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

6:46 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, and thank you also for sitting in the chair longer than your roster for me. I rise tonight to put Labor's position on our opposition to the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013.

Before I go to the very stark and obvious wrongs of this bill, I want to talk about the ABS stats that were quoted by Senator Back. Senator Cameron said in his address that government senators would use the very discredited Econtech report, and we will wait to see if they do. The government certainly relied on it during the hearings we had on this bill. They also decided to use ABS stats. Never let truth get in the way of a good story. What they tried to prove, by using those ABS statistics, was that somehow the construction industry was out of control. They tried to leave the public with the impression that these were unauthorised lost days, but when questioned during the hearings that we had to explain the ABS statistics, what did we find? We found that they were almost 100 per cent due to protected industrial action.

For people who are listening or watching and do not really understand the Fair Work Act, when unions and employers are bargaining there is an ability for unions to conduct a ballot and ascertain—if the negotiations are not going very well—whether members would be prepared to take forms of industrial action. It is perfectly legal and absolutely permitted under the Fair Work Act. That is what those ABS stats represent. They represent protected industrial action. That, I believe, was in the evidence presented at the hearings by the department—when we went to explore and unpick those stats that the government tried to hide behind and give the impression of an industry that was out of control.

Labor senators do not see the merit in this bill and oppose it in its entirety without amendment. The government has completely failed to establish an economic or productivity case for the ABCC. The government has failed to address the very serious incursions on human rights in the bill. The government has failed to establish the uniqueness of the building and construction industry, sufficient to warrant such draconian powers and penalties. The government has failed to establish that the coercive powers proposed for this second incarnation of the ABCC are subject to sufficient oversights and safeguards, and the government has failed to establish that the ABCC would improve occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry.

On that last point, you would think the government really did not care about occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry. It is one of the industries in Australia that has the highest rates of death—an appalling statistic. It is a tough industry, by the definition of the ACT report into safety in the construction industry, and yet it is one where the Abbott government has been completely silent.

I must say that during Senate estimates I questioned the Federal Safety Commissioner and Safe Work Australia about the construction industry, and the very best they could tell me was that they put together a 10-year plan. When I put to them that we had some 28 deaths in the construction industry last year and that deaths were on the rise—by their own admission; by their own statistics—they told me that deaths had risen. I asked them whether, surely, it was time to revise a 10-year plan. They said that there were no plans to do that.

I find it absolutely incredible that here we have an industry that is crying out for regulation, but that regulation is about what is happening on building sites that cause so many workers to die. Imagine kissing your family goodbye in the morning and then dying at work. I cannot imagine the tragedy that families suffer when their loved one goes off to work, whether it be a son or a daughter or a husband or a wife. No Australian worker should be dying at work. And yet all we hear about from the Abbott government in relation to the construction industry is the demonising of the CFMEU and some of the officials of that union. We never hear about what a tough industry it is and what a high number of serious injuries and fatalities it incurs.

I am yet to hear the Prime Minister or Senator Abetz say anything constructive—anything at all—about their plan to reduce the number of fatalities that we have in the construction industry and to make it a safe workplace. We do not hear that at all.

Despite re-establishment of the ABCC seeming to be essential for this government when it took power, the coalition has certainly taken its time in bringing it back to the Senate. At the end of 2013 when we as senators encountered this unnecessary bill, the government attempted to push it through the Education and Employment Committee, of which I am the deputy chair. But it has taken another 15 months from that hearing to resurface on the radars of those opposite. When we as senators were first asked to vote on passing the bill in 2013, only a very small part of the parliament's scrutiny of the bills had been completed while, at the same time, the government and the supporters of the re-establishment of the ABCC were calling for this Senate effectively to abandon its role and simply pass the bills with minimal scrutiny.

The legislation committee was given a mere 18 days—18 days!—in which to consider the bills and produce its report. Submitters were given only eight days to make submissions on a wide range of very complex matters, and there was only one public hearing—just one public hearing—on 26 November 2013, which was of a duration of just 3½ hours. Just 3½ hours were available for the committee to receive evidence on increased penalties, increased powers and increased coercion—just 3½ hours. The government does not want this bill to have any real scrutiny—that was its plan at that time.

Since that time—in fact, a year ago now—the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills has assessed the legislation and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has tabled their second report of this parliament, which raised very serious concerns that the bills to re-establish the ABCC involved the limitation, curtailment and extinguishment of a wide range of civil, human and political rights of people working in the building and construction industry. Yes—you heard that correctly—in Australia, that is what the Abbott government wants this parliament to do: to curtail absolutely the rights of a small section of our workforce, to treat them like third-class citizens and to take away their rights in Australia, which is a fair-go country.

Both of those committees wrote to the Minister for Employment seeking detailed evidence to support the government's assertion that the interference with human rights contained in the bill is necessary, reasonable and proportional. As far as I am aware, the government has yet to provide responses to the concerns of either of those committees.

I do hope that the senators of the Palmer United Party, Senator Lambie and other crossbench senators can hear what Labor senators have to say on this bill. I am aware that the Palmer United Party senator, Senator Wang, had a very constructive meeting in my home state with UnionsWA. I hope that meeting was enough to assure Senator Wang and his fellow Palmer United Party senator, Senator Lazarus, that the bill is a political ploy set up by an ultraconservative, anti-union government to take away the rights of thousands of workers.

Workers in the Australian building and construction industry are not thugs—and that statement is not even something that the government argues with. The government does not claim that all workers in the building and construction industry are thugs. In fact, the government does not even claim that half of them are. The government is putting up this legislation to go after a handful of union officials and delegates who it believes need to be reined in with such draconian legislation. They are not criminals and they are not different from other workers. This is simply an anti-union push from the coalition that sets up harsh and special rules for one type of worker just so they can attack the Labor Party, the ACTU and the CFMEU, and paint their members as criminals of some kind.

As we know, criminals will go where they think they can make a profit, including the security industry, the heavy-haulage industry, the liquor industry and the banking and financial services industry, to name just a few. Any argument that these laws will quell organised criminal activity in the industry is well and truly displaced. The ABCC has no power in relation to criminal matters, and the argument that it can address that issue is deliberately misleading and entirely a political ploy.

It is the Cole royal commission that proponents of the ABCC claim provides the legal, intellectual and policy rationale for the existence of the ABCC in its pre-2012 form and for its re-establishment. This is the very royal commission set up by the Howard government that spent $66 million—$66 million!—of taxpayers' money, had just one prosecution in the criminal jurisdiction and the findings of which were deeply flawed. It gave rise to a cottage industry of economic modelling and reporting from the supporters of the coalition, anti-union movement, almost entirely devoted to propping up the Cole royal commission's flawed productivity analysis.

If people are committing crimes—and let me make this clear; this has been said by Labor senators and MPs over and over again—and if there are allegations of serious crimes, we have a police force to deal with those and union rules that will expel them. Let those already charged with the responsibility for those who break the law get on with the job. We do not need further overlapping jurisdictions. The Fair Work Act 2009 already regulates rights and restrictions of protected industrial action. The rate of disputation has not increased since the ABCC was abolished, and again this is not Labor's data; this data is direct from the ABS. Any additional rules are unnecessary, unjustifiable and an attack on working Australians.

Even the title of the bill is misleading and misleads Australians. They call it the 'improving productivity bill'. The bill will not improve productivity. The government when naming this bill relied on data from Independent Economics, formerly trading as Econtech, and it is inherently flawed. It was interesting that at the hearings we had in 2013 the government relied heavily on that information, which was absolutely discredited during those hearings. It has been proven incorrect—in fact I would say demolished—by the respected academic Professor David Peetz.

The claims of enhanced productivity caused by the ABCC based on reports prepared by Econtech and Independent Economics and recycled endlessly are not supported by the evidence. The alleged 9.4 per cent improvement in construction industry productivity attributed to the last incarnation of the ABCC is not even a finding of the 2013 Independent Economics report. This is a modelling assumption made up and only drawn from estimates of the preceding reports and not a finding. It was not a finding of the 2010 report tabled to the committee from the same company, nor the 2008 report coalition senators relied on to assume this improvement in productivity. Any representation that this is evidence demonstrating the success of the ABCC is neither accurate nor appropriate. As Senator Cameron said and I will repeat, it will be really interesting to see if the government relies on the absolutely discredited information, whether it is from the old or new names of Independent Economics or Econtech, again in this place.

Proponents of the ABCC have been unable to answer the detailed criticisms of the assumptions and methodologies adopted by Econtech and Independent Economics. Despite this, supporters of the ABCC, including the Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and employer organisations, continue to use the flawed and discredited reports as a bedrock argument in support of this draconian bill.

The proposition that the bills would enhance productivity in the building and construction industry is highly objectionable given the evidence my Senate colleagues on the committee and I have heard. It is long past the time for the government to seriously address the health and safety issues in the construction industry. In fact, as I said earlier, the only points that the government raised in relation to health and safety are again to attack the unions. We have heard in this place, in the media and in the other place, that when the government speaks about this it claims that the CFMEU uses its rights to inspect safety as some kind of hoax to get onto sites. I do not know how that can be justified when we have an industry which has one of the highest workplace death rates in this country—that a government would stoop so low as to suggest that union officials and others use safety as some kind of mask to get on site. The independent statistics on workplace deaths in the construction industry speak for themselves, and it is long past due for government to look at what regulation is needed to ensure that people go to work in the morning and come home in the afternoon.

The ACT has conducted an inquiry into safety in the construction industry, and there were some 28 recommendations in the report that was produced. The ACT government has committed to introducing all of those recommendations. The report acknowledges that it is a tough industry and that there is a culture change that needs to go on, but we do not hear any of that from the Abbott government. We hear this continued demonisation of union officials under the guise of the parliament to name officials and to say whatever they like about them whether or not it is true, to make these character assassinations day in, day out, at Senate estimates, at any inquiry we have into the construction industry where parliamentary privilege applies. The government thinks it can just malign people.

It is well past time for the government to pay serious attention and look at the regulation that needs to go on to prevent workplace death. That is the issue in this sector. The issue is serious injury. The issue is workplaces which just would leave you wide-eyed if you saw the kind of danger that workers are confronted with every single day. In my home state of Western Australia we have had some truly shocking accidents in that industry.

Finally, I want to remind the chamber that Labor does not support this bill that has come up. We cannot justify its existence. I will leave it there. (Time expired)


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