. As I said, the Australian public, in casting their vote on 7 September, knew exactly what this government's position was in relation to accountability for registered organisations. The fact that we were elected with an overwhelming majority indicates to me that the Australian people, themselves, voted for transparency and accountability in relation to registered organisations.