Wednesday, 3 February 2016
Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2]; Second Reading
I rise once again to oppose the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. I am adding to my first contribution on this bill in 2013. This bill was negatived in the Senate on 17 August last year, having first been introduced on 14 November 2013. Here we are again, revisiting a bill which, for more than two years, has not had the support of the parliament. As I said when I first stood at this dispatch box to respond to this bill at the beginning of this parliamentary term, Labor opposes this proposed legislation, which forces a return to the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission. As I said:
The ABCC is based on flawed—and often ridiculed—modelling. Its proposed powers are extreme, unnecessary and undemocratic and they compromise civil liberties.
Labor opposed the introduction of the ABCC in 2005. It is in our platform. As I stand here today, our view has not changed. The foundation of the bill is rotten to the core. Nothing that this antiworker Liberal government or its $80 million political witch-hunt into the union movement has done has convinced us otherwise. Most certainly, the royal commission did discover some serious and unacceptable examples of corrupt behaviour, stealing from workers and obtaining unfair benefits. Labor have absolutely no tolerance for that conduct, as we have no tolerance for corporate corruption.
As Labor have always said, we will consider sensible reforms for unions and workers. We will consider, as we will consider later, sensible reforms for registered organisations. Indeed, in December we announced proposed reforms that we want the government to consider in that regard. But we will not support legislation that aims to destroy a strong representative of working Australians. It remains the case that we believe that whatever laws are introduced to deal with corruption must be universal. They should not unfairly target one set of workers. As a Labor government, we would never enact a set of laws to go after one set of employers. We would argue that is exactly what this government is doing with the return to the ABCC: unfairly targeting those workers in the building and construction sector. So we call it what it is: a determination to take Australia back to the ABCC, along with seeking to introduce a raft of other industrial relations changes since this bill was first introduced. We believe it shows an appetite to return to Work Choices, which, of course, is the real desire of this government.
As I stand here today, that could not be clearer. Here we are, participating in a Turnbull government accelerated debate. Yesterday, in defiance of the usual parliamentary conventions, a procedural motion was moved by the government to go after the union movement. The contrast between the two major parties is laid bare today. The Liberals have spent all of their energy playing politics with a taxpayer funded $80 million royal commission. They have done absolutely nothing about the numerous examples—the thousands and thousands of examples—of workers being blatantly exploited at work. This week, Labor announced that a Shorten Labor government would put in place a suite of reforms to protect rights at work by cracking down on unscrupulous employers who are willing to exploit workers. We will stand up for middle- and working-class families. Labor will put people first, strengthening and protecting people's rights at work by cracking down on underpayment of workers with significant and increased penalties and ramping up protections for workers from sham contracting by strengthening legal protections for workers' entitlements and increasing penalties, giving the Fair Work Ombudsman more power to pursue employers who liquidate their companies in order to avoid paying the money they owe workers—not just the money they owe workers but the money they owe creditors generally.
We want to introduce reforms to ensure that temporary overseas workers are not exploited and underpaid and to ensure that there is a level playing field for workers in this country. We have seen some extreme examples, not just with backyard operators but associated with household company names, of systemic underpayment and I would argue corruption; 7-Eleven, Pizza Hut, Myer and Steggles chicken are significant companies that of course provide a service to the community, but something has gone completely awry when you see hundreds if not thousands of workers underpaid, and there needs to be redress. Yet here we are debating legislation that will have precisely the opposite effect. If this bill is enacted it will attack the rights of working people. For example, Nicola McGarrity and Professor George Williams from the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales say:
… the ABC Commissioner's investigatory powers have the potential to severely restrict basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to silence.
Some of the provisions of these bills are more akin to a police state. Undemocratic powers are hard enough to justify in a time of war, let alone dealing with civil laws in this country's workplaces. I think this is a point that has been missed by many.
This is a body that, if established, would govern the civil jurisdiction. And I say as a former national security minister—and indeed a minister who had the Australian Crime Commission report to me—that of course there are times in which this country needs to have laws in place to deal with the most serious challenges to society and the most serious threats to our citizens and our nation. And we do, and Labor stands with the government on those national security matters. As you know, Mr Speaker, we work very closely with the government on such significant matters, and we also accept that there are occasions on which you need to enact exceptional laws that potentially deprive people of their freedom, because the threat is so great. Those powers should be used in exceptional circumstances, in times of emergency, in dealing with serious and organised crime or in dealing with terrorist threats to this nation.
Yet this body, if established, would be presiding only over the civil jurisdiction of the construction industry and broader than that, of course, because it seeks to broaden its reach into the maritime area and the transport sector, where there is an association with construction. We would say to the parliament and to the people that this is a disproportionate response. I do not condone every act that occurs by a worker or union in the building and construction industry, but I ask: what is the justification for applying to workers laws that we would normally confine only to potential terrorists—to allow these laws to apply to workers, and not just union officials? I say to the parliament and I say to the people via this place that these are disproportionate and excessive.
There is a central tenet here: workers in the building and construction industry should be subject to the same laws that apply to other workers. This is consistent with the principle of equality of all persons before the law. So, I ask the question: why does the Prime Minister think there should be a different law for construction workers than for the director of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party? It is absolutely misleading for the government to keep referring to alleged criminal conduct to justify this bill. Remember, the ABCC, as I have said, governs civil law—not criminal behaviour but civil behaviour. It does not matter how many times the government refers, in the same sentence, to criminal conduct and to the necessity to revive the construction watchdog; it does not change the fact it is a civil regulator.
The creation of the ABCC in 2005 was the first time in Australian history that an industrial-specific inspectorate had been legislated with such powers. It operated in a hostile, biased and coercive manner and did not pursue or investigate breaches such as underpayment of wages, phoenixing of companies and sham contracting arrangements or health and safety matters in an industry which can be very dangerous, where the number of fatalities is way too high, where the number of injuries is too high and where too many workers go to work and do not come home.
The genesis of the former Australian Building and Construction Commission arose, as we know, from recommendations of the Cole royal commission. I notice Mr Cole has forayed into the public debate only this week. That commission, established by the Howard Liberal government, said the construction industry was supposedly characterised by lawlessness. The then minister, in his second reading speech, said of the report:
It found consistent evidence that building sites and construction projects in Australia were hotbeds of intimidation, lawlessness, thuggery and violence.
That was what was said then. The minister was happy to repeat the royal commissioner's sweeping statements, but the minister failed to mention something in his contribution yesterday. The $60 million Cole royal commission, which consisted of 23 volumes, referred 31 individuals for prosecution. But it resulted in how many prosecutions and how many convictions? There was not one single criminal prosecution, let alone any finding of guilt.
More than $60 million of taxpayers' money was spent on the Cole royal commission. It had lots of colour and movement, there were many assertions by Liberal members of parliament and, indeed, a Liberal minister, and it was again relied upon this week by the government . But that royal commission, with all of that expense, with the use of state powers, with all of those findings, led to not one criminal conviction of a union official or a worker—not one. People's reputations were destroyed. People were smeared. There were attacks on people's reputations which were never addressed. Yet not one person was found guilty of a criminal offence in a court of law. Out of this lawlessness that was supposedly rife, there was not one single criminal prosecution. How is it that the commissioner and the government can rely on the assertion there was 'consistent evidence', yet that supposed evidence resulted in not one criminal prosecution against a union official or a worker based on that evidence? It would be laughable if it were not so serious. Royal commissions are not courtrooms. The same evidentiary standards do not apply. Hearsay evidence, which is not able to be cross-examined and should not be relied upon in the way in which I believe the commissioner relied upon it, has been stated as fact. Likewise, the most recent trade union royal commission has referred a number of matters for further examination by authorities—somewhere in the region of 93.
Let's also not forget the most recent royal commissioner, Mr Dyson Heydon, in the view of the opposition, clearly had an apparent conflict of interest. Mr Heydon accepted an invitation to a Liberal Party fundraiser while he was royal commissioner. He then sat in judgement of himself because, we would argue, the then Prime Minister chose not to act. That should not be forgotten when the substance of the report is being considered. Whether the commissioner had a conflict of interest or not, there was sufficient evidence to show he was willing to help raise money for the government by accepting an invitation to a fundraiser event while he was royal commissioner. On the face of that, there was an apparent conflict, particularly given his own words, when he was a High Court justice, that any departure from neutrality or an appearance of neutrality should be sufficient for a person to stand aside. He did not even heed his own words when making the decision to continue.
He may have cleared himself but I would say to you, Mr Speaker, and to this place that in the court of public opinion, the credibility of this commission was irreparably damaged. The government does not like reminding the public and the media of that, but we would argue that he made a mistake, a fundamental error, in not standing aside. Leaving aside, of course, that apparent conflict of interest, we have said that the terms of reference of the commission written by the government was always going to lead to a bias outcome. The terms of reference, regardless of the government's commitments on their announcement in relation to cutting both ways—
Order! I appreciate that the member for Gorton is talking on the broad subject of the bill. He needs to confine himself to the bills themselves. I have allowed some tolerance, but it is not a free-flowing debate like a matter of public importance.
The member for Gorton and the member for Bass will not have an interchange when a point of order has been raised. I am going to rule on the point of order. I have been listening very closely to the member for Gorton. Where he has strayed I have identified that, and I assure the member for Bass that I am listening very closely. The member for Gorton has the call. He will confine his remarks to the legislation.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. If that is the case, if that is your ruling, I hope that ruling is consistent throughout the entire debate with all of the members—
The member for Gorton will resume his seat. I made it very clear to the member for Gorton that I had allowed some tolerance, which I did for a number of minutes. I have made my ruling. The member for Gorton can address his remarks to the substance of the bill which are within the standing orders. I have allowed some tolerance. If he is saying that he wants no tolerance at all, I am not going to engage in a debate with the member for Gorton. The member for Gorton will resume his remarks on the substance of the bill.
I want to respond to your ruling, Mr Speaker. I accept your ruling and I am just making a point. I accept your ruling and I understand that ruling will apply throughout the course of this debate.
Thank you very much. The point in relation to this matter is that there is no surprise that this government has chosen—and, of course, it is in the actual speech of the minister, yesterday—to rely upon the evidence of the royal commission to justify the reintroduction of this bill. This bill cannot be debated without debating the merits of the findings of the commission—and I accept, Mr Speaker, that you would understand that—because that is the justification for its reintroduction. That is, indeed, the entire substance of the minister, who contributed to the debate in the second reading speech yesterday, and he refers, throughout the course of his contribution, to other royal commissions as well as the royal commission that has just been completed.
If the government wants to say that fewer than 150 persons being referred to for further investigations arising from two royal commissions is widespread lawlessness, what exactly is their definition of 'more than 11,000 workers' to have $22 million recovered in back pay by the Fair Work Ombudsman because dodgy employers ripped them off in the last year? Is this widespread lawless conduct?
Is the government seeking to introduce legislation that would increase penalties for those employers ripping off workers? No, they are not. It is only Labor that has a plan to protect the rights at work of Australia's working- and middle-class families, and we would argue that this is a problem for the government. It is focusing on this particular matter but not focusing upon the broad problems that are occurring in the labour market.
The other issue that is relevant to this debate is the manner in which the volumes of the royal commission are being used. Minister Cash has had different positions on whether, in fact, members or senators will be able to access the confidential volumes to consider the merits of this bill. Indeed, over the course of the last few weeks we have seen a multiple number of positions taken by the government in access to confidential reports. We would argue that that has been a very, very messy chaotic arrangement. The Attorney-General made clear, last year, that nobody would see the confidential reports. Then the Minister for Employment in relation to providing access to those reports said that some independent senators would be given access to a redacted copy. Then she said that those senators would be provided with an unredacted copy, and then she said the senators would receive a redacted copy. Then there was an offer by the minister to one member of the opposition and one member of the Greens to access the confidential reports.
This has been a mess and it is entirely relevant to this debate because the government is relying upon those confidential reports to convince members and senators to support this legislation. I want to say a couple of things about that. Even with respect to the Cole royal commission, the government of the day did not provide those confidential reports to any parliamentarian, nor did the government of the day provide any confidential reports of the Costigan royal commission. This is unprecedented that the government would consider repudiating the recommendation of the royal commissioner in providing access to those volumes. This is new, and what I think not only is offensive, inequitable and transactional, is the minister's original decision to provide access only to those that she believed could be convinced and the government could then win their vote on the basis of access to those volumes.
This does speak to the way in which this government is dealing with this matter. This is a serious matter. If the royal commission is indeed a serious body—and of course it is—notwithstanding the criticisms I have, if the government is treating this matter seriously, then how can it trade access to these reports and be so inconsistent in its approach to these matters. Further the undertakings that the government is expecting those members and senators, who might have access to those confidential reports, to abide are so oppressive as to not allow them in any way whatsoever to indicate why they may or may not have changed their mind after accessing those reports. One of the volumes is subject to a non-publication order, but the second volume is not, yet the minister writes to the independent senators as if the second volume has the same conditions as the first.
I will go to the fourth undertaking that the government is expecting of those who might access those reports which says that you are not able to—and I am paraphrasing and am happy to be corrected if it is in any way against the spirit of the undertaking—refer to a detail or even the nature of the material contained within the volumes accessed. If you cannot even convey the nature of the material,—and I understand and accept that names should not be disclosed and identities should not be disclosed—if you cannot even talk about the nature of the matters, then how is it possible for independent senators to explain to the parliament, to the Senate and to the people of Australia why they may or may not have changed their mind, and how could an individual member of a political party that is in the parliament convey to his or her colleagues why there might be a reason to take note of the material confined within the confidential volumes?
The other point I make, because it is so pertinent to the debate about whether we support this bill, is this: the Cole royal commission's confidential volumes were kept confidential, as I have said, and so were the Costigan confidential volumes, but the difference between the Cole royal commission confidential reports and these confidential reports is that the Cole royal commission reports had referrals and findings that were kept confidential. There are no such referrals and there are no such findings against persons in these confidential reports of Mr Dyson Heydon, and I know that because Commissioner Dyson Heydon—at the time he was commissioner—made clear that it was the case in the final report.
So the volumes to which we refer do not even have findings or referrals at all, and yet, of course, the government seeks to rely upon the material, with a limited number of people being able to access it and, indeed, with nobody being able, because of the nature of the material, to even explain why they may or may not have changed their mind on such matters. We say that is very difficult for members and senators. It puts Independent senators in an invidious position. It puts any member or senator who accesses those reports in a difficult position, because nothing—not even a general conveying of a view as to why they may have reconsidered their position—can be expressed either in the parliament or, indeed, publicly.
We have significant problems with this bill—that is not unknown. I guess, in some respects, the reason why I am not going through each provision of this bill is that this is not the first time I have debated it in this House. It is not the first time I have replied to a second reading speech, and I did say, at the outset, that I ask people to also consider my second reading speech reply that I made in, I think, December 2013—that long ago. Our position, Labor's position, has never changed in that regard, and therefore it is important, given what has happened since and given the government is relying predominantly upon the royal commission's findings, that I go to those matters.
That they are offering to brief selected parliamentarians about a report which the government purports to rely on to justify this legislation is a contempt of the parliament itself and a violation of the system of representative democracy established under the Constitution. We do not believe that is the way confidential reports of royal commissions should be used. It is base, transactional politics. That is what it is. That is why the minister was overruled in cabinet and why then, of course, there was an offer to provide a very limited access to the opposition and to the Greens party.
The other point I wanted to make in my time allotted is about the disgraceful display that has been the government suggesting it is merely reinstating the former ABCC—that is not true. This legislation extends the reach of the ABCC into picketing, offshore construction, and transport and supply of goods to building sites. The minister says it in the second reading speech:
The definition of building work also includes the transporting or supplying of goods to be used in building work.
This is more than a revival; this is a greater encroachment upon workers than was originally the case. A re-established ABCC will have significantly broader powers than its 2005 incarnation. If you drive a truck or sail a ship that has building products on it, then you can be taken off; you can be called in—dragged off the street or out of a truck—for secret questioning; you cannot disclose where you have been and you cannot disclose the contents of those interviews to your family or to your lawyer. This can be an ordinary worker. You cannot get proper legal representation, because those protections are taken away, in the main, in this bill.
The government's proposed body removes the current protections which require the director of Fair Work Building and Construction to apply to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to issue an examination notice. In other words, whilst there still is a distinct and separate body that currently presides over the building industry, as we know—the FWBC—there will be no oversight. This bill will remove any administrative oversight by the AAT, for example. Think about this: before a police search warrant is issued, the police have to convince a magistrate of the need for the warrant, yet, of course, that would not apply under these circumstances. This bill is draconian. It is unfair. The Labor Party oppose it absolutely.
Before I call the member for Bass, I would like to make a couple of comments in relation to the points of order. I have chosen to do this at the end of the member for Gorton's speech because I did not want to take up any more of his time. The member for Gorton made the point that the introductory second reading speech by the minister made reference to the royal commissions. It does so, and he is right on that point. I do not want to leave the impression of unduly restricting debate. That certainly is the case. My point was more that there should be reference to the provisions of the bill. He has adequately done that and explained at the start of his contribution how he was going to address that. I did not want to leave the impression that reference to the royal commissions need be curtailed when it is, indeed, in the second reading speech.
Before I call the member for Bass, he raised a point of order. I thought it would help to clarify for him and for others speaking in this debate the point of order with respect to the judiciary. It is a point of order that comes up pretty regularly in these sorts of debates. In relation to royal commissioners and the royal commission, they are not exercising judicial authority. Therefore, they do not enjoy the special protection provided for the judiciary under standing order 89 because they are, essentially, a creature of the executive in their role as royal commissioners. I wanted to make that clear so that there is no confusion throughout the debate.
I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. Let me acknowledge at the outset the important place of trade unions in Australia's history. There is no doubt they have made a most valuable contribution. Sadly, this proud record has been defiled by the militancy of a small group of corrupt, militant unions and officials, most notably in the construction sector. In doing so, they have betrayed their own members and they have damaged our industrial harmony and our national economy. It is also undoubtable that, in light of the compelling evidence presented by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, no objective observer can deny that there is an endemic problem of industrial lawlessness in the construction industry. The royal commissioner's final report found there is a widespread and deep-seated culture of lawlessness among many union officials. Given the litany of court judgements and fines against the CFMEU and other unions for repeated and unrepentant breaches of the law, it is very clear that more substantial measures are required to change this poisonous culture.
Re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission is at the heart of ensuring this much needed cultural change. Consider, for example, that since 2005, CFMEU related unions and officials have been fined over $6 million for proven breaches of the law. Yet, instead of reflecting on the fact that they are on the wrong side of the law, the CFMEU has not been deterred from repeatedly breaching Australia's industrial laws. Far from being repulsed by this behaviour, when in power Labor and the Greens presided over the weakening and dismantling of the ABCC in 2012—in effect, allowing for this poisonous culture, this inappropriate behaviour, to enjoy even greater freedom of action. Labor and the Greens replaced it with a regulator that had significantly reduced funding and powers. The result was predictable. There was a return to the bad old days of a discredited industrial past: thuggery, intimidation, no-notice stop-work tactics, demands that union mates be employed ahead of non-unionists and an increase in construction industry disputation to a seven-year high. Who can forget the appalling scenes soon after the ABCC was abolished?
There were industrial pickets and violence on the streets of Melbourne. Police horses were punched, kicked and dragged to the ground. Non-union workers, members of the community and businesses were intimidated and threatened. There was the violent dispute at the Little Creatures brewery site in Geelong with militant unionists making throat-cutting gestures, threatening to stomp heads in and threatening workers who wanted to get on with their work by saying that they were 'dead', and property was maliciously damaged.
I was in the House yesterday when the Leader of the House, during the second reading debate, referred to unionists who had threatened people with 'Colombian neckties' at City West Water in Werribee. He went on to explain that the term 'Colombian neckties' came from the Colombian civil war of 1948 and involved slashing a victim's throat horizontally and pulling their tongue out through the open wound. It is appalling, repulsive, unacceptable behaviour that all fair-minded Australians will condemn.
The member for Gorton said that Labor oppose this bill because it has been in their platform since 2005. Let me trump that because re-establishing the ABCC was in our platforms at both the 2010 and the 2013 elections. We said that we would re-establish the ABCC within 100 days of the parliament's first sitting. There was absolutely no doubt in the mind of Australians about what we would do in this regard were we successful enough to gain their confidence and assume the Treasury benches. We received a clear mandate from the Australian people to clean up the mess in the construction industry, yet Labor and Green politicians have ignored the will of the Australian people and disrespectfully opposed this mandate at every turn.
In opposition Labor and the Greens have voted against re-establishing the only regulator that was able to hold the CFMEU to account. Why are we not surprised when the record shows that the CFMEU has donated over $6.5 million to the Labor Party since 2007? The Greens received more than $500,000 in donations from the construction unions in the single year 2013-14. Despite the unwillingness of Labor and the Greens to act in a way that meaningfully addresses the corruption and illegal conduct of a number of militant construction unions, we on this side of the House will continue to put the case before the Australian people.
This issue is important because the construction sector is a vital part of our economy. It is an industry that provides so many jobs for workers in small business, large enterprises and contractors. A healthy construction sector is absolutely vital for Australia's future prosperity. Weeding out the rorts, rackets and rip-offs from the construction sector is as much an economic issue as an industrial issue. If we allow unlawful, corrupt behaviour to flourish, the cost of construction will always be higher than it should be. Productivity will diminish further and additional obstacles will be placed in front of much-needed investment.
A couple of budgets ago the government committed $50 billion to new infrastructure in Australia, and I am pleased to say that about $1 billion of that will come to Tasmania. For the Midland Highway in my electorate of Bass, there will also be $34 million for north-east freight roads, and a great deal of other much-needed construction and building work will be commenced. I want that building work, Australians want that building work and we want that building work, which investment promotes in our country, to be as productive and as efficient as it can be. Leadership is needed from this parliament, from the union movement, from employer groups and from other political stakeholders to act together to ensure that these important reforms are enacted.
The main objective of this bill is to deliver an improved workplace relations framework for building and construction work to ensure that it is carried out fairly, efficiently and productively for the benefit of all building industry participants and for the benefit of the Australian economy as a whole. It is about cooperative bargaining arrangements instead of coercion, intimidation and thuggery. It encourages genuine bargaining at the workplace level. Perhaps most importantly this bill upholds and promotes respect for the rule of law. Provisions ensure that unlawful industrial action and unlawful pickets are no longer a blight on the industrial landscape.
In highlighting the rationale for this bill, let me take this opportunity to thank and commend Royal Commissioner Dyson Haydon and his team for their efforts during the last two years. I know that many Australians will regret the aspersions that have been made against the royal commissioner, who is indeed a distinguished judge. It is undoubtable that the commissioner's findings have been distilled from 155 days of public hearings. Australians watched many of these hearings or, perhaps in some cases, the highlights at the end of each sitting day. There were also 46 days of private hearings and the evidence of over 500 individual witnesses.
The findings do not make for pleasant reading. Justice Heydon revealed allegations involving multiple examples of bribery, extortion and blackmail in the nation's construction industry. His report made 79 recommendations relating to the governance of registered organisations, signposting the way that we can improve the management of construction work sites across the country and make unions more transparent and accountable to their members. The royal commissioner also made 93 referrals for proceedings relating to possible breaches of the law—more than half of those relate to potential criminal prosecution. Numerous examples were revealed of gross mismanagement and unauthorised use of union members' funds, grave failures of governance and a dangerous lack of accountability and transparency which has allowed corrupt conduct by union officials to go undetected or ignored. Despite all of this evidence, Labor and the Greens in opposition continue to argue against the need to re-establish a specific regulator for this lawless industry.
The member for Gorton says these reforms are unnecessary. Let us test that logic for a moment: if the ABCC really was not required after Labor and the Greens abolished it in 2012, militant unions like the CFMEU would have complied with the law, rather than being fined on multiple occasions for repeated breaches of the law. This is a critical point: if the ABCC is so unnecessary, why did militant construction unions immediately resort to the same unlawful behaviour? This goes to the point of that entrenched culture of lawlessness that exists within parts of the union movement and it supports absolutely the need to re-establish the ABCC. The latest royal commission shows that, far from resorting to lawful methods, the CFMEU and other militant unions did exactly the opposite. In effect, those opposite appear to be saying to the Australian people that the construction industry does not have to comply with the law like everybody else. That is just not right.
This legislation will help re-establish the rule of law in the building and construction sector. It must be fast-tracked to ensure that workers, subcontractors and much-needed investment in this important industry is protected. Re-establishing the ABCC will ensure a return to the rule of law in the building sector, ending the thuggery and illegality and further protecting workers. Workers in the construction industry, after all, deserve a safe and legal working environment. Members on this side of the House will always stand for honest workers and unions who want to see the criminality exposed by the trade union royal commission stamped out.
Our proposed legislation helps to restore the situation when the ABCC was last in existence: an environment of enhanced productivity, where projects were delivered on-time and on-budget, and there was a decrease in industrial unrest. We made it very clear in opposition that restoring the ABCC was a key policy priority—for which we received a strong mandate. It is time that Labor and the Greens respected the judgement of the Australian people and the incontrovertible evidence of the royal commission and supported us in re-establishing the ABCC.
Consider the findings of a 2013 independent economics report on the state of the construction sector during the period when the ABCC was in place. There was a nine per cent productivity growth in the construction industry, $7.5 billion a year in consumer savings and far fewer days lost to due to industrial action. The ABCC also acted effectively against the CFMEU's unlawfulness, resulting in over $3 million in fines in Victoria alone.
By refusing to support the restoration of the ABCC, the opposition leader is, in effect, putting his tribal allegiance to the union movement ahead of his duty to the Australian people. Thankfully, not all Labor figures support him. Paul Howes, the former National Secretary of the Australian Workers' Union, has warned that it is not in the interests of working Australians to be in a vicious cycle of industrial warfare. Paul Howes is right to see the need for higher productivity and more honesty in the union movement to make things better for working Australians.
In March last year, former Labor minister and ACTU President Martin Ferguson announced his support for the reintroduction of the ABCC. He is yet another Labor leader to 'bell the cat' on the dishonest campaign being conducted by today's Labor and Greens. Mr Ferguson rightly compared the actions of the construction division of the CFMEU with the former BLF and said there was an urgent need for the CFMEU to be brought to heel by the reintroduction of a 'policeman on the beat' in the building industry. Mr Ferguson stated:
The manner in which the BLF conducted themselves is now rife within branches of the CFMEU. The CFMEU should be brought to heel and required to conduct themselves in a fair and reasonable way.
Martin Ferguson, Bob Hawke, John Cain and others were Labor leaders of courage and principle, prepared to stand up against the thuggery and rogue behaviour of the building unions. How sad that the current generation of Labor and union leaders is unwilling to put the national interest ahead of their union links. Rather than condemn the illegality and thuggery, Labor and Greens politicians excuse the conduct of these rogue elements of the CFMEU, host them here in this parliament, and actively defend and even promote them. The message from Mr Shorten and others appears to be 'Nothing to see here,' no matter how dishonest, violent or corrupt the behaviour from the CFMEU is.
Let me say there is a clear rationale to re-establish the ABCC. We saw that on the front page of yesterday's The Australian, with the former royal commissioner Terence Cole, whose work paved the way for the ABCC, arguing it must be re-established. I commend this bill to the House.
I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. In my electorate, there is a stretch of road known as 'the hungry mile'. It was 'the hungry mile' because the waterfront workers would trudge along it from wharf to wharf from the late 1800s right up to the 1940s. They depended on the whim of the foreman to be selected to work that day and get a day's work that would put food on the table for them and for their families. They had no certainty, they had no security and they had no dignity. It was the union movement that fought for and won decent pay and conditions for those men. Balmain—which was in my electorate, at least until the most recent redistribution—was the birthplace of the Labor Party in New South Wales. Working men and women were determined to use the powers of government to help people just like them get security, decent living conditions and a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. Of course, I am very sorry to lose Balmain as part of my seat because I have always been very proud to represent the birthplace of the Labor movement in New South Wales.
I mention these places not just because they are part of my electorate—or were part of my electorate, in the case of Balmain—but because they are part of our history. They are part of the history of the Labor movement in Australia, the movement which, on this side, we are proud to be part of. We are here. We are members of the Labor Party. We stand for government as Labor members because we believe in fair pay and fair conditions. We know that unions have played a vital role in representing working people and in making sure that they get decent pay and decent conditions. Unions in Australia have fought for and won annual leave, awards setting out the minimum entitlements for workers in every industry, penalty rates, maternity leave, superannuation, equal pay for women, health and safety, workers compensation, the banning of the use of asbestos, sick leave, long service leave, redundancy pay and even lunch breaks. Throughout it all, unions have fought for decent pay.
An OECD study in 2011 of the causes of increasing inequality found that a decline in union density and union bargaining power was linked to increases in wage inequality. In fact, we saw that very thing in Australia under Work Choices. Annualised wage increases under union-certified agreements averaged about 4.03 per cent in the two quarters after Work Choices took effect, which was above the inflation rate at the time. Non-union employee certified agreements averaged 3.6 per cent, below the inflation rate at the time. Working people without a union's support and protection saw their pay fall in real terms under Work Choices.
Of course, that is bad for the individual workers. Inequality is obviously not good for the people who are missing out, but it is also bad for us as a society and for our economy as a whole. Everyone, from the IMF to the World Bank and the G20, has been finding that economic inequality is bad for economic growth. This government's ideologically-driven attack on unions is obviously an attack on individual workers and their pay and conditions, but it is also likely to undermine our nation's economic health. Wages growth in recent years has been stagnant, while productivity continues to grow. This continues to increase inequality and it is hurting working people as they struggle to make ends meet.
Of course we are, as a labour movement and as the Labor Party, absolutely and unequivocally opposed to the sort of behaviour that the member for Bass was describing. Any threat of violence is completely unacceptable in any workplace at any time—there is no question about it. I would go even further. We have seen the reports of union leaders who have been spending member's money on day spas, holidays or shopping sprees. Those people are amongst the worst people I can imagine, because they are not just betraying their individual members, they are betraying a labour movement that has struggled hard for decent pay and conditions for ordinary Australians.
When these individuals, who are supposed to represent working people, use their positions for personal advantage, it is the worst kind of betrayal. When people do the wrong thing, they should face every criminal penalty possible. If they have done the wrong thing, they should be charged. If they are found guilty and there is a jail sentence applicable, that is great. I have no problem with people facing the full consequences of their behaviour. That is why, when we were in government, we oversaw the greatest transparency and accountability reforms of registered organisations, including: tripling penalties for breaches of the Fair Work Act; requiring officials of registered organisations to undertake training to better understand their governance and accounting obligations; and requiring the disclosure of officials' remuneration and pecuniary and financial interests.
That is why we have gone further and said that we also support making the Australian Securities and Investments Commission the regulator of the most serious contraventions of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. We have said we will give the general manager of the Fair Work Commission an additional $4.5 million for increased monitoring of registered organisations. We have said we will extend current electoral funding laws to donations and expenditure relating to all elections managed by the Australian Electoral Commission such as those for union elections. We will also, incidentally, always support and continue to support the reduction of the disclosure threshold for political donations from $13,000 to $1,000 as part of our longstanding commitment to transparency. It would be terrific if the government backed us in that measure, which would increase transparency with political donations. We have also said that we will extend whistleblower protections to the private sector, registered organisations and the not-for-profit sector and that we will double the maximum penalties for all criminal offences under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act and introduce heavier penalties.
All of these measures are designed to ensure that, where there is bad behaviour, the people who are responsible are found, where it is appropriate, prosecuted and, when prosecuted, if found guilty, face all of the consequences of their actions. But we do not support reintroducing the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The ABCC has powers that are excessive and undemocratic. If re-established, the ABCC will have coercive powers to compel workers to secret interviews. They can be denied legal representation and threatened with imprisonment if they do not cooperate.
We support tough action, but we support one law for all. Any crime that happens in workplaces by an employer, by an employee or by a union delegate should be investigated by our crime-fighting agencies—the police or the Australian Crime Commission—and anyone who does the wrong thing in the workplace should pay the price. That is why, on Monday, Labor announced our plan to crack down on the types of workplace exploitation we have seen exposed recently by Myer, 7-Eleven, Pizza Hut and others.
Labor will bring in significantly increased penalties for employers who deliberately and systemically avoid paying their employees properly. We will increase protections against sham contracting and give the Fair Work Ombudsman more power to pursue employers who liquidate their companies in order to avoid paying the money they owe their workers, and we will make sure that temporary overseas workers are not being exploited and underpaid and that there is a level playing field for Australia workers. No-one—no union leader, no employer, no employee—should be able to get away with breaking the law, and we have got a plan to ensure that that happens.
The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], the associated Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2] and the proposed government amendments in the Senate fulfil a 2013 election commitment to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The bills fulfil this government's commitment in re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission and, in doing so, ensure it maintains the rule of law and drives productivity on commercial building sites and construction projects—onshore or offshore. The Labor government procrastinated for five years before the then workplace relations minister, Bill Shorten, gave in to union demands and abolished the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2012 and replaced it with a regulator with significantly reduced funding and powers. This bill will reverse Labor's changes to the law.
In recent times we have seen much of the bully-boy days return and, in the electorate of Macquarie, I have been personally contacted by several contractors—mum-and-dad business people—who have experienced threatening behaviour, including physical threats and, I am ashamed to say in Australia, death threats. This is not the Australian way. This is not mateship. This is not supporting Australian workers—mum and dads. This is 'cowering down' to bully-boy tactics, and, as a government, we must strive to provide an environment which will enable honest men and women to grow their business without intimidation and threats.
The main object of the bill is to provide an improved workplace relations framework for building and construction work to ensure that it is carried out fairly, efficiently and productively for the benefit of all building industry participants and for the benefit of the Australian economy as a whole. The weaker regulator established by the Labor government saw the removal of specific provisions aimed at addressing specific problems of industrial unlawfulness in the construction industry. With this, the current legislation, the Fair Work Building Industry Act, saw standards in the industry decline. This bill seeks to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which will put in place stronger laws of protection. It will introduce a new building code and new higher standards of workplace conduct on building contractors who seek to work on Commonwealth funded construction projects. This will enable equitable workplace practices that Australian workers should expect. Contractors that breach safety laws, underpay workers or breach migration laws will not be allowed to do Commonwealth funded work.
I reiterate that I have been approached in my own electorate of Macquarie about such behaviours, which are not acceptable. It caused the person, their family and those that they employ great stress and undue pressure that were not deserved. Bullying behaviours like this should not be accepted in our nation, nor should they be tolerated. We, as a government, recognise this and we are aiming to address it. Just this month, we saw CFMEU officials threaten to stop work on a Lend Lease project in Adelaide if a union flag was not moved to a more prominent position. This type of behaviour, I have to say, is unbelievable! Honest hardworking people deserve better and should not buckle to this type of culture.
This bill aims to improve the bargaining framework so as to further encourage genuine bargaining at the workplace level. Enterprise bargaining negotiations must be as harmonious as possible. They must be sensible and productive and should be tailored to the particular workplace. It will also uphold and promote respect for the rule of law and ensure respect for the rights of all building industry participants. The bill contains provisions to ensure that unlawful action, including unlawful industrial action and unlawful pickets, is dealt with appropriately. The bill includes the ability for the courts to impose significant penalties for individuals and organisations that participate in unlawful action. The bill will also provide effective means for investigating and enforcing the law. The Australian Building and Construction Commissioner will be able to exercise their power to obtain information quickly and effectively without being hindered by unnecessary bureaucratic red tape around the issue of examination notices. However, to ensure accountability and transparency, the use of these powers will continue to be reviewed and reported on by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The bill will also encourage productivity and the pursuit of high levels of employment in the building and construction industry. It will ensure that the government's policy to deliver the infrastructure of the 21st century is delivered on time and on budget.
The bill will create jobs and investment by ensuring employers and workers in the industry can get on with the job of growing businesses and creating more jobs without fear of intimidation. Led by the commissioner, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, via this bill, will ensure the rule of law is enforced with all sectors of the industry. The commissioner will have the critical task of monitoring, promoting and enforcing appropriate standards of conduct for building industry participants and referring matters to other relevant agencies and bodies as required.
The coalition said in 2013 that we would fix this because Labor did not. With this bill, we are striving to do just that.
It is extraordinary, but not surprising, that the first serious piece of legislation that the government has chosen to bring before the House as we open the 2016 parliamentary year is this bill. This bill was introduced—and failed—last year and reintroduced this year. It deals with extraordinary powers aimed at the Australian trade union movement. I say 'not surprising' for this reason: it has been the single animating force of every Liberal conservative government from the spat-wearing Anglophile prime ministership of Stanley Melbourne Bruce through to Prime Minister Menzies and Prime Ministers Howard and Abbott to attack those they see as their political enemies—the Australian trade union movement. So it is not surprising that the government has decided to introduce this bill as its first act in the 2016 parliamentary year.
It is, however, extraordinary. I am mindful of some of the reasons that the minister representing the minister in this House used when he justified the introduction of this bill. He said that it is essential to job creation and dealing with the economic and social wellbeing of this country. When you look at the problems we are facing as a nation, you will see that we have a health system in crisis, driven by the decisions of this government, with $57 billion worth of funds ripped out of the hospital funding agreements that were negotiated in good faith with state governments. That money has been withdrawn, so you have Liberal and Labor premiers around the country screaming out, 'Our hospital system is in crisis and it will fall over if there is not corrective action.' You would have thought that that would have been a priority for the government to address as its first act in the 2016 parliamentary year.
If they were not moved by the crisis in our hospital system, then they may have been moved by the crisis in our education system. Next week university students will be walking through the gates of universities throughout the country not yet knowing how much they will be charged for their higher education degrees when they conclude their studies. The government has kicked the $100,000 university degree proposition down the road, presumably until after the next federal election, to spring that on those unsuspecting university students later. That is hanging over the heads of university students as they walk through the gates of their universities for the commencement of the study year.
With school education you have education ministers around the country, of both conservative and progressive ilk, screaming out for certainty around funding for their schools. They are saying, 'Gonski got it right and we need certainty and additional Commonwealth assistance for the funding of our schools to ensure they are funded on the basis of needs.' You might have thought it would be a priority for the government to introduce legislation and corrective measures in the first week of a new parliamentary year. But no, that is not on the agenda either.
A minister representing the employment minister might have thought that putting in place some measures to deal with the issue of jobs and job security for Australians—the problem we are having with offshoring, even of government work—or giving some certainty around penalty rates and take-home pay might have been a priority for the government as well. But no, that is not a priority. We have this false debate going on around tax reform. In question time yesterday we had the Prime Minister contradicting his Treasurer about what we are proposing to do in relation to tax reform. It is a debate without a purpose. You might have thought we would have some more clarity on that issue within the first parliamentary week of a legislative year. But we have had none of these things. These are not the priority for the government. It appears the priority for the government is the same priority that has animated every conservative government since the beginning of Federation, which is to stick the boot into those they perceive to be their political enemies—the Australian trade union movement.
We oppose this legislation. We oppose the motivation and we oppose the legislation. Whether or not all of those issues applied, there are some specific issues that would still move me to stand here at the dispatch box and oppose the bill that is before the House. Going to some of the specifics of the bill, we have had the shadow minister stand here and deal with some of the broad issues concerning the royal commission—the way it has been handled, even over the last week. The minister responsible in the other place seems to have created an issue over whether all sides of politics, all representatives, will have access to the full volumes of findings by the royal commission. Confusingly, surprisingly, that has become an issue over the last week. But I do not intend to make contributions in relation to those issues. I want to go, specifically, to some of the measures that are in the bill and talk about some of the issues that should be in legislation before the House but are not.
We oppose the bill because we stand—and I have stood, consistently, since my entry into parliament—opposing legislation that does not uphold the principle of equality before the law and proportionality between laws. I will confine my remarks, for this piece, in relation to these particular issues. If you look at the legislation and its explanatory memorandum you will see that chapter 6 sets out the intent of the legislation, which is to eliminate action that coerces a person by applying undue pressure or discrimination. A laudable intent—indeed, so laudable that it was at the heart of many of the reforms introduced by the, then, Labor government when it eradicated the Work Choices legislation and rewrote the Fair Work Act. Julia Gillard was the minister responsible for that legislation. There is no disagreement across the aisles on the need to remove coercive or discriminatory action within the workplace by whoever is applying such action.
If you thought that was the intent of the legislation and, then, moved to chapter 6, you would see hypocrisy within it. It is worth reading clause 62 in chapter 7 of the legislation. It goes to the powers of the ABC Commissioner. It is important to remember that the ABC Commissioner is appointed by the minister. He or she is not a judicial officer but has extraordinary powers granted to them if this bill succeeds. Clause 62 makes it quite clear that it will be an offence to fail to comply with a requirement, imposed by an examination notice, to produce documents or information. It will also be an offence to fail to take an oath or affirmation when required to do so and it will be an offence to fail to answer questions. These are extraordinary powers, and parliament should be very cautious before giving them to any arm of government.
We have been locked in debates, in this House, about whether it would be appropriate for the legislative arm of government to award these powers to the judicial arm of government, whether it would be appropriate to appoint these powers to a judicial officer, in a court of this land, to enable compelled evidence, in certain circumstances. I have heard many fine speeches that this is all about upholding the principle of the rule of law, but this proposition gives extraordinary power, to a Commonwealth officer, to compel people to give evidence.
Let us not forget that there are penalties associated with failing to comply with an information notice issued by the commissioner. You might think that a penalty would be constrained to a fine. Extraordinary powers? Maybe there are modest penalties associated with it. But no, there are not. Look at the detail of the legislation. I am sure that most of those who have stood on the government's benches and spoken in favour of this legislation have not turned themselves to the detail of it. The bill proposes that a maximum offence for failing to comply with compelled evidence is six months imprisonment. That is extraordinary. I mentioned at the outset that we on this side of the House believe it is incumbent on a responsible government to ensure that there is proportionality not only within the law and offences it must attend to but also between laws.
You are a Victorian, Deputy Speaker Broadbent. You may be familiar with a case that occurred within your jurisdiction and attracted a fair bit of attention a few weeks ago. A person received a custodial sentence for—what everybody in this House would agree was—an egregious set of events. This is a man who was high on ice, we are told, if the media reports are accurate. He was involved in a domestic argument with his partner who was trapped inside her vehicle—he could not coerce her out of the vehicle. So he attacked the car with a chainsaw. This was, clearly, an attempt to do grievous bodily harm to the person inside the car. We are not aware of the motivation. You might be surprised to learn, Deputy Speaker, that this person received a custodial sentence of six months. This is somebody who engaged in behaviour that every person in this parliament would agree deserves a stern punishment, a custodial sentence. It is absolutely appropriate.
Compare that to what coalition members are saying, in this legislation, is an appropriate penalty for refusing to incriminate themselves or somebody else: six months jail. You have to ask yourself: where is the proportionality? That is what they are seriously proposing. They are proposing six months jail for refusing to answer a question where the answer to that question might incriminate them. There is no proportionality. For over 200 years it has been an established principle, in common-law countries, that we do not support compelled evidence. And there is a very good reason for that. Usually the evidence is rubbish. Usually the evidence is unreliable. A person who is coerced into giving evidence, to whatever body it is, is probably not going to give the most reliable or truthful evidence. So, there is a very good reason that for over 200 years common law countries have put in place all sorts of structures to prevent these sorts of provisions within our statute book.
But here we have these so-called defenders of the rule of law, who want to stamp out lawlessness, seriously proposing that we enact legislation that will provide for coerced evidence and the failure of a person who is the subject of this coercion to give evidence under threat of a custodial sentence of up to six months. This is nothing short of extraordinary, yet those on the other side of the House are going to say that we are weak if we do not support it. Well, we do not support it, because we believe in proportionality. We do not support it because we do not have faith in compelled evidence, we believe in equality before the law, we believe in proportionality, and we believe in equality between laws, and this bill does not provide for that.
While we are on the subject of proportionality, let us look at the issues that they are not supporting: unpaid wages and coercion that occurs against employees in the workplace. These are the matters that should be within a bill before the House, not this rubbish that we are being asked to support.
I also rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. Surely a modern society such as ours—one that aspires to harmony, equality, the all-Australian fair go—would by definition deem bullying of any nature to be intolerable. However, a return to the bad old days of union thuggery and standover is exactly what has transpired with the Labor Party's abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2012. The final report of the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption reveals a litany of ugliness perpetuated on those honest, hardworking Australians who occupy the construction industry.
When those people who own or work for a small or medium enterprise wake up each day, genuinely fearing for the survival of their business, the livelihoods of their workers and in some cases the personal safety of themselves and their staff, something is terribly wrong. Abuse, threats of physical violence against individuals and families, personal and economic intimidation, sabotage, union black bans from the prospect of future work: how utterly dehumanising is all of this? Yet this much is also true: the construction industry in Australia provides many, many jobs for workers in small business, larger enterprises and contracting. The sector is critical to a productive, prosperous and internationally competitive Australia.
The coalition government recognises the importance of an industry that is vital to job creation and essential to Australia's economic and social wellbeing. The antithesis of wellbeing descends when workers are exposed to atmospheric fear, threats, intimidation and reprisals, knowing that unless they yield to the overlords of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union an arsenal of bullying firepower awaits, potentially destroying the viability of their business and with that their very future and that of their families. These bills re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a proven, robust watchdog that will trump the weakness of bullies by maintaining the rule of law to protect workers and builders and improve productivity on construction sites, both onshore and offshore. The bills prohibit unlawful industrial action, unlawful picketing, coercion and discrimination. Penalties sufficiently onerous to effectively deter will apply to breaches of these provisions. An array of other measures, such as injunctions, will also be available to the ABCC and those subjected to unlawful behaviour.
For background and for the benefit of members in the House, the shocking behaviour that blighted the construction sector for many years was tackled by the then workplace relations minister in the Howard government, the honourable member for Warringah, who in 2001 established a royal commission into the building and construction industry; the final report of that commission produced overwhelming evidence of the need for reform. The personal wounds—intimidation, lawlessness, thuggery and violence—rode in tandem with economic suffering—project delays and cost blow-outs—which stifled investment and jeopardised vital infrastructure and Australian jobs. The subsequent establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2005 quickly and unapologetically dealt decisively with the worst of it. It was a specialist regulator with teeth that went in hard and enforced the rule of law.
While the ABCC existed, building and construction industry productivity grew by more than nine per cent, consumers were better off by around $7.5 billion annually, and fewer working days were lost through industrial action. But the former Labor government, itself feeling the heat of its union masters, eventually caved in, and under the then workplace relations minister and now Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, the regulator was abolished. The bad days surged back: wildcat stoppages, militant protests, mates being hired ahead of nonunionists, and construction industry disputes escalating to a seven-year high.
The coalition committed to re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission to once again ensure the rule of law and productivity on commercial building sites and construction projects. At the last federal election the government was given a clear mandate by the Australian people to make this change. The central plank of these bills is to provide an improved workplace relations framework for building and construction work to ensure that it is carried out fairly, efficiently and productively, thus benefiting all who participate in the building industry and the Australian economy at large.
The bills will improve the bargaining environment to promote genuine negotiations, taking into account the uniqueness of each workplace. The bills uphold and encourage respect for the rule of law and the rights of all building industry participants. There are provisions to make sure that unlawful action, including unlawful industrial action and unlawful pickets, are dealt with appropriately. The bills enable courts to impose significant penalties for those individuals and organisations choosing unlawful action.
The Australian Building and Construction Commissioner will be empowered to gather information quickly and effectively, without the hindrance of bureaucratic red tape. However, to ensure accountability and transparency, these powers and their use will continue to be reviewed by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. The reinstated ABCC is not a corruption watchdog; it is an industry regulator, enforcing compliance with industrial and workplace laws.
Perhaps above all, these bills will spur productivity and employment in the building and construction industry. Industrial unlawfulness and breaching workplace laws inflicts billions of dollars in costs on the Australian economy and costs Australian jobs. The new laws will create jobs and investment by ensuring employers and workers can get on with the job, without fear of intimidation. We cannot allow entrenched unlawful union conduct within this incredibly important industry.
With all of the evidence of unlawfulness, the personal toll for everyday Australians and the cost to the Australian economy, those who do not support the restoration of the ABCC need to indisputably explain why. We need to do more in this parliament than members running into this chamber to protect their preselections and keep their union masters happy. We need members of parliament who will stand up for hardworking Australians and the right for them to participate in a lawful workplace, and for those reasons I commend these bills to the House.
There is a central tenet here in this debate, and that is that workers in the building and construction industry should be subject to the same laws that apply to other workers. That is consistent with the principle of equality before the law—a principle with which the now Prime Minister would have strongly espoused during his time as a lawyer and possibly even as recently as last year. The principles underpinning the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] potentially jeopardise those goals of equality and the principles of natural justice.
It is important that we get out of the way one of the canards in this debate. The government continually suggests that this bill will in some way deal with alleged criminal conduct, but the Australian Building and Construction Commission as proposed would govern civil behaviour, not criminal behaviour. As shadow minister O'Connor said on Lateline last night: if you are going to fight crime, empower crime-fighting agencies. We have the Australian Crime Commission, flowing out of a recommendation of the Costigan royal commission, which is targeted at dealing with criminal behaviour. It does not matter how often the government refers to criminal behaviour in the same sentence as it talks about its attempts to revive the construction watchdog; that does not change the fact that this is a civil regulator.
The creation of the ABCC in 2005 was the first time in Australian history that an industry-specific inspectorate had been legislated. It did not pursue or investigate breaches such as the underpayment of wages; instead, it operated in an aggressive, biased and coercive manner. It flowed out of the Cole royal commission. How history has a habit of repeating itself. The Cole royal commission—the royal commission in 2003—reported 392 supposed findings of unlawful conduct against employee organisations and individuals; not one led to a criminal conviction. The alleged breaches were technical breaches that had occurred up to seven years beforehand, yet that was used by the former Howard government, once they won control of the Senate, to justify their extreme industrial relations agenda.
Professor George Williams has been one of the most outspoken critics of the coercive powers that are proposed to be given to the ABC Commissioner, in particular section 62, which reads:
A person commits an offence if:
(a) the person has been given an examination notice; and
(b) the person fails:
(i) to give information or produce a document in accordance with the notice; or
(ii) to attend to answer questions in accordance with the notice; or
(iii) to take an oath or make an affirmation, when required to do so under subsection 61(5); or
(iv) to answer questions relevant to the investigation while attending as required by the examination notice.
That power, Professor Williams points out, could be used to require a person, for example, to reveal: all their phone and email records whether of a business or personal nature; report not only on their own activities but those of fellow workers; reveal their membership of an organisation, such as a union; report on discussions in private union meetings or other meetings or workers. It could be applied not only to a person suspected of breaching the law but also to innocent bystanders—families, children of any age, other workers in the industry, journalists, academics. Indeed, a priest could be required to reveal what had been said to them in the confessional. A breach of section 62 is subject to a penalty—imprisonment for six months. As I said earlier, this bill does not tackle criminal misconduct; indeed, the only criminal misconduct dealt with in this bill is the failure to give evidence and somebody remaining silent, as would be allowed in so many other parts of the law.
The protection against self-incrimination is absolutely vital. It has been described as a 'cardinal principle of our system of justice' and a 'bulwark of liberty'. As noted in the Australian Journal of Labour Law in 2008, in Environment Protection Authority v Caltex Refining Co Pty Ltd, Justice McHugh noted:
… that the privilege is important in preventing abuses of power by the executive in the exercise of its coercive powers. The privilege also assists by protecting the quality of evidence and by maintaining an accusatorial system of justice in which the burden of proof rests on the prosecution.
As Justice Murphy said in Pyneboard Pty Ltd v Trade Practices Commission, quoted in the same journal:
… the privilege 'protects the innocent as well as the guilty from the indignity and invasion of privacy which occurs in compulsory self-incrimination; it is society’s acceptance of the inviolability of the human personality'.
Professor Williams points out that safeguards are absent. There is no requirement for warrants, not even from a judicial officer as is common in other areas such as phone tapping or from the Attorney-General, as per ASIO powers. There is no review under the Administrative Decision (Judicial Review) Act despite this even applying to decisions to ban terrorist organisations under the federal Criminal Code. The grounds of review excluded for ABCC decisions include: a breach of the rules of natural justice; procedures required by law not observed; making the decision an improper exercise of power; fraud has taken place; and power exercised in bad faith or an abuse of powers.
The ABCC powers lack the backstop of a bill or a charter of rights because Australia lacks precisely those protections, so removing such natural justice in this context is particularly concerning. It has been said that the ABCC bill copies powers found elsewhere, and there are indeed similarities given to bodies such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. But the context is important. It might be inappropriate to give to a body dealing with industrial disputes a power appropriately given to ASIC to catch corporate criminals. Indeed, as Professor Williams has pointed out, other regimes do not apply in a discriminatory manner. We do not give ASIC special powers to investigate the automotive industry. Other regimes do not suffer from the same problem of overly wide definitions and a low threshold for the use of power. The ABCC law applies a criminal investigatory model to a non-criminal industrial context. Indeed, while evidence garnered in an ASIC civil prosecution cannot be used in a criminal prosecution, that is not the case for evidence which is gathered by the ABCC. So evidence could be gathered through the ABCC and somebody could be required to self-incriminate and then could be charged with a criminal offence. This is entirely at odds with what occurs in other parts of the law.
The government has suggested that it is merely reinstating the former ABCC. But that is not right either. This legislation extends the reach of the ABCC into picketing, offshore construction and the transport and supply of goods to building sites. Indeed, the minister has acknowledged as much, saying the definition of 'building work' also includes transporting or supplying goods to be used in building work. That means that the proposed ABCC would be an even greater encroachment upon the freedoms of Australians than was originally the case, applying not only to building workers but to drivers and anyone else involved in the transport sector.
By contrast, Labor is serious about cracking down on instances of worker exploitation. Last week the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow minister for employment and workplace relations and Lisa Chesters, the member for Bendigo and chair of Labor's Fair Work Taskforce, released Labor's plan to tackle serious cases of worker exploitation. These include Myer subcontractors employing cleaners on sham contracts, systematic exploitation in 7-Eleven stores, Pizza Hut delivery drivers being paid as little as $6 an hour and the widespread exploitation of workers by Baiada Group food processing factories, including workers being required to work dangerously long hours.
We have said that a Shorten government would crack down on the underpayment of workers, with significantly increased penalties for employers who deliberately and systematically avoid paying their employees properly. This would be done by ramping up protections for workers from sham contracting, strengthening legal protections for a worker's entitlements and increasing penalties. We would give the Fair Work Ombudsman more powers to pursue employers who liquidate their companies in order to avoid paying the money they owe their workers. And we would introduce reforms to ensure temporary overseas workers are not being exploited and underpaid and that there is a level playing field for all workers in Australia.
Our package of reforms builds on Labor's strong record of protecting wages and conditions and cracking down on worker exploitation, and that contrasts with the government's constant attack on the conditions of workers. At a time when the growth of wages is at an all-time low, we see the government trying to take away penalty rates for some of Australia's lowest-paid workers and failing to recognise that penalty rates protect the weekend. Penalty rates protect the civic fabric of Australia by recognising that those who are required to work on the weekend should be appropriately compensated.
Let us recognise this bill for what it is—an attack on unions. At a time when unions are under fire, it is vital to recognise the role trade union plays in dealing with inequality in Australia. Inequality in Australia is now at a 75-year high, and over the last generation the wages of the top tenth of workers have grown three times as fast as those of the bottom tenth. We have seen the top one per cent of earners' share of total wealth double and the top 0.1 per cent of earners' of total wealth share triple. And the richest three Australians now have more wealth than the poorest one million Australians.
In the face of this extraordinary rise in inequality, unions are the strongest social institution to fight against inequality. Work by Roger Wilkins and Jeff Borland has estimated that about a third of the rise in inequality in Australia is due to the decrease in the trade union membership rate. Unions mostly campaign for low-wage workers by arguing for dollar pay increases rather than percentage pay increases. Dollar pay increases benefits those at the bottom more than those at the top. Unions focus on instances of pay inequity across workplaces and across industries. Unions brought a critical case, a landmark case, for social and community sector workers who had been underpaid because their work was being done in female-dominated industries. That will see greater equality in the Australian workplace. The equal-pay cases of 1969 and 1972 were spearheaded by workers. Pay equality for Indigenous Australians was spearheaded by the union movement. The union movement worked hard to ensure a more equal Australia.
We know that a more equal Australia brings a range of benefits. Equality is good for mobility. Countries which have a smaller gap between the top and the bottom are countries where it is more likely that a kid born into poverty can make it to the middle class. One of the reasons why America is becoming an increasingly static society is that inequality has risen so markedly over recent years. By contrast, the more egalitarian Scandinavia is a more mobile part of the world. It is true, too, even if you look within the United States. Recent work by Raj Chetty and co-authors has shown that cities in the United States that are more unequal tend to be more immobile. So, even if you do not care about inequality, you should care about mobility, about the notion that the circumstances of a child's birth do not determine their life chances.
Inequality can corrode our policy. It can lead to excessive campaign contributions, skewing policy outcomes away from what the majority of Australians want. Inequality is fundamentally out of touch with the Australian fair go, which says that every Australian ought to have the same life chances and says that we are a country that does not much like tipping, does not have private areas on beaches and prefers calling each other 'mate' to calling each other 'sir'. Australians who believe in this egalitarian ideal should support the work of trade unions—organisations that have systematically fought for a more egalitarian Australia.
I am pleased to rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill, and related bill, for the second time in this parliament. This debate reminds me of an experience I had when I was about five years old. There was a television program on the ABC back then which was called Bill and Ben, the Flower Pot Men. Bill and Ben were puppets. They would come out from the bottom of the garden and have their little skit on the program when the gardener went for lunch. I can remember as a five-year-old child watching that on the ABC. Bill and Ben would pop up out of their little flowerpots. I can remember being upset because I could see the strings on the puppets as they were being moved. That is exactly what I see today: I see the strings on the members from the Labor Party who come into this chamber and try to defend their opposition. The strings are being pulled by their union masters. There can be no reason why anyone in this parliament would oppose this bill unless they were acting as a puppet for a union master. When they come into this chamber and try to oppose this bill, I can see the strings being pulled by their union masters.
We saw in the royal commission into trade unions recently the comments of the royal commissioner, Dyson Heydon. I think it is worthwhile quoting some of the comments about what he found in the building and construction industry and the union movement in particular. He said that corruption was 'widespread and deep-seated'. He said:
It is clear that in many parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts.
Those who are opposed to setting up the Building and Construction Commission are doing the work of those louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers and those who threaten violence.
This is not an attack on unions in any way. This is about the productivity of the nation. The honourable member at the bench talked about equality. I am thinking about the amount of wealth that is lost to this country—which I am sure the other member would like to distribute—because of the unlawful practices by his mates in the union movement. We were reminded of that yesterday by letter by Terence Cole, the former royal commissioner. He reminded us that, previously, the Australian Building and Construction Commission saved the economy up to $6.3 billion by reducing unlawful union action before it was axed by the Labor government in 2012. The honourable member from the Labor Party is so concerned about inequality in this country. I ask him: can he think of what could be done with that extra $6.3 billion in wealth that could be created if the commission were reconstituted?
He referred to the former commissioner. I quote from the article by Joe Kelly in The Australian:
Mr Cole said the abolition of the ABCC by the Gillard government meant that 'unlawful and inappropriate conduct was again prevalent' in the construction industry.
He said it was taxpayers who would bear the greatest cost of this. He said it was $6.3 billion a year in 2012. We cannot afford the loss of this wealth in this nation at this particular time of our history, or at any time of our history, just because a few in the Labor Party want to look after their union mates, the union bosses.
We should also consider what it does to our international reputation. No-one needs reminding of the scenes we saw last year. This was merely weeks after the Australian Building and Construction Commission was abolished—a shameful day in this parliament. We saw violence on the streets in the City of Melbourne. We saw militant union protesters intimidating the community and their supporters attacking police horses. We even had workers on the site, who were just trying to earn a living to pay their bills and provide for their families, having to resort to purchasing advertisements in the Herald Sun with an open letter to their own union bosses asking for the blockades to stop so they could merely earn a buck to feed their families. Images of these protests were seen on television screens around the world.
In this country, we are competing for capital from around the world and to attract investment that will provide growth and create jobs. What message would it send to a potential investor who is considering investing millions, tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in the Australian economy to create jobs and wealth when they see those scenes on TV and think that the alternative government of this country, the Australian Labor Party, actually abolished the ABCC? What message does that send? What destruction of potential wealth does that cause? Those that oppose this bill should be damned.
It is not about attacks on trade unions. Trade unions have always had an important role in our country and always will have in industries where there is a great concentration of power, where workers do need legitimate protections from firms that have substantial market power against them. It is important that we have a viable and lawful trade union sector. Trade unionists need to know that the money they pay in union fees, their hard-earned money, is being spent on lawful activity in their best interests, not in the interests of the union bosses. Sadly, we have seen what has happened over the last two decades. From August 1992 to August 2014, we saw a decline in trade union membership in this country from 40 per cent to just 15 per cent. So, members of the Labor Party, if you are really interested in strong and viable trade unions and you want to arrest the massive decline in the number of trade unionists in this country, you should be supporting this legislation. Otherwise trade union membership will continue to decline, because trade unionists—good, hardworking people who work on building sites, work long hours, start early in the morning and often do very dangerous jobs—need to know that their union membership fees are being put to good use and are not going to be used in unlawful and illegal activity. They should be the very first and foremost to hope that the representatives of the Australian Labor Party will support the reinstitution of this commission. But, shamefully, today we can see the strings.
This is also an election commitment by the coalition government. We took this policy to the 2013 election and spelt it out in crystal clear language. Our policy was to reinstate the Building and Construction Commission. For that reason alone we were given an overwhelming mandate at the 2013 election to reintroduce this commission. Yet the Labor Party, with their mates the Greens in the other place, are attempting to defy that mandate—to defy the will of the Australian people. They are acting against the interests of their own union members that support them, all because, as I said, we can see the strings. They are acting merely as puppets for their puppet masters, the union bosses.
In conclusion, the coalition government is committed to doing all that is necessary to reform the building and construction industry and to reinstitute the rule of law in this sector. The coalition government wholeheartedly believes that workers deserve to be able to go to work each day without the fear of being harassed, intimidated or subject to violence. We know that the former Labor government undermined and damaged confidence in the building and construction industry by abolishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission. We have seen a return to lawlessness, an increase in the number of days off work, and situations where work is simply not being done and billions of dollars of wealth is being destroyed.
As a nation we cannot afford to have a building and construction industry which is inefficient and unstable. The restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the code which supports its work is a crucial reform for the benefit of our nation. The contents of this bill reflect this commitment, and I commend it strongly to the House.
I rise to speak against the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] again. It is nothing more than an ideological attack and a vendetta against a group of workers. This government is singling out an industry and a group of workers who work in some of the most dangerous workplaces in our country, where safety on the job and in the workplace cannot be underestimated.
Who are these workers that this government is calling thugs, as the previous speakers on the government side are? They are people who, when there is a workplace injury, are the first at the hospital. The groups of workers that I met with yesterday, and have met throughout my time as an MP, tell stories about how, when they are injured at the workplace and facing life-threatening injuries, when their families turn up to the hospital they are met by CFMEU organisers and officials. Quite often it is the secretary of their local branch. They talk about how the CFMEU are not thugs and how they are family, and how, when their family members are most in need, it is the union that is there to support them.
I have also met with people who have tragically lost a partner—a partner who has fallen to their death or been killed on the site. Again, they talk about the family of the CFMEU who are there to condole with them, to talk to them, to offer counselling and to be there to support them. These are the people that MPs on the government side in this place are calling thugs. These are the people who this government is demonising in the media—people who get up every day to make sure that people who work on construction sites have a safe workplace and return home.
The safety issues that we have in the construction industry cannot be ignored. I note that many on the other side talk about the economic benefits from the ABCC, and I question their figures. But what they do not talk about is that, during the time of the ABCC, workplace injuries on our construction sites were up. Workplace deaths on our construction sites were up. This government is willing to compromise safety in our workplaces for their vendetta against an Australian trade union, and that is what it needs to be called out for.
Our CFMEU organisers and members make sure that their industry is safe, and I quite often hear from people in my own electorate: 'If it wasn't for the union speaking up about safety, I would fear speaking up myself. I'd fear being targeted and I'd fear not being asked to return to the next job.' In construction, your work relies upon the next job. So coming together and having that strong voice ensures that they are a collective speaking up for collective issues.
In my own area of Bendigo, we respect the work that the CFMEU do to support our local schools. Recently they held a Christmas party for the end of the year break-up. They kindly extended the invitation to Kalianna, a special school in my electorate. Every year they invite the students of the primary school division to come and enjoy a day. It is always a wonderful day for those students and their teachers, and every year the students look forward to it. Is this the action of a group of thugs? No, it is not.
Construction workers, like all of us, have families, and, every time this government stands up and bags them out and calls them thugs, they are not only offending the people who work in the construction industry; they are also targeting their families. This government does not seem to mind that they are targeting an entire family. We saw, under the ABCC, some pretty terrible breaches of privacy and some pretty terrible breaches of what you would call basic rights—people rocking up in the middle of the night to try to find a worker and, not being able to find that worker, handing ordering notices to their partner. To be handed something like that on your doorstep suggests that your husband or your partner is a criminal—and that could not be further from the truth.
This government is standing up and saying that this is about getting rid of criminal behaviour on building sites. The ABCC governs civil, not criminal, behaviour. So this is another furphy that has been put forward by this government. Nobody wants to see criminal behaviour in any workplace. If there are threats of violence, call the police. That is what should be done. If there are threats and intimidating behaviour, call the police. Regardless of the workplace, that behaviour should not be tolerated and the police should be called. But do not come in here and pretend that the ABCC is about criminal behaviour, because it is not. Its whole purpose is actually about governing civil behaviour. It is about pursuing an ideological agenda. It is about trying to distract the Australian people from what the government is trying to do in workplaces, and that is to weaken wages and conditions.
I also note that this government likes to call out and criticise the CFMEU when they are the whistleblowers on some pretty shocking exploitation of 457 and 417 visa workers. Almost daily, we are hearing about more cases of exploitation of people who are here as guest workers, temporary workers, in this country. One of the first unions and groups of workers to be out there talking about this issue was the CFMEU. There are cases we have all heard about over and over again, whether it be the Irish backpackers being ripped off in South Australia and Western Australia or the Chinese and Filipino workers being ripped off in Victoria and New South Wales. These are issues that this government is choosing to ignore.
Some of the construction companies who are engaging in the exploitation of these visas happen to be Liberal Party donors. So that is perhaps why they are going after the union that has blown the whistle on the exploitation of these workers rather than going after the companies that have exploited these workers. In one particular case, through the Fair Work Ombudsman and the work of the union, almost a million dollars in entitlements has been recovered for those Filipino workers who were engaged here on 457 visas. This government is doing nothing to clean up the exploitation of temporary workers on building sites. If they were serious about cleaning up that exploitation, they would be introducing a commission that would look at the roles contractors and subcontractors are playing, and how they are engaging people here on temporary visas. We are not seeing that. Instead, we are seeing them go after the very people who every day go to work to make sure people get paid a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. They are about creating division in the workplace. They are not about creating harmony in the workplace.
When the ABCC was created, in 2005, it was the first time in Australian history that an industry-specific inspectorate was legalised. It operated in an aggressive, biased and coercive manner. It did not pursue or investigate breaches such as underpayment of wages, or safety concerns. It purely and simply investigated the behaviour of union officials, who, as I said, go to work every day to make sure that workplaces are safe.
If the result of an ABCC is an increase in workplace deaths and injuries, then you should be ashamed. You should not be trying to bring it back into this parliament, but this is what this government is doing. They need someone to bully and they have chosen it to be the construction industry.
A further concern I have with this particular bill is that it sets out a separate set of laws for a group of workers we have in our community and economy. I believe there should be one set of laws for all, regardless of where you work. Whether you are a cleaner, a teacher or a construction worker, there should be the same set of rules for all. Singling out the construction industry just demonstrates how ideologically driven this government is. Why is it that this government believes that our construction sites deserve these special rules? Is it because they are vocal? Is it because they speak up? Is it because they are there and they see the pain and anguish on family members' faces when their loved one has had a serious workplace injury?
I challenge all members opposite to actually meet with some of these workers, to meet with the family members and hear first-hand their stories about what it means to get that shocking news that your partner has had an injury at work, or worse still, has lost their life, having been crushed or killed on a worksite. I challenge those opposite to hear the stories from the organisers about why they believe it is so critically important that they are there to support people. If we are going to have safe workplaces, to ensure that deaths and injuries are minimised, there needs to be cooperation between the workforce and the employers. In the past, we have seen that relationship develop with our good employers, ensuring that we have safe workplaces. But with this government and their green light, we are seeing that relationship start to collapse.
This particular government vendetta against the CFMEU cannot be underestimated. Daily in parliament they love to tear this union apart—tear them apart and say that they are the devil and they are costing our country billions. It is just empty rhetoric and it is just not true. This government needs to do more to support a strong union movement, not less. This government needs to be encouraging positive relationships between workers, unions and employers.
On this government's watch we are seeing a collapse in workplace conditions as major companies seek to outsource more and more of their jobs. So, rather than taking the responsibility of directly employing people, under this government's watch we are seeing more and more of these jobs go to subcontractors. People in the construction industry, like the cleaning industry, are made to get ABNs, cover their own worker's compensation and cover their own superannuation. They are made to work for an ABN, because that is their only choice. Get an ABN and become your own contractor and take on all the risk: 'I will not take on any of it, or you do not get the job.'
Given the number of people who are here working on temporary visas and who have the same conditions, the workers feel like they have no choice. On the government's watch they are putting safety at risk, the conditions in our workplaces are becoming harder, and we are actually seeing wages go backwards. You do not have to be a genius to know that when wages go backwards people are spending less. It is actually bad for the economy if people are not earning a wage to keep up with the basics and the cost of living.
Yet, rather than doing something to tackle the creation of jobs in our economy, that we have good, secure jobs that people can count on, and that we have a fair temporary migration scheme that does not see overseas workers pitted against Australian workers—that they are being exploited—we are seeing this government time and time again put legislation into parliament that goes after the very organisations that are seeking to support Australian workers and Australian workplaces. The language used when entering this bill was to threaten to go to a double-dissolution. Good on the senators in the other place for staring the government down and saying they will not be bullied on this legislation.
What the government does not understand is that Australians understand that construction is a tough job and it is one where there is high risk. I have just returned from Cambodia, where I was on a Save the Children delegation. The building unions over there talked about some of the unsafe practices they have—people who turn up to work in thongs; people without the proper safety gear; people who do not receive proper inductions on safety; people who are forced to work very long hours in unsafe conditions. It used to be that way in Australia before we had workers come together and form unions and campaign for safer workplaces. All this government is trying to do is pull apart one of the unions that make sure, as best as possible, that workers go home at the end of the day.
There have already been a number of deaths this year on construction workplaces in our country. Every year the Victorian Trades Hall has a memorial. Last year they put out a pair of shoes from every worker who had lost their life on a building site. They stood there with the families and had a minute's silence. They said, 'We will do our best to make sure there are not as many shoes put out on display next year.' These are not the actions of thugs. These are the actions of proud, compassionate people standing up for their fellow workers. This bill should be voted down and withdrawn.
As we can see from the preamble, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill purports to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission in order to return to stronger regulation of unlawful conduct in respect of the rule of law within the framework of the construction industry. People here will not be surprised that I oppose the reintroduction of the ABCC. Like many on my side of the House, I have had a connection with the trade union movement. But it is not because of that that I take a strong view on this issue. I have two sons who work in the construction industry, and I will return later to some of their experiences which, quite frankly, indicate that we do need strong representation in industries like the construction industry—strong representation so people can stand up against injustices. Moreover, we need another set of eyes determined to look at safety issues in that industry.
I oppose this bill. The re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is an oppressive move. Its powers are extreme and the legislation is heavy-handed. There is the ability to conduct secret interviews and it provides for the imprisonment of people for up to six months for failing to cooperate. The commission has coercive powers. Bear in mind that the Building and Construction Commission is a civil regulator. We all talk about due process, and that is right. I participated in the debates about the Australian Crime Commission, and I know many here opposed the coercive powers given to the commission. But we supported that. We supported coercive powers going to a body designed to fight serious and organised crime. That body has extensive coercive powers—it can direct cooperation, it can direct the production of material, and failure to comply can render someone liable to imprisonment. We take criminal justice seriously, and that is why we supported those propositions.
Back in 2009, in government, we supported extending the powers of the ACC so it had the ability to target serious criminals in respect of unexplained wealth. Those sitting opposite, and indeed the current Attorney-General, opposed the application of those powers—they watered them down so much that the power of the Australian Federal Police to prosecute serious and organised crime was rendered impotent. They did that because they did not want to impinge upon the rule of law. That shows you their view of the application of criminal justice and fighting serious and organised crime, but when it comes to fighting workers in the construction industry they say, 'We have a civil jurisdiction and we will vest them with these coercive powers—the power to command and direct attendance, to produce material and the ability to conduct secret interviews—but we will do it for one class of worker in one industry.'
As I said at the outset, I am a former trade union official. I certainly will not support people who are doing the wrong thing in any way. We do not support criminality, and none of us should. Whether it is unions or industry or a conglomerate of people acting inappropriately, we do not support injustice. The trade union movement exists because there is a need. It exists to protect people. Returning to my sons, both Nicholas and Jonathan work in the construction industry—a pretty torrid industry in some cases; there is no doubt about that. My son Nicholas was working with a fly-in fly-out operation in Western Australia. I remember getting the call the night that a person he was working with got crushed to death. Cutting corners has consequences. The idea of having a strong and committed set of eyes looking at workplace safety is not an industrial thing—that should be something that we all subscribe to. That is the experience of my own family. I have met with many workers and their families who have told me about similar aspects of their work. In many instances they are not who you would see as red-hot trade unionists—they are people who subscribe to the union so it can play a safety role and monitor and improve workers' conditions.
This legislation has been introduced by the same conservative government that brought in Work Choices not all that long ago. Many of us were around at that stage; many of us went to work sites. When I was the member for Werriwa I remember visiting a site and being told that workers were being paid less than the award rates of pay. Those sitting opposite, under John Howard at the time, made it legal for the first time in this country to attack workers generally and to pay them less than the award rate of pay. I remember talking about this to a director of this company, who occupied a very senior international sporting position as well. I got along with him very well, and I asked why he was doing this. In fairness to him, he said he did not have an answer but he would get back to me. He went to his next board meeting and then he rang me up and said, 'Chris, you are not going to like the answer—the answer is that we are doing it because the laws permit us to do it.' He said that, simply put, they were going to look after the people who own the company—the shareholders—and if they could use legislation to their advantage then they believed they had an obligation to do it. They got workers on minimum award rates to sign away benefits under individual contracts—it was either sign a contract or no job. They were being paid less than the award. All this hoo-ha that the government is not after unions or trying to suppress workers is fanciful.
It was not all that long ago that we heard people over there talking about a need for greater flexibility in the workplace—'We need to do away with weekend penalty rates.' I do not know about the people opposite, but I suspect that they have people in their electorates, like in mine, who are working class people. These are people who are working to provide a home, to send their kids to school and to have a life for the family, and who are dependent on their total wage take, which includes penalty rates. People over there think that is very trite. They say, 'Saturday and Sunday are no different than any other day of the week these days. Workers in hospitality should just suck it up. Retail workers—well, anyone can go shopping at any time.' Where does this stop? What about our police, who I spent a lot of time representing before I came into politics in 2005? What does it do to the ambulance officers who my little brother now looks after in the HSU? What about all these other groups out there that have a role providing services to our community at unsavoury times—weekends, Christmas Day and outside normal working hours? They are all impacted. We see this as more than just an issue of another piece of draconian legislation coming from this government. This is now, as I say, a very specific attack on a class of people and on a particular industry.
I certainly rail against singling a group out like this. I read about and was concerned about, like everyone else, what flowed out of the royal commission into trade unions. I was also concerned by the way it was all started—that it was set up as a body to attack the Leader of the Opposition. With some of the things that emerged there, you would have to say, 'They were wrong,' but let us look at someone those opposite actually took credit for—Kathy Jackson. I remember Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and others waxing lyrical that this woman was a heroine and a standout in the trade union movement. She was a woman who had dedicated herself to ridding the organisation of corruption. What happened to their champion—the one they held up? She was the very person who made the approach to the Abbott government about setting up a royal commission. She has been referred by the commission to prosecutors for possible charges. She seems to have committed a litany of indiscretions which pale into insignificance when you see what this legislation is trying to address. By the way, the commission did not catch her. If it were not for Brad Norington and The Australian, she would have just flitted along. Bear in mind, she did say that the solicitors in the royal commission helped to draft her deposition, so she must have been regarded as being a pretty high quality, positive witness for them at one point in time, before The Australian newspaper outed her. What about Michael Williamson from the HSU? He certainly was not caught by that royal commission either. As I recall, it was Operation Pendennis, with the New South Wales police using existing powers to find and prosecute criminality.
This piece of legislation is to make good on the government's secret promises to employers: 'If you elect us, while we have already given a public undertaking that we're not going to touch workplace relations, we will do this. We'll re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. We'll show you that we're going to be hard on workers.' This is their first big entry back into Work Choices. This will give coercive powers to a civil jurisdiction—not a criminal jurisdiction, a civil jurisdiction. It will give the workplace regulator powers which are almost unparalleled throughout the rest of our democracy.
If we are going to vest this organisation with such extreme powers, why is it that those opposite cannot commit to the retention of the Safe Rates tribunal, which was set up to ensure that our heavy-haulage road users are not subject to adverse price pressures from Coles, Woolworths and other major retail providers that put downward pressure on transport rates, impacting on the lives of everyone who uses the road? They are deathly silent about that. They are not going to talk about those issues. It is not that that is only in the interests of members of the Transport Workers Union; it is in the interest of every road user to ensure that people are not cutting corners, adopting unsafe work practices or tampering with the odometers on their trucks to circumvent regulation to drive additional miles at lower rates of pay simply to make a living. The government will not commit to that.
As I said, they made it very clear that penalty rates should be on the agenda. They said, 'For retail workers and for hospitality workers, it's fair enough that you lose your penalty rates, but believe us—trust us—we don't mean it's going to happen to police officers, ambulance officers, nurses or anybody else who works unfriendly hours.' I know those opposite. I was about to say that they probably do not believe this, but they probably still do—once you start this, the thin edge of the wedge is going to proliferate through it. This is the beginning of Work Choices. They are being true to what they promised before the election. They said, 'Whilst we're not going to touch workplace relations legislation, we will demonstrate to employers out there that we're going to be tough on workers.' If you are going to be tough on workers, I think you should be tough on workplace compliance to health and safety regulation. You should be tough on compliance when it comes to overseas workers and the way they have been engaged and exploited in the Australian workplace. You should be tough on employers who have used, as 7-Eleven did, a contrivance to pay people half the award rate of pay. By the way, I do not recall anyone sitting on that side of the parliament getting up and commenting about any of those issues—any of them.
I oppose this legislation. It is only making good on election promises made by the conservatives. This is the start of Work Choices all over again.
I like the member for Fowler. He is a good man, and we should have more good men in this place, and I appreciate the pressure he is under to stave off the current member for McMahon and hold his seat. We think he should be a lay-down misere to hold the seat of Fowler and give good representation to the people of New South Wales.
My basic philosophical position on this is that the Labor Party has never met an election promise to which they did not object. So the member for Fowler—who should be a minister—sits there and says that this is a surprise and that this is a contrivance by the coalition, yet this was a clear election commitment and issue. Tony Abbott, the then Leader of the Opposition, went to the election saying, 'One of the things we would do is we would bring back the ABCC. We cannot be clearer than that. If we win the election we want to bring back the ABCC to make sure that the construction sector has that strong cop on the beat to make sure that we are delivering safe and efficient workplaces without the interference of these thugs.'
Now, the worst part about the ABCC being rolled back is it was not rolled back because the construction sector was under fire, it was not rolled back by Labor because the construction sector was in disarray, it was not rolled back because the construction sector was working unsafely; it was rolled back because Labor had a philosophical position against it and it was their election promise—and it went through. We waved it through. So why don't you wave through our things?
The main object of this bill is to provide an improved industrial relations framework for building and construction work to ensure that it is carried out fairly, efficiently and productively for the benefit of all building industry participants and for the Australian economy as a whole. This bill was an election campaign promise from 2013. During the 43rd Parliament, the opposition leader Tony Abbott could not have been clearer with his discussions and his position on what the coalition would do should we win the election. And, hey presto, in September 2013 we won the election. We now hold the majority of seats in the House of Representatives and I do call on the crossbenchers to recognise that specific mandate: that we got elected with things to do.
From my perspective, what I would like to do here—for my people at home, to whom I will send this—is lay out the things on which we, on all sides of this parliament in both houses, should agree, and I believe that we all do agree. For the purpose of the exercise, I want to highlight what we, as a parliament, do and then what business does.
It is my strong belief that everyone in this building wants the following things in our construction sector. We want safe workplaces. We want safe working conditions. We want a pipeline of projects waiting to be done. We want investors, both government and private, lining up to do business. Both houses of parliament want apprentices in jobs learning their trade and making their way in the world. We want jobs for people in the design, engineering and trades who want to build a career and a future. But everyone who takes up a seat in this place also wants jobs for people who just want to work. We want jobs for people who just want to get through to Friday so they can spend time with their family and friends. On this, I think we, as a parliament, all agree.
Compare that to what my construction sector tells me at home. They want safe working places. They want safe working conditions. They want a pipeline of projects lined up waiting to be priced and won. They want the ability to make a dollar, to invest in their business and their community and to build a future for their family and their friends and the other businesses in the community. They want the ability to employ people who can provide the design, the engineering, the trades and the apprentices and the people who just want to work, who want to get through to Friday and spend time with the family and friends.
The big difference between the two is that if we do not deliver on this we still get paid but if business does not deliver on this no-one gets paid. When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull spoke about this yesterday, he said the ABCC is not an industrial relations issue as far as he is concerned, it is an economic issue. What we have to do is understand that the construction sector in our community is a huge economic driver, and everything we can do to make sure that the construction sector operates efficiently and to make sure that the profit is spread and the money washes all the way through our communities should be done.
Prior to 2007, we had the ABCC in place and the construction sector was thriving. The Gillard-Rudd governments came in with an election promise to get rid of it, and as soon as they came in it was cleared off the statute books, and then all hell fell in around projects in Melbourne and around the country. There are stories in my city of Townsville where CFMEU officials will walk up to a bloke who is a sole trader driving a truck or anything like that and poke him in the chest and say, 'You'll never get the job here.' That is the sort of thing that is happening on worksites around town.
To which point, and running alongside this, in my city we are running a Tenders for Townsville campaign. Townsville, as a city, is unique in this country. We are the only city of nearly 200,000 people that is 1,400 kilometres is away from capital city and that has a viable construction industry and varied economy. The largest city in South Australia outside Adelaide has 23,000 people. Drive 350 kilometres outside of Melbourne and you are in New South Wales. If you take out the cities of Wollongong and Newcastle and Sydney, the next largest city in New South Wales is Wagga Wagga at 60,000 people. We are 1,400 kilometres away, and yet the same tender processes work across the industry in Townsville as they do in the rest of the country. It simply does not work in Townsville.
We want to see the tender process altered to drive value for the taxpayer, drive competition and give my local contractors the best opportunity to hire and win work. If we can do that then we can drive those things there. In a city like Townsville we are getting fantastic support from the federal government and, to some extent, the state government in relation to the building of infrastructure around the city. The problem we have is that governments want tenders to be big—$100 million or $200 million. My local contractors cannot bank a $100 million tender or a $200 million tender; they can bank $20 million to $40 million tenders. If we can open up those things then we will be opening up opportunity for those tier 3 businesses—my small businesses. If the city of Townsville, the largest city in northern Australia, is to take that next step and be an important city in Australia, then we need our small businesses to grow into medium businesses. We need to be able to give our small businesses the opportunity to become a tier 1 or tier 2 contractor who can win these contracts and provide employment locally.
What we are seeing is that Lend Lease, Seymour Whyte or Watpac win the tender. They win the tender fair and square. They are doing nothing wrong, I want to be very clear about that. But the profit does not stay in our community; it goes back down to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. The profit is what drives further investment. In my city, when it comes to the construction industry, we not only have trouble getting work for people who are not aligned to a union; we have a problem with winning that job, driving that commitment through, and providing the second and third wash of that money through our community. That is what the ABCC can do in my city of Townsville. We should be opening up the tender process. We should be making sure that we are doing the best possible thing for the taxpayer and getting as much competition around these jobs as we can. We should ensure that we are driving these things as well as we possibly can and getting the best result for the taxpayer. That is what the ABCC should be about.
That is what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is talking about when he says the ABCC is not industrial relations to him, it is a huge economic lever. The construction industry is so vital to everyone in Australia, but nowhere is it more important than in Queensland. If we are talking seriously about the development of northern Australia, then we have to make sure that the work is being done in northern Australia and that the profit is being used to drive through more things for northern Australia. It is one of those things—
An incident having occurred in the gallery—
Sorry, I am making the kids cry! Government infrastructure is hugely important. You must have the bridges, the roads, the sheds, the hospitals and those sorts of things. But what we need to do is make sure that the people building these things are the ones who are buying trucks and cars and sending their kids to school and buying houses and living in our community. If we continue to push down this line of not changing anything, of not being innovative in the way we deliver work and make sure we drive the best possible result for the taxpayer, then my city will not see the second and third wash of that profit from infrastructure.
That goes for private as well as government work. At the moment, we have a situation where a large private employer has awarded a tender to an out-of-town provider. He has been pilloried in Townsville, as he should be. The ABCC is central to making sure that when a person goes on site—whether they are a large corporation, whether they employ 100 people or whether they are just one bloke and a truck— they are treated with the respect they deserve. That person is trying to make a living. That person has a family, a wife and kids at home, who are trying to make a living. If they do not feel comfortable going onto a site—or if they are getting pulled up at the gate and poked in the chest by someone who says, 'There's no job for you here, mate, because you're not a member of the union and we have the say over what goes on here'—that is wrong. That is un-Australian. That is unfair.
I go back to what business wants and what we as a parliament should be wanting. We want safe workplaces. We want everything that should be here. My small businesses are saying to me that, if they had the ABCC on site in Townsville, there are jobs they would be getting and they would be making money. You would not see the sole trader driving a truck on one rate and the other bloke on an EBA getting another rate. Those are the things that the ABCC can, and should, look at. Those are the things we need to do. That is hugely important in my city and hugely important to my region. My small businesses demand that the ABCC be a critical part of redeveloping the construction industry.
There is a baby up in the gallery that was crying before. It is important that, when that baby comes through and wants to get a job, they are able to get a job in a firm that is not a great big conglomerate but a firm somewhere in Australia that is able to do something and develop its own community. So I say: good on the coalition for bringing this forward. I am 100 per cent with Michaelia Cash, the Minister for Workplace Relations, on this. We need to get this thing through. The crossbenchers really need to understand this. We were prepared to fight an election on this—and we will do it again. But it should not be necessary. This was a central plank to our winning in 2013, and that should be respected. I thank the House.
Not far from here, there is a great little development down in New Acton—the Nishi precinct. There is a couple of hotels there. There are restaurants, offices and apartments there. I think a lot of people would agree it has brought a lot of life to that little area of Canberra. But for Jason, who I want to tell the parliament about today, it nearly cost him his life. Jason started work on a job at the Nishi precinct when he was 21. We heard a lot from the previous speaker about people who just want to get on, get ahead and get a job. Jason started there as a young worker. And many young workers are a little afraid of their boss. You want to keep your income coming in. You presume that the other people around you know what they are talking about. You presume that, if your boss tells you to do something, they know what they are doing and have your best interests at heart. Jason was working with other people on that site. They were working in pairs on various floors and levels of the buildings. At one point the boss said to him, 'I want you two to split up your pair because we'll get the job done quicker that way'. Jason was not sure—he was a bit apprehensive, being new to the job—but he went up to one of the higher levels as he had been told. Jason fell several metres. He landed on his back and he broke it, and he lay in a hole for a couple of hours until people came and found him. Obviously, his fellow workers were distressed. Jason was taken to hospital for treatment. That was several years ago. He is still not working and fulfilling the dream he began—on that day back at that site—to become a carpenter, here, in Canberra and provide for himself and his family. It has been a long hard road to rehabilitation for him and he is still not fully fit.
Who looked after him and who came and helped when he found himself in that dire situation? Was it the government inspectorate and the forerunner of the ABCC, the Fair Work and Building Commission Inspectorate, headed by the person this government wants to head up their new ABCC? No. It was the union. The union came and spoke to him, looked after him and got him back into rehabilitation. It is now helping him find a new job. It is not his ideal job but it has helped him get back on his feet.
It is the same story with Pam who lives in Adelaide. Last year Pam sent her husband off to work, one morning, and her last words to him were, 'Be careful of the scissor lift at work.' He was going off to work not on some small site; he was working on the Royal Adelaide Hospital site, a big government project. He did not come home that day. He is never coming home. He was killed by that scissor lift. Who came and helped? It was not the government department. It was the union that came and helped. In fact, the only response by the federal government's authority was to prosecute the workers on site, because a couple of months beforehand they had walked off the job and had said, 'We're worried about safety, here.' That was the federal government's response.
The government comes along, here, and says, 'There are problems in the construction industry and we want more powers to deal with them.' Are they coming along and saying, 'There are too many people dying in the construction industry every week'? No. Are they coming along and saying, 'We're finding too many exploited workers coming in from overseas, working on $10 or $12 an hour or ABNs, and locals and apprentices are not getting enough jobs'? No. They are coming in and saying, 'We want you to give us more powers so that we can prosecute the very people at workplaces who are looking after the interests of people who turn up to work and do not come home at the end of the day.'
There are so many things we could be looking at if we wanted to fix up the construction industry. We could be looking at sham contracting, the practices whereby subcontractors—who are under a lot of pressure, sometimes, from big multinational developers—say, 'We'll give you a job but only if you pretend you're an independent business and come along with an ABN and look after your own insurance and holidays.' The government could be tackling sham contracting, but they are not doing it.
What are they doing? They are saying, 'We want to attack some people who sit on the opposite side of the political fence'—namely, the unions—'and we will turn a blind eye to everything else that is going on.' How do they want to do it? They want laws, from this legislation, that will give workers in the construction industry fewer rights than accused criminals, fewer rights than accused terrorists. This is because the government wants to set up a new secret police, in the construction industry, that will have the right to take workers off-site and pull them in for questioning. They will not have the right to silence. They will not be able to talk to others about the fact that they have been pulled in for this secret questioning.
It is a star chamber they want to set up. What is the supposed justification for it? They tell us the royal commission has had a look at the industry and has said it is necessary. We had a royal commission into the construction industry a few years ago. It produced a secret report that was full of claims of criminality. Do you know what? Not one criminal prosecution came out of the last commission they set up. They have set up another one because they did not get the answer they liked from the first one. This, too, 'has a secret report that is full of findings of wrongdoing and, really, you have to pass this legislation'.
When they said that to us, the Greens, we said, 'Okay, show us the report.' The government said, 'No. We are not going to show you the report. We are not going to show parliament the report, because it is too secret and too important.' They came back, a couple of days ago, realising that was probably not a clever answer. So they wrote us a letter late at night and said, 'We will let you look at it, but only one member of your parliamentary team can look at it and they have to sit in a room and look at it. They are not allowed to take notes and they are not allowed to tell anyone else what is in it.' They cannot go back and tell their colleagues what is in it. I think they made the same offer to the Labor Party.
As a result, the government is saying, 'If you are a chosen person, in this parliament, we will let you see this report but you cannot tell anyone about it. Everyone else can take us on faith that what is in there is so important that if you saw it you would change your mind and vote for this legislation.' If the government really thinks it has uncovered systemic widespread corruption, do what every other government has done: come to the parliament and put the facts on the table. The fact that they will not shows us that they know the real situation. The real situation in Australia is that in the construction industry there are too many deaths and injuries. But they do not want to talk about that.
There is another truth they are hiding from. If you really want to tackle corruption in Australia do, at a federal level, what they have done in New South Wales: establish a national corruption watchdog, a national ICAC, that would have the power to look at employers as well as employees, that would have the power to look at politicians as well as public servants and decision makers. If you want to tell me that the only corruption that exists in Australian society is a few building workers and that the rest of the industry is squeaky clean, if you want to turn a blind eye to the fact that on this government's watch one large construction company has been reported to have given $300 million to Saddam Hussein's regime—where is the royal commission into that? Why are you not holding a royal commission into the construction companies that are bribing Saddam Hussein's regime? Instead, you are picking your political enemies.
Enough is enough. It is time to stop using royal commissions and claims of corruption to gain political advantage, in this place. If you really want to tackle it and you are really serious, you will get rid of this bill. What you would have, instead, is a national anticorruption watchdog that can look at everyone without fear or favour. That way, if there is wrongdoing in the construction industry they will find it—but if there is wrongdoing elsewhere they will find that too. And the public will know it is not a political witch-hunt. The public will know it is being done even-handedly and without fear or favour. But at the moment we cannot have that confidence, because this government has never seen a union that it did not like and could not wait to attack and has never seen someone's rights at work that it was not prepared to take away as quickly as possible.
Other parts of this bill also deserve attention. Under this bill, if there is a clause in your local agreement at the workplace that says, 'We want to make sure that young Australians get a job, so we are going to guarantee that there will be X percentage of apprentices on this job, so that young people can be trained up', they are going to be able to put forward a new code that will have the force of law that will say you cannot do that. If you want a clause in your agreement that says, 'We're going to give a certain number of positions to Indigenous Australians to ensure that they get a step up' or 'We're going to have some requirements about local labour to ensure that local workers get some of the spoils of international investment and the mining boom', you cannot do it. Under this bill, the supposed free-market government is going to have a seat at every negotiating table around the country and is going to be able to write what is in and our of enterprise agreements around this country.
And they are going to be able to say, 'Oh, well, you might have negotiated yourself some good conditions, but we don't think they're good enough, so, by force of law, we're going to take them away from you.' And they are going to impose a code under this legislation that says, to a subcontractor or a small company, 'If you ever want to get work on a government job, well, you'd better not promise to take on more apprentices, you'd better not promise to take on more Indigenous Australians, you'd better not give the union representatives the right to come in and inspect safety, because if you want that we're not going to give you any work.'
So, with this bill the government is actually going out and saying that, for all the infrastructure they are going to build, and all the big projects, they are going to use that to ensure that young Australians do not get jobs, to ensure that there is less ability to monitor safety at workplaces. As we know, and have heard time and time again—and the stories I have explained to the parliament today are just the tip of the iceberg—the construction industry is dangerous, and it is where safety should be at its highest. And we know that the people who have the strongest interest in ensuring that everyone who turns up to work comes home safely are the workers themselves, and their representatives, which include their unions. Those representatives should have the right to walk onto a site and say: 'We're worried that this scissor lift might kill someone tomorrow. We're concerned that if you split people up and we're not there to inspect you and keep an eye on you another young man might fall to his death. We're worried that without the proper laws we're not going to ensure that enough locals get jobs.' They are the issues we need to be tackling.
On the question of so-called corruption, if there is one silver lining of the government bringing this bill before us it is that it might start a debate about how we can have an even-handed national anticorruption watchdog in this country. That is why I move the following second-reading amendment:
That all the words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
“the House declines to give the bill a second reading because the objective of dealing with alleged wrongdoing in Australian society would be better achieved by establishing a broad-based national anti-corruption watchdog.”
This is a no-brainer. If you asked most people in this country, 'Do you think that at a national level there should be a body that is able to look after everyone, including members of parliament, including public servants, including decision makers, including employers and including employees, not only in the construction industry but in every other industry as well, to keep an eye on them?' they would say yes. And if you said, 'Look at what happened in New South Wales when they had a state-wide commission against corruption that was broad based; look how it unearthed wrongdoing'—from Labor and Liberal, from ministers, from people who were making decisions and issuing coal licences, from people who were getting brown paper bags of money in order to influence decisions—'do you think, really, corruption is limited only to New South Wales and is not happening in the rest of the country?' they would say, 'Of course not.'
So, let's grab the bull by the horns. Let's stop the charade of attacking one particular section of society that just happens to be political opponents of the government, and let's use this as an opportunity to tackle corruption more broadly. The Greens, for many, many years, have pushed for a national ICAC, because we know that is what is needed, and transparency and integrity are important. I urge all members of this House to support the second reading amendment: ditch this bill, and let's get on with establishing a national anticorruption watchdog.
The original question was that the bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Melbourne has moved an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the amendment be agreed to. The question now is that the amendment be agreed to, and I call the member for Hinkler.
I support the original bill—the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]—in its original form. Before I get to the details of the bill I would just like to discuss some of the issues put forward by both the member for Fowler and the member for Melbourne. As probably one of the few people in this place who spent over 20 years getting up, putting on the steelcap boots and the high-vis shirt and on many days the hard helmet—I have worked on more construction sites than I can count, from farming through heavy industry through major infrastructure projects, as a tradesperson, as an engineer, as a consultant, in a range of different forms—I have to say: what a lot of baloney from those opposite. I have seen this firsthand. I have seen it from the time I was an apprentice right though to now: the toolboxes full of glue, the times you went back and found that someone had welded your locker shut because you did not agree with the union official, the times people went outside and found their cars with four flat tyres—originally, the BLF, those great bastions of protecting the people in the construction industry. I have to tell you, I have seen all of it, and it is absolutely appalling. This bill is absolutely necessary, in my view.
The member for Fowler talked about worker exploitation and how the people on this side of the House had never done anything about it. Well, there is this small thing called Taskforce Cadena, which this government put forward and implemented—a multijurisdictional task force to address worker exploitation in horticulture. It is for those people who are out there who have been robbed by unscrupulous labour hire contractors; it is also for those people who look to exploit them to make more money. That task force is in place and active right now, and it was put in place by this government. Those opposite knew about this issue for many years. They were six years in government. What was the result? We had another review. We had another report. We had another pile of recommendations. But we are taking action, because this is a legitimate problem which is causing all sorts of major issues in rural Australia, in particular. For those people who are out there, who are getting paid cash in the hand, who are getting burned by people with phoenix companies, this legislation is addressing those issues and it is addressing them now. The perpetrators will be found, they will be caught and they will be prosecuted. I know of a number of those that are underway right now. I also know of a number who have operated labour hire firms and been penalised.
The member for Melbourne talked a lot about workplace health and safety, but he seems to dismiss or certainly does not recall that there are actually state governments in Australia and that it is the state governments which predominantly have the responsibility for OH&S. They have enormous departments, any number of workplace health and safety inspectors and large amounts of legislation which they enforce. The difficulty is when you have a second layer with the federal safety office—but I will get to that a little bit later on.
The importance of a strong construction sector right now cannot be underestimated. We have gone through a massive boom. It is talked about as the mining boom; it is talked about as the resources boom. But the reality is that the majority of that has been a construction boom. There have been very large projects underway for many years. Most of those projects are starting to come to an end now. In Gladstone, for example, more than 15,000 people were employed on major projects. If you go to small towns in Queensland like Roma, Mitchell, Miles and Chinchilla, they had literally expanded so far that they needed extensions to their tarmacs on the airport runways. They needed new facilities. There were thousand-person camps in the district. There has been an enormous boom in the construction sector and we need to ensure that it continues, because right now in my home state there are tens of thousands of people, highly skilled people, who are sitting around unemployed. They need more construction projects, they need them to be viable and they need them to be underway right now.
The royal commission in 2003 found consistent evidence that the building sites of construction projects in Australia were hotbeds of intimidation, lawlessness, thuggery and violence. I have not been on many of them, but I can tell you that that is certainly the case—it is absolutely the case. As an apprentice, I can recall tradesmen who did not join the union being black-banned, because that was allowed back then. We have moved on. I actually went through the period where demarcation was addressed. It was absolutely terrible. There were tradespeople who had decided it was a good idea to teach me certain things. I would like to have been able to weld. As an electrician that would be a fairly handy skill, but in the workplace where I did my time that was not permitted, because an electrician should not know how to weld—that was someone else's job. It would have been incredibly handy for me at that time as an 18- or 20-year-old; however, that could not happen. I clearly remember tradesmen's tools being stolen. There was continuing intimidation. This stuff went on forever. It was just terrible. We need to address this, and the ABCC is one way to fix it.
The ABCC, when it was in place, was proven to have worked over a long period of time. Witnesses reported criminal conduct, unlawful and inappropriate conduct, including breaches of relevant workplace relations and workplace health and safety legislation, and a disregard for Commonwealth and state revenue statutes. On 11 April2015, the Courier-Mail, that great bastion of the media in Queensland, reported that in 2014, 12,300 days were lost and that it was the highest number of days lost among the Australian states due to industrial action. This was according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. John Crittall from Master Builders said that the people who pay for that activity are consumers. The cost is passed on to the consumer. In fact, the CFMEU enterprise bargaining agreement adds an average of $50,000 in costs to every unit constructed. A one- or two-bedroom unit in a 10-plus storey apartment block within two kilometres of the Brisbane CBD will cost between $260,000 and $300,000 if it is a CFMEU construction. That same unit constructed by a non-union organisation will cost between $220,000 and $250,000—a difference of some $40,000 to $50,000. These are the things that need to be addressed. We need a strong construction centre because our economy needs it. We need more employment. I would certainly encourage the Palaszczuk government to get their hand out of the cookie jar right now and start to get on with the federal projects which are available to be built. We have massive projects available in Queensland. We have the Second Range Crossing in Toowoomba, with over $1 billion worth of construction. We need those projects underway. I am very pleased that the local member, the member for Groom, went out and turned the sod for those projects; they are starting to move. We need to employ tens of thousands of construction workers who currently do not have anything to do. This is incredibly important.
In 2013, when the ABCC existed, an independent economics report on the state of the sector found that, in the building and construction industry, productivity grew by more than nine per cent. It is something which works. Consumers were better off by around $7½ billion annually. Fewer working days were lost through industrial action. So this is something which has been proven to work when in place—and it should be in place.
We have heard a lot noise from those opposite about this being a union witch-hunt. I have read the recommendations from the Heydon royal commission. It is not solely about unions. In fact, in an article by Kara Vickery on 31 December 2015, she states:
In terms of companies, she goes on to state that the report:
… also alleges “adverse recommendations” about executives from large private companies including, Cbus, the Thiess Group, the John Holland Group, the ACI Group, Downer EDI Engineering Power Pty Ltd, Winslow Constructors Pty Ltd and the Mirvac Group.
This is not a witch-hunt about unions. This is about sorting out lawlessness in the construction sector. This is necessary. We need it to be in place. The ABCC will have the structures to do its job. It will change the definition of building work or modify it to include off-site, prefab or made-to-order components for parts of building structures or works. The reason for this is simply to stop the go-slow. You cannot construct anything if your product does not show up on site.
As I moved through from an apprentice to an engineer, I did some farming and some other things. I eventually ended up with a consulting firm. At its peak, I had some 15 staff. I clearly remember the day when my business manager came back to tell me that to bid on a major construction project, to have any hope of being successful, it had been suggested to him that I needed a brown paper bag with $30,000 in it. I did not bother to bid for that contract. My company was not involved in those things. I have sold it now and it is no longer my asset. But I will never forget the day that one of my employees came to me and told me I needed a bag full of folding notes in order to get a contract. I was very happy at the time and I continued to work in regional Australia because it certainly was not quite as bad in my view. These changes will make a difference, and it has been proven. I certainly encourage those in the other place to pass this legislation because it is important to the nation. It is important that we sort it out.
I have a whole list of examples. But the thing I would like to talk about briefly, as a former lead auditor and someone who ran a business who provided these types of audits, is the federal safety office. The federal safety office certainly is essential for Commonwealth contracts, particularly those ones that are only on Commonwealth land. Major construction companies need to have accreditation for whichever state they want to operate in. And if they want to work on federal government buildings and structures of above a certain value, they need federal accreditation. What that means is that, if you do not have federal accreditation, you cannot bid for that work. There are any number of construction companies in regional Australia that can do work of above $5 million. There is no doubt about that; they provide that service for state government contracts, local councils and private companies. But in order to provide that service for federally funded building and construction, under the current laws, they will need to be accredited through the federal safety office. The estimated cost of getting that initial accreditation is between $200,000 and $400,000 and the cost of maintaining your accreditation is between $100,000 and $200,000 every single year. The difficulty of course is that, if you are a small to medium sized enterprise who can do this work, there is no way that you can sustain that accreditation.
So I would certainly encourage our government to reconsider its position on the figure of $5 million. We did move it from $3 million to $5 million. However, if you are a regional builder based in a regional centre, who employs local people and local contractors, it is almost impossible for you to win this work. You might end up doing it anyway, because a major contractor from a major city who is already accredited wins the tender, but what that means is you do not make any margin and that money leaves town. So that additional money, which you might have actually spent in the local economy or provided to your employees, leaves and goes elsewhere. It is not good for regional Australia. It is not good for the construction industry, and there should be more diversity. Quite simply, we should not have only a handful of large, major companies with the capacity to deliver federal government projects.
In the regions, these projects are incredibly important because their value and the amount of money they can inject into the local economy makes a real difference to the people that live there. And not only that. They also provide opportunities for our local youth to get in and potentially get an apprenticeship or at least get experience on a major construction project that they might not get elsewhere.
I would encourage our own government to consider this differently. The federal safety office is a necessary evil, but it is another layer of red tape and another cost for businesses. We really should go back to looking at this issue as part of our review of the Federation. Quite simply, someone should have responsibility. It should not be allocated to everybody. Once again, I can say from experience that, in order to meet the requirements for the state and federal accreditation schemes, there are actually areas of direct conflict—things which are exactly opposite. You need to have two sets of systems; it does not actually give you the outcome you might want. Reams and reams of paper do not make a difference to OH&S. Having a certificate on the wall does not prevent someone from falling from a roof or through a hole or through something which is not covered or from being run over on a construction site.
We need to think about how we address this. In my view, it is a state responsibility. They have the capacity and the legislation already in place. But it is something we need to think about. This bill is incredibly important. We need to get it through the other place. Once again, I would encourage those in the Senate to pass this bill. It is a good bill for consumers; it will reduce the costs to them. It will reduce lawlessness and lost time. It will certainly address both union and company issues within the construction sector; it is not just unions which are addressed by this bill. I commend the bill to the House.
I rise today to join the debate on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], as I did on 2 December 2013 in this place. I rise today for the same reasons I spoke about then. I am critically concerned about the draconian measures in this bill and the impact they will have on civil liberties in this country. I am also critically concerned about the impact it will have on safety, on justice and on fairness because this bill includes measures that remove a person's right to silence in an interview with this commission. It also impacts on right of entry for unions. It has extraordinary impact and is designed specifically to limit a union's capacity to work with their workers and ensure safety and ensure that workers in the building and construction industry are not exploited or put at risk.
As I said, I rose on 2 December to talk about this bill. I have gone back and had a look at my speech from that day. One of the things that I mentioned then, as I am sure others have mentioned today, was how dangerous this industry is for workers. I mentioned then that, as a mother, I was critically concerned, as I am today. I would like to follow up on the previous speaker's notions in his wide-ranging speech that went to a lot of areas—many of them not specific to this bill, I might add. One of the things he talked about was unionised sites versus non-unionised sites. I would much prefer that my child was going to a unionised site. I say that as a parent who has had young sons in the building and construction industries who have come home from non-unionised sites with some very hairy stories about their safety being put at risk.
Of course, young people are sometimes brave. Young people with a strong work ethic are sometimes prepared to take risks that they should not take to get the job done. We have laws in this country around OH&S to protect those young people, sometimes from themselves, but certainly to protect them from an exploitative boss or business that wants the job done in a manner it cannot be done under our laws. I want to make that point.
I also want to make the point that I was shocked this morning to see the number of Australian workers who were killed at work in 2015. The number from 2015 shocked me. The number that shocked me most was that, as at 19 January 2016—that is, three weeks into the new year—eight Australian workers lost their lives at work. When I looked at the total number of deaths at work in 2015, the number was a staggering 186. In construction, the deaths in 2015 totalled 25. I say in all sincerity: after listening to speakers talk about the costs in the building industry, what price those 25 lives? People want to come home from a day at work.
That is at the core of this bill. This bill is about reintroducing something that did not do what those opposite claimed it did when they put it in place. What it did do is breach what most Australians consider to be fairness. That goes to the notion of the right to silence. We all know the stories well. In the Sydney Morning Herald, on 15 December 2007, a person reported that he was walking past a building site—he was not even employed on the building site—and was pulled in to the commission to answer questions without the right to silence, without the right to tell anybody that it had occurred to him. This is draconian. There is no-one on the other side of the House who could say that it is not. That is a breach of what we in this country consider to be fair.
I stand at citizenship ceremonies across the year and I am always struck by the notion of our strong democracy and by the faces of those who are taking their pledge to respect the rule of law and to respect the civil liberties in this country, and then I come to this place to find a piece of legislation that trashes those civil liberties and person after person tries to justify that in this place. What we hear in the threads is that, on the one hand, we have salacious smearing of the industry and of the union; on the other hand, we have an argument about productivity that does not bear in mind the safety of workers; it does not bear in mind the 25 lives lost last year. The right to silence is really important in this.
We have had a wide-ranging debate today, but the debate actually started this morning out the front with the press. The member for Braddon fronted the press this morning at the doors and made a huge declaration: he suggested that no-one from the Labor Party wanted to come and talk about the ABCC this morning. He went on to use quotes that have been used in here about smears and uncontested testimony and went on to quote from the royal commission. Then, when asked by a journalist about what he thought it meant for the right to silence and how that stacked up against Liberal principles, he did not answer the question. He went back to talking about the royal commission and not the legislation. The journalist pulled him up again and his response was, 'I haven't really paid a lot of attention to that.' I would argue that that goes to the very point: 'I have not paid a lot of attention to that.' To what? To the measures in the bill? No. The conversation at the doors was all about the royal commission. It was all about the smear. He could not go to a critical element of the bill because of the obsession, the ideology that is happening, rather than the common sense approach that should be taken. Labor has already made announcements about making sure those things happen. The challenge of no Labor MP wanting to come out and talk about the ABCC this morning fascinated me. It is because we are in here talking about it, member for Braddon, like we were in 2013. In fact, in 2013, 50 per cent of Labor members stood up and talked about this piece of legislation while only 38 per cent of members opposite stood up and talked about this legislation or argued for this legislation. I note for the record that neither the member for Lyons, the member for Bass nor the member for Braddon were amongst those speakers opposite. They were not interested in the legislation then and they are not interested in the legislation now; they are very interested in salacious smears by quoting the royal commission. To me, that is what this seems to be about. It goes to the heart.
On this side of the chamber we want to have a serious conversation about the future of work in this country. We want to have a serious conversation about the provisions that need to be put in place to protect workers. We want to have a serious conversation about things that were thrown up by the royal commission. On this side of the chamber we want to see corruption, wherever it appears, dealt with. On this side of the chamber we want to see all of the findings from the royal commission and have people referred for criminal charges where there has been criminal activity, and then let's talk about this sometime down the track. Of course, we all know that the previous royal commission threw up all sorts of smears that resulted in not one criminal conviction. If I were a betting man and not a non-betting woman, I might have rung someone and placed some money on what we are going to get at the end of this long, slow train.
Good. I would ask this question in this chamber. We have had line after line after line of smear. We have had two former Prime Ministers dragged in front of the royal commission so that we could have some guff to say at the door—some salacious smearing to use in this argument, because you cannot do it with logic. You will not convince the Australian public that we need to take away workers' rights to be safe. You will not convince the Australian public of that, and you will not convince them by quoting your report, which you want to quote, about how good the ABCC was for productivity, because it has been smashed. It was completely discredited years ago, yet you continue to walk through the doors and quote it in here.
This is the heart of our democracy. This debate is about the future Australia that we want to see. This debate is about how we are going to treat our fellow citizens in the workplace into the future. This government is proposing to segregate one sector of the workforce and create different laws for them. It wants different laws for those who work in construction—in this country, in our country, a country where, at every citizenship ceremony, we talk about the strength of our democracy. If it were not so serious it would be laughable.
The case for this has been built on the most recent royal commission and the Cole commission. Nobody from the other side is coming in here to argue that we should reduce a union's ability to ensure that OH&S happens in every workplace in this country. No-one from the other side is coming to argue how we should ensure that every worker is paid a fair day's pay. What we are hearing is a lot of rhetoric about how we need to be able to build things cheaper. I ask again: what price those 25 lives? These rights have been built up through a strong history of workers working together in a collaborative, collective way to mount a case to make our workplaces safer and to ensure that our workers are paid a fair wage. That is what this argument is about. So when I hear 'productivity', like a lot of Australians what I am actually hearing is, 'We want cheap labour.'
Unlike those opposite, we on this side of the House have put together a package of reforms that will ensure that criminal conduct is detected at the earliest opportunity and dealt with by the full force of the law. That is not what is in this bill today. Core to our plan is making the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, with its coercive powers, the regulator of the most serious contraventions of the registered organisations act. On this side we have people prepared to get the work done. On that side we have an ideological war being driven by a need and a want to revert to a Howard-era piece of legislation. Labor has put together a package that will ensure that the future will be different for Australian workers and that, where practices are in breach of the law, they will be rubbed out. The General Manager of the Fair Work Commission will continue its role as the regulator with its current powers to conduct investigations and inquiries and resolve minor compliance issues. It will receive an additional $4.5 million for increased monitoring of registered organisations.
Now we get down to the nitty-gritty. Let us fund the monitor to ensure that the right things happen. We will extend current electoral funding laws to donations and expenditure relating to all elections managed by the Australian Electoral Commission, such as union elections. That is real action to ensure that workers who are members of a union are members of a union that is doing the right thing. In line with our longstanding commitment to greater transparency, Labor will also reduce the disclosure threshold for political donations from $13,000 to $1,000. Labor will also protect and encourage whistleblowers by extending the protections that exist in the public sector to the private sector, registered organisations and the not-for-profit sector. That is real action, real ideas on this side, about ensuring that if there is illegal activity going on it gets cleaned up. A Shorten Labor government will double the maximum penalties for all criminal offences under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act.
There is no doubt in my mind that this legislation is about demonising the union movement and the government's political opponents. We on this side of the House will oppose it.
It is a privilege to be able to stand and speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. It is a very emotive topic. It gives me great comfort to be able to stand and speak on this bill, as I spoke on it the first and second time it was introduced to the House.
I wholeheartedly believe that reform is screaming out to happen in this sector. Evidence that we need to see reform in the union movement, not only in the building sector but across the union movement generally, comes from looking at union membership across the country. Some couple of decades ago, union membership in this country was as high as 40 per cent. Australia needs to have strong unions. Australia needs strong unions to make sure that when a worker goes to work they have fair and equitable representation. So it saddens me when I look at the recent ABS statistical data, which says that union membership has declined to a figure as low as 11 per cent. We need to ask ourselves why. Why is it that so many workers who were members of a union no longer see the value in making a weekly or monthly contribution to a union? I can only assume that it relates to the findings of the recent royal commission. It used words like 'corruption', 'intimidation', 'thuggery' and 'bullying'. Ask yourself why union membership is declining. Put the other end of the spectrum together. I know the Australian Labor Party is motivated to try and rebuild their union movement. There is a vehicle for that to happen and I wish that it happens. I give all strength to their arm to make sure that unions do provide representation to members.
But, in order to do that, we need to clean the show up. We need to clean up aspects of the industry. For too long I have seen front-page headlines in newspapers around the nation—for example in Queensland, where CFMEU members have engaged with notorious bikie gangs who, allegedly, are outsourced to strongarm either builders or members and coerce them into joining the union movement. That is not how you rebuild the organisation—by threatening.
The bill itself pertains to improving productivity. Unions threaten that they will walk off worksites unless large sums of money are paid, under the auspices of training, to the union movement. Yes, we need trained personnel on union sites. As to the previous speaker's comments about the bill trying to water down occupational health and safety, I do not see that we seek to do that anywhere in this bill.
We seek to clean up an organisation which is screaming out for help. There has been negative press, and connotations around the country, as we have seen only too well with members of this House, and more recently with the Jacksons and the Williams—and the names go on, of those who have left a sour taste in the membership's mouth from the way they have conducted themselves in and around governance. In saying that, when that negative press was around there were unions that took that opportunity to put their own organisations under the microscope, and they have done that successfully. They have made sure that they are now beyond reproach when it comes to governance and the appropriation of union members' funds. But I would suggest that this royal commission and the findings that have come from it will add no favour to the CFMEU and the construction industry until some of these reforms are pushed forward.
This is not the first time we have been here. I think the previous speaker mentioned that we have seen a number of royal commissions in this space—three in the last 30 years. One would need to ask oneself why. Why is it that this old chestnut is just the easy go-to? It is because it is the most public. It is the one that outrages or incenses the Australian public so much. As I said earlier, it is crying out for reform.
One of the previous speakers also asked: 'Why aren't we coming in here and taking on the big end of town? Why aren't we looking at trying to tackle phoenixing?' Well, last year we did tackle phoenixing, through the economics committee of this House. I think the recommendations were supported by both sides of the House, as to limiting those in the corporate world having a trading name, not paying their subcontractors and then starting up trading again the next day. No-one wants to see that type of behaviour. I will not take my foot off the throat of that sector, because it equally needs attention, and the House has given it due attention and will continue to monitor it.
You need to ask why so many members on the other side of the House come in and debate so passionately from this position. Members from the government have alluded to the relationship that exists with some members of the Labor Party and to the machinations of preselection and to the close involvement that the union membership has in members having the privilege to serve in this place and to how much weight is given to the union movement in a member being elected to the parliament. And then you look at the line of donations that come from the union movement. I am not saying that that is a bad thing. But Labor can virtually take no position other than to rigorously defend this position because they see no wrong. In this House on this particular bill, you could make the assumption that Labor's master is not the Australian public but the union movement, which they rely on for preselection and to help fund campaigns.
As I said, I want the union movement to be as strong as it ever was. Embrace these reforms. Help clean up an industry which is screaming out for attention.
The shadow minister who has carriage of industrial relations has a close relationship with the CFMEU. So you can only make the assumption that there are additional motivations that bring people into this House to defend this position.
We heard comments about 'salacious smears'. Well, I can recall countless current affairs programs and media releases about unions allegedly heavying builders and workers on worksites. I heard no-one from the other side make the argument that these were 'salacious smears' of their union bosses. But when we put forward well-thought-out reforms, brought about by the royal commission of Justice Dyson Heydon, he was attacked quite openly in the press by the union movement for not being even-handed—for being biased. Those claims as to Justice Dyson Heydon were unfounded. Evidence for his findings came from his commission and evidence to the previous inquiry, the Cole royal commission.
I think that the Australian public have an appetite to clean up this industry. I listened to this debate. No-one wants to see a dilution of the occupational health and safety regime in the sector, and this bill goes nowhere near speaking to that. This bill speaks to putting in tougher penalties. This bill speaks to working with the labour movement to rebuild what was, historically, a respected sector.
There was constant evidence that the building sites and construction projects in Australia were hotbeds of intimidation, lawlessness, thuggery and violence. The final report of the royal commission provided compelling evidence of the need for reform in this industry.
Central to the royal commission's findings was industry lawlessness. It concluded that the standards of commercial and industrial conduct exhibited in the building and construction industry represented a significant departure from that in the rest of the Australian economy.
I want to go to some other comments that were made about why we are talking about productivity. The previous speaker mentioned that the only way they believe they could get productivity was by paying the workers less money. That is not what this is about. It is not about reducing the hourly rate, and nowhere in this bill does it speak to that. But, in its opening title the bill does speak about 'improving productivity', and that is why we are speaking about productivity gains. The productivity gain that hopefully comes from this is that, while the ABCC existed, the economy and industrial performance of the building and construction industry significantly improved. That is what we want to get back to when we say that we want to improve productivity. For example, a 2013 Independent Economics report on the state of the sector during this period found that building and construction industry productivity grew by more than nine per cent. Wouldn't that be an outstanding outcome that Labor could own: by increasing productivity on historical standards by no less than nine per cent, when the previous ABCC was in place?
But if you do not want to take up the challenge of productivity, the Australian Labor Party should take up the challenge for the Australian consumer, because the report also stated that during that period consumers were better off by around $7.5 billion annually. So, if you were going to build a high-rise and the union came along and allegedly said, 'Whatever you think your operational cost is, you need to factor in another couple of dollars.' The builder is then going to take that amount, whatever it might be, over and above the cost of the construction and direct the money to the union. The Australian public has had enough of that. They are sick of paying that additional cost—those costs that are unrelated to construction. We want to return to the days of productivity, where we can go to the open market and get a quote, whereby we are not just going to the market and dealing with those who have union affiliation. Seven and a half billion dollars annually, and fewer days were lost through industrial action.
The coalition government is committed to doing all that is necessary to reform the building and construction industry and to reinstitute the rule of law in this sector. The coalition government wholeheartedly believes that workers deserve to be able to go to work each day without the fear of being harassed, intimidated and subjected to violence—a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, without the fear of being bashed or intimidated.
Led by the Leader of the Opposition, the former Labor government undermined confidence in the building and construction industry by abolishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which has seen a return to lawlessness and an increase in the number of days where work is simply not being done in the industry. Australia cannot afford to have a building and construction industry that is inefficient and unstable. The restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the code that supports its work is a critical reform for Australia.
This is a reform that I wholeheartedly support. I understand why those on the other side of the House defend their position. I wish for the Australian Labor Party and the union movement to become stronger as a result of this. But don't come here and pretend that this bill seeks to dilute workplace health and safety issues, when what it does, as in the naming of the bill, is seeks to improve productivity, to remove the lawlessness, the injustices and the thuggery, words that seem to have become synonymous with an out-of-control union movement. Union membership needs to increase. In order to do that, this bill becomes the building block for the Australian Labor Party and the Australian union movement to become stronger.
Can I firstly acknowledge the contribution of members who have preceded me in speaking on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] and cognate bill, and I am looking forward to listening to those who follow. I want to thank my colleagues from the Labor side of the House for their eloquence and their commitment to the rights and interests of Australian workers and their unions, as represented by their contributions today.
Before the member for Wright leaves the chamber, I want to say to him that I did not take great offence to much of what he said. It was a little confused and at one point I was not quite sure whether, as the minister opposite said, he might be seeking membership of the Labor Party, given his supposed support for unions. But then he made a statement about the shadow minister and his relationship to the CFMEU that was way out of order. I think he owes the shadow minister an apology, because if he knew the shadow minister at all he would understand that he is a man of great integrity, and to slight him in the way you have done is, I think, wrong.
I also want to pull you up for a moment, if I may, on the issue of productivity. I hope you have read the Bills Digest for this legislation. If not, I hope you will. The original Bills Digest went to some length in discussing the issue of productivity. It said:
The title of this Bill includes the words 'improving productivity' and the Government has several times asserted that the operation of the ABCC led to an improvement in productivity.
It then goes on to have a discussion about the Econtech modelling and the conclusions reached by Econtech, and admissions by Econtech, with the Bills Digest quoting this statement from Econtech:
For the original 2007 Econtech Report, some data was inadvertently juxtaposed in extracting it from … hard copy publications.
The Bills Digest then states:
This made a big difference to the findings, virtually obviating the change that had been found.
Justice Wilcox said that the Econtech report was 'deeply flawed and should be disregarded'. There is no conclusive evidence of an increase in productivity as a result of having the ABCC previously—none. So I suggest that, whilst it is okay to stand up here and make assertions, they need to be based on some evidence and some facts. The evidence and the facts do not support the arguments that those opposite have made.
Sadly, the contributions made by government members largely demonstrate their ideological fixation with attacking Australian workers and their unions. They have a blinkered vision when it comes to acknowledging the value of unions, their historical significance and, indeed, their current importance. Their determination to divide, vilify, victimise, attack and undermine Australian workers is very clear.
I spoke on the previous legislation in 2013 and said at the time that the bill was about attacking the rights of Australian workers and their organisations. I said that the ABCC's proposed powers were extreme, unnecessary, undemocratic and would compromise civil liberties. My view has not changed.
This current legislation would increase the coercive powers of a new proposed ABBA. For example, the legislation has removed the oversight of the AAT in relation to the specified actions of the ABC Commissioner. The coercive and discriminatory nature of the legislation can only be condemned.
… the ABC Commissioner's investigatory powers have the potential to severely restrict basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to silence.
The conclusion of the Bills Digest from the 2013 legislation is instructive. I will take the liberty of quoting from it. It says:
The Bill not only repeals the FWBI Act and re-establishes the ABCC, it enlarges both its jurisdictional and industry sector application. It also provides new coercive powers (with retrospective operation), re-introduces a number of criminal and civil penalty offences previously contained in the BCII Act, and introduces a new civil penalty offence of unlawful picketing. It provides for penalties for building industry participants which are considerably higher than those available under the Fair Work Act.
In effect, the Bill creates (in relation to industrial action and picketing) a new and different set of industrial relations rules that apply only to persons associated with the building and construction industry.
There we have it. It is deliberately targeting, in a discriminatory way, workers in one sector of the economy. Not only should they not be attacking those workers in any event but, as we know, this is built on evidence from the most recent royal commission. We argue—I think, validly—that it was a political stunt, that the commissioner was biased and that the findings, although we accept them, were in large part very questionable. I certainly accept that where people act in a way which is inappropriate, either by threatening violence or using violence, they are matters which should be taken to the criminal courts. I absolutely do. Everyone on this side of the parliament accepts that violent or threatening behaviour is totally unacceptable.
It is worthwhile pointing out what the coercive powers in this bill are. This bill provides that the commissioner can require a person to: give information or produce documents to the ABC Commissioner; attend an examination before the ABC Commissioner; and answer questions or provide information under oath or affirmation. In addition, where amongst other reasons an inspector reasonably believes that the act, a designated building law or the building code is being breached, they can: enter a premises without force; require a person to provide their name and address; inspect any work, process or object; interview any person; require a person to provide a record or document; inspect and make copies of records or documents; or take samples of any goods or substances.
The bill contains a number of criminal offences similar to those contained in section 52 of the FW(BI) Act which are punishable by six months imprisonment if you do not comply with an examination notice to provide information, produce a document, attend an examination to answer questions, take an oath or affirmation, or answer questions during that examination.
This is simply unprecedented. We are a modern, democratic nation. We have a Prime Minister who likes to regard himself as being fleet-footed and progressive. But here we are seeing him picking up on this Abbott inspired legislation. It is retrogressive and punitive legislation, targeting one section of the Australian community. How can the Prime Minister of this country, in all good conscience and given his progressive values—those that he pronounces on an almost daily basis—on the one hand say what a good bloke he is and yet, in the very next breath, support this pernicious, unjustifiable interfering legislation which criminalises people who should not be criminalised?
The Cole royal commission, which was the basis for the original legislation—with $60 million of expenditure and 23 volumes—referred 31 individuals for prosecution and there was not one single criminal prosecution, let alone any finding of guilt; not one. So what sort of house of cards is this stuff built on? It is tawdry. It is a very tawdry act by a government who is going to extremes when there is no need to. There are ways, using the Australian Crime Commission, the criminal law and the various jurisdictions across this country, to address the sorts of behaviours that the government say are widespread—which, by evidence, are not. The fact is that the vast majority of Australian workers, when they go to their worksite on a building site around this country, act appropriately, do a hard day's work and expect a fair day's pay and expect their working conditions are such that their health and safety are being protected.
But what we know is that the ABCC is not impartial. As I said the last time I spoke on this in the House, Professor David Peetz said of the ABCC:
The culture of the ABCC is not and has never been impartial. It has concerned itself almost exclusively with transgressions by unions, or by employers who have facilitated or acquiesced to transgressions by unions.
He went on to say:
If it is going to haul before the courts a union member who refuses to tell them about what happened at a meeting to discuss safety breaches by the employer, it must also haul before the courts the employers who breached the safety laws in the first place.
The member for Lalor talked about fatalities in the building industry. It is again instructive to note Professor Peetz, when he talks about fatalities in the building and construction industry during the time the ABCC was in existence. He said:
There were 36 fatalities in the construction industry in 2007-08, twice as many as in 2004-05, immediately before the ABCC commenced operations in late 2005. Under the ABCC, construction became the industry with the highest number of deaths. As observance with occupational safety tends to be lower where unions are weaker, this trend is not surprising.
And that is the guts of this. This legislation is designed to attack the strength of unions on building sites around this country and prevent them from looking after and protecting the rights of the workers, their members—opening workers up to the abuse that was evidenced by the increase in fatalities the last time the ABCC was in existence.
There is no excuse for this, and the government should be condemned for even contemplating putting this legislation back in the parliament. They say they are willing to go to a double dissolution about this stuff. Well, so am I. I would happily argue this up hill and down dale on every corner of Australia, because I know what Australian people think about fairness and equity and about the right to live in a safe working environment in a democratic country and not be abused by the way in which the government proposes to abuse them.
It cannot be said that Labor is not wanting reform. As the Leader of the Opposition and the minister responsible have pointed out most recently, we have an obligation in this place to look after the interests of all Australians, regardless of where they are and regardless of where they work. This particular piece of legislation is targeting a particular group of people, one sector of the economy, with the sole objective of undermining their rights in the workplace. It is not reasonable. It is not fair. And it is not acceptable.
The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] is a critical bill for the development of a stronger Australian economy. It is really vital that we pass this bill and the Australian Building and Construction Commission re-established. I will ask for a bit of indulgence to recall how it came into being and how it was sidelined some years after its very successful introduction.
This all came to pass after the Cole royal commission that started back in 2001. It dissected and displayed, for all to see, endemic corruption and lawlessness in the building and construction industry. Out of that very thorough and extensive Cole royal commission came the creation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2005. It basically reintroduced strong regulation into the building and construction industry but also the rule of law. Within two years, estimates published in many publications documented savings and productivity gains of $3.1 billion to the Australian economy per year. By 2012, the Master Builders Association estimated that that was at least $6.3 billion per year in productivity gains. I have seen other estimates in the literature, while researching this speech, of $7½ billion per year by the time the ABCC was abolished. So entrenched and unlawful corporate and union actions were very successfully addressed by the creation of the ABCC.
I was very disappointed that it was watered down and the Fair Work building inspectorate came in to replace it, with a 30 per cent reduction in staffing and funds and a weakening of the regulations and outcomes. Instead of productivity gains of nine per cent per year, over the subsequent four years we have seen—as outlined recently so clinically in the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption run by Justice Dyson Heydon—a return to the bad old days. In the evidence that was presented we heard of intimidation, bribes, secret commissions, standover tactics and blockades, and I accentuate that it was evidence, because there were rules of evidence applied as in other judicial situations. There was endemic corruption in all states and in many industries. I thoroughly support the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission as a regulator of workplace relations, because it has the runs on the board.
Previous speakers have queried how we can justify doing this. The answer is that we have campaigned on this through two general elections. In 2010 and 2013 it was stated ad nauseam that a coalition government, if re-elected, would reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission. What bigger mandate can you have than taking this issue to two general elections? Unfortunately, people on the other side are in denial. I fear that they are, as usual, being unduly influenced by some of the unions who have had their malfeasance, inappropriateness and lawlessness on display in the trade union royal commission. Not only have we seen its veracity and legitimacy questioned; we have seen a campaign run over 12 months where they tried to destroy the reputation of Justice Dyson Heydon. By association they tried to sully the findings. But, as I have mentioned, the most recent royal commission is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of collecting the evidence. And what do we have as a result of that? There were 93 referrals to undertake civil and criminal proceedings in the Fair Work Commission, ASIC, ACCC or the directors of public prosecutions in various states and territories around the country. That is even worse than what was on display in the Cole royal commission, which lifted the lid on the same problems.
We have the same problems coming back again, and our economy cannot afford the lack of productivity. Whether it is building skyscrapers or building houses, all these corrupt behaviours, standover tactics and forcing builders and employers to pay more and get sweetheart deals have an economic impact. In fact, Commissioner Terence Cole made statements in the press about this just the other day. The economic consequences mean much more expensive buildings, and that means much more expensive leasing rates for the builder to get a return on his money and pay for the borrowings. It means small businesses are paying higher rents because construction costs are higher, and that means they have more money to pay in that part of their business than they have for employing people. Productivity gains lead to a better standard of living, higher wages and stronger employment growth. That is why it is so critical that the construction and building industry, which is a very large sector of the Australian economy, is run under the rule of law.
Previous speakers have made a big deal about the coercive powers that the reconstituted ABCC will have. I have no problem with them, because the same coercive powers are already being used by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, APRA ASIC, the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink and Medicare. Why should the construction industry be above the law or beyond the standard that everyone else has to comply with?
Another issue that has been brought up by speakers today is that it is a question of decreasing the safety of workers. With this legislation, there is a commitment to continue with the Federal Safety Commissioner. They are drawing a very long bow when they try to bring this in as an issue. We see in the press that they are trying to sully the argument by saying, 'We should have the equivalent of a federal ICAC.' The ABCC is a regulator, and it is strong regulation, and the rule of law in the construction workplace, in contracting and in deals has to be regulated. So no more secret commissions, bribes, standover tactics, blockades or sweetheart deals.
I spent a good part of my university life working as a cleaner, getting up at 4 am and cleaning on weekends. If I were in a cleaning union now, and if I were to see what went on with Cleanevent, how union reps negotiated deals that made their members worse off, I would be ropable. Yet this seems to have been commonplace. Deals have been negotiated that have benefited the unions rather than the union members. I cannot believe it. Criminal proceedings have been there for all to see already, with HSU and other unions. So I think this legislation is really critical. We do have to get it up and running again to get a large part of our economy working efficiently under the rule of law. No-one should be afraid of that unless they are corrupt or they are operating outside the law. I commend these bills to the House.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and good luck in your preselection for the seat of Hughes. Anyway, we are here to talk about the ABCC. The Liberal Party has certainly shown their true colours in this bill, which also reflects the Labor Party's true colours. I am proud to say that not only am I a member of the SDA, but I am also a member of the electricians union in South Australia. I know they have a particular interest in this bill and a particular objection to it. Like so much of the Liberal Party's ideology, it remains dormant until it rears itself into full life. You can see it with the GST; they were talking about a 15 per cent GST when I joined the party in 1992; they are still talking about a GST.
Like a dog with a bone, they keep coming back. So it is with criminalisation with industrial action. That is what they are doing here: they are seeking to take industrial action by workers and make it a criminal offence. This is not a new idea; it has been around for centuries. It is what used to happen whenever workers organised; whenever they asked for anything approaching justice, they were jailed. And it is still going on today. In China recently labour activists were rounded up in the dead of night, taken away and detained. This criminalisation of industrial action is nothing new, and unions know that the forces of capital and reaction will try it.
We have a profound hostility to this bill and the ideology behind it. We heard the last speaker ponderously making his way through it all, but he did not talk about workers in the construction area. He did not talk about Ark Tribe—maybe I should give him the entry from Wikipedia.
Ark Tribe is a worker from South Australia. He was living out at Middle Beach in my electorate; he was a building worker. We normally would not know who Ark Tribe was. He would not show up on the ABC and he would not normally be mentioned in this House, but for the fact that he was prosecuted by the ABCC. What was his crime? What was the cause of the prosecution? It is all up there on the internet. In 2008 Ark Tribe attended the safety meeting at a construction site at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. Workers at the meeting discussed ongoing safety concerns at the site and carried out a union investigation into conditions before resuming work. That was the great crime against productivity and the great crime against his employer that he is alleged to have committed—he went to a safety meeting. Now we all know thanks to the member for Lalor—and common sense would tell you also—that construction sites are dangerous places. And not a little bit of danger, but danger that continues—they are very dangerous places. What did the ABCC do to Ark Tribe? They dragged him into a hearing; he could not have his lawyers there and of course he refused to answer questions; and so they prosecuted him. There is a picture of Ark here; I am happy to table it if those opposite want to look at a real worker with real concerns.
The idea that this organisation is going to go after bigwigs in the union movement—people who might be doing the wrong thing—is not right. The people the ABCC goes after are ordinary working Australians who work in a dangerous industry and want nothing more than to get up in the morning, go to work, to an honest day's work and go home at the end of it. That is their aim, and they want decent wages and decent conditions. They want a decent share of the wealth that is produced by this country and they know that the only people who will make sure that happens is the union. That is why they are members and that is why they are interested in being members. They take an interest in the unions; they have run their unions.
We should remember the people that the ABCC actually investigated and prosecuted at huge cost to the Commonwealth. Think about Ark Tribe, who is a rigger and who is living out at Middle Beach. Suddenly he is in this world, where he is dragged into investigations and hearings and into the court. Who were the only ones to defend him? The union was the only one defending him. We should remember that when we approach this legislation and we should remember how unsafe these sites are. At the new Royal Adelaide Hospital site a construction worker did die; his name was Jorge Castillo-Riffo. And who took up the collection for his family? Well, his workmates did through their union.
So let's remind ourselves how dangerous these sites are. Let's remind ourselves that workers lose their lives on these sites and that their families have to pick up the pieces and that their workmates care about that. What is more, they care about preventing the sorts of accidents that happen on their worksites. How must ordinary workers feel when they go to work in the morning, they work hard and they open up the paper and they see from time to time scandal after scandal regarding workplace conditions—regarding 7 Eleven, regarding Bayada, regarding sham contracting. They do not just see it here, they see it around the world. In particular they see the abuse and exploitation of migrant labour. They do not just see it around the world—all those egregious stories, the most recent having been of the Italian agricultural industry, with the mafia involvement and the exploitation of migrant labour—they see it now in their own country. Construction workers see it on their work sites, and they worry about it—not because they are against foreign workers but because they are against the exploitation of humanity and against the exploitation of workers who are put in a vulnerable position where they can be exploited. How must those workers feel when they see these scandals day after day in the paper?
What is the government's reaction to it? Instead of a legal and moral and compliance reaction from this government in regard to all of those scandals and all of those evils involving the exploitation of vulnerable people, rather than the full weight of the government being brought to bear on employers that exploit people, we have an $80 million royal commission into the unions. A very, very narrow set of guidelines was written for that royal commissioner to just go after the unions. So we see exploitation on one side and then we see a regulatory result that is totally skewed and totally biased. We know from other events—the attendance at fundraisers and the like, the long history of interactions—that those royal commissions cannot come up with unbiased findings.
Then we find that there is a secret report that the government will not let half the parliament see. The minister makes his decision that half the parliament cannot see the secret, redacted report—an Inspector Clouseau style arrangement. The government's reaction is to go to cabinet—'We had better show them something'—and then we have this secret report that only one person from each major party, the Greens and Labor, can see, and they cannot tell anybody; they cannot take any notes; all they can do is view it. Why don't they just show them the front cover? It is a ridiculous end to a ridiculous and biased royal commission.
I suppose $80 million for the Heydon royal commission looks like a bargain now compared to the $60 million spent in the previous royal commission by Mr Cole. Do you know how many prosecutions came out of the Cole royal commission? Zero—a big fat nothing. How do workers feel, when, on one hand, there are these great wrongs that are blindingly obvious, that nearly everybody who looks at them can see—they are in our papers, they are in our Senate committee hearings and they are right in your face if you go and work at any construction site in the country—yet, on the other hand, the regulatory response from the Turnbull government, from the Liberal Party, is to have a witch-hunt into the union movement. What is the result of those witch-hunts? Expensive and selective witch-hunts produce an expensive and selective application of the law. What is the whole design?—to go back to that philosophical grounding that the Liberal Party have, which is to make unions and unionists and industrial action illegal. The Liberal Party have really only ever had one idea, and that is to whip the donkey harder and to feed him less. That is their attitude to the workforce. That is the only idea they have ever had.
This bill is completely insulting, and you cannot blame the crossbenchers for scoffing that the government might take this to the people, that the government might cause a double dissolution. Phil Coorey exposed very well how unlikely that is from a practical point of view—not least that the National Party have not settled their leadership yet. We know those opposite haven't quite sorted it all out.
Order! The member will resume his seat. The member knows the rules of relevance. If he has nothing further to say on the bill, he should end his speech. If he wishes to continue, he has two minutes and 17 seconds left, and counting. If he wishes to continue to speak about the bill, he may do so. If he wishes to continue to speak about other subjects, he will return to his seat. The member for Wakefield has the call.
With all due respect, Deputy Speaker Kelly, you showed more latitude to previous speakers. But I will not labour the point. This is a government that is in a mess, that is at war with itself on a whole range of issues—a whole range of practical and policy issues, a whole range of personality issues. We have seen it; we know it. It is out there every day—the leaks, the dysfunction, a defence white paper that is on the never-never, a submarine decision that is on the never-never.
Come on, that is all history now. What matters is the next Labor government and what the next Labor government will do. I will tell you what we will do. We will crack down on those employers who are underpaying people, we will crack down on the sham contractors who do not pay people their entitlements and we will crack down on the exploitation of foreign workers, because it is just not the right thing to do or the Australian thing to do to take people from overseas and brutally exploit them. That is not the sort of nation we are, and we are not the sort of nation that applies selective laws to one section of the community and one section of the economy and one section of workers, as this bill will do. That is its greatest sin—that it puts all of the regulatory oversight on building workers and lets building employers, and all these other ills, all these other evils, go wanting. That is the greatest sin of this bill.
Problems with Australia's current industrial relations framework were highlighted by Labor's Fair Work Act Review Panel and various Productivity Commission inquiry and other reports and illuminated further through a never-ending caravan of Federal Court cases as well as the recent Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. There is not just a series of isolated spot fires in Australia's building and construction industry; there is a raging bushfire fuelled by the commercial and other interests of union bosses and the inherent conflicts of interest of those who represent them in this place.
Parliament's approach to making and policing industrial laws should not make lawful or acceptable in Australian workplaces what would otherwise be bullying, intimidating, threatening, illegal, violent, corrupt and criminal. The coalition government stands on the side of workers, employers and the independent judiciary. Australia is poorly served by those who would simply outsource Australia's industrial relations policy and practice to serial offenders who have an attitude of indifference to compliance with the requirements of our laws.
This is now the second time in as many years that the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 has been before this House. It is a key government policy. It was an election commitment at both the 2010 and 2013 federal elections. Few could doubt that this government—indeed, this parliament—received a clear mandate from the Australian people to make the important changes contained within this bill. The coalition committed to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission in order to return the rule of law to commercial building sites and construction projects right across Australia as well as increase productivity. The body of evidence supporting the need for these changes is compelling. It is growing with every unlawful trespass, unlawful strike and unlawful union stop-work and with every judicial intervention and legal remedy. Make no mistake: it is costing money; it is reducing productivity; it is increasing costs; and it is costing jobs.
I was a member of the coalition's working group tasked with examining the governance and other problems in the construction sector, which included recommendations to promptly re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The main object of the bill is to provide an improved workplace relations framework for building and construction work to ensure that it is carried out fairly, efficiently and productively for the benefit of all building industry participants and the Australian economy as a whole. Government must protect and maintain the rule of law and, wherever possible, drive productivity and economic growth.
I note that the Productivity Commission inquiry into workplace relations frameworks deliberately stayed away from the criminal aspects of Australia's industrial relations framework because they were the subject of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. The inquiry did, however, make a salient observation, which takes us back to the future, in citing the Cole royal commission, which acted as a catalyst for establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission over a decade ago. The Productivity Commission pointed out that industrial action over safety issues was increasingly a Trojan Horse for other objectives. It observed that some types of unlawful activities can give parties leverage in an industrial dispute by inflicting or threatening to inflict substantial harm, which may be economic or personal, on the other party unless the offending party's demands are met. The Productivity Commission pointed out that this was a significant problem in some sectors, especially the construction industry. It even provided broad examples of the unlawful conduct, which included delaying or blockading of workplaces and sites, bullying, verbal abuse and other coercive conduct and unlawful entry to sites.
There is an old saying that you cannot be a slave to two masters, and those opposite are most assuredly parroting lines scripted by their CFMEU bosses. The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption argued that the suggestion that the need for specific industrial regulation cannot be justified by criminal conduct occurring within the industry is misplaced, saying:
It ignores the fact that a lot of the criminal conduct for which unions and union officials are responsible arises in the context of breaches of industrial laws (either because it occurs in the course of contravening industrial laws, or because it constitutes a criminal contempt of orders of a court restraining contraventions of industrial laws) and out of a culture of defiance of all laws. It also ignores the ability of a dedicated industrial regulator to assist police, through referrals and information sharing, in combatting criminal activity within the industry.
Labor are seriously conflicted when it comes to industrial relations matters because the commercial and other interests of their biggest financial benefactors are not always in the national interest. With specific regard to the ongoing and flagrant abuses of Australia's industrial law framework and practice, the Federal Court points out that union officials' misbehaviour is 'coordinated and strategic'. It went on to say:
It is fair to describe the CFMEU record as dismal. … The record indicates an attitude of indifference by the CFMEU to compliance with the requirements of the legislation regarding the exercise of rights of entry.
It is clear the Australian industrial framework needs a stronger cop on the beat, especially in the building and construction sector.
This bill, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving productivity) Bill 2013 [No.2], re-establishes the Australian Building and Construction Commission to regulate the building and construction industry and provides for its functions and powers, including those of the ABCC inspectors. This is great news for the many members of my electorate who pleaded with me to do whatever I could to stop unions dictating the terms and conditions of operation for their businesses. One constituent informed me that the union prevented his business from receiving any jobs in Brisbane because he chose not to sign CFMEU's EBA. For this small business, union threats resulted in a net financial loss exceeding $500,000. Unnecessary interruptions, intimidation and disruption caused by unions on his building sites were the norm.
Evidence presented to the committee in the preparation of this bill two years ago was also consistent with the recurring themes presented in evidence and testimony to Fair Work Australia, the courts and the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Aggressive and militant union behaviour is commonplace.