Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Committees

Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee; Reference

4:22 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the following matter be referred to the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 10 May 2012:

The Law Council of Australia's concerns about the government's amendment to the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2012.

The Law Council's serious concerns about the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill need to be submitted to a Senate inquiry. The draft bill, which was on the table for some years, was examined by a Senate committee previously, but in a deliberately sneaky manoeuvre designed to yet again avoid scrutiny the Greens-Labor alliance waited until the Senate inquiry into the bill had been completed before moving a far-reaching amendment to the bill. Any self-respecting senator who takes their role as a legislator seriously should be aghast at this behaviour. If they are here simply as union hacks, they will not be aghast, but if they are here because they want proper process to be undertaken then they will be aghast.

This is an amendment which the Law Council of Australia says requires reconsideration 'in light of the serious impact it will have on the role of the regulator'. The Law Council says it has serious concerns about the amendments. We as a coalition want to hear those concerns and to have a response for those championing the concerns. This is an unprecedented and unprincipled amendment. Let us hear what the Law Council has had to say. The Law Council has said that the amendments will:

… significantly impact the ability of the independent regulator to enforce compliance with the relevant legislation in the building and construction industry.

It went on to say that the Building and Construction Commissioner:

… will be unable to either institute or continue civil penalty litigation for breaches under Commonwealth law because there has been a commercial settlement between the contravener and persons affected by the offending conduct.

Talk about buying your way out of prosecution! This is what the Greens-Labor alliance is now trying to put forward as legislation in this place, and that is why the Law Council has said:

These proposed amendments will give precedence to the interests of private litigants over the application and enforcement of Australian law.

This is something with which the Prime Minister used to agree. It was in relation to the Australian Building and Construction Commission that she said:

Anybody who breaches the law should feel the full force of the law.

She went on to say:

Each and every breach of the law is wrong and each and every breach of the law should be acted upon.

We now have this important caveat: unless you have got enough money to buy your way out of trouble. That is the precedent that the Greens-Labor amendment to this legislation will establish for the first time ever in Australian law.

The example is clear: if you run a red light and you collide with somebody, surely you have an obligation to fix their car and pay for their personal injuries if there are any, but if you pay that person it should not stop the police from charging you with running a red light. Labor now has this principle: if you have enough money to buy the silence of the other party you can escape prosecution. That is a terrible precedent to set in Australian law, and this is why the Law Council of Australia has come out in this very strong and, might I suggest, unprecedented manner. It is right to have come out so strongly. Sure, the Law Council ventures opinions from time to time—that is not unprecedented—but the strength of its response on this issue is unprecedented, and I think it shows the importance of why this matter needs to be referred to a committee.

We as a coalition believe, and believe very strongly, that this is a matter of such importance that it should be resubmitted to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee for ventilation and for a degree of examination. Let us make no mistake: there have been other amendments to this legislation. When we put it before a Senate inquiry we found the unions did not support the amendment, the employers did not support the amendment and the department did not know about the amendment because it did not come up in any of their consultations—it came from the minister's office with no explanation. Now we have another amendment even more far reaching, one that undermines one of the fundamental principles on which our legal system is based—the principle that says that just because you have the money you cannot buy your way out of a prosecution. That is what this amendment will do. It will set a precedent, and that is why it is so important to have this matter examined.

This will be the clause on which large companies and large unions will be able to buy their way out of trouble. Individual workers will not have the money to buy their way out of trouble and small contractors will not be able to buy their way out of trouble. It will be the big unions and big businesses. Once again, we have big government, courtesy of the Greens-Labor alliance, giving succour and comfort to bribery, sweetheart deals and all sorts of unseemly negotiations that give precedence to those with big bank accounts to buy themselves out of trouble. We as a coalition stand firmly against that concept. We will continue to do so, but in the meantime we believe that the concerns of the Law Council of Australia should be ventilated, and ventilated as soon as possible.

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