House debates

Thursday, 16 February 2012


Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011; Second Reading

9:32 am

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last evening I was turning to the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. Not to put too fine a line on it, a person who was a student confrere and a close associate of the former Prime Minister was enlisted to carry out this investigation. Millions of dollars of taxpayers' money were expended on an inquiry which resulted—despite all the gruesome detail with which we were daily regaled in the media, particularly by the Sydney Daily Telegraph and co.—in no convictions whatsoever. No convictions emanated from this investigation.

It has been very interesting to watch those opposite. They have made no reference to the subsequent inquiry by Justice Wilcox, which, in contrast to the Cole royal commission, was a balanced analysis of what had happened. It called for the continuation of government and judicial intervention in the industry to ensure that there were protections but it came down with a far more neutral, far more balanced approach. Not one opposition speaker has referred to that more recent analysis of what has gone on in the industry.

It is interesting to note the rhetoric opposite, particularly that of the member for Mayo, who was an architect of the attempt to diminish people's working conditions in this country, about union thugs, bosses and officials going onto building sites—the theory that, if you give access by unions to their membership so that they have what are internationally recognised rights, in some way the workers are intimidated and forced against their own interest to take industrial action that they themselves would not have undertaken. That is preposterous. And—to show the way that the opposition are totally dedicated to the commercial interest of large corporations—they are doing this in the same week that we have seen them come before this parliament and defend the interests of the private health companies, trying to force, cajole or give incentives to people to buy a product that they just do not want. These people talk about the market et cetera. We have seen them this week come in here and say that people earning millions of dollars should be assisted, subsidised, by the Australian taxpayer to buy a product that they just do not want or might not want. So it is quite hypocritical for them to talk about class warfare as being the motivation of the government in the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011.

In the course of the existence of this body that they are so vigorously defending, which they say has been a perfect ideal, we have seen no effective prosecutions. We have seen it bring people before courts. We have seen it try to intimidate individuals and bring them to investigate what happened in regard to meetings about safety and we have seen a fairly unimpressive list of legal defeats for those people who have operated this agency over the period. That is the total outcome.

We have heard what the opposition thinks about this—and, as I say, it is a group driven by commercial self-interest, whether it is the tobacco industry or the private health industry. In contrast, we have had views from other bodies. The ILO, a tripartite organisation that represents governments, employers and unions, with far more credibility than those opposite, says that Australia has gone down a road in industrial relations which is perhaps paralleled in Guatemala and Honduras and a few other jurisdictions but in the Western advanced nations is quite extreme. It has talked about the withdrawal of rights for unionists and workers and the fact that there are very strong coercive powers that are very unusual in the Western advanced world, and it has not been backward in criticising the way Australia has gone.

We have heard much in the last few months about whether governments have mandates and whether people have backed off on commitments. This legislation has its genesis as far back as 2007, when Labor said that it would not have separate regulations and rules for one industry in particular. Legislation was introduced as far back as June 2009 and, when a direction was disallowed in June of that year, debate was adjourned in February 2010. This legislation has been part of a very long process. It has been discussed. It has been the subject of an inquiry by Justice Wilcox.

The background of this is that this existing body has had a strong partisan industrial flavour. It has failed abysmally to do anything about the very serious safety issues in this country. Internationally, a worker dies every second in the world. On ILO figures, 6,300 workers a day die. The annual cost to the international economy is $1.25 trillion. In contrast to US President Obama, who last year was very active around the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, those opposite have no interest whatsoever in occupational safety. If we talk about those international figures, we appreciate that one of the worst areas is in the building industry. Part of what those opposite want to do is erode the rights of union officials to go on to worksites, to have effective working committees and to make sure that safety is a very important aspect of the industry. We could have all the rhetoric in the world from those opposite—that they are neutral in this debate, that they are concerned about safety—but what we have seen manifest in this organisation's operation until now is a studied disinterest in occupational safety and a studied disinterest in sham contracting, which is a major problem in this industry. Just down the road in Canberra we see the other problem evident in this industry: on one building site alone, 30 illegal workers were found to be employed by a single employer who did not know that any of them were illegal.

I recommend this legislation. It will bring balance back to the industry, it will give workers back their rights to safety protection and it will ensure that the previous government's attempt to reduce their conditions will be terminated.

9:38 am

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise briefly to indicate that I will not be supporting the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011 at this time. I think timing is important, and anyone who follows economic indicators would know that the construction industry is one of the industries under the most pressure at the moment in a changing economy. That needs to be considered for all legislation that passes through this place. I note government is showing a lot of care and concern for the other industry most under threat at the moment—that is, the manufacturing industry. Government is holding jobs forums and providing subsidies to the car industry and to other manufacturing industries. I would hope there is the same consideration, care and concern for the construction industry, which is flatlining at the moment for a number of reasons. Therefore, the timing of these changes is particularly sensitive. I am not buying into the rights and wrongs of the ideology around whether it is fair that one industry or one union is targeted or whether coercive powers are good or bad, but I do think the timing of this legislation is of concern. We therefore need to be sensitive to some of the arguments around how we help the construction industry to improve and grow, rather than burdening it at a challenging time.

I note some of the comments made by people such as Heather Ridout from the Australian Industry Group, the Master Builders Australia and the Australian Constructors Association about some of the concerns that have been raised about the particulars of this bill. All of those comments need genuine consideration, particularly in the context of timing. If construction was flying and booming and the Australian economy had gone through change, then issues of fairness around how we deal with particular aspects of the work site might be considered in a different context; but the context of the moment is that the productivity agenda is the agenda for Australia in 2012. There are a couple of industries in particular that are struggling at the moment and that need the special attention of this place as to how we can do all we can to help them through some challenging times. Construction is definitely one of those industries of concern. I do not see this bill helping growth in the construction industry in 2012 in an environment where productivity is important. I see this as a further burden. Therefore, I will not be supporting it this year.

9:42 am

Photo of Bill ShortenBill Shorten (Maribyrnong, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation) Share this | | Hansard source

I have listened to the contributions made by honourable members to the debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. Before I make my concluding remarks about this bill, there are some fundamental points and misconceptions raised during the debate that need to be answered.

The construction industry is fundamental to Australia's future success. It is how we build our key national infrastructure—our hospitals, our schools ,our homes, our roads—how we enlarge our ports, how we span our bridges, and how we make the most liveable country in the world even more liveable and more prosperous. The Gillard government is a government focused on the future. We understand and recognise the importance of the construction industry—the civil construction industry, the mechanical construction industry, the building construction industry—and we understand, and we are focused on, those who work within it.

I listened carefully to the contributions of those opposite, but instead of talking about the bill the opposition have used this debate to rehash all their old, tired, union-hating, anti-worker arguments. They have used it to peddle so-called data about the effects of the ABCC. Their data has been shown to be wrong. They used it to peddle misinformation about what actually happens on Australian construction sites. While many of those opposite who made contributions to the debate have probably never set foot on a large construction site, I have. Instead of the picture the opposition try to paint of the horrors and difficulties of working on construction sites in Australia, I can tell the House that all in the construction industry—the workers, the independent contractors, the subbies, the managers, the employers—just want to get on with the job. They want to do a good job, they want to receive good pay and they want to be able to complete quality work on time, so that each night they can get home to their family safely. I can assure the House that that goes for everyone from the labourer and the peggy cleaning the sheds to the site manager, and everyone in between.

What disappoints me most is that some in the opposition have used the debate on this bill to again attack the Australian union movement and working Australians who choose to be union members. Australian employees are entitled to participate in the success generated by their hard work—their physical, mental and emotional exertions. Australian employees, if they so choose, are entitled to be represented at work. I, for one, am certainly proud to have spent many years representing working Australians. Australian employees, if they so choose, are entitled to come together to bargain in the workplace with their employer and negotiate conditions and pay through an agreed, constructive, mutual process—just as they did, for instance, at Holden recently. That is a workplace and an employer that deserve to be congratulated, not criticised, by the Leader of the Opposition.

The opposition forget that Australia has a proud history of economic and social reforms that have been for the benefit of working Australians, the Australian economy and Australian business. Many of these have been the subject of efforts by union members on behalf of working people. I believe that a modern, moderate trade union movement has a strong and steadfast commitment to building and developing our nation, ensuring that generations of Australians have regular, safe and just employment.

Listening to the contribution of the opposition, I have to ask: why does the opposition oppose allowing employers and employees to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit? Why is it that the opposition lends its voice against those who would seek to provide a safe workplace for employees or to ensure that workers' entitlements are paid? Why is it that the opposition never ever back worker pay rises? When was the last time the opposition issued a press release welcoming a pay rise, expressing concern about workplace safety or even acknowledging the efforts of unions to improve workplace conditions? It is one of the fundamental fault lines between us on this side of the House and those opposite.

The Leader of the Opposition said on Monday morning about his time as minister for industrial relations that, 'I think the highlight of my record was the establishment of the Cole royal commission into the commercial construction industry. I am pleased to say that the changes from the royal commission did boost productivity in what was previously a very troubled industry and again the studies suggest that those improvements were to the benefit of our economy to the tune of about $5 million a year.' He said that on Monday, 13 February 2012 on 2SM. But, in fact, he was not right, and we need to get some facts into this debate.

The government requested the honourable Murray Wilcox QC to review and report into possible regulation for the building and construction industry. Justice Wilcox expressly called on those participating in this inquiry to provide hard evidence to inform his consideration and recommendations. I certainly do not think the contributions of those opposite in this debate would have passed the test. In fact, the Econtech statistics relied upon by the opposition and the Leader of the Opposition were found by Justice Wilcox to be deeply flawed. He said in paragraph 5.48 of the 2009 report that they ought to be totally disregarded. I repeat: Justice Wilcox found the opposition statistics to be deeply flawed and thought they ought to be totally disregarded. It is widely accepted, in fact, that a combination of economic reforms dating back to 1993 and the effect of monitoring and enforcement of these reforms has contributed to productivity improvements in the industry. The new regulator will continue to effectively monitor and enforce fair and reasonable laws for this industry and continue productivity improvements.

If you listened to those opposite you would think there were no more coercive powers—another lie, another scare campaign, another day at the office for the opposition. This bill retains a specialist inspectorate for the building and construction industry. The bill retains penalties for contraventions of industrial relations law. The bill retains coercive powers, as indeed Murray Wilcox QC recommended. I acknowledge that many in this place have put strong personal views about this element of the bill. I want to stress to those who are concerned about coercive powers that this bill also includes important safeguards recommended by Justice Wilcox for those who seek to use the powers and those who may be subject to them. The bill also contains a sunset on the use of these powers after three years, but only after a review. Together, these elements are measured and appropriate. I also think it is important to note that the coercive powers were used only once during the ABCC's most recent reporting period to 30 September 2011 and in less than two per cent of ABCC investigations in 2010-11.

We heard unfounded opposition allegations about thuggery and violence. Let us be clear: violence at work is unacceptable. It does not matter what industry you work in. The ABCC was never a body designed or empowered to deal with criminal behaviour. Those who suggest otherwise are misinformed and misleading. Criminal behaviour has always been and will continue to be the responsibility of the police.

The government's position on the ABCC has been clear for a long period of time. Prior to the 2007 and 2010 elections, Labor made commitments to the Australian people that it would replace the ABCC with a new body to provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations in the building and construction industry, a body that is part of the Fair Work system. This bill honours those commitments.

The government have consistently stated that anyone who breaks the law should feel the full force of the law. The government will not tolerate an environment in which people choose which laws to obey and which ones to ignore. This goes for all industry participants. The government understand that the industry contains unique challenges for both employees and employers. As a result, we have always supported a strong building industry regulator to ensure lawful conduct by all participants and a strong set of compliance arrangements for the building industry. This bill honours those commitments. We committed to a review of the building industry regulation and we committed to introducing safeguards for the use of coercive examination powers to achieve the balance required to ensure compliance with the law and the fair treatment of individuals. This bill honours that commitment.

I also foreshadow that the government intends to move one amendment to the bill. That amendment will ensure that all building industry participants are not subject to multiple proceedings in relation to matters that have already been the subject of discontinued litigation. The amendment will also ensure that the resources of the Fair Work building inspectorate are appropriately targeted to matters which remain unresolved.

In conclusion, this is a parliament that should surely task itself to look with optimism and positive ideas to the future of work in Australian workplaces and how to build a stronger economy in the interests of all, not just some. These are complex and substantial topics that occupy the minds of all on this side of the House. But this big debate is not assisted by some of the cynicism, negativity and misinformation that we have seen too regularly in this debate. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

Bill read a second time.