House debates

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Ohs) Bill 2007

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 15 August, on motion by Dr Stone:

That this bill be now read a second time.

10:29 am

Photo of Stewart McArthurStewart McArthur (Corangamite, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to rise to speak in favour of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007. This bill represents the Howard government’s commitment to take positive action to return the rule of law to construction sites and bring about improved safety in the workplace for the protection of all employees working in the building and construction industry. Occupational health and safety on our building sites is a major issue and the Commonwealth has a responsibility to play its part in driving change to make the industry safer.

The minister’s second reading speech refers to the findings of the Cole royal commission into the building and construction industry with regard to accidents and injuries. Commissioner Cole found this industry to be one of the most dangerous, with more than 12,500 compensated injuries in the year 2002-03, or 34 injuries per day. Almost one in five compensated workplace fatalities that year were in the construction and building industry, representing a total of 37 workplace deaths. Victorian WorkCover statistics show that during last year, 2006, there were 29 workplace deaths in Victoria of which five were in the construction industry. This was the equal highest number of industry fatalities.

I come from the farming industry. We have a bad history as well. I think we have about 12 deaths per year caused by tractors and other things—so the very sad fatality statistics of other industries do compare with that of the building industry. There is also a long way to go to make Australia’s workplaces safer. That is why the government has introduced a bill to make amendments to the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005.

I note the opposition will be supporting the bill despite having opposed the initial introduction of the original act. With one breath the Labor Party say they support these amendments but with the next they complain about the original act—and they have a policy to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ABCC, which has been a major force for improving conditions on Australian building sites, improving construction industry productivity, raising national living standards and keeping interest rates low.

A report has been produced by independent economic analysts Econtech on the ABCC. Econtech is a firm which is respected by the Labor Party and has been employed to do work for state Labor governments. The Econtech report has found that, as a result of the ABCC’s activities since 2005, housing costs are three per cent less expensive than would have been the case without the ABCC. National growth is 1.5 per cent higher as a result of the ABCC performing its function than would otherwise have been the case. This is because the ABCC has implemented the law with the result that productivity in the construction industry has increased. With higher growth, living standards have also increased. The other important finding is that inflation is 1.2 per cent lower than it would otherwise have been due to the existence of the ABCC—and that means that interest rates are also lower.

The Labor Party want to abolish the ABCC and introduce other backwards-looking industrial relations reforms that would put Australia’s current low inflation and low interest rate economic environment at risk. I challenge the Labor Party as to what their long-term position is. I note the member for Batman is here. He might be able to enlighten us as to what the Labor Party’s long-term position on the ABCC is. Leighton Group chief executive Wal King, representing the Australian Constructors Association, said that we are experiencing a ‘golden period’ of record low disputation under the ABCC. He said:

You can’t dispute the fact that the construction industry today is more stable, more peaceful, more productive and more effective than five years ago.

He said that in the Australian Financial Review of 2 August 2007. Upon the release of the Econtech report, Wilhelm Harnisch, the CEO of Master Builders Australia, had this to say:

... the ABCC has had a positive impact in boosting Australia’s economic growth, has reduced the cost of living and has led to a significant fall in construction costs both for commercial and residential building.

That is in a media release of 25 July 2007. The ABCC has been overwhelmingly positive for the whole of Australia. The Labor Party pays lip-service to economic management and to health and safety in the workplace but will do the bidding of its union masters by promising to abolish the commission that is helping to restore law and order to our construction sites. Again I ask the member for Batman what he is going to do. Is his party going to leave the ABCC for another five or 10 years? Is it going to abolish it? It will be interesting when the member for Batman makes his contribution.

This bill improves the safety of construction and building worksites across Australia by making all sites involved in Commonwealth projects comply with Australian laws. This is a quite commendable objective. These measures will achieve this by using the considerable financial influence of the Commonwealth government to ensure construction projects that the government is funding comply with the Australian Government Building and Construction Occupational Health and Safety Accreditation Scheme. Importantly, the scheme requirements are extended to building work ‘indirectly funded’ by the Commonwealth. The bill requires head contractors who are contracted to undertake building work for the Commonwealth, or for Commonwealth funded projects, to be accredited persons who maintain effective occupational health and safety management policies and systems. The bill is quite specific. Clause 35(4) of the bill prohibits the Commonwealth, including Commonwealth authorities, from funding construction work unless contracts are with builders who are accredited. I think the member for Batman and I well recall the argument over the construction of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The bill also makes sure that the intention of the government’s reforms is observed over the life of the construction project by requiring accredited builders to remain accredited for the duration of the Commonwealth funded project. Therefore, builders cannot become accredited to obtain a government contract or accreditation will lapse.

These reforms are important because they are about ensuring the Commonwealth drives a cultural change in the building and construction industry to embrace safe work practices. I emphasise that it is a cultural change. The government wants builders to understand that if they want to work with the Commonwealth, they will need to adopt safer occupational health and safety practices.

Australia’s builders, head contactors and their employees should not view these reforms as an imposition. It should be automatically accepted as part of the work environment that building workers, employees, contractors, apprentices, engineers, architects, plumbers, electricians and everyone else with a role on the building site expect a safe working environment within the practicalities of the industry and also expect safe working practices. There is no room for bullying or unsafe practices on a construction site and the high-fatality statistics in the industry are chilling proof of this.

The Labor Party should be enthusiastically supportive not only of this amendment but also of the original act. The unions should also be supportive, but instead we have seen nothing but constant attacks on these measures and threats to do away with the Australian Building and Construction Commission. I look forward to the member for Batman advising us exactly what the Labor Party’s attitude is because, at the moment, their attitude is unclear. The hypocrisy of the Labor Party on this issue is astounding. I note with interest the member for Gorton’s second reading contribution when he said:

Labor has opposed the Howard government’s approach to the regulation of industrial relations and health and safety in the building and construction sector because it provides a separate set of laws for the industry and has created in excess of 200 pages of new legislation.

The Labor Party oppose additional regulation of the building and construction industry which is designed to help save lives and protect workers from injury, but, in contrast, they support a more heavily regulated system for determining wages and conditions. So Labor’s policy, as expounded by the member for Gorton, is more regulation of wages and conditions and less effort on OH&S.

The Australian people will remember that the Howard government established the Cole commission of inquiry to investigate the building and construction industry and, as I noted earlier, found the sector to be one of the most dangerous with a high rate of fatalities and injuries. For these reasons, it might be argued that a separate set of rules might need to apply to ensure a more safety conscious culture is allowed to develop. The Cole commission report identified some specific incidences where senior building industry officials failed to consider appropriate OH&S conditions on building sites in Victoria and in other states. If I can take just a few moments to mention a few cases from my home state of Victoria. On 18 April 2002, a CFMEU shop steward breached Victorian OH&S legislation by:

... placing himself between the concrete truck and the pump, thereby creating a dangerous situation in which he might have been injured and preventing work continuing normally whilst negotiations were undertaken to resolve the dispute ...

The dispute was between the union and Grocon. That is from the Cole commission report—volume 12, page 153. There we have an interesting use of the OH&S conditions to negotiate industrial mayhem. Further, a CMFEU organiser engaged in unlawful conduct on 15 August 2002, coordinating CFMEU members from another site to trespass on Grocon’s Queen Victoria Hospital worksite, putting safety at risk during a concrete pour. Victoria Police, who attended the incident, were not asked to remove the men out of fear of provoking a violent incident. Again, that is from the Cole commission report. Also, the commission found that Mr Chris Kessaris threatened to assault and later threatened to kill Mr Derek Fries in September and October of 1998. Again, that is from the Cole commission report.

Another case will illustrate the disregard displayed at times by the unions for the health and safety of others. On 16 February 2000, the CFMEU construction branch secretary, Martin Kingham, and assistant secretary, William Oliver, were involved in a raid on the offices of the Master Builders Association of Victoria. The Cole commission reported that Kingham, Oliver and others ‘forcibly attempted to break through locked, one-inch-thick security glass doors at the MBAV offices. The unionists violently pushed against the doors, forcing them to bow inwards’. That quote is, again, from the Cole commission. MBAV staff negotiated to allow five union representatives to enter out of fear that the doors would be broken down, but when the door was unlocked an estimated 200 workers stormed into the premises. MBAV staff members were ‘pushed aside’ and were ‘verbally abused and threatened’. Some of the intruders were heard to say to these MBAV staff, ‘We’ll fix you up one day.’ That is a clear indication of the difficulties on building sites that have been endemic in Victoria over the last 30 to 40 years. Commissioner Cole concluded that this case study demonstrated:

the willingness of union officials and members in Victoria to engage in violent demonstrations in order to pursue industrial objectives;
the tendency of union officials in Victoria to encourage unlawful industrial action by misleading the members ... and
the willingness of union officials and members to disregard the rights of others.

So in this case the union leadership were responsible for violent activity, damage to private property, physical violence against MBAV staff who were completely unrelated to worksite activities, threats and a complete disregard for the personal safety of employees working for another organisation. This clearly demonstrates the need to change the culture within the building industry to better respect OH&S, and that is why the government have introduced the ABCC and why we have brought forward this measure to extend the Commonwealth’s influence to all building projects in which we are involved. In this regard the Howard government are recommitting to the safety of workers in the construction industry and we are committing to implementing the recommendations of the Cole commission. Commissioner Cole said that all participants in the sector must contribute to furthering an attitudinal change in the industry to safety and to create an attitude where:

... projects are completed safely, on time and within budget rather than just on time and within budget.

So the key element emphasised is the safety component of these projects, particularly in Victoria. The Howard government accept responsibility in this regard. Government have a responsibility, contractors have a responsibility and employees have a responsibility when it comes to safety, and so too do the unions. It is disappointing that the opposition opposed the original act and that Labor are threatening to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the industry policeman, if they are elected to office. Again I raise that with the member for Batman: what is the true position of the opposition? Are they going to abolish the ABCC, or give it an extended life?

Safety and law and order on our construction sites are big issues within my electorate of Corangamite, and in Geelong and the surf coast. There are a number of construction projects planned for the region, reflecting the economic growth and prosperity which have been fostered due to the strong economic management of the government. Unfortunately, Geelong is a widely renowned black spot when it comes to union activity, particularly in the construction industry. Unions are very active in the Geelong region and are very active in opposing the member for Corangamite.

Last year the ABCC hosted a series of free information seminars across Australia in order to educate contractors and workers about the national code of practice for the construction industry. These meetings were held at 11 locations across Australia, including in industrial towns like Geelong and Newcastle. The Geelong forum had to be abandoned because approximately 100 CFMEU protesters barged into the forum and disrupted it, yelled abuse and intimidated those in attendance. They destroyed information kits and plastered union stickers on the wall of the hotel venue. Out of all the places the ABCC visited, Geelong was the only site where the unions refused to allow contractors and workers to learn about the new code of practice and where they forced the forum to be abandoned—and those who wanted to attend had to travel to a session in Melbourne.

The CFMEU and ACTU through their actions and deeds are opposed to cultural change in the construction industry. The union leaders want to go back to the days of lawlessness and risk that existed prior to the Cole commission, the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act and the establishment of the ABCC. The Labor Party have capitulated to their union masters by promising to abolish the ABCC. Never has there been an opposition party or an opposition leader as indebted to the sectoral interests of the union movement as the current Labor Party and Kevin Rudd. The unions have been promised everything they wanted from the ALP. AWAs will be abolished lock, stock and barrel. The building industry policeman, the ABCC, will be abolished. Total control will be handed back to the unions to interfere in workplaces in a way we have not seen since before Keating.

The unions are looking forward to Labor’s election, and they are doing all in their power to ensure that Labor gets elected. The ACTU has placed field officers in marginal seats to doorknock residents, mislead people about workplace laws and infiltrate the churches, Meals on Wheels and other community groups in order to get Labor candidates elected. The ACTU has spent tens of millions of dollars on misleading TV ads on industrial relations laws.

Photo of Phillip BarresiPhillip Barresi (Deakin, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Remember South Australia?

Photo of Stewart McArthurStewart McArthur (Corangamite, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My colleague is very aware of that too. He has been subjected to this. To ensure an elected Kevin Rudd government does what the union tells it, they have replaced current ALP MPs with union bosses, without a preselection, such as Greg Combet in the electorate of Charlton and ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles, who has moved from Melbourne to Geelong to overthrow Gavan O’Connor in Corio, because Gavan O’Connor is an independent, and the hard right wing have stacked the branches in Corio. So now we have Richard Marles in Geelong. We will just see how he gets on, whether he gets up in Corio. I am not sure whether the member for Batman will be down there giving him a hand—he might; we don’t know.

AWU boss, Bill Shorten, has been imposed on Maribyrnong. There was no preselection there; he just moved in and took it over. Dougie Cameron is going into the Senate. He is certainly a free trader if ever I met one. Even in my electorate of Corangamite, the faceless union bosses on the ALP selection panel ratted on Councillor Peter McMullan, my opponent, and preselected an out-of-towner, a Ballarat based union organiser who is not even committed to the region. He is coming down to have a go at Corangamite. He does not live in the area. He has his union mates tracking around Corangamite trying to win the vote, and we will see how he gets on.

If he is elected to office, Kevin Rudd will be forced to keep his promise to hand over power to the union movement because the unions will hold most of the seats in the Labor caucus. The unions are desperate to get their patsy, Kevin Rudd, elected, and they are happy to tell the people.

We know Dean Mighell, the Electrical Trades Union guy—he is a good sort of fellow. He said it was ‘going to be fun’ coercing employers under Labor’s industrial relations policies. Finally, of course, the Western Australian CFMEU boss, Kevin Reynolds, told the Australian in May 2007:

We’re going to put our shoulder to the wheel to assist the campaign to unseat the Howard Government and then we’re going to have the biggest celebration that we can have on the night he was defeated ...

He is very keen to get into the Labor Party. We know what his position is. Kevin Reynolds’s mate and deputy Western Australian CFMEU leader, Joe McDonald, has explained why the militant unions will be happy to see Labor elected, because Labor will abolish the ABCC for them. He said:

I live for the day when [the ABCC staff] are all working at Hungry Jack’s, Fast Eddy’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. That is what’s waiting for them. They’re all ex-policemen and they can go and do whatever ex-coppers do. I’d suggest that John Lloyd and his mates will be unemployed before I will be.

That was sourced from the Australian on 26 May 2007. That is what the real attitude of the Labor Party is to the ABCC.

Strikes in Australia are at their lowest level since 1913 as a result of the Howard government’s industrial relations reforms and the introduction of the ABCC. Illegal and unsafe practices on our building sites have been challenged, and the unions do not like it, as we see in Victoria. The CFMEU are so committed to the election that they have handed over $6.3 million of their members’ subscriptions to the ALP over the life of the Howard government, including $1 million paid by the Victorian CFMEU. The opposition leader pulled a media stunt to expel Dean Mighell from the ALP but has been weak in not forcing Joe McDonald out for his outrageous behaviour in Western Australia.

I support the thrust of the bill. I support the thrust of my comments. I look forward to the member for Batman’s response. I put on the record what the ALP, if they were ever elected to government, would do with the building commission. It is their intent to restore union power on building sites. We know that the building sites are now safer and more productive. We know that in Victoria they are now working well. (Time expired)

Photo of Mrs Bronwyn BishopMrs Bronwyn Bishop (Mackellar, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that this bill be now read a second time. I remind members in the chamber that, in accordance with standing orders, rather than interjecting they are entitled to properly ask questions of members while they are speaking.

10:49 am

Photo of Martin FergusonMartin Ferguson (Batman, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport, Roads and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to address the Committee today on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007. In doing so, I also propose to make a few historical comments about the nature of the building and construction industry, about where we might have been 40 or 50 years ago, as referred to by the member for Corangamite, and about where we are today.

Can I say at the outset that the opposition will support this bill because it seeks to address deficiencies in the drafting of the original bill debated in 2005 and in doing so will make some improvement to occupational health and safety arrangements in the building and construction industry. I totally support that particular objective. But, having said that, I am also going to use this debate to raise some other matters that are not included in the bill and the motivation of the government when it comes to industrial relations, including occupational health and safety provisions.

Firstly, I am totally opposed to any suggestion that occupational health and safety provisions should be linked to broader industrial relations objectives by any party to the industrial relations process. The motivation of the labour movement has historically been and should continue to be genuine improvements in the prevention of workplace injury and illness before all other objectives. People should understand that, when surveys have historically been conducted of workers and their families about the key issues with respect to going to and from work, the No. 1 priority has not been the rate of pay and the conditions of employment. The No. 1 priority amongst ordinary working people has been health and safety at work. All workers want to do is go to work in the morning in the knowledge that they will work in a safe environment and will be able to return home that evening, without fear of being maimed and critically injured at work or—as in many instances, unfortunately, historically in the building and construction industry—killed on the job. So let us be clear at the outset: no-one is suggesting that health and safety be used as a bargaining tool in industrial relations, which is what the Howard government would like the Australian community to think.

We should also have a sharper focus to achieve stronger responsibilities and arrangements for rehabilitation and compensation for work related injury and disease. People should not forget that historically it was building workers who were exposed firsthand, more often than any other workers in the Australian community, to the problems of asbestosis. Only after decades of neglect did we finally start to front up to our responsibilities for what ordinary building workers and their families confronted on a day-to-day basis. For the Howard government to come here and suggest that any section of the Australian community would seek to use health and safety for industrial processes is just simply ignorance and a misunderstanding of the best intentions of all Australian workers and their families.

Having said that, it is about time people also understood that the process of industrial relations in the building and construction industry has been an evolutionary process. I agree with one thing the member for Corangamite said: yes, the building and construction industry has been a battleground for decades—for 50, 60 or 70 years—and why shouldn’t it have been? Let us deal with a few of the issues that building and construction industry workers and their families have had to confront over the history of building and construction in Australia. I might also say that on all international indicators the building and construction industry in Australia has one of the most productive workforces in the world. That is only because over the last 50 to 60 years we resolved some of the fundamental problems that confronted building and construction workers and their families historically. I know that firsthand because of my father. He might have ended up a politician but he actually started out as a bricklayer, having left school at 13.

I will go through some of the things that building and construction workers did not have when I was a child. These led to a campaign over decades to decasualise the building and construction industry, to give building workers and their families the entitlements of every other worker in Australia. Why wouldn’t building and construction workers have, for example, struggled to achieve ‘wet money’ when it rained rather than being stood down without any compensation? It was pretty tough when it rained over extended periods and building workers, without any social security backup, went home, having had to attend at work each day to be told, ‘There’s no work today because it’s raining.’ That made it pretty tough for building workers and their families.

Then there is the question of sick pay. They are regarded as casual workers. Injured workers get very little compensation for sick pay, let alone make-up pay in the case of a very serious long-term injury caused by an accident. Then there is the question of job and finish. Historically, yes, in some instances they did extend the lives of jobs because when a job was coming to completion they had to try and look at where the next start was. They wanted some continuity of income so as to maintain their capacity to put food on the tables for  their families and to educate them.

Members on the other side want to belittle the historical achievements of the Australian trade union movement and the building and construction industry. All I can say is that I am exceptionally proud of the fact that historically they have decasualised the building and construction industry and given building and construction industry workers the same rights that every other worker in Australia had.

Then we go to the issue of holiday pay. There was no holiday pay. If you were not at work, there was no pay. There was no long service leave because you went from one employer to another chasing jobs from month to month and from week to week. We had to achieve a portable long service leave scheme by which, throughout their working lives, they were able to accumulate an entitlement to annual leave and long service leave. We also had to achieve 26 weeks make-up pay in the case of a serious accident on the job.

The crowning achievement over the last 15 to 20 years has been superannuation. Superannuation was the privileged right of only a minority of the Australian community. On 1 July this year we achieved the 15th anniversary of the superannuation guarantee legislation, and the building industry was at the forefront of the campaign to make superannuation a universal right in Australia.

More importantly, not only is superannuation today a universal right of all Australian workers; it has also proven to be the most important savings vehicle ever put in place by any government of any political persuasion. The savings in those industry superannuation funds now represent $1 trillion over a period of 15 years. They are going to grow exponentially because of the capacity of well-managed industry funds to make wise investment decisions, not just to the benefit of their own members but to the benefit of the Australian community. Who do you think owns the privatised airports in Australia at the moment? Who do you think is investing in the BOOT schemes and the public-private partnerships with the New South Wales government to create new school infrastructure? Who do you think is investing in the toll roads that are resolving the problems of urban congestion in Australia? It is the industry superannuation schemes put in place as a result of the leadership of the building industry unions and the ACTU.

I simply want to say on the industrial relations front that it has been a long process of change, but the starting point for changing the culture in the building and construction industry would be giving building workers the entitlements of all other workers in the Australian community. The process of cultural change did not start under the Howard government. It actually started in 1993 under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. They are the ones who actually put in place a process of workplace reform. Here is one of the booklets issued by the Australian government—a very young Minister for Industrial Relations, Laurie Brereton, appears in that booklet.

It was a program supported by employers. I refer, for example, to an employer of not insignificant standing in the Australian community, currently the Chairman of Queensland Rail. I quote what he said in that book—and I can understand why the member for Corangamite wants to pack up his books and run away now: because he does not like a few facts and a bit of an historical perspective. If he would just listen to what John Prescott said, because all the Howard government has done is build on the reforms that were started under Labor in government—reforms that meant, for example, that the Holmes a Court empire of John Holland was saved when Mr Holmes a Court unfortunately died all of a sudden.

Who put in place the program that built Toyota’s new project at Altona on time and on budget? Who built the second runway at Sydney airport ahead of time? Who built the new ABC headquarters in Melbourne ahead of time and ahead of budget? It was a program of industrial reform, put in place under the umbrella of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, and improvements in productivity that have continued to go from strength to strength over the last 15 to 20 years, because that is what everyone in the building and construction industry wanted.

That is why John Prescott said in this 1993 booklet Creating Productive Partnerships that the key to workplace reform in Australia was not legislation but a cultural change in the workplace. This is what John Prescott said:

I am convinced that effective enterprise agreements will arise from a process of evolution rather than one step of dramatic change.

How right he was. He then went on to state:

We need to be realistic and recognise that achieving fundamental change in people’s attitudes to work, productivity, workplace relationships and so on is a painstaking process.

It is about taking the building industry workforce with you; it is about taking the whole Australian community with you. Belting people up and sending them to jail does not change the culture. That is why the focus of this strategy was about enterprise agreements. It was about a step-by-step approach to actually reduce accidents on the job. Change was vital to the future, as was increasing the size of the skilled workforce—I wish this government had actually focused on that challenge and the unnecessary decline in traditional apprenticeship training in Australia. It was about best practice. It was about flexibility with respect to shiftwork. It was about how much overtime is appropriate. They were all issues that had to be confronted workplace by workplace. The building and construction industry is no longer about industry agreements; it is about project based enterprise agreements producing the results and the productivity.

I raise these issues today because what I believed then is what I believe today. If Labor wins the election, there is no return to centralised wage fixing in Australia. The only central component that would exist is what any decent employer in Australia currently accepts and accepts publicly. We require an industrial relations system which guarantees the weakest in the Australian community a fair set of wages and conditions—a core set of minimum conditions—side by side with a capacity to regularly review the minimum wages paid to those workers, predominantly women employed in industries such as child care, hospitality, cleaning and security. That is the nature of the system. That is because companies have to understand that they will not survive unless they are efficient, flexible and have a high-quality approach to guarantee their capacity to compete in the future.

As I have said, the days of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission setting wages and conditions centrally for all Australian workers are long gone. Labor put that in place. Enterprise bargaining has and will continue to deliver significant productivity gains in the construction industry. There should, appropriately, be minimum wages and conditions for the less well-off in the Australian community, who are predominantly women, and there is a role, as is currently the case, for a central agency to review and set those wages and conditions. Unions should continue to be involved where appropriate in enterprise bargaining—not just about wages and conditions but also about their enterprise being competitive and productive so as to guarantee the future of their employer in what is a very tough domestic and global market.

The issue of health and safety is only one of the issues. There is a multitude of issues that have to be confronted on an enterprise-bargaining front in the building and construction industry. Dare I suggest: the biggest barrier to an efficient building and construction industry in Australia at the moment is not industrial relations; it is actually a shortage of skilled workers. You can go to every city and regional community in Australia at the moment and you can find billions of dollars ready to be invested, but we cannot get the construction crews in place to actually undertake that investment. That is what is holding back Australia at the moment: lack of a skilled workforce because we failed to invest in our future with respect to the traditional trades. For example, in Western Australia at the moment construction costs are going up by about 1.7 per cent to two per cent per month—not because of industrial relations but because of a shortage of skilled labour in Australia.

So, yes, the industrial relations debate is important, but productivity in Australia is far bigger than industrial relations. It is about a range of issues, including how you deliver projects, the nature of the tendering process—whether, for example, you bundle on the Pacific Highway in three or four projects over a distance of 100 kilometres so that you have continuity of delivery and you maintain the same construction crews. It is all there to be done, but it requires a bit of government leadership in Australia.

Where are the Howard government on those practical fundamental issues? Missing in action. All we get is rhetoric about their hatred of the union movement, which has a proper place in the Australian community—the same place everyone else is entitled to in the Australian community, provided you know how to conduct yourself in a fit and proper way. That is what a mature Australian community expects. That is why, in the context of this bill, we say up front that we support improvements in the health and safety regime but also that health and safety should never be used for industrial purposes.

Productivity in the construction industry has come a long way over the last 20 to 30 years, but we can also make further progress if we confront some of the fundamental problems that are a real barrier to investment in building and construction in Australia at the moment—the types of issues that were actually delivered on by Labor in government in its process of construction industry reform Creating productive partnerships. It was that report that set the foundation for the productivity growth of the last 15 to 20 years in the building and construction and civil-engineering industries in Australia. To my way of thinking, this government has squandered the opportunities created by that foundation, and productivity has stalled. The building and construction industry knows it and so does the civil-engineering sector in Australia. Productivity in Australia has stalled since 2005. That is the truth of the matter.

I want to raise these issues because I know my responsibilities as a former President of the ACTU and because I am sick of the tired old rhetoric from the Howard government that every problem in Australia is down to union militancy. The building and construction industry shows that you can make progress if you are prepared to invest in doing the right thing. The projects speak for themselves. All the big projects underway in Australia at the moment have union input into them. They have adopted the culture of enterprise bargaining we put in place. Enterprise bargaining is about safety at work. It is about flexibility at work. It is about improving apprenticeship training at work. It is about how you go out of your way to guarantee a competitive place for the employer that you have the right to go to work for and produce a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

In conclusion, the federal Labor Party has in the past been, and continues to be, absolutely committed to a workplace culture that promotes productivity and competitiveness. In recent times Wal King, as the Chief Executive of Leighton Holdings, has had something to say about industrial relations. All I can say is that he wants to have a look in the mirror with respect to the performance of some of his managers over the years and how they have conducted themselves. Promoting a culture that is focused on long-term improvement in the quality of performance is far more important and enduring than simply appointing a policeman in the form of the Australian building and construction industry commission. I only wish it was so easy. You do not change the culture by having a policeperson standing at the gate each morning. You change the culture by a proper engagement at a workplace level, with people wanting to work together for the right reasons—to guarantee their future and their continuity of employment and a capacity of their employer to get further contracts in the future.

The opposition, I simply say, will support this bill. But I also state very clearly that it falls a long way short of addressing the reform that is necessary in the building and construction industry to put in place the next round of productivity growth that is needed to maintain a vibrant building and construction sector in Australia in order to guarantee the position of the Australian economy for the future. That is the challenge. The next wave of productivity growth in Australia is the only thing that will be the key to Australia’s future—not an industrial police officer but continuing to change the process of workplace reform in Australia by practical engagement, putting in the hard yards to take the community with you. I commend the bill to the House, but I say to the Australian community: confront the real issues, not the side issues based on ideology and hatred. (Time expired)

11:09 am

Photo of Sharon GriersonSharon Grierson (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise also to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007 and to give it my qualified support. I say ‘qualified’ because, while any measures to improve occupational health and safety law are welcome, it has to be noted that the improvements in this bill are improvements to what is already a very unsatisfactory set of regulations. I will come back to those regulations later.

Firstly, though, why is it so important to improve occupational health and safety in this important industry? In my city, Newcastle, and my region, the Hunter, we do some of the heaviest lifting in the Australian economy. We are a centre for mining and energy production, manufacturing and engineering, and transport and shipping. That is the hard, often dirty, and dangerous work that the people of our region have been doing for generations. It has been a testament to the role that the advocates of working people, in particular the union movement, have played that conditions of work and safety standards have been steadily built and improved over time. In the newer and growing areas of our economy, in our services industries, tourism, viticulture and health and education sectors, to name just a few, occupational health and safety standards are just as important. These working environments pose their own safety hazards, and we do need to be aware of those in a changing workforce. However, this bill relates to the occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry.

It is my sad duty to bring to the attention of the House a work site fatality in my region this year. Mr Robert Watson, a Central Coast man well known and liked around the industry in the region, was killed at a Wyong work site in March. It was a tragic accident, and I would like to take this opportunity to put on the public record once more my sympathies, and I am sure the sympathies of the whole region, to the family of Mr Watson. It was a tragic event to have a husband and father taken away from a family like this. Mr Watson leaves behind a grieving widow, Kathy, eight children and 10 grandchildren. He was working on the Kooindah Waters Residential Golf Estate construction site at Wyong on 29 March when a wall collapsed on him. Tragically, his co-workers—including, I understand, his son-in-law—were unable to save him. At the time, questions were raised about safety standards at the site, including that the newly constructed wall had not been adequately braced. That occurred before the accident. Those questions were raised. They are being investigated, of course, by WorkCover.

There are about 50 deaths at work on building sites each year in this country—almost one a week. That is 50 too many. I would like to read to the House the statement made by Mrs Kathy Watson following the death of her husband. She said:

I would like to express my concern and grief at the unnecessary loss of my husband Robert. I am now a widow and my eight children no longer have a father.

I want to speak out to express my concern at the deterioration in safety standards on building sites.

Too many workers are being killed or seriously injured and the new Federal Workplace laws undermine workers rights to work in a safe environment, and workers are too scared to speak up about safety matters because they fear losing their jobs if they do.

The tragic death of my husband should have been avoidable, and if we just sit back and accept this deterioration of safety standards and workers rights and we allow this unrelenting push for profit at all costs - even over the safety of workers - I fear that the number of widows of building workers and fatherless children will increase.

I would like to appeal to all workers on building sites to refuse to be pushed into unsafe situations like my husband, think about their families and don’t be quiet, stand up against the system that is letting them down and demand better safety and fight for workers rights.

I think most of us, particularly the opposition, would fully endorse those words. The whole community—employers, workers, unions and government regulators—all have a role to play in ensuring workplace safety. Unfortunately, I do not think the government has got it right with many aspects of this regulation, including the Australian Building and Construction Commission, but I will come back to that.

I would first like to put some further information before the House about the circumstances of Mr Watson’s death, which sadly highlights the real pressures being placed on workers and their families at the moment. Less than a week after Mr Watson’s death, it emerged that his family’s life insurance payment was in jeopardy because his employer had not been up to date with its superannuation contributions. I know you will be interested in this, Madam Deputy Chair. We raised this with the Commissioner of Taxation. The anguish that this must have caused an already grief-stricken family is almost too much to imagine. It meant that Mr Watson’s widow and his eight children were left in severe financial distress—indeed, it was left to the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the CFMEU, to their credit, to assist in organising money for the funeral and other expenses. The union also offered and is still providing ongoing support and counselling services to the family.

I understand that the union also helped to negotiate ex gratia payments from the contractor and the subcontractor, and that was the right thing to do. However, it should never have come to this. No worker should have to worry whether his superannuation guarantee is being paid. No grieving family should find out under these circumstances that the employer had not been meeting its obligations to its workers. It shows that while the government’s approach is to come down hard on union activity and workers’ rights in the construction industry, it does not necessarily come down hard on employers that do not meet their obligations to their workers.

The ACTU briefed some of us last night and gave us some very interesting figures on Comcare and the number of actual visits, the number of actual prosecutions and the number of actual outcomes being pursued, and they fell far below any state’s statistics. I raised the issue of superannuation with the Commissioner of Taxation in a hearing of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit in April. The commissioner reported that each year 11,000 complaints are being made about the superannuation guarantee not being paid. That is a significant drain on families. As the commissioner pointed out, these are only the complaints received from employees. Many employees, such as in the tragic case of the Watson family, would not know that their superannuation guarantee is not even being met by their employer. This is a significant issue when it comes to the obligations that employers have to their workers.

We also know that, under the non-union agreement in place at that site, workers got no holiday pay, no rostered days off, no public holidays and no overtime. They were being paid an all-in rate that cashed out all award entitlements, including ordinary time and penalty rates, special rates, allowances and entitlements to paid leave. Good working conditions and workplace safety are clearly linked. Workers need a day off from time to time. They need reasonable hours and they need rest breaks. We cannot expect safety on building and construction sites if we have in place a culture where people are being worked to the bone. We cannot expect to take the Howard government seriously when it imposes crackdowns on unions and workers but does not ensure employers are meeting their obligations—not only in the area of safety but also in other areas.

For example, in March this year a 15-metre section of wall from an apartment building construction site in Newcastle collapsed onto a church building next door. Thankfully, in this case no-one was injured. I raise this incident in particular because, as I mentioned, it is not just in the area of safety that some employers are not meeting their obligations. The development in question in this incident is being carried out by a company called the Hightrade Construction group, the parent company behind several companies which collapsed last year with collective debts of more than $80 million. My colleague the member for Hunter has raised concerns about this industry collapse in this place previously—as we both have about the collapse of another building group in our region, Bay Building. This is not the time to go into the details about those financial collapses, apart from making the important point that it is often the workers and contractors who lose out because the company has gone into liquidation and there has been nothing put aside to cover the outstanding entitlements of these workers.

All of the points I have made lead us to the nub of the issue when it comes to workplace laws under the Howard government. The workers’ needs obviously come last. Whether it be in terms of pay and conditions, bargaining power, unfair dismissal protection or, as in the case we are discussing, occupational health and safety, the workers’ needs always come last.

Let us look more closely at this bill and at this government’s approach to safety in the building and construction industry. The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act establishes the powers and functions of the Federal Safety Commissioner and establishes the occupational health and safety accreditation scheme covering this particular industry. The bill before us amends the legislation to cover situations where building work is indirectly funded by the Commonwealth or its authorities. It seeks to ensure that people who accredited under the scheme at the time of entering into a contract are also accredited while the building work is being carried out. It makes other amendments, including extending the accreditation to other funding arrangements, streamlining the appointment process for federal safety officers and allowing people working in the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner to disclose information on the scheme to the minister.

These seem fairly innocuous amendments—and they are, as far as the current scheme goes. But we have learnt to be suspicious of any bill proposed by this government to regulate the building and construction industry. One immediately casts one’s mind back to where the scheme began, the 2003 report of the commission of inquiry into the building and construction industry—a commission of inquiry that cost the taxpayer $60 million with very little to show for it.

One of things, though, that we do have to show for it is the original legislation that the bill before us is amending. That was the legislation that established the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Labor opposed that legislation, and it continues to oppose the Howard government’s overall approach to the regulation of industrial relations and health and safety in the building and construction sector. Labor does not believe that there should be an industry-specific approach to industrial relations, with different sets of laws for each industry. There is a vast amount of regulation in the building and construction industry, with the Howard government having created more than 200 pages of new legislation for this sector alone.

Labor have announced that we will replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2010. Instead, we will have an industry-specific division in our proposed Fair Work Australia which will address health and safety issues across the board. What the Howard government is doing is coming back to the parliament to correct elements of its industrial relations platform—making bad alterations to bad policy. Why do we see the Howard government coming back on this legislation? Why do we see it seeking to change its extreme Work Choices laws, and not just by changing the name? Because on industrial relations the Howard government gets it wrong time after time. I was interested to hear the Prime Minister say in question time on 8 May, and I quote:

I can inform the House that between now and the caretaker period, whenever that may begin ... there will be no bad policies from this government ...

Well, thank goodness; the days of bad policy from this government are apparently behind us. Unfortunately, for working Australians all the Howard government’s bad policy in the industrial relations portfolio is already bad law. That is why it comes back and changes its building and construction bill; that is why it tweaks at the edges of Work Choices with a fake safety net and attempts to introduce fairness—because they are bad laws. And the community outrage about Work Choices has demonstrated that. Working Australians continue to shy away from these changes. No matter what tinkering around the edges is done, come election day they will not forget. They do care about job security, dignity in the workplace and safety in the workplace for all Australians.

The problem with this government is that its response to the fundamental unfairness of its workplace laws is not to fundamentally change those laws. Its response has been twofold, and it is very revealing of the psychology of this tired and arrogant government. The first response is secrecy. We have had an unprecedented attempt by the Howard government to cover up the details of the true impact of its Work Choices laws. When the statistics coming out of the Office of the Employment Advocate showed just how many rights and conditions were being stripped away by Australian workplace agreements, the government ordered it to stop issuing those figures and statistics. It shut down the flow of information to the public. Since then we have had to rely on leaks to get updates on AWAs. Unsurprisingly, those leaks show that the rights of workers continue to be stripped away every day.

How else do we get information from this government? We do try in estimates. For instance, we found out that since November last year the Office of Workplace Services and the Office of the Employment Advocate have refused to provide a single answer to questions on notice put to them in Senate estimates. Almost 300 questions have gone unanswered—an amazing level of secrecy when it comes to detailed questions about this government’s policy in an area that is vital to all Australians: workplace relations. Perhaps those two agencies have been too busy implementing a government-ordered name change—part of the process of trying to make the words ‘Work Choices’ disappear—to get around to answering any questions. This leads me to the government’s second response to community outrage about Work Choices. After covering up the substance, it is spending up big on the spin. When it comes to publicising the glossy, ad agency generated key lines, the government is certainly no shrinking violet. Its fake fairness test, you will remember, was being advertised in full-page ads in the daily newspapers and through $4.1 million a week in TV advertising space before the legislation was even passed. But no amount of advertising is going to address the basic unfairness of being forced to sign an AWA to get a job, or of not being able to reach a collective agreement when a majority of the workplace wants one. Because the Howard government does not believe in equality, with its individual contracts it is picking off workers one by one—each time diminishing the voice of the whole until it can no longer be heard.

If the government were really serious about restoring fairness in the workplace, it would take up the proposals Labor has adopted in the Forward with Fairness policy. I do not believe the government’s approach to occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry is the right approach. I do not think it is going to avoid tragedies like the one that occurred for a Central Coast and Newcastle family. It is a political approach that, in combination with the National Code of Practice for the Construction Industry and the Work Choices legislation, is more focused on heavy-handed regulation than on actual safety outcomes. It also does nothing to address some of the wider issues in the construction industry which I have outlined, including the protection of workers’ entitlements and the avoidance of employers’ obligations. I commend to the House the approach that Labor is proposing in this area, which is to replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2010 with a specialist division within the proposed Fair Work Australia.

I earlier mentioned the company Hightrade, a Chinese company that is operating in our city redeveloping a site called Latec House. It is particularly concerning to know that many of the workers on that site are Chinese workers brought in on 457 visas. The City itself has been quietly worried about their safety conditions. The union is not allowed on that site for inspection, and that company has unfortunately not established a good record in standards or in safety.

We will pass this legislation because we will not stand in the way if the government is trying to repair some of the damage its bad policies have already done, but it is disappointing that the legislation will not go far enough to address the real needs of occupational health and safety of people in a very high-risk industry. We will continue to advocate for Labor’s alternative approach, an approach which places occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry within the context of a comprehensive plan to restore fairness and safety in all Australian workplaces.

11:27 am

Photo of Gavan O'ConnorGavan O'Connor (Corio, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007 contains important provisions relating to occupational health and safety issues in the building industry. It is on this basis that the bill will be supported by the opposition. The historical reasons for the formation of the Australian Labor Party relate simply to the quest by working people for better wages and conditions, and the issue of improving the occupational health and safety of workers is always foremost in the minds of Labor members when considering any legislation that comes before the parliament. We on this side of the House may have real issues with the operation of the government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission; however, we will on this occasion support the attempts by the federal government to use its influence as a client and capital provider to improve the construction industry’s occupational health and safety performance.

As all members of this House know, the building and construction industry is a dangerous one to work in. Introducing the bill, the Minister for Workforce Participation quoted statistics from the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry which indicated that, in the year 2002-03, 37 compensated fatalities occurred in the building industry. That equated to some one-fifth of all compensated fatalities. There were 12,500 compensated injuries. That is at a rate of 34 per day, which is the third highest incidence overall. The latest statistics I have been able to access indicate that in 2003-04 there were 41 deaths and in 2004-05 there were 25 fatalities. This corresponds to a fatality incidence rate of 4.7 fatalities per 100,000 employees in 2004-05, which is almost twice the rate for Australia of 2.5 fatalities per 100,000 employees. There are various reasons given for that level of fatalities: long-term contact with chemicals or substances, which accounts for 28 per cent of fatalities; vehicle accidents, which account for 11 per cent of fatalities; and falls from a height, which account for 10 per cent of fatalities.

These statistics do not reveal the pain and trauma to building workers and their families as a result of accident and death in their industry. One death or one accident is one too many. The collective effort of all in this House, all employers and all workers ought to be directed at all times to reducing death and accidents in this industry to the lowest level that is humanly possible. Every building worker—indeed, every worker—who leaves home of a morning has the expectation of coming home at the end of the day to be with their family and friends. This expectation is shared by employers and workers in all industries, but all of us know that because of the nature of some work there are real dangers present in workplaces and accidents do occur. These accidents have to be minimised at all cost. Unfortunately, some employers do not reasonably apply the expectation they hold for themselves—that is, that they will come home safely to their family and friends of an evening—to the workers employed in their enterprises. For reasons of profit, they cut corners and compromise on safety, and the inevitable result is accidents and death.

The Howard government cannot have it both ways in this debate. It cannot on the one hand under its Work Choices legislation make a worker feel insecure in their employment if they report unsafe work practices and unsafe work sites and, in some cases, penalise them for doing so while on the other hand coming into this chamber mouthing a lot of platitudes about using the Commonwealth’s influence to improve occupational health and safety performance. I would have thought the best place to tackle occupational health and safety issues would be in legislation that applies across the board and is not sector specific. The best way to ensure vigilance on safety at the workplace level is not to penalise workers for raising occupational health and safety issues or when they take industrial action on those matters.

In the case of the building and construction industry, the government has created some 200 pages of new legislation and, through various legislative initiatives, has created an astonishing level of regulation and bureaucracy in this industry. Regulation to protect the safety of workers in their workplaces we on this side of the chamber will accept. Regulation to give effect to conservative, ideological and political prejudice we cannot and will not accept. While the government tinkers with these issues, it is failing to take substantive action on a number of significant other issues that relate to illicit practice and malpractice in this industry—phoenix companies, tax avoidance and the need to protect building workers’ entitlements.

The purpose of the bill is to amend the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act to change the process of appointing federal safety officers and to extend the application of the Australian Government Building and Construction Occupational Health and Safety Accreditation Scheme administered by the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner to cover situations where building work is indirectly funded by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority. The scheme was designed to allow the government to use its influence as a client and as the provider of capital to improve the construction industry’s occupational health and safety performance. The bill also ensures that persons are accredited under the scheme at the time of entering into a contract for building work funded by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority and that the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority takes appropriate steps to see that such a person is also accredited while the building work is being carried out. It extends the accreditation requirements to direct and indirect funding arrangements and preconstruction agreements as defined, widens the definition of ‘builder’, clarifies that section 35(4) of the act only overrides Commonwealth provisions to the extent of any inconsistency, and allows the Federal Safety Commissioner and persons working in the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner to disclose protected information gathered on the scheme to the minister. As I stated previously, we on this side of the chamber will be supporting these measures in the bill.

On a more general note, let me restate that Labor will abolish all agencies used by the Howard government for its Work Choices laws. These agencies will be replaced by a single agency, Fair Work Australia. The Australian Building and Construction Commission will be abolished by 2010 and its functions and operations will be reoriented and relocated in a specific division within the Fair Work Australia inspectorate. We on this side of the House believe that this nation can enjoy economic prosperity and, at the same time, achieve the fundamental fairness that we all tout as being an important Australian value.

Put quite simply, our IR system will be fairer, simpler and more productive. These measures will apply to building workers as they apply to workers throughout industry. We will provide a decent safety net for all working Australians that includes regular hours of work, flexible work for parents, public holidays, overtime and penalty rates. We will balance the unfair dismissal laws to protect hardworking Australians from unfair dismissal and businesses from paying go-away money to unsuitable employees. We will institute a flexible system based on collective enterprise bargaining, modern simple awards and common law arrangements. We will not allow unfair take-it-or-leave-it AWAs which have been used to cut the take-home pay of working Australians on building sites and elsewhere in the economy.

We will establish a new independent umpire which is accessible to all Australians and has appropriate powers to resolve disputes. Of course, we know that the building and construction industry has in the past not had the best of records in this regard. However, it would be erroneous to lay all of this blame at the feet of building and construction unionists and workers because we know for a fact that in this industry there have been unscrupulous employers that have not met their responsibilities to their employees. We will establish a national industrial relations system for the private sector, which will be developed in cooperation with state governments, and we will get a simpler system to make it easier for Australian employers and employees, including the building industry, to understand their rights and entitlements. That is the nub of the industrial relations policy which will be instituted by a future Labor government and which will apply to the building and construction industry as well as others.

Let me conclude by touching on a matter I have raised before on the floor of this House, and that is the persistent denigration of construction workers and their union representatives in this place by government members. I make these remarks on behalf of all those workers in Geelong’s construction industry who not only have supported families affected by death and injury in their own ranks but have extended that hand of support to others in the general community. In a speech in 2005 on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 in the House I outlined the very real community involvement of Geelong building workers in supporting the disadvantaged in Geelong. I mentioned the breakfast program at the Whittington Primary School, rebuilding a school canteen when the school could not afford it, a house renovation for an injured building worker’s family, a memorial pergola at a school for two children who were killed in an accident, ongoing support for the family of a building worker killed in an accident, support for unionists from other industries who have fallen on hard times—and the list goes on.

I draw the House’s attention to an article that appeared in the Geelong Advertiser of 11 August concerning a Geelong family that was suffering because of another accident. This related to Charlene Cavanagh, who was allegedly hit by a drunk driver. According to the report, she may well have thrown herself in front of her very young child, Jadan Cavanagh, to protect the child in the accident. This particular story warmed the hearts of members of the Geelong community as well as those of people in the construction industry. According to the report, construction workers working on the Westfield development went into gear and in two days raised $3,000 to support the family through this traumatic time. The report said:

The occupational health and safety representative for the site, Darren Brockway, plumbing union representative Russell Menzies and electrical union representative John Long unloaded $700 worth of toys and clothes for Jadan and also presented Ms Fraser—

that is, Jadan’s grandmother—

with $1780 cash and a $1000 Champions IGA voucher.

That is a not unsubstantial amount raised in two days by building and construction workers in Geelong for another Geelong family facing difficulty. I cannot count the number of times that government members have got up in this place to drive the boot into construction industry workers, and I want to put on the public record here today my opposition to their comments and my commendation of the actions taken by construction workers in Geelong on behalf of the disadvantaged on many occasions, including this most recent one. We will be supporting this bill.

11:42 am

Photo of Jill HallJill Hall (Shortland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I commence my contribution to this debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007 where the previous speaker, the member for Corio, ended. I record my support for the construction workers in the Shortland electorate and acknowledge the fine contributions that they have made in my community and surrounding communities. In doing so, I acknowledge the work that they put in for disadvantaged people and the projects and the campaigns that they get behind in supporting people that have particular problems within the community.

I will quickly go through the bill. The bill before us extends the application of the Australian Government Building and Construction Occupational Health and Safety Accreditation Scheme, which is administered by the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner, to cover situations where building work is indirectly funded by the Commonwealth or Commonwealth authorities. It ensures that persons are accredited under the scheme at the time of entering into a contract for building work funded by the Commonwealth or Commonwealth authorities and that the Commonwealth or Commonwealth authorities take appropriate steps to see that such persons are also accredited while the building work is being carried out. It also extends the accreditation requirement to funding arrangements beyond those currently contemplated by the legislation. It clarifies that section 35(4) of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 only overrides Commonwealth provisions to the extent of any inconsistency. It streamlines the process of appointing federal safety officers and allows the Federal Safety Commissioner and persons working in the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner to disclose information on the scheme to the minister.

I support the legislation that we have before us today, but in doing so I have some comments that I would like to make. Not all of those comments are supportive of the government and the government’s approach to this piece of legislation. Earlier I listened to the member for Corangamite reel out an ‘expose’ of every union official that has ever worked or been elected within Australia. He spent a lot of time denigrating those people. Those union officials, some of whom will be in this parliament after the next election, have made an enormous contribution to their industries and to our Australian community. I do not step away from the fact that in the Labor Party we have members who have ensured that workers have good conditions and safety within the workplace and who were there to look after them. In this current environment, where we have this harsh Work Choices legislation that this government foisted upon the Australian people, there really is a very strong need for workers to be protected. This legislation that has been forced on the Australian community is putting workers at risk and has the potential to put workers further at risk. I will talk a little bit more about that later.

The building industry, as we all know, is a very dangerous industry and a lot of evidence has been submitted to show that there have been very unsafe practices used within the building and construction industry over a number of years. A number of injuries have happened that should not have happened. Workers have been injured because they were pushed to a level beyond that to which they should have been pushed and because workers had not been trained properly in safety. I think there are a number of issues within that industry that will not be resolved by going out and attacking the union. Many of those problems have been brought about by employers, and the majority that I hear about are the result of employer driven activities.

Within the last couple of years a young man lost his life close to where I live. It happened purely and simply because he was forced to do things that a person should not be forced to do. When the government talks about the building and construction industry we hear a tirade of attacks on union officials, but we do not hear anything about the good things that they have done or the changes that they made to make those workplaces safer. I think any legislation, or any argument on a piece of legislation, should have some balance in it. Whilst the government commissioned the Cole inquiry and it brought down its findings, I think the terms of reference it was given were very limited and the report reflected those limited terms of reference.

Occupational health and safety is something that I am passionate about, having worked for many years with people who have been injured purely and simply because of unsafe work practices. Whilst supporting this legislation that we have before us now, I do not think that it is going to be the ultimate answer to improving safety within the building and construction industry. I believe that the government can either address occupational health and safety issues purely and simply by bashing unions or really look at the underlying issues, which go across many areas within this industry and other industries. The building and construction industry is an unsafe industry and has been for many years. I do not think that the legislation that we are debating today will solve that problem.

I see that the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations has entered the chamber and I say to him: I listened to a lot of what you had to say. There was a lot of bluster and attack. But, Minister, I implore you, when you are looking at some of these issues, to look at them from the person’s perspective, from a whole-of-community perspective. When you are looking at the building industry, don’t just approach it from the perspective of attacking the union. When you look at safety, look at safety for the whole of the industry. Look at putting in place actual changes that are going to deliver a safe industry, a safe working environment. Good employers do the right thing; bad employers do the wrong thing. Good employees do the right thing; bad employees do the wrong thing.

Over the years, unions have made enormous contributions to safety in the workplace. Over the years the unions have done things that have improved our working environment. Minister, instead of always attacking, sometimes if you can sit down and talk and try to work together to resolve issues and don’t just make it a slagging match I think you get the best outcomes. Workplace safety is obtained by people working together and trying to bring all parties in and lead them forward so that you create a safe workplace and a safe environment. With those few comments, I will state once again for the record that I, along with other members on this side of the House, am supporting this legislation.

11:52 am

Photo of Joe HockeyJoe Hockey (North Sydney, Liberal Party, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank members who have contributed to the debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007 and I note members’ support for the bill. First and foremost, I would like to make it clear to members what this bill is and what it is not. For all the predictable ranting from the members opposite, this bill is not related to workplace relations issues in the building and construction industry and it is not about the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. This bill is very simply about saving lives. It is about ensuring that workers in the building and construction industry make it home safely to their families and friends at the end of each day.

The government is committed to improving the occupational health and safety performance of the construction industry and to developing a culture where workers perform safely as well as being on budget and on time. Cultural change takes time, effort and, most importantly, leadership. The government is providing leadership to the building and construction industry through the Federal Safety Commissioner, through the Australian Government Building and Construction Industry Occupational Health and Safety Accreditation Scheme and by acting as a model client. This government will not do business with builders who do not hold safety in the highest regard.

Through this bill, accreditation under the scheme will become a requirement not only for builders on directly funded Australian government construction projects but also for builders on construction projects to which the government has contributed significant funding, such as AusLink road projects. These amendments are not made to address deficiencies in the BCII Act, as the Labor Party would have us believe. It was always the intention of the government that the scheme would be implemented in a staged approach to allow a suitable adjustment period for affected companies—and that is exactly what the main amendments of this bill deliver.

The government has driven stunning improvement in the building and construction industry with the establishment of the ABCC and the Federal Safety Commissioner. What the Labor Party proposes now is to wind back the clock by abolishing the ABCC and to enable the union bosses—people like Kevin Reynolds, Kevin Harkins, Joe McDonald and all the friends of the honourable member opposite—to use occupational health and safety as part of their industrial relations strategies.

A study into the impact of the ABCC, which was released in July 2007 by Econtech, found—and the honourable member should pay attention to this—that labour productivity in the construction industry is 9.4 per cent higher as a result of the creation of the ABCC. That is a good thing. You would agree, wouldn’t you? As a result of the creation of the ABCC, GDP in Australia is 1.5 per cent higher than it otherwise would have been. Inflation in Australia, the CPI, is 1.2 per cent lower than it otherwise would have been if we had never created the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Compared with the 1994 to 2003 period, when costs in the commercial building sector were 10.7 per cent higher than in domestic residential building, the cost gap between these two sectors of construction has fallen to just 1.7 per cent. Further, working days lost per 1,000 employees due to industrial action have plummeted from 37.4 in the September 2005 quarter, immediately before the creation of the ABCC, to just 1.5 in the March 2007 quarter. So that is 37.4 working days down to 1.5 working days lost to strikes.

Why would anyone abolish the initiatives and the body that have delivered these improvements? It is pretty simple: the Labor Party wants to abolish them because that is what the union bosses want. That is what the CFMEU and the BLF in Queensland want: they want to abolish the watchdog that has brought about sanity in the construction industry. These amendments strengthen the already strong base for improving occupational health and safety in the construction industry. I encourage my colleagues to continue to support this bill, commend the bill to the House and recognise that the ABCC, together with all of the surrounding infrastructure, is helping to deliver a more stable, a more successful and, even more importantly, a safer building and construction industry in Australia.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.