18 Sep 2017

FRAN KELLY: Political pressure is building on Employment Minister Michalea Cash over the appointment of Nigel Hadgkiss to the ABCC. Mr Hadgkiss resigned from his $420,000 a year job last week after admitting that he had breached the Fair Work laws that he was supposed to be enforcing. The Shadow Workplace Minister Brendan O’Connor has now written to the Prime Minister calling for an independent enquiry calling for what he calls a breach of proper process and Ministerial Standards.
Brendan O’Connor, welcome to RN Breakfast.


KELLY: You are asking for an enquiry into this, and you want the Minister to be punished over this, but it was Nigel Hadgkiss who broke the law, not the minister Michaela Cash. He’s resigned, why do we need a further inquiry?

O’CONNOR: Mr Hadgkiss has admitted to refusing to advise the industry on the laws that he was supposed to enforce. Those laws took effect on the 1st January 2014, and he provided unlawful advice intentionally for 2 ½ years.
The Minister – Minister Cash – has failed to provide an explanation as to why she took no action when there were very serious allegations that she was aware of for almost a year before Mr. Hadgkiss stood down.
For that reason, I have written to the Prime Minister asking for an independent inquiry. If it was the case that no action was taken, and indeed the Minister did not act on this matter we believe that there is a breach of Ministerial Standards. Minister Cash is obliged to account as to whether the Prime Minister and the Cabinet were advised of these allegations prior to being appointed to the new body – the ABCC in December last year.
If they were advised of the legal proceedings that were on foot, then why was he appointed? And if not, then we contend that the Minister is in breach of these standards.

KELLY: Ok, but the Minister has told the Senate that she became aware of the allegations against Mr Hadgkiss in October last year – that was before he became the head of the ABCC -  but she said they were being contested by him, so-

O’CONNOR: These allegations are serious as you know. The admissions now made by Mr Hadgkiss are now that he was informed that the information he was providing and distributing to the building industry did not reflect the law. Therefore it was erroneous and he was providing unlawful advice.
He did this intentionally. She was aware of the fact that these allegations were being made. Now, we had a double dissolution election in July last year, in part to establish the body called the ABCC. The Minister was aware of these serious allegations before he was appointed to that new regulator in December. The question is whether the Prime Minister and the Cabinet was aware of the serious allegations made against Mr Hadgkiss before they appointed him to the new body in December last year.
This is a very serious matter that goes to the confidence that we have in our public agencies. Our concern is that this was swept under the carpet, and Cabinet and the Prime Minister were not informed of these allegations and legal proceedings on foot, and for that reason an independent inquiry needs to be conducted.

KELLY: But it’s not a Cabinet appointment. It’s actually prescribed in the legislation that the head of the Fair Work Building and Construction Commission automatically became the head of the ABCC. So it’s an automatic transfer to that position. That takes the appointment out of the hands of the Minister doesn’t it?

O’CONNOR: Of course it doesn’t. The legislation has to be re-presented to the Parliament after the double dissolution election. There is a provision in the Bill that allows for the transition of Mr Hagdkiss to the new body, however, the fact is that the Cabinet would have approved the new draft of the legislation after the election.
We contend that therefore there was sufficient time for the Minister to inform the Cabinet and the Prime Minister before the bill was presented to Parliament to enact the new body – the ABCC – that Cabinet should have been informed of the very serious allegations made against Mr Hadgkiss which of course have now been found to be true.
This is about public confidence in Commonwealth agencies that are there to enforce the law. This regulator has deliberately and wilfully treated the Parliament with contempt, and disregarded the law, and indeed provided incorrect advice intentionally.

KELLY: Yes, but he has conceded that and he has resigned. How many scalps do you want? Are you calling for the Minister to go?

O’CONNOR: Well, the Government does not have a loyalty gene, of course they were going to immediately throw Mr Hadgkiss under the bus. But this is about whether in fact the Minister should have reported this matter – disclosed this matter – to Cabinet.
It’s not good enough to hide behind a technicality that there were transitional provisions in the bill before the Parliament. The fact is there was sufficient time for the Government to consider this matter and we need to know, and it seems to me that given that Minister Cash won’t answer in full these questions, we need to know whether Minister Cash informed the Prime Minister of the legal proceedings that were on foot before the new body was established. The idea that you can argue there were transitional provisions in place, quite frankly, is a very weak defence and indeed given the conduct of the regulator that has now been disclosed it is now important that the Minister explain in full the extent to which she informed the Government about the conduct of Mr Hadgkiss.

KELLY: There’s no doubt that it was a breach of the law but is it a sacking offence? I mean your letter says that Michaelia Cash has “lost the integrity required to be taken seriously as a Cabinet Minister.” Are you calling for her to be sacked?

O’CONNOR: If these matters are the case, that the Minister did not inform the Prime Minister and Cabinet about the serious allegations now found to be true, before Cabinet proceeded to appoint Mr Hadgkiss -

KELLY: But it’s not a Cabinet appointment -

O’CONNOR: As I’ve said to you before, legislation that is re-presented to the Parliament, Fran, has to be confirmed by Cabinet, it’s an Executive decision, and that decision includes the transitional provision. If Cabinet made a decision about the transitional provisions without being provided information about the allegations against Mr Hadgkiss, yes then I believe there is a ministerial breach here but we’ve asked the Prime Minister to examine this independently and come back with the answers.

KELLY: Looking more broadly, the ACTU says this whole affair reinforces the need for a national anti-corruption commission. Now Bill Shorten in the last election campaign back an inquiry into a federal ICAC. Is it a good idea, should we have one, is this the type of matter that would be referred to a federal ICAC?

O’CONNOR: Well as we’ve said we will examine this matter and -

KELLY: Well what do you think?

O’CONNOR: I think there are a combination of ways you can deal with alleged corruption in public institutions. Making sure the parliament has sufficient powers to examine the executive is one of them -

KELLY: Is a national anti-corruption commission a good idea?

O’CONNOR: It has some merit, but I’ve also seen the conduct of some anti-corruption Commissions go too far, and the dangers we would want to avoid if we ever went down that track would be the sort of show trial arrangements where there are allegations against people that are not true and their reputations are destroyed and are never remedied. It’s certainly one open to examination but right now, Fran, we have a matter that goes to a public agency, where the Minister may or may not have disclosed the information that’s relevant to the Cabinet in appointing Mr Hadgkiss to the ABCC and I think the public deserve answers on this.

KELLY: It’s coming up to a quarter past 8, our guest is Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace relations Brendan O’Connor. On another issue, you support same sex marriage, over the weekend we heard some arguments from come opponents to same sex marriage including Matt Canavan that quote “changes to the marriage act would put at risk fundamental freedoms of speech and religion. It won’t be long before the concept of boys and girls goes from the classroom too”. Would it help counter this line of argument if religious protections that are being proposed were released before the vote concludes? What’s your position on this?

O’CONNOR: I do believe it is a red herring to suggest there is going to be an infringement in religious freedoms because we want to ensure that we are not the last developed nation to have marriage equality in this country. It is unfortunate that some advocates for the no campaign have chosen to use this as a distraction. The Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition have already said that we will ensure that there are religious freedoms in place and there will be no adverse impact upon the right for religious bodies to go about their core function, if you like. But that should not be a distraction from the debate or the survey that people are being asked to answer, which is - do you believe that people who love each other should be able to marry, yes or no? If you believe people who are in love with each other should be allowed to marry then I hope people vote yes.

KELLY: Brendan O’Connor thanks very much for joining us.

O’CONNOR: Thank you.

We'll Put People First.