Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Matters of Public Importance
Health Services Union
I inform the Senate that, at 8.30 am today, Senators Fifield and Siewert each submitted a letter in accordance with standing order 75 proposing a matter of public importance. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot.
As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Fifield:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The debacle of Fair Work Australia's investigation into the Health Services Union.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
There is no doubt that Fair Work Australia's investigation into the Health Services Union is a debacle. It is like that long-running TV program Blue Hills; just when you thought there surely could not be another episode or another twist in the saga, yes, there was. This reflects very poorly on Ms Gillard who established Fair Work Australia, and appointed the personnel to Fair Work Australia and the administration of Fair Work Australia. People now know the salacious allegations in relation to the Health Services Union, allegations made by other union officials not the coalition. The allegations are that about $100,000 worth of union funds were expended in an inappropriate manner, to put it mildly. The suggestion is, and it is not disputed, that the union's funds were used for, amongst other things, the procurement of prostitutes.
The Health Services Union in particular is allegedly an organisation that looks after the interests of workers who, in general terms, are low-paid workers. These people, looking after their interests, seek to make a contribution to the Health Services Union only to find that their trust in their union has been abused in this sordid manner. As a result—
No. Isn't it amazing how the Labor Party just so readily interject and come to the defence of the Health Services Union? And that a female Labor senator could seek to support the allegations against the member for Dobell using union funds for the procurement of prostitutes is another example that the Labor Party will stop at nothing in defending the member for Dobell.
Senator Ronaldson is right, the shovel that was left on the front doorstep of the person who blew the whistle was a none-too-subtle manoeuvre. But this investigation has been going on for three years. Let us just cast our mind to the allegations that President Nixon, no less than a president of the United States, faced. Watergate, from beginning to end, was wrapped up in 18 months. They were dealing with the President of the United States. But here we have an investigation into the activities of a trade union official taking twice as long, a period of three years. I am not going to make any allegations here. There is a stark choice. I am not sure which choice we should take. Either we have a display of gross administrative incompetence or an institutionalised go-slow, and what motivates that is another question.
But there is no doubt that something is wrong in Fair Work Australia. Indeed, the former industrial registrar, Mr Doug Williams, has taken the unprecedented action of going public to indicate that under his stewardship such an investigation would not have taken so long and would have been concluded by now. So if a former industrial registrar can come to that conclusion, why can't Fair Work Australia?
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
We have Senator Collins interjecting, asking was he an appointment by a certain person? The problem, Senator Collins, is this: the member for Dobell is allegedly also complaining as to why this is taking so long. Ms Jackson is complaining as to why it is taking so long. Indeed, yesterday, we had the Australian editorialising that possibly this is worthy now of a royal commission to get to the bottom of this terrible go-slow.
In our own experience in dealings with Fair Work Australia on this issue, given the reluctance and deliberate obfuscation by the minister at the table at Senate estimates and by the then manager of Fair Work Australia, Mr Tim Lee, we undertook an FOI, a freedom of information request. It was completely denied by Fair Work Australia, categorically rejected. They would not even tell us what documents they would not give us access to. They just would not tell us anything. So what did we do? We had to go to the Information Commissioner. The Information Commissioner basically forced Fair Work Australia to finally disclose some documents. What do those documents reveal? Well, no wonder they did not want to tell us about them. One of them is an email to Fair Work Australia. It says:
I am the Acting Commander, New South Wales Police Fraud Squad.
I have left messages throughout the day with both—
name deleted and name deleted. I am deleting these names because I do not think they should be on the public record at this stage—
from your office requesting that you contact me. I have been told by—
that the best way to contact you is to send an email.
So here we have the commander of the fraud squad in New South Wales reduced to emailing the manager of Fair Work Australia to get his telephone calls returned. Not one, not two, but numerous calls on that day were not responded to. I simply pose the question—chances are Senator Collins would agree with this, but I am sure all the listeners would—that if any of us in our offices or in our homes got a call from the commander of the New South Wales Police fraud squad, would we ignore it? You know what? I reckon that would get priority for a return phone call. I think most people would react like that. But, no, not Mr Tim Lee, the manager of Fair Work Australia. 'We'll ignore that. We'll ignore that. We'll ignore that.' So he reduced the acting commander of the fraud squad to sending an email.
After three years of this obfuscation, knowing that this was about to blow and that the coalition and the public were about to pursue this, what does Labor do? This manager of Fair Work Australia quietly gets appointed as a commissioner of Fair Work Australia to make sure that he can no longer appear before the Senate estimates committee process to account for these three years of delay. That is why, just moments ago, I put a motion before this place to have Mr Lee brought before Senate estimates to explain his behaviour of the past three years. Isn't it interesting the parties that say they are always for openness and transparency, namely the Greens and the ALP, voted en bloc as their Green-Labor alliance to deny access. We had the real representative of the Labor Party, the Democratic Labor Party, and Senator Xenophon voting with us. At least the Democratic Labor Party knows how to look after Labor voters, unlike the Australian Labor Party, which is now engaged with the New South Wales Right and the Australian Greens in deliberately obfuscating, deliberately not answering questions and deliberately seeking to avoid the issues. We know what is at stake here. If you can keep the member for the Dobell on political life support, he in turn will keep the Gillard government on political life support, and everything is being done by the government to delay this and ensure that it drags out until the next election. This is a matter of great public interest and great public concern. When you have former industrial registrars saying this is highly inappropriate, when you have the Australian newspaper editorialising for a royal commission and when you have the person that laid the complaint complaining, this is a matter that needs to be taken seriously, and we in the coalition do so.
This proposal is about the opposition's appalling attempts to interfere in and politicise an independent inquiry by Fair Work Australia into the Health Services Union. Fair Work Australia is currently investigating possible irregularities in the financial accounts of the Health Services Union. These investigations are ongoing and, I stress, completely independent from the government. I find it entirely inappropriate that the Senate is debating an ongoing investigation by an independent authority and that the opposition is labelling it a debacle.
It follows opposition attempts in estimates to pre-empt and compromise an appropriate outcome by exposing details of the investigation. It would be entirely inappropriate for the parliament to second-guess Fair Work Australia or to interfere in any way. The allegations being investigated are serious. These are public servants—professionals—trying to do a job which can only be done without political interference. The government recognises that it is important that unions and employer organisations remain accountable to their membership for how the funds of the organisations are expended. These are important matters. But I stress that the provisions in the Fair Work Act remain the same as those which were introduced under the current Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott.
There are financial reporting requirements set out the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. These are modelled closely on laws applying to company directors in corporations law and are the same now as they were when introduced by Tony Abbott when he was the minister for workplace relations. Let us be clear here: these laws are the same as the laws of the coalition.
On another matter of consistency, I note the former Prime Minister John Howard's attitudes to similar matters. When he was questioned regarding three MPs facing investigation back in 2007 by the AFP, his response was:
A lot of people who are under investigation end up having nothing to answer for.
It is a police investigation and the appropriate thing for me to do is to let the police investigation run its course and then, if it is appropriate, I will have something to say.
The opposition's actions here are quite absurd. One day they baselessly accuse the government of interference, and the next day they demand intervention. On the matter of interference, the government has nothing to hide. There has been no interference in any way by the government in this matter. A detailed account has been given which the coalition has chosen to ignore. If the opposition has any evidence backing up their claims they should provide it, not simply refer to one person or another.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
If you have evidence, you should provide it rather than recycle old claims. At the moment all we see are baseless and recycled allegations.
Fair Work Australia officials were examined through Senate estimates processes, and, as recently as December last year, they confirmed there had only been two contacts, neither of which could possibly be construed as inappropriate interference. The first of these contacts was detailed in Senate estimates back in April 2010. The opposition alleged inappropriate contact between Fair Work Australia and the government. I refer you to Senator Arbib's explanation in the Senate of 13 May 2010 on page 3192 which details and explains that no inappropriate information concerning the investigation was conveyed to the minister or to the office of the Prime Minister.
The only other communication between Fair Work Australia and the government has also been explained. Fair Work Australia was contacted by a ministerial media adviser following inquiries about the accuracy of a Channel 7 news report back in August last year. In October last year, the minister provided a detailed explanation of these events to a Senate estimates hearing. This information was also provided to the opposition in answers to questions on notice, but again they recycled old and dealt-with allegations. It is entirely reasonable for the staff of ministers to contact relevant agencies for the purpose of establishing facts when responding to issues raised by the media. To suggest otherwise is laughable.
The opposition today was seeking that Mr Tim Lee, the former general manager at Fair Work Australia, appear before the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee. While he was the general manager of Fair Work Australia, Mr Lee was present at a number of Senate estimates hearings and therefore has already answered opposition questions. We have detailed on more than one occasion any communication between the government and Fair Work Australia during Mr Lee's time as general manager. There is now an acting general manager who is available to answer questions at estimates. Let us make today's stunt very clear: Senator Abetz made no case at all for his motion. It had not even been addressed by the Senate committee. It was simply a timely stunt. The opposition's claims overall are similar: they are simply bizarre. As stated previously, they have criticised the government for interfering while also demanding intervention on timing or intervention on the public release of the report. Let me deal with the issue of timing. I appreciate that the investigation involving the HSU has been long-running—although it has not been three years, as Senator Abetz exaggerates—but it is important that Fair Work Australia be allowed to conduct a thorough investigation free from interference and commentary. When Fair Work Australia investigations into the Health Services Union matter are complete, the investigating officer will deliver their final reports to the general manager of Fair Work Australia. The time frame within which this will occur is—
Opposition senators interjecting—
When the investigation is finalised, the report will be given to the general manager of Fair Work Australia. This is entirely a matter for Fair Work Australia. I note that they released a public statement on 27 January to confirm that the investigation was nearing its conclusion.
In answer to the questions about incompetence, I highlight that this is a complex investigation about the financial reporting of a large organisation. Fair Work Australia has publicly said there are over 6,000 documents involved. We know that other independent investigatory agencies, such as the ATO and ASIC, have on occasion taken long periods to work through complex investigations.
I turn now to the question of the release of the report. It is for Fair Work Australia to decide whether its report should be made public based on proper administrative law principles. Fair Work Australia will no doubt consider all relevant legal matters in deciding whether to release its report and whether such a release may be prejudicial to any further proceedings. Although there may be an expectation that Fair Work Australia's investigation will lead to sanctions for any individuals who have been found to have misused union funds, such sanctions may flow from related criminal investigations conducted by the police. Doesn't the opposition realise they could potentially prejudice this case if Fair Work Australia's investigation leads to a criminal investigation? Is this what you really want?
The principle of natural justice requires that a fair and proper procedure be used when making a decision. It is entirely appropriate for an independent authority such as Fair Work Australia to be able to conduct their investigations free of political pressure. They are an independent authority and should be allowed to conduct their investigation accordingly. It is time that the opposition stopped grandstanding on this matter and let Fair Work Australia do their job. It is appropriate to let this investigation conclude. The opposition should stop throwing mud and instead focus on what is important to the Australian public.
What an utterly duplicitous piece of government spin written by the Prime Minister's office to defend the indefensible in this matter. It continues the behaviour of the Prime Minister and senior government ministers in protecting one of their own, because the demise of one of their own would mean the potential demise of this illegitimate government.
I will go through a number of matters again today, and then I will finish on what I think is another extremely serious allegation about this government's behaviour. I think it has been in the press that this inquiry started in April 2009. Today I looked at the evidence of Mr Nassios.
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
The parliamentary secretary herself does not know, because she said 'March'. Indeed, back on 10 February last year, Mr Nassios, the investigator, admitted that this inquiry started in January 2009. What honourable senators may not be aware of is that there was a pre-inquiry inquiry which went for nearly 15 months—there were nearly 15 months of a preliminary inquiry before they moved to the formal investigation. That is an outrageous time delay. The explanation by Mr Nassios was straight out of an episode of Yes, Minister. It said:
The Fair Work Act is structured in a way that requires me as a delegate to inquire as to whether there are reasonable grounds for me to actually proceed to an investigation. I am actually not at the moment investigating, and it may be that there will be no investigation. I am inquiring.
It was 19 months. To Mr Nassios I said:
Mr Nassios, you have now had this matter for 13 months and you are telling us you still actually have not decided, so it is an investigation into whether you are doing to investigate the matter. Is that what you are telling committee?
This is absolutely outrageous. There were 15 months of a pre-investigation inquiry, and two years later it has not been finalised. But what is open to the Australian community and what is open to everyone involved in this matter is to see what some of those involved have said about this inquiry.
My colleague Senator Abetz quite rightly quoted some comments from Mr Doug Williams, the former industrial registrar, who started this investigation and wrote a memo that the government refused to release just prior to his departure—which happened the end of June 2009, according to my recollection. They refused to release that memo. Mr Williams criticised Fair Work Australia for its unaccountably protracted investigations into the allegation of the use of Thomson's HSU cards. Mr Williams warned that Fair Work Australia's reputation could suffer because the investigation of the HSU and Thomson was taking too long. It was 'unaccountably protracted', according to the man who commenced this investigation back in early 2009. Let us consider the comments of Kathy Jackson. The behaviour of some in the Labor Party towards this woman has been an utter disgrace. When did the last Labor woman stand up and say, 'We do not think it is acceptable behaviour for a woman from the union to have a shovel shoved on her front door step in the middle of the night'? The utter cowardice of those opposite on the question of the defence of this woman is extraordinary. The Australiannewspaper reported recently that Kathy Jackson said:
… that while she had no direct evidence, she suspected there had been government interference in the Fair Work Australia investigation into the HSU. "I suspect it because of what I am hearing around town. Just watch this space," …
What was she suspecting? What did she allege? She alleged that there was government involvement with the Fair Work Australia investigation into the the HSU and Craig Thomson.
Kathy Jackson went on to say that she told Doug Williams when he was the industrial registrar of the AIRC that there might be political interference in the inquiry. It is alleged that Mr Williams said:
I know that the allegations against Craig Thomson can bring down the government and that there are powerful people in the ALP who might make an attempt to nobble the investigation from the inside after I leave …
When talking about nobbling, you need go no further than the behaviour of the former minister who is in the chair at the moment and is indeed the acting general manager.
Mr Nassios has control of this investigation. Mr Nassios was quite happy, in the early part of last year and the later part of the year before, to answer matters that were not going to interfere with his inquiry. He was quite circumspect about this, but he was prepared to at least answer questions. As soon there was a change over to the acting general manager, the acting general manager refused to allow Nassios to answer a single question. She nobbled him. What I want to know, what this parliament wants to know and what the Australian people want to know is: on whose direction was Nassios nobbled? Who in the government spoke to the acting general manager and demanded of her that she nobble Mr Nassios? That is the question that is outstanding.
There is one further question which I raise now in the limited time left to me. Back in October, I said to the acting general manager, 'Are you going to release publically the findings of Mr Nassios, as it was referred to you, and the public information surrounding it?' At that stage, the acting general manager refused to answer the question and took it on notice. We now know from AAP reports on 3 February that the final report on Craig Thomson may not be publically released—what an absolute outrage.
I will go through some of the things that I think should be immediately released. We believe that the sworn statements which were taken from Mr Thomson and others should be released, because we want to see what Mr Thomson said on oath about Fair Work Australia and what he said in his statement about the defamation proceedings he took against Fairfax, which he dropped in the most cowardly of fashions. We want to compare the evidence he gave in the Fairfax matter to the evidence he gave to Fair Work Australia. We want to see the BDO Kendall report which the government and Fair Work Australia refuses to release. We want to see all the information from the Fairfax defamation proceedings so we can again compare what was said in that civil case with what was said to Fair Work Australia.
This Prime Minister can run from this matter, but she can no longer hide. It goes to the core of this government's integrity. It goes to the core of this government's claim about openness and transparency. It has taken fourteen months for an inquiry to decide whether there would be a further inquiry and an investigation. This investigation has taken over two years. We were told in the middle of last year that the investigation would be finalised by the end of 2011. We were then told it would be finalised by the middle of January 2012. We are now told it will not be finalised until March this year.
This government must own up to the fact that this inquiry has taken far too long. This government has to own up to the fact that it has nobbled a senior member of Fair Work Australia for its own cheap political purposes. There is not one person in this country who does not believe that the government is actively involved in ensuring that Craig Thomson remains the member for Dobell for as long as possible in order to prevent what would otherwise be inevitable. This Prime Minister tried to cover up for what may potentially be the forced retirement of Mr Thomson by going to Mr Slipper and getting him to cross sides. It shows just how desperate this government is. You must immediately acknowledge that every single document must be released to the Australian community and that it must be done now.
I rise this afternoon to contribute to this motion about the alleged debacle of the Fair Work Australia investigation into the Health Services Union. I think we should be reminded that this is a new year when those opposite will try to prosecute this conspiracy theory. They go out there and try to scare the public. They run a scare campaign around something that has no substance. They have not been able to provide any substance or any proof here this afternoon or in the past. I imagine that will remain the case in the future.
We should always remind ourselves that Fair Work Australia is an organisation we should never second-guess. It is independent. We should not interfere with the investigations in any shape or form. That goes for the opposition as well as for the government. That is why we have not interfered. It is quite absurd when you listen to the argument of the opposition on this matter, where we have the opposition accusing the government of interference one day and then the next day demanding intervention over the timing of the public release of the final Fair Work Australia report. You cannot have your cake and eat it. You have to work out what you want in this outcome.
With respect to timing in the matter of Fair Work Australia, the short answer is that they want to be thorough. As most of us would realise, certainly all of us on this side, Fair Work Australia is a professional organisation. I had some experience with the industrial relations system for 20 years before I began my career here as a senator for Queensland, and I realise the complexity, the workload and the timing of decisions of the industrial relations system in our country. And here we have the opposition trying to fast-track it and get bits of pieces of evidence, whether it be statements or correspondence, prior to a decision being made. That is not the way it operates. It operates on a conciliatory and professional basis that all of us on this side know will be thorough, complete and delivered in a timely manner.
Oddly enough, you never hear the opposition talking about the good things that Fair Work Australia does—or the good things the industrial relations system delivers to our society, to our working-class families and to people who are vulnerable. I refer to the equal pay decision recently involving 150,000 mostly female workers who, in many circumstances, look after the most vulnerable people in our society. You never hear the opposition championing those sorts of outcomes when they come in here. It was not that long ago when Senator Abetz, I think it was, sought to move a disallowance notice on a regulation that would have awarded those pay increases last year. This is the approach they take when it comes to looking after vulnerable workers in our society. It is not a case of embracing them and making sure their conditions are guaranteed and safe. It is a case of pushing them away.
Senator Abetz interjecting—
We know your form on industrial relations, Senator Abetz, and your form is well known throughout this country. That form was repeated in question time today when an opposition senator from South Australia questioned the government about what we are doing about making sure our roads are safe, making sure that the drivers who drive those vehicles along our highways do not end up in circumstances where they will, unfortunately, one day if the circumstances permit, end up in a terrible accident. The senator questioned why we are looking at awarding those people fair and reasonable wage increases and conditions of employment whilst they drive those heavy vehicles along our highways. That is an example of what is ahead of us should this opposition ever gain government again.
As for other circumstances that Fair Work Australia deal with, we know that the Fair Work Ombudsman ensures that workers get the pay they are due, and we know about Fair Work Australia's proactive education and compliance campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of employees and employers in every state in the country bargain, negotiate and reach outcomes that are suitable and agreed to in their workplaces. When it comes to the policy position of the opposition on industrial relations, you will find them wanting, because they have not and they will not—up until the next election—table any form of policy on industrial relations. Why won't they do that? We know what happened last time they had their hands on industrial relations and they brought in Work Choices. It was the most terrible type of legislation and we know of the insidious effects that it had on workers in our society and how it stripped away the conditions of the most vulnerable people in our working class families. More than four million workers lost basic protections and more than a million suffered real pay cuts of up to $90 a week through one of the most instrumental parts of Work Choices—Australian workplace agreements.
Many Australian workplace agreements cut penalty rates, overtime, public holidays, shift allowances and rest breaks. Young workers, women and casuals were worst affected, and 2.8 million Australian workers lost protection against unfair dismissal. That is where the opposition want to return to; that is what they spoke about today in question time when they questioned the government about why we were looking at protecting workers who drive heavy rigs down the highway and awarding them pay increases. They do not care for blue-collar workers—
That is not the case at all. You might dream that or wish that, but that is not the case, Senator Brandis.
When it comes to the arguments the opposition has used when questioning the competence of Fair Work Australia or why this is dragging out, we only need to look at some of the history and certainly the recent annual report of Fair Work Australia to understand their workload. A lot of this annual report has to do with Work Choices, because we had to come in here and fix a history of concerns about things like unfair dismissals, and we had to make sure that workers were allowed a fair go—'a fair go' is one set of words you will never hear coming out of those opposite—in their workplaces and that they were protected from unfair dismissals. If we look at one circumstance here in the annual report: as a result of bargaining and agreement-making back in the days when Work Choices was in place, only 189 agreements were approved or varied. Come 2009-10, there were 24,053. It demonstrates that there were a whole heap of people wanting to get out of Australian workplace agreements and it also demonstrates the ability of workers and their employers to make agreements. That is one capacity that has been resolved and granted through the introduction of the Fair Work Australia Act. This is an act we have been proud of, to make sure there is fairness in the workplace.
Returning to the MPI today, we should also remember that it is important that unions and employer organisations are accountable, and that is the framework of the Fair Work Australia Act—to make sure that accountability exists. I am sure that at the end of the day, when Fair Work Australia comes down with an outcome on this particular examination, there will be a concise and competent response in respect to its investigations. That is why there are financial reporting requirements in the act, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. They are modelled closely on the laws that apply to company directors of corporations. They are the same now as they were when introduced by Tony Abbott, when he was the industrial relations minister. We should remind ourselves that they are something he introduced.
It is something we have adopted and carried on to make sure that transparency exists for these sorts of issues. We should remember that in the allegations we are talking about here—these are the words Senator Abetz commenced with——no one has been found guilty. You opened your address here, Senator Abetz, admitting these are allegations and the true purpose of the law should be completed before anyone sledges anyone or claims that someone has done anything wrong in the circumstances of this particular case.
Thank you, Senator Furner. Let me refer you, Madam Acting Deputy President Pratt, to section 577 of the Fair Work Act of which they are so proud. It lies in that part of the act which establishes Fair Work Australia. This is what it says:
Fair Work Australia must perform its functions and exercise its powers—
in a manner which:
(a) is fair and just; and
(b) is quick, informal and avoids unnecessary technicalities; and
(c) is open and transparent; and
(d) promotes harmonious and cooperative workplace relations.
I defy anyone to assert in good faith that the investigation by Fair Work Australia into the affairs of the Health Services Union and the involvement in those affairs of its former professional officer Mr Craig Thomson has been either quick or open and transparent.
As Senator Abetz and Senator Ronaldson have pointed out, this investigation began in January 2009—more than three years ago—and now, in the fourth year of the investigation, there is still no end in sight. On no view is that a quick, open and transparent investigation and it is nonsense for Senator Jacinta Collins to assert that by criticising the obvious delay that has beset this investigation the opposition is in some manner seeking to politically interfere with an independent agency. Fair Work Australia is not a court, it is an agency, and as an agency of the executive government it is entirely answerable to the scrutiny of the parliament and the committees of the parliament, including the Senate estimates committees.
It is also, as an agency of the Commonwealth, answerable to a writ of mandamus under section 75 of the Constitution if it fails to discharge its statutory obligations. So for the parliament to insist that a statutory agency which is evidently delaying the performance of a statutory function—in breach of the requirements of its own act, that it proceed with those functions in a quick and efficient manner—is nothing more than this parliament and this Senate doing its job is nonsense, as is saying that to criticise a defaulting, non-compliant statutory agency is to do other than what the parliament is meant to be doing.
As we know, at the core of the Fair Work Australia investigation lies the role of the man who was, at the time, the national secretary and is now the member for Dobell—Mr Craig Thomson. And as we know, if Mr Craig Thomson were to forfeit his seat in parliament, on conviction for an indictable offence, the Gillard government would fall. Does anybody in Australia seriously believe that the delay in concluding the investigation into Mr Craig Thomson is not related to the fact that he is the one vote upon whom the fate of the Gillard government depends? You would have to be very gullible to believe that.
Senator Abetz has already said so but let me repeat it: the Fitzgerald inquiry in our state, Mr Acting Deputy President Furner, which you will remember, subjected the entire political and policing system of the state of Queensland to what was effectively institutional open-heart surgery. It examined hundreds of thousands of documents. It examined hundreds of witnesses. It was the most complex commission of its kind, certainly the most consequential commission of its kind, in Australian history. It did not take three years.
The Wood royal commission in New South Wales, which examined the police force of that state and dealt with numerous transactions and an extremely complex web of criminal activity, did not take anything like three years. And yet this is essentially the audit of expenses engaged in by one individual over the course of a few years in the discharge—'discharge' is perhaps not the best word to use in the circumstances—of his obligations as a senior union official. Senator Collins showed her naivety about these matters when she said, 'There are 6,000 documents.' Six thousand documents in a large piece of litigation or a complex inquiry is as nothing. It does not take three years to examine 6,000 documents. If it were being done industriously and with the proper dedication of resources to it, it would take about three weeks.
We have had inconsistent evidence to Senate inquiries by Mr Nassios, to whom Senator Ronaldson referred, and other officers of Fair Work Australia, about both the conduct of the investigation and the likely completion date of the investigation. And, now, scandalously, there has been a suggestion that if the investigation—well into its fourth year—were to come to a conclusion, that report would not be made public. Because the fate of the government depends upon this man, the delay in the prosecution of justice is a political scandal. Those concerned in this delay will not escape with their reputations intact if, on a careful review of their activities, it appears—as has been credibly alleged by Ms Kathy Jackson, the person who, other than Mr Craig Thomson, knows more about the affairs of the Health Services Union than anyone else—there has been political interference by the Rudd and Gillard governments, as well as institutional delay on the part of Fair Work Australia.
Justice delayed is justice denied. It is as much an outrage for there to be a deliberate delay in the prosecution of an investigation as for there to be a premature conclusion to that investigation. Where there is a political motive—where that fate of the government depends upon delay, when there are credible allegations of political interference, where there is a host of inconsistencies between the very limited accounts that those officers have given to the parliament—then we, the parliament and the Australian people, are entitled to conclude that Mr Craig Thomson is being protected by the very people who have a statutory function to engage in a quick, open and transparent investigation into his affairs. Because of their conduct, the Australian people will find it very difficult to maintain their confidence in the integrity of those involved.
Here we go again. Despite all of the uncertainty in the global economy and a government dealing with issues associated with keeping our economy strong and supporting jobs; despite the uncertainty that the business community faces—being worried about a two-speed economy and how the benefits of the mining boom are going to flow to them—despite the fact that there is a review going on into Fair Work Australia at the moment; despite the fact that manufacturing is dealing with the pressures associated with a high Australian dollar and the government is supporting manufacturing in this country; despite the fact that in important sectors of this economy we face a skills shortage, and the government has a comprehensive set of reforms to promote vocational education and training in our economy; despite the fact that constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is high on the agenda in this parliament at the moment; despite the fact that the eyes of the nation are on this parliament, its politicians and its plans for the future, you might think that the opposition, in the limited time that they have available to discuss matters of so-called public importance, would try to direct some of that attention to a policy issue.
Perhaps they might want to enunciate an alternative vision for government in this country—to outline some of their policies and plans to deal with some of the issues that I mentioned earlier. But, no, for the second day in a row they have come into this place and resorted to gutter politics. They have resorted to mudslinging again—a highly inappropriate and unprecedented pressure that they are trying to exert on an independent authority regarding the conduct of an investigation that is currently underway.
Those opposite have also been involved in putting highly inappropriate pressure on the New South Wales Police Force regarding the conduct of an investigation into that matter. In that respect I draw the Senate's attention to a letter that was written by none other than Senator Brandis in September 2011 to the Police Commissioner in New South Wales, Andrew Scipione, in which he states:
I am writing to you to request that, in accordance with your standard procedures, you make an assessment and, if appropriate, direct your officers to make an investigation into those allegations in order to determine whether an offence against the law of New South Wales has been committed ...
It was highly inappropriate for a member of the Senate—a politician in this country—to be putting such pressure on a police commissioner to conduct an investigation.
I must take issue with the reference that Senator Brandis made earlier to the Fair Work Act. One would expect that someone of Senator Brandis's standing and esteem in this place and high standing within the Liberal Party—he is a former barrister; in fact, I believe he may even be a QC or an SC or whatever they call themselves these days—would be able to read in context the provisions of the Fair Work Act. Senator Brandis came in here quoting section 577 of the Fair Work Act, which is about the performance of the functions of Fair Work Australia. He outlined that Fair Work Australia:
… must perform its functions and exercise its powers in a manner that:
(a) is fair and just; and
(b) is quick, informal and avoids unnecessary technicalities; and
(c) is open and transparent; and
(d) promotes harmonious and cooperative workplace relations.
What Senator Brandis failed to explain and understand was that those functions which are spoken of in section 577 are well outlined in section 576. That section is detailed and deals with the functions conferred by that act on Fair Work Australia in relation to the National Employment Standards, modern awards, enterprise agreements, workplace determinations, minimum wages, general protections, unfair dismissal, industrial action, right of entry, extension of the National Employment Standards, unlawful termination and, indeed, other matters. The functions in section 577 do not deal with the manner in which Fair Work Australia conducts investigations. In fact, the current investigation being conducted by Fair Work Australia is not being conducted under the provisions of the Fair Work Act—the provisions that Senator Brandis referred to are not the provisions under which this investigation is being conducted. The investigation is being conducted under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009, a completely separate act. Yet Senator Brandis comes in here and attempts to mislead by stating that the provisions of the Fair Work Act apply in this case.
When the Constitution of this nation was written and when the nation was federated, our forefathers believed in certain principles. One of them was the separation of powers—and for good reason. They believed in liberty, justice, due process and the presumption of innocence. Those principles are being impinged upon by the opposition in the undue pressure they are attempting to place on an independent authority and the New South Wales police service with regard to this matter. This was an issue that was understood by the former Prime Minister John Howard. He said, and Senator Collins outlined this earlier, in relation to a police investigation being undertaken in 2007:
It's a police investigation and the appropriate thing for me to do is to let the police investigation run its course, and then, if it is appropriate, I will have something to say.
The former Prime Minister John Howard was exactly right. He was spot on.
He was spot on, Senator Bernardi. Perhaps we could ask Senator Brandis whether he agrees with this statement of the former Prime Minister John Howard. Perhaps that was one of the reasons Senator Brandis allegedly referred to the former Prime Minister John Howard as a 'lying rodent'.
What happened to the once respectable Liberal Party? What happened to the great and mighty Liberal Party of the days of old? It was the party that agreed with liberal ideals, natural justice and due process—but no longer. Under Tony Abbott, the current Leader of the Liberal Party, they resort to muckraking and gutter politics. On the subject of the Fair Work Australia investigation, Tony Abbott said in August last year:
The Fair Work Australia investigation has taken one hell of a long time, two years at least, and I think it's high time that investigation was brought to a conclusion.
Again the Leader of the Liberal Party was placing undue pressure on Fair Work Australia about an investigation that is currently underway.
In August 2011 Senator Ronaldson joined in. I have a lot of respect for Senator Ronaldson, but I think he overstepped the mark on this issue when he, in a media release in August 2011, said:
Workplace Relations Minister, Senator Chris Evans, must step in and instruct Fair Work Australia to finalise their investigations …
This is highly inappropriate. There are good reasons that Senator Evans and the government have not stepped in: Fair Work Australia is an independent statutory authority, and it is highly inappropriate for any government or politician to seek to direct or influence an independent authority to conclude an investigation once it is underway. It must run its proper course free of political interference.
The great irony here is that the opposition accuses the government of undue interference and then the next day comes out and says that we should be interfering; that we should be pressuring Fair Work Australia to conclude its investigations. The government's actions have been entirely appropriate, consistent with Fair Work Australia's independent authority, which was established by—importantly—the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. We have allowed them to conduct a proper investigation and that investigation must secure all the facts and be allowed to run its proper course.
Order! The time for this discussion has expired. The next matter on the agenda is the tabling and consideration of committee reports. I call Senator Bushby.
Senator Abetz interjecting—
Order! Senator Bushby, please resume your seat. Senator Abetz, you know interjections are disorderly. I am trying to hear a senator on your side of the chamber—