Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (01:36): It gives me great pleasure to rise tonight to participate in the adjournment debate. This fortnight, government senators have worked very hard to demonstrate to the public the co-dependent relationship between the ALP opposition and the union movement. We have hoped to highlight the abuse of the rule of law, of decent behaviour, of agreed tenets of safety in the workplace, free from bullying and harassment.
We have sought the support of the opposition to fight this ill, particularly in my home state of Victoria. But instead there has been silence and often there has been defence—running a protection racket, indeed—for this sort of behaviour.
In the other place, the extent of this relationship played out in a debate which should have centred on providing boarding provisions for Indigenous students—$7 million in additional funding for specific schools to provide this service for some of the most disadvantaged students in our community. Instead, we actually had a lesson in ALP-union co-dependency.
The debate centred around ensuring Indigenous students in remote locations receive support to overcome the extra challenges they face when they head to boarding school. Many of the schools supportive of these students have come to the government pleading for these extra funds, and the need for more money was confirmed by the findings of an independent review.
It is hard to imagine why there would be any opposition to this notion. Indeed, the opposition in the other place passed measures on Monday, 20 October. On 2 October, the shadow minister for education, Ms Kate Ellis, promised the House of Representatives:
We will not hold up this legislation because we know it is important that funding goes to Indigenous boarding schools as well as independent special schools.
Ms Ellis was right then. It is so important. As recently as Monday, 20 October, the shadow minister for health, Ms Catherine King, pledged:
Labor will not stand in the way of the measures … that ensure that funding will flow to independent special schools next year. This is an important guarantee to make for those schools.
Ms King was right then; it is an important guarantee.
Shadow assistant minister for education, Ms Amanda Rishworth, was even more enthusiastic, saying:
It sounds too good to be true, but believe it or not, such a program was underway and becoming a reality under the previous Labor government.
Shadow minister Rishworth was not quite right. The program was not becoming a reality under Labor. Indeed, that would have been too good to be true.
One of the purposes of the measures, according to the independently written explanatory memorandum, is to address a number of errors and omissions that occurred during the original preparation of the act, which undermined the intended operation of the act and creates funding and regulatory uncertainty for schools. This is another example of sloppy work by the previous Labor government. They rushed through legislation without really knowing what they are doing, and once again the government is required to clean up Labor's mess.
After all this glowing praise from Labor in the other place for the measures, we could expect bipartisan support as it moved forward, but Labor has done a backflip. What happened? Perhaps it was cuts to funding from schools. No, there was actually considerably more money for education in the measures—$6.8 million to be provided in 2014 for the Indigenous Boarding Schools initiatives, as identified in the 2014-15 budget. Also, an additional $2.5 million will be paid to certain independent special schools and special assistance schools, in 2015.
What could possibly prompt Labor to be against $7 million for Indigenous boarding schools and $2.4 million for special schools. The real question is not what would make Labor say 'no', but who could make Labor say 'no'. I found the answer in an article titled 'Union slams changes to Gonski reforms' in the Bundaberg NewsMail of 21 October 2014, the day after Labor passed the measures in the House of Representatives. The newspaper story was based on a media release by the Australian Education Union deputy federal president, Correna Haythorpe, headlined 'Pyne makes another attack on Gonski'. It was pretty shrill stuff. It is hard to imagine our brilliant but diminutive Minister for Education assaulting the more substantial bulk of David Gonski. It is up to Labor to explain why the AEU does not like the bill. One suspects it has something to do with the fact that the schools it funds, the schools where Indigenous students board, are non-government schools and therefore are not under the total control of the AEU.
The Bundaberg NewsMail is an excellent newspaper, according to the local MP for Hinkler, my friend and party colleague Mr Keith Pitt. The journalist did his job and exercised due diligence and sought comment from the Labor Party. They got a hold of Ms Catherine King, perhaps because she is the only Labor frontbencher representing an electorate in regional Australia. This, you will remember, is the same Ms King who promised parliament one day earlier that Labor will not stand in the way of the measures in this bill. This is an important guarantee to make for those schools. Yet, Ms King did a Cirque du Soleil backflip after hearing that the union bosses were not happy. All of a sudden the changes, which she had voted yes to less than 24 hours earlier, now 'risked the crucial two years of Gonski funding in 2015 and 2016, as well as putting in doubt extra loadings for students with disabilities among others.' Of course, that is not actually true, but truth has never got in the way of a union boss pulling the strings of the parliamentary Labor puppet.
It reminded me of Senate budget estimates last week, when the Education and Employment Committee was hearing from the director of Fair Work Building and Construction, Nigel Hadgkiss. Mr Hadgkiss was providing evidence under oath about CFMEU members brutalising, harassing and abusing him and his staff. Female public servants visiting building sites were being abused through loudhailers, with insults so sexist and extreme that I cannot repeat them in this place. The CFMEU even had Mr Hadgkiss's wife under video surveillance as she returned from her mother's funeral. As chair of the Education and Employment Committee, I was keen to hear what Labor, represented by Senator Cameron, would have to say about this appalling behaviour against women, and indeed public servants or any worker. After all, Labor has spent much of the last four years fabricating a narrative of misogyny in coalition ranks. Surely Labor would be revolted by the misogynistic behaviour of the CFMEU and its officials.
It turns out they were more interested in pleasing paymasters than condemning this abusing behaviour. The whole line of questioning by Labor was about accusing the Fair Work Building and Construction Commissioner of breaching the privacy rights of a convicted CFMEU organiser who lied about his criminal past, including recklessly causing injury, criminal damage, theft, and going equipped to steal in order to gain a right of entry permit.
So whether it is the AEU, or the CFMEU or any other union, we know it is the union that calls the shots in the Labor Party in 2014. What happened to the reforming, economic growth orientated Labor Party of yesteryear that gave us the great income-contingent loans scheme, which has underpinned access to our higher education system for a wide variety of Australians.
All of this would be funny if it did not seriously impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged Australians—Indigenous children from remote Aboriginal communities and children with special needs. The government's current legislative agenda needs to be passed in this Spring sitting so that we can provide additional funding, not only for Indigenous boarding students in 2014 but to other key areas of government and public spending and public service around education and research to give certainty to our educative system and to independent, special and special assistance schools that their funding will not be cut in 2015. If we do not pass it they will not have that money delivered.
For once in their lives, Labor senators should put the interests of the poorest Australians ahead of the fat-cat union bosses. Set yourselves free!