Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2012; Second Reading

5:41 pm

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

As we lurch towards another guillotine on which I presume the Greens will be joining the government, it is another marvellous example of democracy. You say one thing for years and then, when push comes to shove, all of a sudden there are completely different rules. But we expect that from the Labor-Greens alliance. Those opposite do not like being told, but it is a Labor-Greens alliance. As I said before, you people will die by that sword, as you deserve to in due course.

I want to repeat some of the comments that have been put on the record by my colleagues in relation to this bill. We strongly oppose it. We believe that every Australian, whether they be an employer or an employee, deserves to go to their workplace and operate in an environment where basic law and order is enforced. This bill abolishes the body that ensures that law and order is enforced in the building and construction industry. This bill will strip away the protections of workers to work in a safe and lawful environment. The replacement agency will be a toothless tiger that will again roll out the red carpet to lawlessness, violence and thuggery.

Let us be absolutely sure about the motivation for this bill. This is wholly motivated by the Australian Labor Party because it protects their interests. They are doing this because they are completely and utterly beholden to the trade union move­ment and they seek to rejuvenate the worst aspects of the Australian industrial landscape for their own cheap political and financial purposes. If the bungled Craig Thomson inquiry is anything to go by, we are going to have a lot of confidence in the Fair Work Australia building industry inspectorate. That will be the ultimate toothless tiger. We have absolutely no confidence.

This is a sop to us and to others to say that we are replacing like with like. It is absolutely not. It is an apple replaced with an rotten banana. We do not believe in any way that the independence of the inspectorate will be anything but biased. It will be compro­mised under the supervision of the same incompetent ex-union officials who run Fair Work Australia at the moment. We know full well that we are heading back to the Dollar Sweets dispute of the 1980s for cheap political purposes driven by the Australian Labor Party. It is actually about turning back the clock even further to the 1950s when society was divided along class lines and class warfare determined industrial relations in this country. We heard from Senator Cameron earlier on. Senator Cameron was brought up in Bellshill. That was where he learned the class warfare that we heard about in his speech today. When he talks about employees without unions as slaves, you know that class warfare is alive and well.

I know others want to speak in this debate, so I will keep my comments reasonably short. However, I just want to go through some other matters which again need to be put on the public record. The benefits of the ABCC were increased productivity of 10 per cent in the building and construction industry and an annual economic welfare gain of $5.9 billion per year. When you talk about a billion dollars with the Australian Labor Party and the Gillard government it just rolls off the tongue, but that is $5.9 thousand million of economic welfare gain for our economy that we are talking about. It reduced inflation by 1.2 per cent and increased GDP by 1.5 per cent. The number of working days lost annually per thousand employees in the construction industry fell from 224 in 2004 to 24 in 2006. Building costs have fallen by about 20 or 25 per cent and long project delays have been dramatically reduced.

Why would it be, do you think, that the Labor Party is so keen to get this bill through? Let us have a look at some other figures that may or may not have been talked about in this debate. Let us talk about union donations to the ALP, for example. In 2010-11, the national ALP received donations and other receipts from: the AMWU of $100,000; the CFMEU, $1,020,000; the ETU of the New South Wales branch, $20,000; and the Communications, Electrical and Plumbers Union, $500,000. And people are wondering why this bill has come before the Senate. If you were a new arrival in this country and looked at this, you would ask, 'What's the debate about?' The debate is about the excessive influence of the trade union movement in this country where it can actually determine that a body that has delivered economic and other gains to this country be removed at the behest of the Australian Labor Party. Let us look at the New South Wales branch: the AMWU, $100,000; CFMEU, $120,000; and the ETU in New South Wales , $1 million. In Victoria: ETU, $300,000; and CFMEU, $200,000. All they are doing is locking in their primary source of income with this bill. It is interesting isn't it?

You will be particularly interested in this, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall, knowing your very keen affection for the man I am just about to talk about. We talk about cash for comment. We have got comment for cash in the member for Corangamite. It is comment for cash, not cash for comment. On 6 June 2008, Misha Schubert in the Age wrote that Victorian Labor MP Darren Cheeseman said the public would be alarmed to learn how the laws work—they are the laws we are just about to get rid of now. He said that one of the issues is that the building industry workers—wait for this—under 'this legislation have less rights than criminals or terrorists'. I am sure that was one of the lines you did not give him, Mr Acting Deputy President. Guess what we saw in the Age on 18 August 2010. We saw an exclusive from Ben Schneider. Mr Mighell—that is Dean Mighell of course—from the ETU said:

… his union would make small donations to the marginal-seat campaigns of Labor's Mike Symon in Deakin and Darren Cheeseman in Corangamite. In the 2007 election campaign, the ETU spent hundreds of thousands to get those two candidates elected.

Here we are on 18 August 2010 talking about money that was put in by the ETU and we refer back to Mr Cheeseman's comments after the election, after they got the ETU money, on 6 June. So it was comment for cash. He got the bickies and they got the comment. He got the dollars and Mr Cheeseman made the comments. It is no more and no less than political payback, and it is a complete and utter disgrace.

I hope that those opposite in I reckon about 12 months time when we see the outcome of this disastrous bill today will have the gumption to reflect on what they have done. I hope they will have the gumption to go back and put back in place the independent umpire that delivered economic results for this country for everyone—an independent umpire that was not there at the behest of the trade union movement or the Australian Labor Party. The sooner you bring that body back the better we will be.

5:51 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak about the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. This bill is really about abolishing the Australian building and construction commission. Labor is giving the green light to militant unionists to return to the bad old days of illegal standover tactics, thuggery and sabotage. The Prime Minister has caved in to those on the left of the Labor Party led by the shrewd Senator Cameron. The union movement is flexing its muscle here in parliament and is forcing its backward vision upon the Australian economy. Abolishing the Australian building and construction commission is another ideological crusade for this Labor-Green government that will only damage Australia's productivity. Australians must understand just how successful the ABCC has been in grabbing those militant unionists by the scruff of the neck and dragging the construction industry out of the Wild West and into the modern era. I am not too young to remember the dark days of the BLF.

The Labor Party has never seen an Australian success story that it has not tried to sabotage. Under Labor's legislation the responsibility for investigations into the construction sector will lie with the Fair Work regime. This sad parade is, for turning a lion for the Australian people into a lamb for the militant unions. Labor's new legacy will be an agency that will roll out the red carpet to the old days of taking Australia's productivity hostage—days that Senator Cameron yearns for.

This is the very essence of appeasement. Just as the Prime Minister promised before the 2010 election, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,' so in 2007 Prime Minister Gillard also promised to keep 'a strong cop on the beat' in the building and construction sector. The Prime Minister has broken her word once again. Again and again I stand up in this place with my colleagues holding Prime Minister Gillard to account over her now plethora of broken promises. If it takes a Fair Work agency over three years to manage one single investigation into the activities of one union, how on earth are they going to manage multiple investigations into complex issues in sectors which are populated by some of the toughest employers and most militant unions in this country?

This bill leaves a vacuum in which workers will have little protection from the biggest bullies in the school yard. The Cole royal commission recommended the creation of the ABCC but this Labor government wants to return to the mob rule of the bad old days. How fickle and shallow this bill is! As Labor parliamentarians in this place rushed to pay homage to the faceless powerbrokers outside this place who put them there, even Labor's ideological ally, the honourable Murray Wilcox QC, was shocked by the ongoing violence and intimidation by unions. His report was commissioned to give a veneer of respectability to Labor's cave-in to the demands of militant unions. This Labor-commissioned report states that between 1 October 2005 and 3 February 2009 the ABCC conducted 128 compulsory interrogations and launched 36 court proceedings seeking the imposition of a civil penalty upon one or more building industry participants. The report went on:

Most of the completed proceedings have been successful, many because of information acquired by the ABCC at compulsory interrogations.

Also, the Law Council has been critical of this green-wash Labor amendment. Labor love to wax lyrical about the national interest. They often accuse us of not acting in the national interest but here we have a Labor amendment that relegates the national interest to a mere footnote on the vaulting ambition that burns bright within the militant union bosses.

Breaches of the law should be dealt with by a prosecutor without fear or favour and irrespective of private parties coming to private arrangements. Labor's bill means that, depending on the size of your wallet, you can avoid investigation and prosecution from the relevant authority. Big unions and big business will benefit, at the expense of individual workers and contractors. A cacophony of building industry advocates' voices have bellowed their strong opposition to the government's bill. They are best summarised by the Housing Industry Association, which states:

The bill now opens the door for perpetrators of illegal workplace behaviour to buy or coerce their way out of prosecution.

As I acquiesce to my Senate colleague from South Australia, Senator Xenophon, I say that the work of the Australian building and construction commission is as important today as when it was established in 2005. The coalition will restore the ABCC at its first available opportunity.

5:57 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very grateful to Senator Edwards for giving me the time to speak to the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2012, because this debate will be truncated—it will be guillotined, in effect, at 6pm. So my contribution, of necessity, will be brief—in fact, two minutes and 30 seconds.

I can indicate that I have real reservations about supporting the second reading stages of this bill, and indeed this bill generally, for a number of reasons. My first concern is principally one of process. I am concerned that there were some last-minute amendments moved in the House of Representatives that the Senate committee did not have an opportunity to appropriately assess. These were significant amendments, alluded to by Senator Edwards, in terms of agreements.

I do understand the argument of those in the union movement who regard the legislation in terms of the ABCC to be discriminatory but I think that if we are going to do our job properly then there ought to be an opportunity for the Senate committee that is charged with looking at this matter to investigate it appropriately. I think that the amendments moved in the House of Representatives were significant enough to warrant that. That is why I voted with the coalition last night in relation to these matters being referred to a committee. That was defeated.

That does not mean that I do not support the general thrust of this bill, but there is a fundamental issue of process. The fundamental process is that it is our job in the Senate to appropriately scrutinise bills from the executive arm of government. There was a last-minute amendment. That amendment has not been appropriately scrutinised; in fact, the move to have it appropriately scrutinised was defeated. That is why I have real reservations about this bill proceeding in its current form.

That does not mean to say that I do not think there needs to be significant reform to the ABCC or that I do not think there is a need to replace it with a Fair Work building industry inspectorate, but for me this bill fails at the first hurdle—that is the hurdle of process, because the government has not wanted this matter to go off to committee in terms of last-minute amendments which I believe are quite significant.

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the bill be now read a second time.

6:07 pm

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that amendment (1) on revised sheet 7217, circulated by the opposition, be agreed to.

(1)   Clause 2, page 2 (table item 2), omit the item, substitute:

12:11 am

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that amendment (1) on sheet 7220, circulated by the opposition, be agreed to.

Schedule 1, items 94 and 94A, page 48 (line 19) to page 50 (line 10), omit the items, substitute:

94 Sections 73 and 73A

Repeal the sections.

12:15 am

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the remaining stages of the bill be agreed to and that the bill be now passed.