House debates

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Matters of Public Importance

Building and Construction Industry

3:16 pm

Photo of Milton DickMilton Dick (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from the honourable the Leader of the Opposition proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:

The urgent need for the Government to detail a plan to prevent rising costs in the construction sector and union lawlessness following the abolition of the construction industry watchdog.

I call upon those honourable members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Photo of Peter DuttonPeter Dutton (Dickson, Liberal Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

It is very telling that during question time the Prime Minister was unable to answer a question in relation to the very close affiliation between the CFMMEU and the Australian Labor Party. He was not able to answer a question with a straight answer, and it demonstrates a few things. At the moment, when Australians are facing increased electricity costs, when Australians are facing an increase in their gas prices and when Australians are facing an increase in every cost-of-living component of their household budget, this government decides as a first-order priority to bring in a policy change which will drive up inflation and drive up construction costs in this country. That is seen by this government as a higher-order priority than addressing the problems that Australian families and businesses are facing in their budgets at the moment.

It says a lot about this government that over just the last three years it, as the Labor Party, has taken over $5 million in political donations—$5 million! Now, why? Why would a union give $5 million to the Australian Labor Party? Would they ask for anything in return? Would they expect anything from the Australian Labor Party? Would they expect to be able to pull the strings of the Australian Labor Party for $5 million? I think they would, I really do. I think that's the track record. That's the history of the relationship between the CFMMEU and the Australian Labor Party. So what did they ask for the $5 million that they gave to the Australian Labor Party in just the last three years? Of course, we're talking tens of millions of dollars over the last decade or so. What did they ask for it? They asked for a policy change.

One thing you can say about the CFMMEU—sure, they're mostly union thugs, they have close relationships with bikie members, and they are before the courts on multiple counts of assault and all sorts of intimidation—is that they are very open about their intent. They are very open about providing money to the Australian Labor Party and that has now resulted in a policy change. That's what they asked for, that's what they expected, that's what they demanded from the Australian Labor Party for the $5 million and that is what this Prime Minister has delivered. This Prime Minister has changed a policy and that is going to result in high inflation and higher construction costs in this country, and he has decided that that is his highest priority in the opening days of this government. It says a lot about this government, it says a lot about the priorities and it says a lot about how the Australian Labor Party will always put the union bosses' interests ahead of the interests of the Australian public. There are countless examples before the courts that have been decided by the courts, right up to the High Court, in relation to the CFMMEU. Their conduct cannot be discounted.

The Prime Minister comes into this place and says, 'Oh, well, I want to see all workers treated equally and I want to see unions held to account.' Well, the fact is that the Australian Education Union is not representing members, teachers and university lecturers, who are before the courts on assault and intimidation charges and all sorts of corruption allegations. The reality is that the Missos union is not before the courts representing their members where there have been allegations made against those workers that they've been involved in syphoning funds, involved in corrupt practices in workplaces, breaking the arms of workers on those building sites or intimidating female workers. There has been no other union in the country since the BLF that has conducted themselves in this sort of manner. So do they stand themselves out above and beyond any other union movement? Of course they do, and it can't be dismissed by this Prime Minister just because the Labor Party received $5 million worth of donations over the course of the last three years.

It's unconscionable for the Australian Labor Party to say to builders and to tradies on worksites around the country that this sort of conduct can be condoned. They cannot stand by and passively look at the way in which the CFMMEU conduct themselves on building sites. The Australian Labor Party can't stand by. This Prime Minister can't turn a blind eye to the escalation in building costs, the cost of materials and the cost of the add-on supplement that builders need to put into their contracts to win contracts—to allow the CFMMEU to conduct themselves in the way that they do. It results in an escalation in prices for houses, for the construction of aged-care facilities, for roads, for hospitals. Who wears that cost? Is it the builder that wears that cost? Of course it's not. It's the homebuyer that's paying more for their home because of the conduct of the CFMMEU, and the Labor Party is standing shoulder to shoulder with these thugs in the union movement, facilitating that sort of behaviour.

The whole idea of the Australian Building and Construction Commission was to have a watchdog in the construction industry that could hold the CFMMEU to account, and the Australian Labor Party, because they've received $5 billion of funding from the CFMMEU, are going to abolish the ABCC, which will see an increase in the costs and prices. It will mean that those that are going into an aged-care facility will have to pay more because the cost of construction and the provision of that service cost more. You are going to see fewer transport options available to governments in my state of Queensland or in New South Wales, WA or elsewhere because you are not going to get the value for your dollar if the CFMMEU is dictating the prices that go to support their corrupt and criminal behaviour. That's the reality.

So for the Prime Minister to stand up here and say that the conduct of the CFMMEU doesn't matter defies what the courts have said in relation to the CFMMEU. Don't just take our word for it. If you look at what has happened through enforcement action undertaken by the ABCC, this is what they've undertaken: unlawful industrial action—over 1,400 breaches resulting from more than 20 cases, resulting in $3.6 million in fines against the CFMEU; coercion—over 470 breaches resulting from more than 32 cases, resulting in $5.9 million in fines; right of entry—over 300 breaches resulting from 40 cases, resulting in $4.2 million in fines; freedom of association—more than 120 breaches resulting from 15 cases, resulting in $900,000 in fines; unlawful picketing—over 20 breaches resulting from four cases, resulting in $1 million in fines; and misrepresentation—almost 30 breaches resulting from six cases, resulting in $380,000 in fines.

That is egregious enough, but, having worked in the Home Affairs space and having seen the conduct of unlawful criminal behaviour by organisations in this country, I know that the connections between outlaw motorcycle gangs—the biggest distributors of amphetamines in our country—and the CFMMEU are indisputable. The CFMMEU use the bikies as muscle and enforcement on building sites. So, as egregious as all that I just read out is, and as much as the Prime Minister says there is nothing to see here, the most concerning fact is what the Labour Party is prepared to turn a blind eye to: the treatment of women on building sites at the hands of the CFMMEU thugs. It is outrageous, and all of the sanctimony that we have from the Australian Labor Party counts for absolutely nothing. It shows the true colour of the Australian Labor Party.

The unions are back in business. The unions are back in this game, and they are dictating every move of this government. So when you see the next report from a building site of a female stop-and-go member who is just there to do a job being abused by some bikie or by some member of the CFMMEU, know that it is sanctioned by this Prime Minister. Know that the next act of assault or unlawful conduct on a building site that results in a worker being injured is the result of this Prime Minister. The union movement completely owns and operates this Labour Party.

3:26 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much, Deputy Speaker Claydon, and congratulations on your appointment.

I knew that when we came into government we wouldn't get to choose the MPI anymore, but I didn't realise they'd take requests! Of all the issues that could be raised today, it just shows that they are in one lockstep system and are exactly where they were when they were in government. They haven't learned a thing and won't learn a thing.

To have the end of that speech from the party that refused to implement the Respect@Work report is just beyond belief. To have that speech from the people who sat here voting against a positive obligation on an employer to provide a safe workplace speaks volumes about those opposite.

But I'll start with the concept of the government 's priorities. When the Leader of the Opposition wanted to say what the first priority was, he sort of missed the application on the annual wage review. He sort of missed that. He sort of didn't want to acknowledge that the first thing that happened in my portfolio was that we argued that the lowest paid workers should get a pay increase, and they got it. After all the outrage and claims that the sky would fall in, that was the first thing that we did.

And what is the first legislative action that we'll be taking? It's to introduce family and domestic violence leave, something that people have been waiting too many years for and that those opposites have voted against on too many occasions.

Going to the issues that the Leader of the Opposition has spoken about directly, he's spoken about the ABCC. He's given all these examples of criminal behaviour. There's one problem. You do know the ABCC isn't allowed to deal with criminal behaviour?

Hon. Members:

Honourable members interjecting

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

It's a starting point for the debate. They only deal with civil offences; they don't deal with criminal behaviour. Criminal behaviour should be dealt with by the police, and when criminal behaviour occurs the police are the ones who should provide enforcement. But to claim that abolishing the ABCC will somehow have an impact on that is absurd. Even under their own legislation it is not allowed to deal with criminality. It has no power to conduct a criminal prosecution. That is dealt with, as it should be dealt, with by the police.

But I love their argument that this is going to drive up inflation. I never knew that the Eureka flag was inflationary. Who knew? Who knew that a safety sign, if it's got a union logo in the bottom corner, is in fact inflationary? Who knew that if an enterprise agreement contains the same job, same pay clause then somehow that's inflationary? Who knew that if you have guaranteed apprenticeships on a worksite then somehow that's inflationary? No, no, no—they're just things that people should be able to fight for. And, in all of these cases they're referring to, what those opposite also forget is that they're largely examples where the employer had agreed.

They've asked who has met with the union at different times. Of course I've met with the national secretary—I don't know why you need to ask me—because I wanted to find out about the Eureka flag case. This is a classic, the Eureka flag case—and we have the member for Ballarat here. There's nothing particularly wrong with the Eureka flag. When the Leader of the Opposition went through all the breaches of freedom of association, he counted the Eureka flag and sticker disputes. Their argument is that, if you see a Eureka flag, you're suddenly going to feel compelled to join a trade union. It's going to happen. Don't let them see a Russian flag! We don't know what will happen if flags have that sort of power! When the Eureka flag was being flown at Lendlease, Lendlease were okay with it. There was a safety sign that was telling people that when there's wet weather you shouldn't keep working outdoors; you should come inside. It had a union logo on it. Those two issues resulted in a freedom of association case.

Our view here is simple: the workers were happy with it; the employer was happy with it; what business is it of yours? Similarly, if you have an enterprise agreement and the employer is okay with having a clause that there can be a minimum number of apprenticeships for the worksite: the workers want it; the employer agrees; why have red-tape legislation standing in the way of that? Why? They don't want to refer to that. They're now looking down at their phones: tap, tap, tap, 'Quick, Advisor, is there a response to this one?' When people can agree, we think that's good. When there's an agreement between workers and an employer, we think that's good. When workers and employers can get along and reach agreements, the Liberal and National parties of this country think we should get in the way simply, we think, because it irritates them. That's what the ABCC does.

The other examples of the ABCC that they refer to are in fact breaches of the Fair Work Act that are otherwise covered by the Fair Work Ombudsman anyway. The ones that can only occur through the ABCC are largely using the procurement powers of government, and effectively you have this ridiculously complex formula where something is right or wrong—not based on an industrial law principle but based on a formula of how much Commonwealth investment there is versus the total value of the project. That's not an industrial law principle, that's not a freedom of association principle, that's not a productivity principle; that's just the red tape of an ideological former government wanting to get in the way of agreements.

Many times as part of their inflationary argument, you've heard people from that side talking about the need to do something about productivity. So I thought, 'Oh, let's have a look at the productivity figures and how they changed once the ABCC was introduced.' It came back in 2016. There are only three years of published figures since then. In 2017-18, labour productivity did move by 2.4 per cent. Do you reckon it went up or down? It went down. But, wait, there are two more years coming. We've got the second year. In 2018-19, labour productivity moved by 2.6 per cent. Do you reckon it went up or down? Down again.

A government member interjecting

A gameshow noise—perfect! The 2019-20 figures for labour productivity were for the third year of the ABCC. If it was going to make an impact, you'd think that by the third year maybe it was doing something. In the third year there was a 2.6 per cent change in labour productivity, once again down.

The record on labour productivity is nothing to be proud of. And it's no surprise: if you create more red tape, you get in the way of agreements, and you simply transfer some prosecutions from the Fair Work Ombudsman to then be done by a more ideological body, you don't in fact solve any problems. Agreements solve problems. Bringing people together to the table is a way of solving problems. But here you've got a system on right of entry where if an employer is completely happy with a union official coming on site to meet workers without waiting for the full 48 hours—if they say, '24 hours; we're happy to have you on'—the employer gets punished for reaching an agreement with their workforce.

Those opposite have wanted to characterise the ABCC as something that it is not. The 'come in, spinner' moment of the day was the question that related to what the Federal Court has had to say. I've got to say, the quotes are extraordinary. The Federal Court blasted the ABCC for wasting time and taxpayers' money for prosecuting two CFMMEU officials for 'having a cup of tea with a mate'. It was described by the court as 'a minuscule, insignificant affair.' Described by the court: 'This is all external forces that are beating up what's just a really ordinary situation that amounts to virtually nothing.' Described by the court: 'For goodness' sake. I don't know what this inspectorate is doing.' Described by the court: 'A battleship in full steam which had difficulty turning.' Described by the court: 'The court was entitled to expect that proceedings would not be conducted as a blood sport.'

This has not been a good regulator. This is a regulator that has simply increased conflict and that has got in the way where agreements exist and where agreements are possible. If criminal matters happen, the criminal processes should deal with them, and the Fair Work Ombudsman is the more effective body to deal with civil matters.

3:36 pm

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

Congratulations on your appointment, Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon.

We've had a very shouty minister at the table just now. It's a long way from the family friendly parliament he was talking about this morning. I will begin where he ended. I've really only got one question. Who's protecting the women on building sites? On everything that we have asked we've had these diversions about the Eureka flag or little quotes from court cases. I will make just one quote: the High Court of Australia found that the CFMMEU was a serial offender that engaged in whatever action and made whatever threats it wished without regard to the law. That's what the High Court of Australia said about the activities that we're talking about today.

Who is protecting the women? I asked the Prime Minister in question time about a particular case. It's not very savoury, but a lot of what goes on on building sites is not very savoury. Right now, the ABCC is taking action against CFMMEU official Gerald McCrudden for pushing and shoving a female health and safety manager. When the manager accused Mr McCrudden of putting words in her mouth, he responded, 'I would never put anything in your mouth. You're disgusting.' Does the government seriously believe that this ongoing prosecution of this vile behaviour is a waste of taxpayers' money? But when I ask the question—when we ask the question—we are diverted onto these other minor matters. The government will not admit what is really going on here.

The Prime Minister has spent a lot of time talking about priorities, doing things differently, kumbaya from the rooftops. Don't look at what they say; look at what they do. Their top priority is to dismantle the ABCC, the tough cop on the beat. That's prioritising what the CFMMEU wants over what Australian workers need. It's prioritising what the CFMMEU wants over what the Australian economy needs. It's prioritising what the CFMMEU wants over what women on work sites need. My question: who's protecting the women?

Our building and construction industry is vital to job creation, but that was trivialised, even though the Master Builders Association has sounded a warning and talked about a $47 billion cost of dismantling this watchdog. There are serious economic implications. You have to wonder who the Albanese government is protecting when it abolishes the ABCC. It's not workers. It's not women. It's not the economy. It's the CFMMEU. CFMMEU donations go in and policy comes out, that's the Albanese accord. CFMMEU donations go in and policy comes out.

Two royal commissions have identified systemic unlawful behaviour in the construction industry, physical assault, verbal violence, threats, intimidation, contempt of court. Why would there not be meaningful consequences for unlawful conduct in the construction industry, whether it's by unions or employers? The ALP has received, on average, nearly $1 million a year of donations from the CFMMEU and the MUA over the past two decades. That's the Albanese accord: donations come in and policy goes out.

Across Australia we know there are more than a million people employed in the construction industry. They're building the infrastructure that our communities need. They're building hospitals. They're building schools. There are more than 400,000 small businesses in the industry and they need a system that's free from intimidation. They need a system that's free from standover deals. They need a system that prevents this competition and this incredibly bad behaviour.

Before we restored the ABCC master builders and others estimated that building costs we up to 30 per cent higher. I was here in 2011-12 when we restored the ABCC. When we got that tough cop back on the beat the days lost to union standdowns or stop works reduced by a third. It's absolutely incredible that you, as the government, cannot connect the actions that the ABCC takes with work on building sites, whether it be protection, whether it be actually doing the job, whether it be frivolous interventions by the unions.

There are numerous CFMMEU officials before the courts. In recent years $16 million of fines has been imposed. How can you say that is a waste of taxpayers' money? But that's the Albanese accord at work— (Time expired)

3:41 pm

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When the shadow minister was talking about the High Court and women and the CFMMEU was she referring to this action? 'High Court dismisses bid to fine CFMMEU over toilet request'. A five-year legal battle, that started with a union request for a women's toilet at a building site, ended on Friday when the High Court dismissed the case by the building regulator to fine the CFMMEU for wanting a women's toilet on site. Who in this case was standing up for the women on that construction site? Well, it was the CFMMEU. It was the men and women, particularly the women's officer, of that union standing up.

This is what this regulator did consistently after it was introduced by the former government. It pursued matters when workers were standing up for safety. I am shocked that the opposition would just dismiss and ignore what has happened in workplace safety under their watch and under the ABCC. Many of the breaches of right of entry that they talk about were when CFMMEU officials went on site under occupational health and safety. There had been an accident on site. A worker had lost their life. They'd died. The company had no problem with the CFMMEU official coming on site. Workers were grieving. An incident had to be set up. Yet what the ABCC did was prosecute those officials for not giving 48-hours notification that they were entering on site. It didn't just happen once or twice; it happened multiple times. When they dare to round their facts and figures and say over 300 breaches of right of entry, what right of entry are they referring to? When a fellow construction worker who happened to be an official of the CFMMEU walked on site because a mate of theirs was dying was that the right of entry that you were referring to?

It happened in my electorate. In the building of the Ulumbarrra Theatre a worker fell into the orchestra pit and was severely injured. The CFMMEU organiser raced to the site. He was mates with the worker. He went on site to assist. The ABCC came after him and prosecuted him for lack of right-of-entry notification. That is what the ABCC's priorities were. One hundred and fifty-four workers lost their lives on construction sites during the ABCC's existence. It's a tragedy if any worker does not come home at the end of the day. It is an absolute tragedy. Yet the ABCC's priorities were not about improving safety or protecting the women on those workplaces; they were about prosecuting the union officials that went on site and those officials' failure to give 24 hours notice.

It was a laughable presentation—and you can only call it a presentation by the opposition leader—to suggest that the CFMMEU will fix construction costs. Everyone in business will be falling over laughing at that suggestion, because anybody involved in business knows that the increases in building costs are due to supply chain pressures. Linked to another area, the opposition, when they were in government, boasted about planting trees to help with the timber shortage that we are now in. If they'd just planted the trees, we might have some timber to help build the homes that they're now referring to! It's got nothing to do with the wages of the workers. It's got nothing to do with the CFMMEU. The CFMMEU are not interested in fixing the prices of building products. They actually represent building product workers and want to see more of them available to go into the construction industry.

The opposition are suggesting that abolishing the ABCC will lead to inflation. Housing costs are already going up, and the ABCC exists. It's a desperate attempt by the opposition to protect a legacy that they should be embarrassed about. As the Prime Minister said today in question time, as the minister has said in his speech before, as I have demonstrated and as the other speakers on this side will demonstrate, this regulator is a waste of taxpayers' money. The former government and now opposition should be embarrassed about what it has done, not come in here trying to defend it.

3:46 pm

Photo of Angie BellAngie Bell (Moncrieff, Liberal National Party, Shadow Minister for Early Childhood Education) Share this | | Hansard source

Australia's construction industry is one of our most vital and important sectors. It's our construction industry that builds the shopping centres and the supermarkets that we buy our food from, the buildings that we work in and the homes in which we live. The construction industry is responsible for building the roads we drive on. They are the backbone of Australia's infrastructure and will continue to be long into the future.

The previous Liberal-National government recognised that construction is a hard industry to work in. It's laborious and it's physically demanding of many who work in it. In government, we learnt over time that unions were using their influence in the sector to bully, to harass and to intimidate Australian tradesmen—and, more importantly, tradeswomen—businesses and those who were not members of their organisations, and to effect change in their own interests. Surprise, surprise! In 2016, it was the Liberal-National government who introduced the Australian Building and Construction Commission, to be an independent and statutory authority of the Australian government, responsible for promoting understanding of and enforcing workplace relations compliance in the Australian building and construction industry. Labor's plan to abolish the ABCC will strip Australia's building and construction workers of their protection against unlawful and bad, bad behaviour, which the Leader of the Opposition outlined in his speech to parliament. Their plan to abolish the ABCC will strip Australia's building and construction workers of their protections against unlawful behaviour by unions, which was confirmed by not one but two royal commissions. However, unlike this government—those opposite—at least the Gillard and Rudd governments acknowledged the need for a specialist building regulator, even if it was ineffective.

The High Court of Australia ruled unanimously against the CFMMEU in a case about the union's lawlessness in the construction sector brought by the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ABCC. The High Court found that the CFMMEU was a serial offender who engaged in whatever action and made whatever threats it wished without regard to the law, that it had contravened laws on approximately 150 occasions, that it was well resourced—having more than sufficient means to pay any penalty that the court might have imposed—and that it treated penalties for serious breaches of the law as just a cost of doing business. I'll repeat that: the CFMEU treated penalties for serious breaches of the law—so many of them, clearly—as just a cost of doing business.

When repeat offending by a major player in the construction industry gets so bad that our Federal Court has to ask whether there's ever been a worse recidivist in the history of the common law—and that's them commenting on the CFMEU's history of flouting the law—there is clearly a problem with the effectiveness of law that requires urgent legislative attention.

This continues on to the alleged offensive and abusive behaviour—towards who? We've highlighted this, and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition also highlighted this—it is behaviour towards women in the construction industry, which is appalling and must be addressed. The real case that Mr Burke must make to the Australian people is how he plans to protect more than 150,000 women on Australian construction sites when he scraps the ABCC. If Labor is willing to abandon their position on protecting women the workplace this quickly, because of their union mates, then to what extent will Australians suffer to keep the bosses at ALP HQ and their union handlers happy?

The record of the ABCC stands up in its own right. Since the ABCC was re-established by the coalition government in December 2016 it has—let me go through the list—achieved a successful outcome in 98 of 107 cases resolved. For those opposite, that's a success rate of 91 per cent. It has prosecuted a total of 2,502 contraventions, secured over $16,423,918 in penalties and recovered $5,105,562 in wages and entitlements for 8,444 employees. And those opposite want to abolish it. It's unconscionable. As the Leader of the Opposition stood here and said, it's unconscionable that those opposite accept $5 million from their union and they want to scrap the watchdog that's looking out for the Australian people on construction sites. (Time expired)

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I give the call to the member for Canberra.

3:51 pm

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, and I congratulate you on your election as Deputy Speaker.

In my first speech to parliament I talked about the need to abolish the ABCC and this disgraceful body which is an ideological witch hunt on unions and an assault on working people. The fact that the opposition, in their very first matter of public importance, choose this topic just shows the depth of the ideological obsession that they have with attacking the union movement and the workers they represent, and I'm really pleased to have this opportunity to talk about it. So, thanks to the opposition for choosing this topic today.

In the words of a Federal Court judge, the ABCC should be 'publicly exposed as having wasted public money without a proper basis for doing so'. That's exactly what this MPI gives the government the opportunity to do. Now, there's a bit of confusion about what the ABCC actually does, and it might be easier to begin by outlining what it doesn't do. Let's be clear. The ABCC isn't fighting for higher safety standards on worksites and prosecuting dodgy operators; that's what unions do. The ABCC isn't prosecuting cases of industrial manslaughter; that's the advocacy that unions are doing. The ABCC is a complete waste of taxpayer money, and all it cares about is harassing union officials, delegates and members and stirring up conflict. Only two of the 39 current ABCC legal cases involve either an underpayment to a worker or a delayed payment to a subcontractor. The other 37 cases involve union officials and delegates.

The ABCC has made an absolute art form of throwing taxpayers' money away on farcical legal cases, and I'll provide some examples. As of last year, the ABCC had spent at least $487,000 pursuing Lendlease over Eureka flags. It wasted at least $432,469 unsuccessfully pursuing the union to the High Court because they demanded a women's toilet on a Melbourne worksite. In 2018 a judge of the Federal Court slammed the ABCC for wasting taxpayers' money for pursuing union officials for having a cup of tea on a worksite. The judge said:

I hold the clear view that this is a case where the ABCC should be publicly exposed as having wasted public money without a proper basis for doing so, in my view.

Why would you care about flags on stickers on a worksite? Why are the Liberal Nationals—the former government—so obsessed with these things?

The ABCC thought that taxpayer dollars were better spent on taking this idea of a request for a women's toilet on a building site to the High Court. Luckily, the High Court laughed this out of the room. As the CFMMEU said at the time, the High Court had a greater sense of decency than the ABCC.

According to Safe Work Australia data there were 154 deaths in the construction industry from 2016 to 2020—that's 154 families who never saw their loved one come home. This is a really serious issue, which governments should be concerned about, and which this body should be concerned about. But what have they done to lower these figures? Prosecute workers for stickers on hard hats. The ABCC spent $500,000 of taxpayer money on enforcing a ban on union logos while workers were dying. It's not the ABCC that protects Australian workers, it's unions that make workplaces safer. All this watchdog does is pursue vexatious litigation to make that work harder.

The ABCC has direct responsibility for protecting construction workers from wage theft. In December they issued a press release boasting that they had recovered $1 million in underpayments for construction workers in the period between July and November 2021. But over that same five-month period the construction union recovered more than $17 million in unpaid wages and entitlements for its members.

It is time that this body was gone, and I am so proud that this is something that this newly elected Labor government will do as a priority, because we are a government that believes in workers' rights and the unions that represent those workers, and we will always be proud of that.

3:56 pm

Photo of Phillip ThompsonPhillip Thompson (Herbert, Liberal National Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Congratulations on your elevation, Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon.

If there was ever anything to demonstrate that Labor is all about looking after their union mates, it's their plan to abolish the Australian Building Construction Commission. Those opposite should be ashamed, because the ABCC has done some incredible work, calling out and prosecuting the very kind of behaviour that Labor continually highlights as needing to be removed from our society.

We've already heard about the countless things the ABCC was put in place to expose. We've heard about the CFMMEU official calling a female inspector crude and offensive names. We've heard about union officials making threats of sexual violence against women and spitting at female workplace inspectors and about other intimidating behaviour. It's disgusting. These kinds of behaviours are the reason why we need the ABCC.

The kind of union thuggery we've become used to seeing on sites is incredibly detrimental. Let me give you an example from my own electorate. The Townsville stadium is a fantastic project which has been great for our city and was supported when we were in government. But during the construction, we saw delays because of unlawful industrial action organised by one of the CFMMEU workers. We had situations where the CFMMEU officials visited the stadium site and spoke to a group of workers while holding copies of the template of their enterprise agreement, saying words to the effect, 'You need to make your bosses sign this.' A few months later there was another visit, which resulted in 11 subbies refusing to commence work, 15 more the next day and a similar number refusing to work two days later. The union was fined $200,000 for unlawful industrial action, with the Federal Court justice labelling it 'coercion', 'disgraceful', 'shameful', ;deplorable' and 'dismal'. These are other words that the now government has left out from the Federal Court justice.

Multiply this incident around other sites across the country, and, not only do you have workers turning up to work in fear of being coerced and bullied, you also have the cost to the economy. We rely so heavily on the construction sector. It has been a critical part of our economic recovery. Now, in these times of increasing interest rates and increasing costs of living, we can't be adding more costs to the industry. Building and construction projects all around Australia are already grappling with increasing material costs, supply shortages and lengthy delays caused by COVID. If you strip the industry of the protections that the ABCC brings, we will see more stop works and costly, unlawful industrial action, so the need to keep the ABCC is clear.

This is something that Master Builders has noted on multiple occasions. To quote the CEO:

The construction unions, particularly the CFMEU, continue to target builders, particularly small building businesses with tactics to bully, intimidate and coerce them to sign up to union deals.

Every day on building sites, construction unions threaten with tactics that cause disruption and stoppages to projects. This undermines the productivity of the industry when the economy can least afford it.

…   …   …

Construction activity is driving the economic recovery in communities around the country. We cannot allow the activities of construction union bullies to put that at risk.

…   …   …

Labor's policy to abolish the ABCC will put economic recovery at risk.

We are at risk of seeing history repeat itself. As soon as Labor abolished the ABCC in 2012, the improvements in respect for the law were almost immediately lost. After getting rid of the ABCC, the rate of disputes in the construction industry rose to approximately four times the average of all industries.

Of course, we know exactly why this is one of the first moves by the Labor government. We know that the Labor government has received donations from the CFMMEU to the tune of $16.3 million over the last 20 years. It's a lot of money. We shouldn't risk losing the ABCC for Labor Party donations.

4:01 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Deputy Speaker Claydon, I'd like to briefly take this moment to congratulate you on your election as Deputy Speaker. You are my parliamentary neighbour in the Hunter, and I know the people of Newcastle will be very proud of their member. Congratulations to you.

In 12 months, it will be 40 years since the very first Hawke-Keating accord. Why am I speaking about 40 years ago? I just want to run through some of the achievements of that accord. Of course, it brought unions, workers and the government together, and it included employers in the negotiations. It established the Economic Planning Advisory Council. The accord brought about a tripartite Australian Manufacturing Council together with industry councils. The introduction of the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission came about 40 years ago as a result of the Hawke-Keating accord. Increases in family income supplements for low-income families came about, as did targeted tax cuts, various tax avoidance measures, increased pensions and unemployment benefits, and the fastest employment and economic growth in the OECD. The introduction of various steel and vehicle industry plans came about in 1983 as a result of the accord. The introduction of the three per cent award superannuation and, of course, many, many other benefits came about as a result of a Labor government, 40 years ago, coming together with unions, working with employer groups and working as a sensible and forward-thinking government.

In a few short weeks the Albanese government will have a jobs summit where, once again, a sensible, mature, forward-thinking government will come together with the leaders who create jobs across this country: union officials, businesspeople—people who want Australian people to be well employed, earning a decent wage for a fair day's work and moving our nation forward.

In the intervening period of those 40 years, there has been much disappointment for Australian workers. The fact that someone would be taken to court for having a cup of tea is beyond the pale for most average Australians. They don't want their tax dollars spent on this kind of nonsense. Having a sticker on your hard hat? For goodness's sake! Most ordinary Australians would hear this and think to themselves, 'Well, I know now why an iceberg lettuce is going north of $8.' It's because taxpayers' money has been rorted and ripped off by a government that is so obsessed with the union movement.

All the Leader of the Opposition at the moment could obsess about in the first questions on the first day of a new government in nine years was bikies and union thugs. It's a repetitious and boring old record. That's all he's been talking about for nine years. Well, can I say that the people of my electorate of Paterson want more than the same old, same old from the Leader of the Opposition and the tribe that he's brought along with him to sit on the opposition benches? They want more, and this government is going to deliver more.

We are going to deliver more jobs and more training for Australian people. We heard the minister today say we are going to put TAFE front and centre of training. There are so many young people—and older people, quite frankly—who want to improve their skill set so they can avail themselves of the opportunities that are coming down the line in Australia for people with the right qualifications. We want to be part of this exciting change. We want to work with business. We want to work with the unions. We want to work with training to ensure that our people are equipped to face the challenges that are coming.

As Treasurer Chalmers outlined today, we've got a lot of challenges coming—no thanks to this mob opposite, who laid the land mines for us to try to negotiate in the first few months of government—with a gas crisis, and with the crisis that has come from them trying to hide away the electricity rises that were coming as well. But we're alive and awake, and we're agile, and we will run this show much better than them. (Time expired)

4:06 pm

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

In the haze of contest this afternoon, I think there are some things we can agree on: firstly, that it's critical that Australia has a productive, prosperous and internationally competitive building industry. It's also critical that we maintain the rule of law on Australian building sites. Of course, that's why, in 2017, we re-established the ABCC.

Talking of the performance of the ABCC, since 2016 it's seen a success rate of 91 per cent. It has successfully pursued 2,502 contraventions and seen $16,423,918 in penalties. Now, that's more money than you can fly a rocket ship over, but it's eclipsed only by how much the CFMMEU or its predecessors have been fined by the ABCC and/or its predecessors since establishment, which is more than $22 million. I think it is important that we understand what is going on here. I don't profess to know about the lived experience of everyone in this place, but I'm one of very few people, I hope, in this place who has lived experience of a loved one dying on a building site, so I know deeply what that causes and the hurt it causes and how important safety on a building site is.

But let me take you to a few examples of behaviour on building sites and around building sites which I respectfully suggest to you has nothing to do with creating more and safer building sites. Amongst the material prosecutions brought by the ABCC are instances where a female official from the ABCC was threatened by a union official with being gang-raped as she inspected the site. That same official was spat at while on the site. I respectfully suggest to you that behaviour doesn't have any place on an Australian worksite or, indeed, anywhere in civil society, but it can't be defended on the basis that this is about ensuring safe worksites.

Honourable Member:

An honourable member interjecting

Photo of Tony PasinTony Pasin (Barker, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

No-one is doing that? Well, a CFMMEU official made three phone calls late at night to a female inspector's mobile phone. The last call was at 11.23. An anonymous flyer was circulated referring to the woman as 'a dog who wanted to be a pole dancer'. This stuff actually happens; right. It actually happens, and that's why we need a strong cop on the beat.

Now this behaviour, the CFMMEU's behaviour, has been described variously but including as a serial offender, engaging in whatever actions and making whatever threats it wishes without regard to the law. Those opposite scoff at the idea that an ABCC and having a strong cop on the beat can put downward pressure on building costs. Well, the Master Builders Association disagrees with your position. They say that is exactly what it does. Those productivity impacts, I think, are best illustrated by the period between July 2012 and December 2016, when 43,000 work days a year were lost to industrial action. Once we re-established the cop on the beat for the same four-year period between 2017 and 2022, it was 15,000 days per year. The reality is you can't hide from this.

One might wonder reasonably in the gallery or listening to the broadcast why would the Australian Labor Party come into this place and, as one of the first orders of business, abolish the ABCC? They always say to people: in politics follow the money. You are usually on the money if you are following the money.

Government members interjecting

I said 'one of the first orders'. The reality is if you are following the money, you are close to the money, and the reality is the CFMMEU has contributed to those opposite, to their election coffers, around $1 million a year over the last five years and upwards of $20 million over the last two decades. You know, it is not what you say that matters; it is what you do. In the days after an election, you are always very conscious to go and see your most important supporters. The newly elected member for Spence in recent days has met with the CFMMEU and thanked them for their support. It says everything the people of Australia need to know about those opposite.

4:11 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Leader of the Opposition decides what goes on the MPI. He said 'let's talk about the ABCC'. That is what he says is the most important thing in Australia today that this parliament should be debating. So I am just going to declare a few things before I get into this detail that we see today, where we have seen the trap of putting ideology before evidence, because that is what this debate is really about. I want to declare a few things. Firstly, three of my brothers, a couple of nephews and my brother's partner all work in the construction industry. A few of them are carpenters.

One of my brothers actually worked on a crane that worked on this building; they have been in the construction industry for that long. When one of the cranes collapsed in the construction of this building, he was working down at the Canberra Casino and they brought their crane to lift up that crane. Sadly, another one of my brothers was working at Twin Towns, if you know where that is, right on the border between Queensland and New South Wales. In fact, the crane was in Queensland and the jib where it was picking up was in New South Wales and the crane collapsed and killed the two blokes standing right beside my other brother, my younger brother Timothy. So I know a little bit about the construction industry right now because I have brothers who work in it right now.

Just for the sake of the opposition leader, the commercial construction industry is completely different to the residential industry. Some news, some research: the CFMMEU doesn't have coverage in the residential building area. They have coverage in the big construction projects, like the Townsville casino. I just want to point that out because, if I went and saw one of my nephews working on a residential site, I could walk in with this Eureka badge or with my book with the Eureka sticker on it and that would not be a problem. But if I went to see one of my brothers or nephews working at the casino in Brisbane right now, that could be a problem—if I could get on the site, obviously. That would be a problem because that sticker is a problem. This badge is a problem at the casino site. But because of the ideological pursuits of those opposite rather than the evidence, the main evidence that we need to extract from this MPI is: has there been an improvement in construction productivity? No. As we have heard from other speakers, there's been an increase in deaths under the ABCC's watch. So let's get those facts out there right from the start.

The ABCC is not designed to deal with breaches of criminal law, as the member for Watson, the minister, pointed out right from the start—something that the Leader of the Opposition didn't seem to understand. That's what we have the police for. They will actually go out and deal with criminal behaviour that everyone on this side of the parliament, from the Prime Minister down, condemns. So you can keep dredging up fact after fact after fact. We hate that sort of behaviour. We're all members of unions and we all hate that sort of behaviour, okay? So don't try and start with that school of smear that the Leader of the Opposition started with in question time. The principal sets the tone for the school of smear. If you're going to follow that, shame on you. This parliament can be better than that. This parliament can be so much better.

I know that this sector has challenges. It's a dangerous place. I know the difference between union sites and non-union sites right in the middle of Brisbane city. You can go from one site to the next. You deal with labour hire people and what they're paid on one site and with what people are paid next door. One site is dangerous; the other is not, because unions are workers. You keep talking about unions and workers. Well, guess what: unions are workers. The Labor Party has a proud connection to the union movement. We're here because of workers. We believe in looking after workers, and letting them come home safely from a construction site is a pretty bloody good start, I say, because I've seen what happens. My little brother has never recovered from the physical injuries that happened when the crane hit him and also from the psychological damage. Sorry to name you, Tim, but you know I love you. It's a dangerous industry, and we need good strong unions doing the right thing. They should be treated the same as every other worker in every other workplace.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The discussion has now concluded.