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.
The two big topics of this week are tradies and truckies. I am delighted that the Senate majority wants to save 35,000 family-owned trucking firms—owner-operator truckies—from a body set up to make their lives a misery. The question is: will there be a Senate majority to save the hundreds of thousands of family-owned small business tradies from an environment that, too, makes their lives a misery? If it is good enough for truckies, why isn't it good enough for tradies?
I note some of my crossbench colleagues have called for the Australian Building and Construction Commissioned to be expanded into a national independent commission against corruption. I commend their commitment to corruption reform; however, these small-business tradespeople cannot wait the length of time it would take to rewrite the ABCC into a broader anti-corruption watchdog, even if the government agreed to that, which I believe it would not.
The proposed ABCC legislation relates to unlawful industrial action and unlawful picketing. This proposed legislation is, first and foremost, about unlawful industrial actions. I have said before that this is something like a STAR force in the police for special and aggressive criminality and unlawfulness. Television advertisements comparing ice dealers to construction workers are ridiculous. Rights to silence and protections against self-incrimination have been in decline all over the country, as the Institute of Public Affairs has pointed out. The advertisements demonstrate the desperation and misinformation of opponents of this legislation. I am more than happy to consider broader anti-corruption measures and support Senator Wang's select committee inquiry proposal. Sector-by-sector reform, including better resourcing of existing watchdogs, has to be an option, but not by holding construction workers hostage.
I have consistently supported the ABCC, well before a double dissolution was discussed. My fellow crossbenchers, Senators Leyonhjelm, Muir and Xenophon, have tabled amendments, well worth consideration in the committee stage. I heard Senator Muir's contribution earlier and commend his effort and his knowledge of this important debate, and I look forward to debate on his amendments.
I conclude by saying: as I have consistently said, I support the bill and its second reading and urge my colleagues to at least support that second reading—to consider these amendments and further debate.
The legislation before the Senate, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] and Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2], is vital if we are to stamp out corruption in the construction sector. I have heard some arguments advanced during this debate, and I simply say to those honourable senators: think about the Keep Australia Beautiful campaign. Just imagine if people were to say, 'I will not participate in Keep Australia Beautiful because we are not going to pick up every piece of litter in Australia, and therefore, because we do not pick up every piece of litter in Australia, it is not an exercise worthy of my involvement.' It is the same with corruption—if you want corruption overall to be dealt with, I can understand that, but this is one step in the right direction, and to say that you will not help stamp out corruption in the construction sector because you want it stamped out everywhere is not an argument at all.
Here we have a bill, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], attempting to crack down on lawless and defiant actions by participants in the building and construction industry which, anecdotal evidence suggests, exist and are detrimentally affecting the productivity of the sector in Australia to some unknown extent. I am extremely disheartened by the government's inflexibility to support the critical and reasonable proposals by members of this chamber to balance their own legislation.
The circumstances around us being here today indicate to me that the government is banking on a 2 July election and has been for some time, which further adds to my disappointment, given that an early election will undoubtedly cut short the important work of the proper inquiry which was set up by Senator Madigan and me to review the need for a national integrity commission. However, those are the circumstances I find myself in. I am asked to support unbalanced legislation, and to agree to a process that quashes a critical inquiry that everyday Australians outside Capital Hill want answered.
Let me be clear: everyday Australians are not overly concerned about the ABCC legislation. Instead, they are greatly concerned about the need for a national anticorruption watchdog to cover politicians and political donations, the institutional behaviour of banks and financial institutions, the conduct of sporting organisations, and so on. Whether I am in this place or not, this is something that the next government of the day will have to take action on.
Back to the bill at hand: I refer to Machiavelli, who once said: 'It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than a new system, for the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new one.' The government's proposed new system, as contained in this bill before us, is unbalanced because of the government's inability to work towards the middle ground. The commission will surely face failure before success.
In case we do not get to the committee stage on this bill, I would like to put on the record the extent of my work to try and make this bill fairer, balanced, more reasonable and proportionate, to address the issue facing the building and construction industry, that I think addresses some of the oversights in the ABCC bill. I am seeking to repeal section 20(4) in chapter 2, part 2, dealing with the annual report to be tabled by the commissioner. In repealing this section, I am removing the ability of the minister to direct the commissioner to not cover health and safety matters that do not comply with the building code. Given a decline in workplace safety is levelled as one of the arguments against the commission's re-establishment, it is only fair that all health and safety non-compliance be comprehensively dealt with. This morning, I was informed by the minister's office that the government is prepared to accept this particular amendment. I thank the minister's office for their response.
Secondly, the Productivity Commission's report into workplace relations in 2015 found that sham contracting and wages exploitation, particularly of illegal workers, is prevalent in all sectors, including the construction industry. Both major parties appear to be planning to cover these areas as part of policies for their election campaigns, which I expect to be called in the very near future. While I acknowledge that the number and complexity of the PC's recommendations are likely to require some time to consider and address appropriately, my current amendments simply require the ABCC to report instances of suspected wage exploitation cases and sham contracting to the Fair Work Ombudsman for investigation, noting that the Fair Work Ombudsman is currently responsible for investigating and resolving these disputes across all sectors, and then include the details on all of the references in the commissioner's annual report. This is an interim measure. I call on the government of the day, whichever party that may be after the election, to put pen to paper and give effect to the PC's recommendations and also to provide the Fair Work Ombudsman with adequate resources to effectively police these areas of employee exploitation.
Thirdly, I commend my crossbench colleague Senator Muir for his amendment seeking to maintain the status quo in relation to the use of examination notices. Currently the director of Fair Work Building and Construction must apply to the president of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal before issuing an examination notice to a building industry participant. I believe in the importance of check-and-balance requirements, particularly where the commission's power to exercise its coercive powers is concerned. Needless to say, I will be supporting his amendment if we get to the committee stage. This is not a cumbersome requirement on the ABCC or the AAT, particularly if you consider that only 14 notices were issued in the previous year, according to the FWBC's annual report, which is up from a total of four in the year before that.
I would also like to pre-empt the government's argument against a check-and-balance process, given other Commonwealth agencies are not required to adhere to a check-and-balance process before exercising their powers. If the government is referring to agencies like Centrelink, Medicare, ASIC, ATO and the ACCC, I think it is fair to say that these particular agencies have access to a large amount of reliable data, which suggests that the agency is relying on appropriate information before using its unchecked coercive powers. In fact, as recently as last year, the ATO and the Department of Social Services began sharing information. Further to this amendment on examination notices, my amendment requires the Commonwealth Ombudsman, who has broad oversight over these powers under this chapter, to prepare a report to be tabled in parliament quarterly as opposed to annually. It is critically important that these powers are exercised in a transparent and accountable manner.
In relation to the variation or withdrawal of enforceable undertakings, which can be entered into between inspectors of the commission and building industry participants, I am seeking a minor amendment that simply requires the commissioner to not unreasonably refuse consent to vary or withdraw an undertaking.
My next amendment is to require the minister to issue a ministerial direction that establishes the factors that must be taken into account by a commissioner before they publish the names of individuals, companies or organisations for non-compliance with the Building Code. When the potential harm of public exposure puts at risk those whose conduct may not warrant such disclosure, a direction is not necessary. Conversely, when a building participant's non-compliance actions are so poor that the public ought to be aware of their conduct, the direction will be necessary. A direction should rightly take into account the gravity and significance of the non-compliance, the cost to the taxpayer and the potential harm of such publication.
Finally, I propose to add on the record that some clarity around what behaviour or conduct would meet the elusive standard of 'good faith' would be of assistance to those who allege damage or loss suffered as a consequence of the commissioner's conduct. To that end, the following should be indicative of what good faith requires in this context: honest conduct between the parties, evidenced by clear communication and full and frank disclosure, where the circumstances allow for it, and a reasonably observed lack of malicious or fraudulent intent in dealings; the provision of information that is not misleading or deceptive, including an obligation that the commissioner advise persons subject to examination notices that they are entitled to seek their own legal representation; initiating enquiries promptly and providing responses promptly; and giving due consideration to offers from each party to mitigate or remediate non-compliance, which is particularly relevant to enforceable undertakings. It is quite a shame that these amendments may not even be considered by the Senate today. Once again the crossbenchers have found themselves locked into an ideological battle between the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. Sometimes the crossbench gets the blame, one way or the other. That is the nature of being a crossbencher, even though everyone I know on the crossbench is trying to do their best job.
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.
I know I am getting text messages from journalists to hurry up because they want a vote before the seven o'clock news, but I may not be able to oblige given that Senator Lazarus and Minister Cash will need to speak. When the ABCC bill was before the Senate last August, I supported the second reading of the bill but reserved my position on the third reading. I will again support the second reading stage of this bill, which I emphasise allows for amendments to be considered in the committee stage. But it seems almost inconceivable that the government will deal with the issues that I believe are important in order to make this bill fairer and to make it more effective in terms of job creation in this country and in terms of the critical issue of occupational health and safety. It is fundamental to the function of the parliament that we fully debate this important and—it must be said in this case—controversial legislation.
When the Prime Minister announced his decision to bring this bill back before the Senate by the extraordinary mechanism of proroguing the parliament and his intention, if it is not passed, to proceed to a double dissolution election, the Prime Minister argued that the construction industry is a vital part of Australia's economy. It is, indeed, a sector that employs more than a million Australians and represents about eight per cent of the nation's GDP. The government argues that the additional costs of construction in this country, due to the frequency of industrial disputes and standover tactics by some militant union members, are a serious handbrake on economic growth. Moreover, as the Attorney-General pointed out on ABC Radio this morning, on the AM program with Michael Brissenden, there have been not one but two royal commissions into this industry—the Cole royal commission and the more recent Heydon royal commission. Both reached very similar conclusions.
The more recent inquiry, that of former High Court justice Dyson Heydon, gathered a great deal of evidence—some of which I found quite compelling—about corruption, bullying and harassment. In his interim report, Commissioner Heydon found that CFMEU members had acted in 'wilful defiance of the law', and there were allegations of corruption, death threats, extortion, gross neglect and other 'serious criminal matters'. In his final report, released last December, the royal commissioner affirmed his finding that corruption was widespread and deep seated. The union officials allegedly involved 'ranged in seniority from the most junior levels to the most senior', although I hasten to add that Michael O'Connor, the National Secretary of the CFMEU, has not been tainted by any of those allegations.
Commissioner Heydon recommended a new national regulator, with the same powers as ASIC, be established. I would also note, as Senator Muir did earlier in this debate, the huge number of court cases in which the CFMEU has been found to have broken the law, or have admitted they have broken the law, and the more than $6 million in penalties that have been issued against that union. The Labor opposition has tried hard to label the Heydon royal commission as a political witch-hunt, but its findings, the large body of evidence presented and the evidence in numerous court proceedings cannot be lightly dismissed. They certainly raise the question of whether our existing legislative framework is strong enough to properly address these issues. The government clearly campaigned on the issue of the ABCC in the lead-up to the 2013 election. They have a mandate to bring this legislation on and to argue its case, and the Senate equally has a mandate, as a house of review, to scrutinise it and to vote accordingly.
There are, without doubt, big problems on our nation's construction sites. I certainly want a strong and vibrant building and construction industry in this nation. Building and construction can provide an antidote to some of the job losses we are experiencing in manufacturing and the many more job losses that we are expecting. I believe we do need an Australian building and construction commission, but I am not convinced that this legislation, in its current form, will deliver the productivity gains the government seems so sure it will. Nor am I convinced that this bill contains the appropriate checks and balances in so far as coercive powers are concerned and with regard to issues of workplace safety. A major preoccupation for me is what happens on the ground in the many thousands of construction workplaces around the country. I want to see intimidation, standover tactics and corruption dealt with effectively. I also want to see that the workers in that industry go to a safe working environment where occupational health and safety are of paramount consideration, so that they can go back to their loved ones each night. I also want them to be well paid for the work that they do. If there are impediments, then they need to be dealt with in a way where people's rights are respected.
Unlike some members of the government, I do think unions have a vital role in Australia's workplace relations system and they must have the freedom and power to be able to do their jobs. That involves not just issues about terms and conditions for their employees but also issues of workplace safety. These have long been of concern to me. In my home state of South Australia, as a state member of the legislative council, I supported the establishment of VOID, Voice of Industrial Death, a support and lobby group that places focus on the issues of workplace deaths in South Australia and the need to improve industrial health and safety. As a member of the South Australian parliament, I proposed industrial manslaughter laws with strong penalties. Regrettably, that proposed legislation was opposed by the then state Labor government. So I come to this legislation with some long held concerns about workplace safety.
No-one should forget that workplace accidents and fatalities are not just statistics. Every workplace death is a human tragedy: a parent, spouse, son or daughter lost. It is a very sombre thing to deal with and hear stories of the spouses, parents and families of workers who have been killed in workplace accidents. I would like to pay tribute to the foundation president of VOID, Andrew Madeley, who lost his son, Daniel, in a horrific workplace accident in 2004 and who has been tireless in campaigning for industrial manslaughter laws and better workplace safety.
Insofar as unions have a right of entry for the purpose of safety issues, that is quite fundamental and ought not to be diminished. It seems inconceivable that under the Fair Work Act the provisions that allow for unions to enter a workplace, if there is an imminent risk of danger to a worker, have been diminished in the ABCC legislation. That is not acceptable. I have already filed and tabled an amendment, in that regard, should this bill go to committee, which now seems most unlikely. I do not subscribe to the view that unions are uniformly bad or have too much power. Equally, they should not cause unnecessary and needless disruption, and they should be subject to greater scrutiny in that regard. Nor should anyone imagine that unions are the only problem in the construction sector.
I would be very interested to hear, in the context of this debate, the government's response to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Economics, on insolvency in the construction industry, and I want to pay tribute to the very fine work that Senator Cameron did on this. That Senate inquiry, which I was a part of, was completed last December. The committee's report very clearly exposes the 'completely unacceptable culture of non-payment of subcontractors for work completed on construction projects'. During that inquiry, a big issue in my home state of South Australia was that we heard damning evidence concerning the failed South Australian building firm Tagara Builders that allegedly traded while insolvent for more than two years before it went bust in June 2015.
At the time of its liquidation Tagara had major construction projects worth up to $100 million on its books. The collapse put more than 40 people out of work and more than 750 creditors, mostly SA businesses, involving hundreds more workers, subbies, were left with bad debts totalling some $21.5 million. Evidence to the Senate inquiry included claims that Tagara had bullied subcontractors by delaying payments and claiming poor workmanship so they would not pay. South Australia's Small Business Commissioner, John Chapman, told the inquiry that subcontractor bullying was widespread, and he indicated he was concerned whether a new intimidation offence should be created for the industry.
This is but one example of what a well-known South Australian construction consultant described as 'unconscionable acts', including a sharp increase in the occurrence of fabricated claims by builders in order not to pay subcontractors. That was part of a much larger and disturbing picture. The Senate inquiry found that businesses operating in the Australian building and construction industry face an unacceptably higher risk than any other industry of entering into insolvency themselves or becoming the victims of insolvency further up the contracting chain. The construction industry's rate of insolvencies is out of proportion to its share of national output.
As the government has repeatedly pointed out, the construction industry accounts for some eight per cent of the nation's GDP. Yet the industry also accounts for between one-fifth and one-quarter of all insolvencies in Australia. The Senate inquiry found that this state of affairs does not reflect market forces and there needs to be reform. As a result, the industry is burdened, every year, by nearly $3 billion of unpaid debts, including subcontractor payments, employee entitlements and tax debts averaging around $630 million a year for the past three years.
The committee made reference to the powerful forces at play, of serious imbalances of power in contractual relationships—harsh, oppressive and unconscionable commercial conduct. These are matters we also need to deal with. The Senate economics committee called for a complete sea change in the federal government's role in regulating payment practices in the construction industry. The committee recommended that the Commonwealth urgently enact uniform, national legislation for a security-of-payment regime and rapid adjudication process in the commercial construction industry.
The committee's second, related major recommendation was that the Commonwealth commence a two-year trial of project bank accounts on construction projects where the Commonwealth's funding contribution exceeds $10 million. That committee's report cannot be ignored in the context of productivity of the construction sector, of the bullying and intimidation that occurs of subcontractors, of subbies, and their workers who miss out all too often. It is pushing people into insolvency.
Insolvency and poor payment practices in the construction industry are not new, but one might reasonably imagine that these problems deserve at least equal priority with those arising from union intimidation and malfeasance. As Senator Muir observed earlier, if the government were really serious about improving productivity in the building and construction sector, it would see the merits of the ABCC being a full service regulator, properly resourced to also investigate employers who underpay workers as well as investigate unconscionable subcontracting practices. I agreed with Senator Muir on that.
More broadly, I also have concerns about limiting the power of a body such as the ABCC solely to the building and construction industry. I must say that the government's approach is distinctly lopsided. Allegations of union corruption and malpractice are hardly limited to the building and construction industry. One only need look at the recent history of the Health Services Union, where predatory officials rorted expenses and abused the trust placed in them by their own members. We also need to give much greater attention to corruption and malpractice in the corporate world.
I have long campaigned for stronger regulation and investigatory powers to deal with misbehaviour in business, for whistleblower protection powers of the government, corporate and union sectors, where whistleblowers are not only protected but also are compensated, as they are in the United States. This is so that there is a culture of openness, a culture where people can come forward and speak the truth without their lives being ruined, financially, as a result.
Regrettably, this has not been a high priority for the government. In recent weeks, we have seen some huge revelations in the press about foreign bribery involving the oil industry consultancy Unaoil, together with the Australian firm Leightons. We have also learned about the pervasive use of foreign tax havens facilitated by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, with hundreds of Australian businesses and individuals allegedly involved.
If anyone still thinks that Australia is immune from large-scale corruption they are remarkably naive. Yet there has been barely any reaction from the government to the latest revelations. What happens at the big end of town does not seem to be a priority. I have long supported the establishment of a national anticorruption commission. It is quite fanciful to think that our national level of government and politics is somehow insulated from the sorts of corrupt influences that we have seen in state and local governments. The fact that there has long been so much political and bureaucratic resistance to the establishment of a federal anticorruption body only reinforces my concern that such an institution is sorely needed.
I know that the Prime Minister has been dismissive of the idea of a national ICAC that might be linked to a debate about the ABCC legislation. Good on Senator Lazarus for raising this as an important issue. These might be separate matters, but a very clear public commitment from the Prime Minister and the government to the establishment of a national independent anticorruption commission could go a way to reassure me and, I think, some other members of the Senate crossbench, as well as voters, that they are not just targeting unions but are in fact committed to combatting corruption wherever it might be found and whatever its political connections may be.
If one listens to some of the government's statements, one could be forgiven for thinking that the sky is about to fall in on the construction industry unless immediate action is taken. As I have said, I think there are serious problems. The royal commission's findings cannot be ignored. Yet, in terms of urgency, a key element of the package—the coercive powers to compel witnesses to give evidence—is still in force in transitional legislation for another 14 months—something that the opposition leader and former industrial relations minister, Mr Shorten, supported when in government.
Moreover, if the government is fair dinkum about addressing productivity in this country, it must do much more than re-establish a body whose main purpose is to pull wayward building and construction industry participants into line. The government has taken a blinkered vision and highly selective choice of the issues it wishes to pursue, as is evident when it comes to other vital sectors of the economy. If we are arguing about jobs, we should look at the collapse of manufacturing jobs in this country—140,000 jobs lost since the GFC, and 200,000 jobs that are potentially at risk, particularly in Victoria and South Australia, with the closure of carmaking in this country. Our shipbuilding industry is suffering because ships are being built offshore, in terms of our naval supply ships. In Australia's manufacturing sector we have an absolute crisis in our steel industry. Arrium, Australia's largest structural steel maker, a $5.5 billion company, went into voluntary administration just a few days ago. Considering what is at stake, that is a critical issue. What is at stake here is not just the future of Whyalla and Arrium, but the future of Australian manufacturing itself, which in a decade has shrunk from 12 per cent of GDP to just under seven per cent. I met with the administrator of Arrium, Mark Mentha, in Adelaide last week. He gets it, and I wish him well. I want to work with him, as do the state and federal governments, to make sure that we can get that company out of administration to continue to work well.
We are seeing Ford, Toyota and Holden set to disappear as car makers in this country by the end of next year—Ford sooner than that. But one does not get any sense that the government has a strategic plan for manufacturing or for the areas most affected by the crisis in manufacturing. We see a lot of hand wringing but not much else from the industry minister, even though his own state, South Australia, is most severely affected. While the Prime Minister talks a lot about Australia's future as an innovative nation—which I welcome—he has very little to say to the workers in Elizabeth, Whyalla, Port Kembla and around the country—particularly in Victoria, as well, and many other places—who have mortgages to pay and families to support and who face enormous challenges if manufacturing dies in this country.
That is why, if this bill went into the committee stage, I would have been moving amendments in relation to the building code having real rules with teeth in terms of procurement to ensure that we have Australian steel and Australian-made products in building contracts as part of the building code. Given the potential economic and social costs of the crisis in manufacturing, the reluctance of the government to adopt a procurement policy that takes into account the economic effects of buying local is an issue that ought to have been in this bill.
It may be that be that the government will not be unhappy if the Senate votes down this legislation. The government says that there is a narrative that is all about jobs. I am certainly very happy to see the election campaign focus on jobs. Indeed, that is where the focus should be. In this the Prime Minister will need to talk about a lot more than the ABCC. He will need more than a number of speeches going on about union corruption and malfeasance, important issues though they are. The government needs to show Australia that it has a plan for Australian manufacturing jobs, a strategic plan to help the cities and towns that depend on manufacturing and to protect the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers whose jobs are on the line.
I will support the second reading stages of this bill. In the event that it goes into a committee stage, I have a number of amendments to move, which are all about protecting the jobs of Australian workers.
I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. I will be brief in my speech tonight. I think everybody knows my position in relation to the ABCC. I certainly will not be supporting it in its current form. The bill is nothing more than a political football being used by the coalition to attack the unions and the Labor Party in order to gain political advantage. It is a sad day when the legislation we deal with this in this establishment is only considered because it delivers a political benefit to one party or another.
This parliament was created by people many years ago who believed that representatives of the people should deal with bills and initiatives of benefit to the people and the future of this country. I am of the view that many politicians in this parliament do not deserve to be here. They do not deserve to be here because they do not care about anyone else except themselves or their parties. They do not deserve to be here because they see politics as a game, not as a mechanism to pursue a better country. I hope that when I depart this place I am remembered for being a good representative. I do not want to be remembered for being a politician, because I am not one. I am not here to play games; I genuinely want to achieve good outcomes for the people of Queensland.
I have worked my way through the ABCC bill with the help of my advisers, and I do not like the bill. Apart from the fact that it is a political football, the bill does nothing to protect and progress the rights of workers. At the end of the day, I am concerned about one thing and one thing only—protecting and progressing the rights of the workers. If this bill protected and progressed the rights of workers in the workplace I would support it but, sadly, it does not. All it does, in my view, is to reduce the rights of workers. In the process it targets one slice of one industry for the purpose of political gain. Yes, it aims to address misconduct and corruption, but it does this by eroding the rights of workers. It compels them to give evidence and to be interviewed, stripping them of their rights to representation from a lawyer of their choosing. It forces workers to produce documents or information associated with investigations and it reverses the onus of proof by transferring responsibility to workers to prove they are complying with the law. I could go on, as there are many more areas where this bill, in my opinion, infringes on our basic human rights and the basic rights of workers.
In summary, my view is that this could be a very, very good bill. It could be broadened to deal with all misconduct across all industries and all areas of industry. We desperately need a national corruption and misconduct watchdog. This bill, if broadened, would deliver this very outcome.
Big companies go broke every day, leaving contractors, mum-and-dad businesses and workers out of pocket and without pay. These companies simply set up again a few weeks later under different names as phoenix businesses and start all over again. The only people that get hurt are contractors and workers. Businesses are concerned about profits, government are concerned about revenue, unions are concerned about people. This bill does nothing to address the genuine misconduct and corruption across the big end of town and it does nothing to address the murky behaviour of large businesses in this sector. Rather, it targets unions by attacking the rights of workers.
The building sector is a dangerous industry and workers are hurt regularly. When workers are hurt or die, it is not the government that contacts and supports the family; it is not the employer or the business involved; it is not the insurance company. It is the union. Unions do not get everything right, but they do a lot of good. We need to stop the political attacks, get back to the basics and expand the bill to create a national corruption and misconduct watchdog, and address issues across every industry. All that matters to me is that workers are safe and are able to go to work and come home safe after every day to their families.
These are things that matter to all Australians. It is why I will not be supporting the ABCC in its current form. The threat of a double dissolution will not change my mind, and I will not be blackmailed. Unlike many politicians in this place, I am here to represent the people. That is exactly what I am doing—standing up for hardworking Australians who need help and who need someone to stand up for them.
I rise to conclude the debate on this cognate legislation. In summing up the debate, I wish to thank all senators for their contributions. This legislation is of great importance for promoting jobs and growth by improving productivity in the building and construction industry. For too many years, the building and construction industry has provided the worst examples of old-fashioned industrial relations lawlessness. Projects have been delayed, costs have blown out and investment in our economy and infrastructure has been jeopardised. The measures contained in these bills are vital to boosting Australia's productivity and to ensuring that law and order prevails at our nation's building sites. The construction industry is unique. The argument from some senators that there is no need for an industry-specific regulator is naïve and misguided. So, too, is the argument that what we really need to tackle the unlawfulness in the industry is a national corruption watchdog to deal with crime and corruption across all sectors.
As I said at the beginning of this debate today, the Senate has two choices. The first choice is to bury its head in the sand and deny there is a problem. Those that choose to do this are voting for increased levels of industrial action, reduced levels of productivity, project delays and the continuation of coercion, intimidation and bullying on our nation's construction sites. The second choice is to face the facts and to accept the reality that the current laws are ineffective and that new laws are needed to restore the rule of law to our nation's building sites. Those who choose to do this are voting for the good of the industry, for those who participate in it and, ultimately, for the entire nation.
We have, therefore, before us a clear choice. The parliament can choose whether it stands for thuggery or for fairness, for the rule of law or for lawlessness. We have a choice between the public interest versus the interests of the most corrupt union in Australia.
I commend the bills to the Senate.