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
What is it exactly that we are doing here? A prorogation and a recall of the Senate. This is the first time that the Governor-General's office has ever been used in this way—to drag the parliament back to give the government the opportunity to call a snap election because a few weeks ago national opinion polling was showing that up as a tremendously bright idea. So, here we are! The Abbott government should stand condemned today for what is being done. Three Abbott-era industrial relations bills are really just the proximate trigger for this cheap and counterproductive assault on the trade union movement.
Productivity is actually up since the ABCC was abolished in May 2012, and yet the government has had the nerve to put the word 'productivity' in the title of the bill. The Productivity Commission—some people who know a little bit about productivity, you would have thought—said the following in their report in 2014:
Productivity growth in the Australian construction sector—
That is who we are spending all day vilifying and attacking, rhetorically—
has ebbed and flowed over the last 30 years. There was a significant increase in labour and multifactor productivity from 1994-95 to 2012-13 … However, most of the improvement was concentrated in relatively short bursts spanning just a few years, including most recently in 2011-12.
It has 'ebbed and flowed'. There is no statistical evidence whatsoever that introducing the ABCC, for the short, unhappy period that it was on the statute books, had any impact on productivity at all. Productivity has gone up in the construction sector since the ABCC was abolished.
The statistics on industrial action sector by sector have, admittedly, I think, only been kept since around 2008. It is a shorter dataset. But the ABS data on industrial disputes that they published in September 2015 showed that the average annual level of days lost per thousand employees in the construction industry increased significantly from 2008 to 2012—and what do you know? That was the period that the ABCC was in force—but then fell back to near previous levels in 2013 and 2014 after the ABCC had been abolished.
We can come in here and talk all we like about productivity, or about industrial action and the effect that that has on the economy. But surely this should be first and foremost about safety—about people who are able to come onto unsafe worksites, stop the clock and get people off the job if lives are at risk. Two of the most dangerous workplaces in this country are on construction sites and behind the wheel of heavy freight vehicles, so there is a certain dark irony that both cohorts of workers are in the crosshairs this week. The bills that we have been pulled from all corners of the country to suddenly debate in this emergency sitting are both designed to target the very people and institutions whose principal role has been to uphold, and in some instances try and enforce, the culture of workplace safety and, in particular, the importance of preventing accidents and workplace deaths before they occur. The culture of prevention, whether it be on a building site or on a national freight route, is surely what this should be about.
What is the motivation that is driving the government to target these working people this week of all weeks? We know why it is happening. The Prime Minister gets his election trigger. That is the first thing. He and Senator Cash get to fill our television screens with numbingly repetitive talking points on how much they hate you for organising for the collective benefit of your workplace colleagues. This is 19th-century class warfare dressed up as a 21st century productivity agenda. To be fair, it is probably the only issue that could possibly have united the dangerously divided factions of the Liberal and National parties, who are quietly tearing each other to pieces behind the scenes—actually, some of it is not quiet—in what looks, to an outsider anyway, to be a somewhat grotesque battle for the soul of the party between the centre-right neoliberals and the insurgent 'delcons', the adorably-named 'delusional conservatives'. The safest place for you all to resolve this dispute is really from opposition, quite frankly. What better way, though, to distract attention away from the internal bloodletting than with a full-throated attack on the trade union movement? So, here we all are.
If this was just a symbolic or rhetorical attack, it would be bad enough—we are all used to it, but that would be bad enough. But the legislation that is before us, which, it is my fervent hope, the Senate is going to dispose of again within a few short hours, would reintroduce some of the most coercive and outright dystopian laws that have ever sat on the Australian statute books.
These laws propose, in some instances, to reverse the onus of proof around industrial action, to remove the right to silence, and to allow officials of the ABCC, this industrial secret police force, to enter premises without a warrant and to demand to know names and addresses. They provide the powers to compel people who have evidence relating to an investigation to answer questions on pain of a jail term, to provide information and to disclose or provide documents—and, if you fail to comply, you could be prosecuted by the Commonwealth DPP and go to jail for six months.
These laws also prevent people from revealing that any of these processes are even under way—prevent you from disclosing that you have been forced to give testimony to the commission, while overriding your right to silence. So much for the 'liberal' party! What happened to the Liberal Party's centuries-old tradition of protecting the individual against the overwhelming power of the state and its police and security apparatus? What a disgrace you are! ASIO do not have the ability to exercise some of these powers in pursuit of violent extremists threatening mass casualty attacks. What the hell is the government up to singling out these individual cohorts of workers?
When the ABCC was in force, before it was partially abolished in May 2012—and I say 'partially', because, obviously, the Greens would have gone further; you can go back and check the record for the amendments that were defeated—it was one of the agencies that, at the time, was empowered to scrape the phone and internet records of working people, which meant that, without a judicial warrant, they could map the physical location of individuals every time they used their phones. They could draw these very fine-grained maps of their social network: who was talking to who on a building site? Who was talking to a journalist? Who was talking to their family? Where were they at the time that those calls were made or those text messages were sent? If this bill fails this week, we will have to take it as a working hypothesis that a reconstituted ABCC would have joined the growing queue at Senator Brandis's door again seeking warrantless metadata access for people whose only crime was their choice of occupation on a building site.
Here is what the Law Council said about these reprehensible bills:
A number of features of the Bill are contrary to rule of law principles and traditional common law rights and privileges such as those relating to the burden of proof, the privilege against self incrimination, the right to silence, freedom from retrospective laws and the delegation of law making power to the executive. It is also unclear as to whether aspects of the Bill which infringe upon rights and freedoms are a necessary and proportionate response to allegations of corruption and illegal activity within the building and construction industry.
These are the sorts of freedoms—century-old legal protections—that our Attorney-General, as the first law officer in this country, is empowered and entitled to protect. Instead, he is strong-arming the Senate into dissolving those rights, abolishing those rights, for a very narrow and specific class of Australian worker. You are a disgrace! What is actually going on here? A number of senators have already spoken of the context that of all the various things the government had sought to bring the Senate back for, of all the different kinds of corruption of the various issues that are facing us—and poor Treasurer Scott Morrison's desperate search for the revenue he is going to need if he is to have any hope at all of balancing the books in a week or two—why don't the government go elsewhere rather than simply targeting their political opponents?
There are 11½ million documents—a few hundred of which have been released—from the world's largest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Twelve national leaders have been identified. There are 143 politicians—and their families and close associates from around the world—who are known to have been using offshore tax havens. They act through these intermediaries—most of them based in places such as Switzerland, Hong Kong or Panama—for more than 300,000 companies registered in tax havens. What do they do? They help foreigners set up Panamanian shell companies to halt financial assets while securing the identities of the owners. That is what they do. And individuals and companies with uncomfortable amounts of cash at their disposal frequently seek assistance to create these shell companies—which is very helpful if you want to obscure the identities of those in charge of the company—or they just shift the money offshore into a more permissive tax regime. Well, why not do both? Mossack Fonseca is very, very good at both—or they were. Tax havens are essentially a global network of secrecy jurisdictions where the world's wealthiest people exploit the system to avoid paying tax. Why don't we have a royal commission into that? Why don't we have a bill on that from the government, this week of all weeks? That is a Senate recall I could get behind. That is a Governor-General's speech that I could get behind. That would have a bit of weight behind it, wouldn't it?
The Tax Justice Network believes there is somewhere between $21 trillion and $31 trillion of individual private financial wealth offshore parked through tax havens. The Tax Justice Network points out that they could account for as much as 50 per cent, or half, of all world trade—half of all world trade is squirreled away through intermediaries with the help of companies such as Mossack Fonseca! The scandal is not that this is illegal; the scandal is that it is entirely permitted by law; it is perfectly legal. Where the hell is the royal commission into that?
There are two other significant things to note about the Panama papers. Firstly, only a tiny fraction of the source documents have been released into the public domain—a practically homeopathic quantity of this document drop has been enough to tip the financial world on its axis. At some point, the entire cache is likely to go live—and then we really will see who is who! Secondly, the Panama papers wiped another deep corruption scandal off the front page. You would probably be aware—or maybe senators had already forgotten—that, after a six-month investigation across two continents, Fairfax Media and The Huffington Post revealed that billions of dollars worth of government contracts were awarded as a result of bribes paid on behalf of firms including the British icon Rolls-Royce; the US giant Halliburton, who are very active here in Australia; and, allegedly, the offshore arm of Australia's Leighton Holdings. Their names are all over these documents.
Unaoil carved up portions of the Middle East oil industry for the benefit of Western companies between 2002 and 2012. The year 2002 is a highly significant date. It is the year the Howard government participated in the illegal invasion and occupation of a country that posed no military threat to Australia whatsoever. These documents show that the offshore arm of Leighton Holdings was involved in serious calculated corruption. Leaked emails show that the company was paying millions of dollars in bribes to Iraq's deputy prime minister and oil minister to win more than $2 billion in oilfield and pipeline contracts—an excellent return on investment. Thoroughly corrupt. Where is the royal commission into that? No sign of a tough cop on the beat.
With some cheerfulness, I note that we finally got the Labor Party over the line on the necessity for a royal commission into the banking and finance sector. And that is due to strong work over a number of years by Senator Milne, Senator Whish-Wilson, Senator Dastyari, Senator Xenophon and Senator Williams—actual cross-party collaboration on an issue of tremendous national significance. The call for a royal commission into the banks is now picking up a bit of speed. But there is no sign of a pulse from the government—no royal commission into the banks.
An election fundraiser sponsored by a bank, on the other hand, is an entirely separate matter. That is where some of our coalition colleagues will be heading after this session of parliament gets up—to an election fundraiser sponsored by the NAB. Well done! Some days, you folks make it very, very obvious how you roll. I want to know whether the Liberals who will file in here this week to lecture the Labor movement about corruption might want to spell out a little more about your former Liberal Party state director who siphoned off in the order of $1½ million in party funds through inflated printing and logistics invoices over a period of more than four years—or about the roll call of senior ministers, from a premier downwards, who were brought crashing back to earth by the New South Wales ICAC. Do not come in here lecturing the Labor movement about corruption. Take a bit of a look at yourselves.
The only good thing that can come from this debate—apart from the fact that it appears likely the bill will be defeated—is that the profile of, and necessity for, a national ICAC is back on the agenda. I thank for their support our crossbench colleagues who have come on board and those who have been working on that issue for a number of years. It is one of those ideas where the time has obviously come. Clearly the politics are not right yet, but at least it is back in the picture. The only place that the Liberal Party seems to be interested in looking around for corruption is in the backyard of their political opponents. I know that they are just playing to their base, and maybe it will quiet some of the more carnivorous instincts of those on their backbench, but successive polls are showing that the Australian public are not buying it at all.
The genius move of calling the Senate back is not looking quite so clever now that successive opinion polls are showing that you might lose government or be faced with a hung parliament. What an interesting few years that was—when the House of Representatives was returned to a debating chamber rather than a place of dismal theatre. We were of the view that Prime Minister Turnbull meant what he said when he said that he would be going full term and that the election would be sometime in late August or early September. We still think that that is the case, so that you can tell us whether or not there is actually going to be a coherent tax policy in this country and so that you can tell us beyond slogans, buzzwords and jargon what your actual plan for the diversification of the Australian economy is as the market for our bulk export of low-value commodities collapses day by day.
You could tell us, if you decided to go full term, what your plan is for the climate and about the fact that the industries that you have been pumping public funds into for decades have cooked the Great Barrier Reef. If you went full term, you could tell us whether or not you are even faintly interested in housing affordability and whether there is going to be any plan for the 26,000 homeless children who have nowhere to go tonight—26,000 people under 18 without a home. Sometime between now and September you could have spelt out your plan for that. But if you are serious about an early election after the shambles of the last 2½ years, then go ahead and pull that double dissolution trigger and we will see you on election day.