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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 2

Senator ABETZ (12:43 PM) —Perhaps the minister could give me an appropriate nod when his advisers are present in the chamber. That will allow me to make some comments in relation to this legislation finding its way back into the Senate so quickly. The coalition has a matter of great concern in relation to this legislation. The coalition, the Greens, Family First and Senator Xenophon had a unity ticket in relation to the amendments to this legislation—a unity ticket supported by the ACTU and the ACCI. The only people that seemed to be against it were the Australian Labor Party and its state and territory branches. Now, with the change of government in Western Australia, it has become apparent that the new government there in fact does support the extra representation being given to the social partners, namely the ACCI and the ACTU. It is therefore passing strange that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Ms Gillard, came out immediately after the Senate made these amendments and said they were unacceptable to the government.

At Senate estimates—and the minister will recall this—I asked some questions about these very matters, about whether the minister, before rejecting the Senate’s amendments, had consulted with her state colleagues. Of course, there was no answer. My understanding is that in fact there was no such consultation, which shows the arrogance and high-handedness of this government and this particular minister, the Deputy Prime Minister. I still recall the accusations and allegations made against the coalition about the Howard government allegedly treating the Senate as a rubber stamp. What greater arrogance, what greater high-handedness, can you have than a Deputy Prime Minister, before she has even had the opportunity to fully consider and consult in relation to coalition amendments, coming out and saying that they will be opposed because somehow they strike at the intergovernmental agreement that had been reached between the states and territories and the Commonwealth? Indeed, one of the questions I asked was this: how could the imposition of an audit committee unravel the legislation and the agreement? There was no answer, which is indicative of the high-handed, arrogant approach of this government and, in particular, this minister.

All of us around this chamber are committed to a safer working environment in Australia for all Australian workers. Of course we want to see the best possible regime in place. But to suggest that all wisdom resides between the ears of federal Labor and state Labor governments is, to say the least, pushing things a bit far, especially when the organisation that bankrolled these people into government—namely, the ACTU—actually happens to agree with us on this issue. The ACTU actually agrees with us on this issue. That goes to show that, now that they have got the sniff of the ministerial leather in their nostrils, the Labor government and their ministers are just jettisoning everybody who was part and parcel of their campaign—and, it would seem, on this occasion, even the ACTU.

I would have thought that, when you have the extraordinary circumstance of agreement being reached between Senator Xenophon, Senator Fielding, the Greens, the coalition, the ACTU and ACCI, there might be some substance in the amendments that this place passed and there might be some proper engagement with those of us who pursued the amendments as to why these amendments were somehow wrong or would somehow unravel the harmonisation process. We were not given those responses during the debate that we had in this place. Initially, when we were in the committee stage, we asked the questions on how the audit committee, for example, could unravel harmonisation and what was so evil about allowing the social partners, ACCI and the ACTU, to have increased representation—and, when I say ‘increased representation’, might I say that that would just restore the representation of the social partners to that which it was under the Howard coalition government. The Labor Party was changing it to reduce the social partner representation and we moved to restore it. We were not told how that could somehow unravel—other than, of course, that the Labor state governments might not get their full voting power as they wanted under the coalition government. But we happen to believe that the organisations that are at the coalface of industrial relations and of occupational health and safety, namely the employer groups and those groups representing the workers, ought to have a say and a significant say, and that is why we moved the amendments that we did.

I now note that the minister is armed with at least one adviser, and I trust that that will be enough. There is a smile from the box suggesting that he feels more than capable and confident in answering all the questions. Allow me then, Minister, to ask you what specific consultation took place between Deputy Prime Minister Gillard and the state governments prior to her immediate announcement that the Senate amendments—all Senate amendments—would be unacceptable to the government.