Monday, 18 April 2016
Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2]; Second Reading
As I was saying, this is a government whose Cabinet Secretary, Arthur Sinodinos, remains under investigation in the New South Wales ICAC over corruption allegations. Senator Sinodinos was also recently found by the Australian Electoral Commission to have been involved in a scheme to 'channel and disguise' illegal donations to the New South Wales Liberal Party prior to the 2011 state election. Astonishingly, he retains the confidence of the Prime Minister.
Until recently, the government also had the honourable member for Fisher, Mal Brough, as its Special Minister of State. Mr Brough remains under investigation by the Australian Federal Police over his role in the James Ashby affair. In November last year, the AFP raided his home as part of its investigation. At the time, the Prime Minister publicly expressed confidence in his then minister, despite the police investigation and raid. Mr Brough has since resigned.
As for the Attorney-General, he is personally subject to allegations of perpetuating a cover-up in relation to the illegal bugging of the East Timorese cabinet by Australian intelligence operatives in 2004. It has also been suggested that a 2015 job offer he made to Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs in the weeks prior to the commission's release of a damning report into children in detention constituted an unlawful inducement, although the AFP ultimately decided not to investigate the matter.
So when the government says there is no need for a federal corruption body, well, they would say that wouldn't they? There is plenty of evidence of corruption and misconduct in the building industry, and some of it is serious. However, there are allegations of high-level corruption in numerous sectors of society, including politics. I have just outlined some examples most of you are familiar with. There is also mounting evidence of widespread and potentially systemic corruption within the banking and finance sector. Yet when called on to hold a royal commission into the banks, the Prime Minister politely declined. In doing so, he firmly nailed his colours to the mast.
Every effort needs to be made to stamp out corruption and misconduct in the building industry, and wherever else it is occurring. However, this should not be at the expense of core democratic values. Any proposal to legislate in a manner inconsistent with these values must demonstrate a compelling reason for doing so. The government has not even come close to meeting this standard in the present case. Its case for bringing back the ABCC relies on an assumption that the building industry, which is a key driver of the Australian economy, is uniquely prone to corruption and misconduct.
On that point, I say that the government has tirelessly reiterated the fact that there are over 100 union officials facing over 1,000 criminal charges. I say, quite simply, that these figures reflect the effectiveness of our criminal laws, and the current law enforcers. The law is doing its job in prosecuting those alleged to have done wrong. Why, then, and how is the government justifying the re-establishment of this draconian body? Giving this body some of the greatest powers in the country will in itself lead to corruption and bullying. A number of studies have considered whether the previous manifestation of the ABCC brought about productivity gains. There is no compelling evidence to support this claim.
On the other side of the argument, the unions say that reintroducing the ABCC will compromise workplace safety. There is evidence that workplace injuries and deaths actually increased when the ABCC was last in operation. As a general rule, weaker unions mean less safe workplaces. In the construction industry, where the risk of workplace injuries and deaths is a very real one, this issue cannot be ignored.
This morning, I met with three courageous family members who had all lost their loved ones as a result of workplace accidents. Kay Catanzariti lost her 21-year-old son, Ben, who was killed on a work site in the ACT after a 39-metre boom from a concrete-pouring machine collapsed and struck him. Kay spoke of the immense assistance she was provided by the union after Ben's tragic death. They were on the end of the phone and still are, almost four years later, to hear Kay's concerns. There was also Michael Garrels, who lost his 20-year-old son, Jason, when he was electrocuted while moving a power board on a construction site in Queensland. Michael spoke of the possibility of his son still being alive today if there had been union presence on that work site. Finally, there was Andrea Madeley, who lost her son, Daniel, when he was torn apart in a workshop after his dustcoat became stuck in a horizontal boring machine. Andrea also spoke of the possibility of having her son, Daniel, alive today if there had been greater union presence at Daniel's workplace.
We are moving past what really matters here: the health and safety of our workers. The issues that Kay, Michael and Andrea have all had to deal with should not swept under the carpet or suffocated by the return of the ABCC.
All that said, I doubt there is a single senator in this chamber who believes the Prime Minister recalled the parliament with the genuine intent of passing the ABCC bills. This has always been a nakedly political play. The government's aim is to give it the trigger it needs for a double dissolution election, clearing the Senate while setting up a campaign narrative centred on industrial relations. An election won on these terms would bring with it the passage of the ABCC and registered organisations bills in a joint sitting of the new parliament. This would seriously weaken the union movement while giving the government a mandate for industrial relations reform. As to what this might entail, I refer to an interview the Minister for Employment gave to The Australian in October last year. Under the headline "'I'm not for turning", says Michaelia Cash', The Australian reported the minister's 'fundamental belief' in legislating to curtail union power. Citing Margaret Thatcher as her inspiration, Minister Cash explained that the ABCC was just the first step in a far more ambitious program of industrial relations reform. This would ultimately include the abolition of Sunday penalty rates and reform of enterprise bargaining agreements, she told The Australian. The minister's rhetoric in explaining the government's plans could have been taken straight from the Work Choices era. We need greater 'flexibility' to 'remain globally competitive', the Minister told The Australian.
'Flexibility', of course, is code for deregulation. What the minister flagged here is the government's intention to make it easier for businesses to sack their staff or pay them less or make them work longer or less convenient hours. Like many in the Liberal Party, the Prime Minister and his employment minister are wedded to an ideology that prescribes giving free rein to big business, lowering taxes for the wealthy, stripping back government services and, wherever possible, making people pay for them. Deregulation of the labour market is a core aim of those who share this view of the world. The experience of recent decades shows that, while this approach has been good for the top end of town, for many Australians it has been devastating. It has transformed what was once a land of opportunity into a society divided between the haves and the have-nots. Since the 1980s, we have watched as the industrial heartlands of our cities have slowly died off, the victim of successive governments too ideologically blinkered to see the obvious benefit of maintaining what once was the engine room of our economy. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a secure, well-paid job, especially for those living outside inner city Sydney or Melbourne. This has not only been detrimental to the living standards of the majority of Australians; it has been damaging to our national character. At its core is an 'every man for himself' ideology that runs counter to our national ethos of egalitarianism and fairness.
The government's attempt to reintroduce the ABCC is not simply a reflection of its desire to see a 'tough cop on the beat' in the construction industry. It is the first salvo in an ideological crusade aimed at stripping Australians of their rights in the workplace. I oppose this attack on the rights of working Australians and I will be voting against the bill, as I could never look the people I worked with in my earlier life in the eye and vote for this.