Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:32): The Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, which I chair, investigated the Modern Slavery Bill 2018, held hearings into the bill and came to conclusions which are set out in the report of the committee, which was tabled a couple of months ago. I want to start by thanking all of those who made submissions to the inquiry and those who came and gave evidence to the committee. The work of the submitters was very much appreciated, and I congratulate them on the work they've done and the work that I know that they've been doing over a long period of time.
I have to say that I'm very proud to be part of a government that actually introduced this bill. This is something that has been talked about for a long time, but it's taken a Liberal-National government to actually introduce the bill and to move ahead with the fight against modern slavery. I particularly want to acknowledge Senator Reynolds, one of our colleagues in this chamber, who has done an enormous amount of work on this particular bill. I also congratulate Mr Chris Crewther, who was chairman of the joint committee that investigated this issue—modern slavery in Australia—over a long period of time, putting in a very detailed report with a number of recommendations, some of which were taken up by our committee in reviewing the government's legislation. The report of the joint committee was not in relation to any particular piece of legislation but a general review of the whole subject, and I believe it was as a result of the work of that joint committee that the government has introduced this bill and taken the first step in Australia towards combating modern slavery.
Very often our opponents in this chamber, as is their ability, of course, try to pretend that they, rather than the government, are the sole guardians of social justice in Australia. But if you look back through history you'll find that it's the Liberal and National parties that have done most of the work in social justice, and this particular bill is a great example of that. I acknowledge that the committee I spoke about previously has done a lot of work, but I again acknowledge there are many groups in society who have been working on this for a long time, who the government has consulted with and who gave evidence to our committee. I again thank them for alerting other Australians to the issue and to proposing solutions.
After its deliberations, the committee made five recommendations, and I'll briefly run through them. I thank the government for adopting, I think, three out of the five recommendations and, on the two others, noting reasons for not accepting them at the present time. Before I do that, I will refer to some of the issues. A number of submitters proposed amendments or suggested ways in which the bill could be improved. But I think those submitters who were particularly involved came to the conclusion that, whilst the bill wasn't absolutely 100 per cent perfect, it was important to get the bill dealt with, and dealt with quickly, and to adopt the bill on the basis that it would be reviewed in three years and that this quite significant change to the way businesses operate in Australia could be assessed over that three-year period and any recommendations for the future could be made.
I particularly want to refer to what I thought was the very good evidence given by a person who I might say would be surprised, along with me, that I would ever say that he was right on the mark, and that's Mr Chris Evans, who was, as you might recall, the Leader of the Government in the Senate during one of the Labor periods of government. Chris Evans gave evidence on the behalf of the Walk Free Foundation, and he gave evidence at the same time as Ms Heather Moore, who is from the Freedom Partnership to end modern slavery. Some of their evidence to the committee was very mature and very sound and influenced the committee in the resolutions it reached. Ms Moore, on behalf of the Freedom Partnership, said:
As outlined in our submission, we think that there could be some minor improvements to this bill, but I'd like to say first and foremost that we think it's a very good bill, we support this bill and we would like to see it passed as soon as practicable—before the end of the year if possible.
I'm very grateful for the support of the Labor Party, who I acknowledge joined with government members on the committee to recommend passing the bill with the recommendations the committee made. That means that this bill will pass by the end of the year, as Ms Moore asked. I'm delighted, I might say, to hear Senator McKim also adopt that approach, the approach of Mr Evans—that is, whilst some people may have some reservations, it's important to get it dealt with and dealt with as soon as possible. In his opening remarks, Mr Evans said:
You might be surprised, Chair—
as we had a bit of a talk about this before he gave his evidence—
that I'm here to support the government's legislation in large part, and that's because I think they got it right.
He then gave some evidence.
There was some comment, as Senator McKim and others have spoken about, about the statutory officer. There was debate about what this officer should do. As I understand it, the committee came to the conclusion that this officer should just be a friend of those—like a friend of the court—who were getting involved in defeating modern slavery. It is quite a remarkable change for business. We've looked at it, certainly, from the point of view of the victims of modern slavery, as we should. But, for this to work, businesses will have to make quite a dramatic change in the way they operate, particularly businesses with very long supply chains. I don't have the figure in my mind, but Qantas, I think, were given as an example where they had—again, don't hold me to these figures—over 10,000 different suppliers in their supply chain. For Qantas, or any business, then to be able to ensure not only that they were doing the right thing, which they can easily do, but that every one of those 10,000-odd suppliers was doing the right thing as well is, of course, a mammoth task and a mammoth change in the way businesses operate.
The idea of having a statutory officer was, as I recall, to give help to businesses in that first three-year period. That's why the government and the committee opposed the suggestions that penalties should be introduced straight away. It is going to be a dramatic change. It will involve my old profession of the law. It will involve a lot of work for lawyers, and I suspect lawyers are looking forward to this, because it will be a lot of work. Businesses will have to look at this very carefully and make sure they're doing it correctly, and that will involve paying highly paid lawyers, which is good for the profession but also good to make sure that businesses do do the right thing, as is required by this law.
In dealing with this bill the committee heard a lot about the UK provisions and the Hong Kong provisions, as I recall. We had the advantage of learning from the beneficial parts of operations in other countries and also where those operations have gone wrong. Mr Evans was one who did not agree with the view that it would be something 'which we associate with mediation, arbitration and decision-making'. He said:
I haven't found a really good name, but I think of it as an advocacy or advisory role—
that a statutory officer could have. That was one of the recommendations made by the committee, which the government, I don't think, has taken up, but I'll come back to that later.
But Mr Evans and Ms Moore, and indeed, many of the submitters, agreed that it was important to get this bill in place, to get the bill working and to have that review in three years when we can determine what sort of amendments need to be made, whether penalties were necessary and whether businesses were doing the right thing. The committee, you might note, Deputy President, did recommend that the government establish a list of those reporting entities, work towards building a list of reporting entities and publish compliance standards publically in order to test the proposition that reputational risk, which had been spoken about by many of the submitters, is a sufficient motivator for reporting entities to comply with the requirements of the act. That was the first recommendation of the committee, which the government has accepted in principle. That will occur at an administrative level, as I understand it.
Our second recommendation was that the committee suggests that the list of entities who do report, including entities outside the compliance threshold who report voluntarily, should be published publicly. This was suggesting that, even when you didn't have to report, many companies would, for business reasons, report and say, 'Although we're not required to do this, we're going to tell you what we've done so you will know that we are a good corporate citizen, that we're doing the right thing.' And of course there was the suggestion that, as I said, there was reputational advantage to companies that were able to report. The committee made a recommendation about that independent statutory officer, with powers to be a help. Although the government hasn't accepted that at this stage, they've noted the suggestion and the recommendation by the committee, and I understand that that's something that will be at the forefront when the review takes place in three years time.
The committee further recommended that the three-year statutory review period include consideration of all aspects of the act, with particular attention to compliance thresholds and compliance standards, and that the review be required to consider whether a mandatory penalty is required, drawing on the evidence and data gathered in the first three years of the act. The committee acknowledges that it may be shown that penalties are not needed. The government has accepted that recommendation, I'm pleased to say. The committee heard contrasting views on whether the bill should or shouldn't include provision for penalties. Some argued that industry-driven compliance rates would be low without penalties. Others suggested that compliance standards would be more rigorous and meaningful without the penalty regime.
The committee noted that the lack of a penalty regime makes the bill consistent with similar legislation in the UK and some parts of Europe and the US and that it is designed to encourage a race to the top rather than to set up a coercive punishment regime that may be counterproductive to compliance and quality of reporting statements. The committee said in its report that it's not averse to the inclusion of a penalty scheme but it is of the view that any consideration of the potential efficacy and scope of the penalty scheme would be most usefully conducted as part of the statutory three-year review of the act, with the benefit of the substantial data that will have been amassed by that time regarding the act generally and compliance specifically.
Finally, the committee recommended that the various legislative pieces relating to modern slavery and our various acts, including the Criminal Code and certain migration bills, be collated into one place to make it easier for those seeking to comply. The government's noted that and will look at whether it is possible and will be useful. Of course, there was another recommendation of the committee, and that was that the bill be passed, taking into account the other recommendations made.
I'm delighted that this bill will come into effect with, I think, the support of all parties—even, dare I say, the Greens political party, who, responsibly, have said that they are not going to move amendments in the committee stage. Whilst there are some aspects of the bill that they don't like, they recognise that the greater importance is to get the bill through. I conclude by saying how proud I am—and how proud I know all the members of the government are—that it is this government, the Liberal-Nationals government, that has actually worked and legislated for an issue that has been around for a long, long time. Again, I thank all the other groups. I've mentioned two of them, but there was a series of them, mentioned in our report, who made some submissions and gave evidence, and I want to thank all of them. I again acknowledge the work of Senator Reynolds and Mr Crewther in the joint standing committee that looked into this in some great detail, as it was their work that has initiated this legislation.
I conclude by thanking other members of the committee, most of whom I think have spoken or will speak in this debate. That includes the deputy chair, Senator Pratt, and Senator Molan, Senator McKim, Senator Hume and Senator Watt. I thank them for the contribution they made to this report. As always, I thank the hardworking and very astute staff that the Senate is fortunate to have in the committee secretariat, who support Senate committees in delivering their reports. This shows the Senate committee system at its very best. Sometimes I'm very critical of the system when it is used for purely crass political purposes, but this bill report is a great example of how the Senate committees work properly. People work together, they take submissions, they consider submissions, and they say to the government at times, 'Thanks for this, but you haven't got it quite right and the whole system would prove better if it were amended slightly.' I'm delighted that our government has been mature enough and good enough to say, 'We accept that our bill needs some tweaking and we're going to do it.' Congratulations to all involved—the committee, the submitters and the government—for doing it. It is a good bill, long overdue, but hopefully it will be here in 2018.