Wednesday, 4 March 2015
Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013; Second Reading
It gives me great pleasure to rise and speak in support of the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013. It is indeed a topic my fellow members of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee discussed at estimates last week, where we traversed these issues with the current director of the building and construction inspectorate in much detail. Senator Cameron was belligerent, almost, at times in his harassment of that public official. When we talk about safe workplaces—workplaces where people can flourish and grow and do their very best work—I would argue that treating public officials the way some of them have been treated, and particularly Mr Hadgkiss at that public estimates hearing, by the opposition is not exactly how we want to be conducting ourselves.
But this bill and the measures included in it—in terms of setting up our government's election commitment to re-establish the building and construction commission—is well canvassed. It is not a new issue. It is an election commitment we were very up-front about wanting to deliver. In fact, the education and employment committee has held numerous inquiries into this particular issue and we hear the same evidence time and time again. It does not matter whether it is the legislation committee taking evidence from unions and those involved in the building and construction industry at the coalface or employers and industry participants, it is the same evidence given. Yet the Labor Party refuses once again to respect the mandate of the Australian people, given at the last election, for a suite of election promises by the then Abbott opposition.
What we do know is that building construction is a significant industry, contributing an enormous amount to our GDP—eight per cent. That is a lot of jobs. It is a lot of apprentices. It is a lot of small businesses, when you look at small to medium self-contractors. And it underpins so many of our further productivity issues because it provides the infrastructure we need to do all the other things we need to get on with and do within our economy. We need to ensure that young apprentices, men and women, can go to work to a safe workplace—and I agree with you, Senator Lines; we absolutely want safe workplaces—and be free of harassment and bullying and intimidation. That was not the evidence we were given. It was not the evidence the Cole royal commission was given on these sites and it is not the evidence we hear time and time again in our committee. Whether it is at estimates, at a reference committee looking into the bill or at a legislation committee looking at the bill, time and time again we hear of these incidents of intimidation and bullying by union members.
We hear of right-of-entry permits being signed by unions where it is very clear that the person they have vouched for is not a fit and proper person. Yet the union organisation either supports somebody who has a criminal record getting a right-of-entry permit—they know about it and do not worry about it—or, equally an issue, does not do the due diligence required to ascertain if they are a fit and proper person. When we look at who we are letting into workplaces, onto sites, to meet with workers and move around very dangerous areas we want to make sure they are fit and proper people.
Effectively, right-of-entry permits are a permit to trespass. That is fine if we are looking into safety; that is not a problem. But we need to make sure they are fit and proper people. We need to ensure that oversight bodies such as the one we are proposing have the right powers to deal with this issue and get to the heart of it because we hear, time and time again, these stories of militant and threatening behaviour—and behaviour against female workers, which I find particularly disturbing. I would argue that, despite the best efforts of those around the industry, building and construction is a highly gendered workplace. We want to get more women into the workplace. We want to get them out onto construction sites becoming young apprentices and contributing to the building and construction industry as they do to so many industries. But they are not going to do it if it is a workplace full of intimidation and bullying—full of situations where people coming to check on a work site, from the existing workforce under Mr Hadgkiss, are being sworn at and having their personal details put on social media and the like.
That is the evidence we have heard. To stand there and say it is a campaign by the coalition against unions and union representation and law-abiding citizens misses the point; it misses all the evidence you have heard yourself and that our committee has heard time and time again. I am baffled as to why you continue to support that type of behaviour being acceptable in any workplace, because it simply is not. Clearly the measures we have in place right now are not adequate because it is still happening.
I want to look at why we need to return to the ABCC. What we are wanting to do is enhance the productivity of this engine room of our economy and support the industry to do what it does. We need to be looking at lost productivity through changes in industrial law and arrangements; we have seen more and more days lost onsite as a result of the Fair Work Building and Construction being set up as opposed to our original proposal and the proposal before the Senate today. For instance, there was a big spike in the number of days lost in the September 2014 quarter. In September 2014, we had 18 days lost per 1,000 employees. Across all industry, there were only 2.4 days lost per 1,000 employees. That means that small business owners who are contractors or building construction companies are losing significant manpower—let's face it, that is what it is—onsite which is significantly delaying construction and causing significant increases in costs not only for the private sector but, indeed, for government. Anybody from my home state of Victoria, like Senator Carr, will appreciate the days lost in the building and construction of the desalination plant down in south Gippsland, just out of Wonthaggi. We saw the CFMEU run rife there. To not be able to have a tough cop on the beat able to actually deal with that issue in a timely manner with real penalties is a problem.
The current industry-specific regulator advises that the unlawfulness in the industry that was a feature in Victoria and Western Australia has now spread to other states—Queensland and South Australia. So it is not just my home state. We know about the Myer Emporium dispute, where the violence spread out into Melbourne city streets. We know about the Little Creatures brewery site in Geelong, where we suffered violent disputes, where picketers were accused in court documents of making throat-cutting gestures et cetera. This behaviour is just unacceptable in the modern workforce. We should all be ensuring that nobody is subject to that sort of behaviour.
Yes, as Victorians, we are very aware—too aware, I would suggest—of the militant behaviour of the union movement, and the CFMEU in particular. We do not want the good citizens of Victoria, the good workers, actually subjected to that. Yet you will not help us put the shoulder to the wheel; essentially you are not supporting the fact that these types of unions and this type of behaviour undermines the legitimacy of unions more broadly in our social fabric and as part of our society.
Unions do have a role to play. We want to have safe workplaces and collaborative arrangements, flexible arrangements, so that all Australian workers across all industries can earn enough money to support their families, can have worthwhile and long-lasting careers and can actually participate in driving our economic development as a nation. There is a role for unions in that discussion. So, every time you have a CFMEU official arm in arm with a Comanchero, it undermines it. Every time you have a union official swearing at women, swearing at workers, bullying them on social media sites—and affecting their work practices it ensure they end up attending counsellors for their own mental health—you have to step back and ask: are we actually achieving our goals here as a conglomerate of the union movement for those opposite.
We know that when Labor abolished the previous ABCC it also slashed applicable penalties by two-thirds. You abolish it but then you also abolish the penalties for this type of behaviour. It only makes it cheaper for the CFMEU. They are happy to pay it. It is money for jam, because it helps in their spread of membership drives; it assists in the unlawful behaviour that we all know is going on and has gone on for millennia in building and construction. This particular industry, from BLF days, has been subject to this type of behaviour and does need an ABCC so that it can actually regulate and prosecute appropriately unlawful behaviour.
I have been personally interested in the Boral case in particular. The ACCC has not usually had to play a role in industrial matters. I met with Mr Sims about this at the time to ascertain why the secondary boycott behaviour that was going on, through the industrial action taken by that union, was not being examined by the ACCC as anticompetitive. He assured me that he was looking into the matter; however, the problem was that he was finding it very difficult for people to come forward and give the evidence that he required to act. That is not uncommon in these cases where bullying and intimidation occur. People do not want to have to put themselves at risk. The fact that this is occurring and undermining the good name of some unions and the union movement as a whole is very concerning.
I think what Rod Sims recently said is telling. He said that it was very difficult to get people to come forward to give evidence against John Setka and Shaun Reardon—who were both CFMEU officials and were leading the charge, if you like, against Boral. He said the ACCC had only been able to progress the investigation by compelling people to give evidence, giving them the protection they so desperately needed.