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Election-trigger union bill passes Senate

AAP logoAAP 21/11/2016 Belinda Merhab

It's taken several years and a double-dissolution election but the Senate has finally passed the Turnbull government's registered organisations bill after a late-night debate.

The legislation passed after 2am on Tuesday morning after the government secured the support of crossbencher Derryn Hinch and the Nick Xenophon Team, along with One Nation.

The Senate had been forced to sit indefinitely on Monday night until the legislation was voted on.

Senators Xenophon and Hinch insisted they'd secured what could be the best whistleblower protections in the world in exchange for their support for the bill to establish a Registered Organisations Commission to oversee unions and their officials.

They secured amendments to protect and compensate union whistleblowers while also obtaining an undertaking from the government to extend the same protections - or stronger ones - to whistleblowers in the corporate and public sectors.

A parliamentary inquiry will examine the whistleblower protections in the legislation and if it recommends a stronger regime for corporate and public sector whistleblowers, the government will establish an expert advisory panel to draft legislation to implement those reforms.

The legislation needs to be introduced by December 2017 and dealt with no later than June 30, 2018, according to the undertaking.

The pair also secured amendments to ensure the independence of auditors, including tougher penalties for non-compliance.

"These amendments if passed will see Australia go from some of the worst whistleblower protection laws in the world to arguably the best," Senator Xenophon said.

Senator Hinch insisted he was pro-worker and anti-corruption, arguing it was time for a full-time independent regulator for a sector racked with scandal.

It wasn't an attack on unions - he didn't want to see a repeat of the scandals in the Health Services Union where officials like former Labor MP Craig Thomson misused funds.

"I was actually lying in a hospital bed and watching members of his old union... doing menial tasks for about I guess $15 an hour.

"I watched a middle-aged European woman with a mop cleaning up after a burst colostomy bag and I thought at the time her union fees for the year would probably be around the $500 Thomson spent on one prostitute in one assignation."

Senior Labor figure Doug Cameron lashed out, accusing Senator Xenophon of dropping the ball by not demanding the government immediately extend whistleblower protections to the corporate and public sectors.

"The whistleblowers in the banks can wait until some time after 2017 if you ever get a result out of this mob.

"What have you got? You've got a committee, you've got an expert panel, you've got some legislation in 2017 that nobody knows what it is.

"If you were fair dinkum, you would've fixed this tonight and corporations would've been facing the same stringency as the Australian trade union movement."

Senator Xenophon insisted the reforms went further than anything the previous Labor government achieved during six years in office.

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