Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 March 2015


Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013; Second Reading

6:15 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Across Australia today, thousands of Australians took to the streets to protest the government's attack on their wages and conditions. They are standing up for their rights at work, and the Greens are proud to stand with them. The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 is part of the government's war on workers. It seeks to single out a section of the workforce—building and construction workers—and remove some of their fundamental rights. The government says it is interested in productivity and alleged unlawful activity on building sites. But their real agenda is clear. It is to weaken one of the most strongly unionised sections of the workforce.

This legislation is intended to bring back the draconian Australian building and construction commission. The government's arguments for the ABCC are based on flawed modelling of productivity in the industry. Its proposed powers are extreme, unnecessary, undemocratic and they attack civil liberties. This legislation ignores what is already in place, the Fair Work Building and Construction agency, which was put in place by Labor, despite the opposition of unions and the Greens. Labor's Fair Work Building and Construction agency, which replaced the former ABCC, already has very strong powers to deal with any unlawful behaviour in the industry. Further powers are not needed.

The real agenda here is to attack and weaken unions so that the government can bring back Work Choices. The Prime Minister has been waging an ideological war on workers for some time. Just this week we have seen the attempts to strangle unions in red tape and attacks on seafarers and mature workers. But the Prime Minister has form that goes back a long way when it comes to attacks on the building and construction industry. It was the Prime Minister—then the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations—who, in 2001, called for the Cole royal commission into supposed criminality, fraud and corruption within the building and construction industry. But after 18 months and $66 million of taxpayers' money, the Prime Minister's expensive political stunt failed to produce one single criminal conviction. Investigation of crime, let alone organised crime, is a matter for the police, not for the ABCC. However, we had the Prime Minister and his ultraconservative backers continuing their failed crusade 15 years later.

The Australian building and construction commission's proposed powers include unfettered coercive powers, the power to conduct secretive interviews and the power to impose imprisonment on those who do not cooperate. These bills will arm the ABCC with powers to deny people the right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice. The ABCC will have powers to interview people in secret and to deny them the right to silence. In fact, previously when the ABCC was in operation it even prohibited people from disclosing that they had been interviewed by the commission, even when they had done nothing wrong. I do not know about you, but that sounds like something that I would expect in Russia or China not Australia. Nicola McGarrity and Professor George Williams from the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales have said:

… 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.

Not only does this bill revive the ABCC but it is extends its scope. It extends it beyond its former reach into picketing, offshore construction and the transport and supply of goods to building sites. The government did not come clean on this before the last election.

The government's argument for the ABCC is based on flawed modelling and evidence. It relies on a series of reports from Econtech, trading as Independent Economics, that were first commissioned by the ABCC at public expense and were later recommissioned by the Master Builders Australia as a political tool to push for the reinstatement of the ABCC. On 28 August 2013, the Fairfax federal politics fact checker found the Prime Minister's claim of $6 billion a year in savings in productivity and consumer costs in commercial construction to be mostly false. Previous Econtech reports have been dismissed by economists and academics for their mathematical errors and flawed methodology. They were totally disregarded as evidence by Justice Murray Wilcox in the ABCC inquiry. They were even removed from the ABCC's own website. Econtech's main argument is that costs are higher in the commercial building sector than in housing because of the higher number of union members in commercial building. As the CFMEU has said:

These geniuses have no understanding that building a single villa is a completely different undertaking from a multi-storey office tower.

Econtech's 2007 report, which purported to demonstrate that the ABCC had been effective in bringing about significant reform and improvement in the building and construction industry, was analysed in the report written by David Peetz, Cameron Allan and Andrew Dungan. Their report was appropriately titled 'Anomalies', damned 'anomalies' and statistics: construction industry productivity in Australia. The report concluded:

The great gains for construction industry arising, it was said, from the near equalisation of costs in the commercial and domestic residential sectors that was attributed to the ABCC have disappeared, like a mirage on the horizon.

Their analysis went on to say:

This close analysis of the Econtech data raises serious questions about the nature of regulation in the building and construction industry. Alleged economic benefits, used to justify denial of basic rights to employees in the industry—rights which everybody else is, at least at present, entitled to enjoy—are based on discredited cost data. In short, there do not appear to be any significant economic benefits that warrant the loss of rights involved in recent arrangements.

It is clear that the Abbott government has no facts to backup its claim that a revived ABCC will improve productivity and, even if it did, the question remains: at what cost, to the lives and working conditions of workers in an industry that faces many challenges in terms of safety?

We know that during WorkChoices and the ABCC under Prime Minister John Howard, fatalities for construction workers doubled to almost five deaths for every 100,000 workers. We have clawed the rate back since then, but the government seems to want to undo all this good work. Fatigue and stress are major contributors to workplace accidents and deaths. Safe conditions and good working conditions save lives. Fatality rates on major constructions are four times higher than on general construction projects. One construction worker dies at work every 10 days in Australia and 37 construction workers are seriously injured at work every day. We are talking the lives and the wellbeing of Australian workers, but the government seems hell-bent on waging this ideological attack.

Another aspect of this bill puts in place a building code, a draft of which has been released by the government.

Let us be very clear: in 8,465 words of prescriptive red tape, the government's proposed new building code strikes at the heart of the Australian way of life, undermining the fair go and basic human rights. The code's impact on working hours, job security, incomes and living standards, injuries and fatalities, opportunities for apprentices and older workers will devastate family life and our communities. It prohibits clauses in the construction Electrical Trades Union agreement that, among other things, guarantees a day off for Christmas and Easter, discourage discrimination against older workers, and ensure the rights of workers to have a safe workplace. The code represents the most extreme intervention into the conduct of private business ever seen in Australia and threatens crippling penalties on lawfully operating companies.

Much of the justification for the building code is based on the claim that there is a productivity problem in the construction industry. Yet a recent report by the Australia Institute reveals that productivity has never been higher in the industry and that there has been a large shift in incomes towards profits and away from workers. In reality, the code is an ideological attack on more than one million hard-working Australians that will undermine productivity.

The Greens will oppose this bill and we will oppose the government amendments. We urge the Senate to reject the bill.


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