Senate debates

Monday, 28 November 2016


Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013; Second Reading

5:10 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to strongly oppose the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. Over the course of this debate and, in fact, over the last three years, as this government has pursued their ideological agenda to cripple trade unions in this country, we have heard a lot from the government about why these bills are allegedly necessary. We have heard that they are the key to unlocking productivity in the construction sector and the economy more broadly. We have heard that they will drive down industrial disputes. We might as well have heard that they would cause world peace! You would think that every problem in the world is going to be solved by the passage of these two bills, when in fact what they really are this government's only agenda for this country—their ideological crusade to cripple the trade union movement, which will undoubtedly further entrench inequality in our society.

These bills will not help the economy one iota. They will not help the community and they will not help working people. Instead, they are just a cynical, politically-motivated attack on hardworking Australians that will, tragically, put construction workers' lives at risk. These bills are a continuation of the $80 million political witch-hunt established by the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, in the form of the Heydon royal commission. That was the failed royal commission that has resulted in prosecution after prosecution falling over for lack of evidence. That royal commission, as we would all be familiar, was going to expose what was alleged to be endemic corruption within the trade union movement. It was going to line up all sorts of prosecutions of people within the trade union movement. To date, to my knowledge, it has resulted in an only one conviction and led to prosecution after prosecution falling over for lack of evidence.

Time and time again we see this Liberal Party government using taxpayers' money to pursue their own agenda to support their mates from the big end of town and appease their backbench. This is just like their $50 billion company tax cut, which will not deliver jobs and growth to ordinary Australians but will deliver a windfall gain to multinational corporations, who do not need a leg-up from the Australian people. Similarly, the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, has been pursuing his own agenda—and the Liberal Party's own agenda—through the $150 million plebiscite on marriage equality. We know that the only reason that is being done is to appease his backbench.

This government likes to moan about not having any money, about deficits—while, of course, the deficit is rising under their leadership—but they always find the money to deliver to their mates at the top end of town, with a company tax cut, a political witch-hunt in the guise of a royal commission and with things like a wasteful, divisive plebiscite. So I am proud to stand against this ideologically-driven government and these ideologically-driven bills, and I will oppose the changes to legislation, which are proposed here, that will seriously harm the economy and working people.

It is ironic that we should be talking about bills that are attempting to cripple the union movement because, if there is one organisation that would benefit from collectivism and sticking together, it is this very government. Instead, this government is completely divided. Last week we saw the ongoing civil war that is the federal Liberal party room come to Queensland. Senator Brandis was caught on camera calling his Queensland state colleagues very, very mediocre. Within an hour, the Queensland LNP member for Ryan, Ms Jane Prentice, was on Brisbane radio asking people to look at Senator Brandis's own performance and then later that very day every single Queensland National Party senator refused to support the Prime Minister's gun laws. Even just last night, we had former Prime Minister Tony Abbott yet again begging for a return to the front bench while, at the very same time, digging the knife further into his replacement, the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull.

Who could ignore the war that Senator Cash, the Minister for Employment, seems to be waging against her own LNP staff members in their ongoing enterprise bargaining dispute? If only there were some sort of organising body that those staff members could join that could advocate on their behalf. Of course, there is such a body, and that body is the trade union movement of Australia. Trade unions are terribly important to our society and to our democracy. They are the single biggest roadblock to the deepening inequality we are seeing in our society.

What a joke to see the government try to portray themselves as the defenders of working people. They would like to think that we have not been witness to their repeated attempts to undermine and dismantle trade unions and workplace protections that apply to everyday Australians. They would like to think that we were not witness to their disgraceful introduction of Work Choices under the Howard government—one of the largest and most ruthlessly coordinated attacks that we have ever seen on Australian working families. Of course, the government do not just attack the rights of working people and working Australians via their workplace rights. At the very same time, they impose cut after cut on social security benefits and services like education and health. In every part of their agenda—whether it be these kinds of bills to take away workplace rights or whether it be their other legislative proposals around social security benefits, health and education cuts—they are absolutely unforgiving in taking away the rights and entitlements of Australians, which have been hard won over generations.

So the government are not the protector of Australian workers. They never have been and they never will be. They do not speak for workers or their families, and they do not represent them. In fact, they do the very opposite by taking away rights and entitlements that have been won over generations.

I hate to break it to the government, but it was not them that gave Australians rights within the workplace. It was trade unions and Labor governments working together to ensure that the average working person does have some rights, does have some ability to stand up for their own pay and conditions, and does have the right to combine with other people that they work with to take on the power that their employer might have. Unions and Labor governments continue to play a pivotal role in advocating for the rights of Australians within the workplace.

Even now, unions are pushing for paid domestic violence leave so that victims of domestic violence can take leave to attend court hearings, to move house to escape a dangerous situation, and to attend medical and psychologist appointments. It would be good for the government to recognise the need for those kinds of rights in its own enterprise bargaining with its own employees.

Just last week, this government took its first step in its antiworker agenda when, without notice, it suspended standing orders to push through the registered organisations legislation in the dead of night. This, of course, was one of those bills that were held up as the reason that we needed to have a double dissolution election. Then we promptly never heard anything about it again through the election campaign. But, finally, this government pushed that legislation through in the dead of night. And what a triumph it considered that to be! I suppose if I were in the most unproductive government that Australia has ever seen, I would be pretty thrilled to pass a bill as well! Not that long ago, when Labor was in power, passing legislation used to be simply called governing. That was the daily business of government. But this government is so unproductive, so divided and so hapless that merely passing a bill is something that it considers worthy of celebration.

Now, in the following week, the government has decided to move on to the second step in this package of unfair and antidemocratic bills, through what has become known as the ABCC bill. This is just another unjustified attempt by this government to demonise Australian workers and dismantle the trade union movement that protects them. Unfortunately, it seems that this government has learnt absolutely nothing from the election, which saw it just squeeze back into government after launching a range of policies that were going to hurt everyday Australians. Unfortunately for this government, everyday Australians are not interested in policies that attack everyday people, and that is what this bill will do.

One of the government's main excuses for why it says we need the ABCC back is that it will improve productivity on construction sites. But, sadly for this government, the evidence is very clear on this front and it completely contradicts what the government argues. We do not need to just rely on modelling, theories or speculation about what will happen under the ABCC. We can turn to recent history, because it was not that long ago that the Howard government introduced the ABCC. The proof is in the pudding there about what actually happens in construction workplaces when this kind of authority is brought into existence. When we look back at what happened last time we had the ABCC, the facts are indisputable. They show that, without doubt, reintroducing the ABCC will be an absolute jobs killer. Again, this is an example of the Turnbull government putting its own ideological antiunion agenda above productivity and above economic growth that all Australians can share in.

This government has been caught out misrepresenting the supposed improved productivity that the ABCC will generate. The Prime Minister has claimed on occasions that ABCC, when it was introduced last time, improved productivity by 20 per cent. But journalists such as Bernard Keane have pointed out that there is no source that can be found to explain this alleged 20 per cent rise in productivity that apparently occurred the last time we had an ABCC. This statistic has been called out as being wildly inaccurate, but nevertheless the government insists on continuing to use outdated and wildly discredited data to push their agenda.

The government continues to cite a report published by Independent Economics, formerly Econtech, which claimed that the impact of workplaces practices, including the ABCC last time around, on productivity was an improvement of 9.4 per cent. As we know from this government, it does not let facts get in the way of a good yarn. On this occasion, again, its facts do not really stack up. It is not just me saying this. Former Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox said of the 2007 Econtech report that the government relies on 'is deeply flawed and it should be widely discredited,' yet this government continues to wheel out this figure as an argument for why we need the ABCC back. But, of course, we do have an institution within government that is fairly reliable when it comes to statistics. It is not a reliable when it comes to running a census, but on the provision of statistics like workplace—

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Due to staff cuts.

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I take the interjection from Senator Bilyk. Unfortunately, the ABS has been crippled by staff cuts and funding cuts. Let us not worry about these dodgy reports that are being held up by the government to justify their actions and let us look at what the Australian Bureau of Statistics says. They say that in the seven years before the introduction of the ABCC, construction industry productivity increased more than it did in the seven years that the ABCC existed. Last time around, far from the ABCC lifting productivity in the construction industry—which is what we are continually told by government ministers is what happened and will happen again if these bills are passed—the evidence shows that, last time we had ABCC, construction industry productivity fell. It only turned the corner and only started improving once Labor, upon its election, got rid of the ABCC. In fact, productivity has been higher every year since the abolition of the ABCC in 2012.

I say to the crossbenchers, as they are making up their minds about how to vote on this legislation, do not believe the government when they say to you that this is the key to unlocking construction industry productivity. The evidence is there. We do not need the dodgy reports that have been put together by consultants to tell us what may or may not happen. Let us just look at what happened last time we had this ABCC. The Australian Bureau of Statistics very clearly says, and it has the statistics to back it up, that productivity fell the last time we had an ABCC and construction industry productivity improved when the ABCC was gotten rid of by the Labor government. If anyone is actually serious about lifting productivity and the construction industry, then the best way to do that is to make sure that we do not have an ABCC.

Not only does this legislation damage Australia economically but it also increases the safety risks for the men and women working in the construction industry. In my former life as a lawyer, at one of Australia's leading law firms that acts for working people and their unions, I heard too many stories about everyday working Australians who went to work and then never came home. That was the daily bread and butter of the law firm that I acted for. It was representing people who had either been horrifically injured or killed in workplace accidents. Unfortunately, again, the evidence shows that this ABCC, if reintroduced, will actually lead to an increase in workplace accidents. Ordinary working people in Australia will suffer the consequences if this bill goes through.

Let us look at what happened last time. From 2003 to 2013, 401 construction workers died from workplace injuries. Prior to the introduction of the ABCC, the fatality rate for workers within the construction industry was falling. When the ABCC was introduced in 2005, the fatality rate was 3.51 fatalities per 100,000 workers. In 2006, one year after the ABCC was introduced, the fatality rate increased to 4.7 and it again increased to 4.73 in 2007. Two years running after the ABCC was introduced, workplace accidents increased. Again, the evidence is there. The ABCC, last time around, drove down productivity in the construction industry and drove up accidents in the workplace, which actually affects people's lives.

The fatality rate exceeded the 2005 rate every year until 2012, when the ABCC was replaced. Every year that we had the ABCC in existence, the fatality rate of construction workers on the worksite increased. It was only when the ABCC was taken away in 2012 that that fatality rate decreased. Anyone who wants to hold themselves out as being a guardian of the rights of working people, have a think about that: when we did not have an ABCC, people were actually safer in the workplace than they were when we did. That is very easy to explain: it is because the ABCC inevitably will be used to restrict the rights of unions to enter workplaces, to stand up for safety breaches and to take action against employers who are not doing the right thing on safety. If we take where unions' rights to do that, then the people who will suffer are the average working people on those construction sites. I think that is shameful.

The safety of workers will also be compromised by the building code that is going to accompany this bill. That building code will apply to construction sites that receive government funding. I will not go into detail about the effects of that because of lack of time. But there will be all sorts of restrictions placed around building projects that are being funded by the government, which will make it even harder to force companies to hire local workers and to invest in training local people. It will, as I say, lead to very big changes to people's working hours, extending their working weeks, in industries that are inherently dangerous and it will expose people to unsafe working conditions.

One of the other arguments that we hear often from government ministers, as to why we need an ABCC, is that it is the only way to rein in the big, bad unions that are disrupting workplaces all around the country. Again, the facts do not support what the government is saying. Apart from one quarter in September 2012, which was a bit of an aberration, working days lost to industrial action per 1,000 workers are now lower than they were in the time of the ABCC. Again, let us look at the facts and let us look at what happened last time. Last time when we had an ABCC, productivity went down, workplace accidents went up and industrial disputation went up as well. On every ground that this government puts forward for why we need the ABCC, the facts do not back them up. I can only assume this is because we really have entered the era of post-fact politics. This government does not really seem to care too much about what the facts demonstrate as long as it fits their ideological obsession with taking away the rights of trade unions and working people.

The last point I would like to make is that this legislation is not only economically counterproductive, dangerous to working people and dangerous to the economy in the sense of increased industrial disputes but it is downright undemocratic. If the ABCC is re-established, it will have coercive powers that will compel workers to be subject to secret interviews and workers will be denied legal representation. What other situation is there in this country where we have legislation that denies working people their legal rights in this way—that makes them subject to secret interviews and denies them legal representation? Many unions have pointed out that people charged with serious criminal offences sometimes have more rights and more legal representation than union members and union officials will have if this ABCC is re-established. Nicola McGarrity and Professor George Williams, from the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales, say:

… the ABC Commissioner's investigatory powers have the potential to severely restrict basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to silence.

I remember the days when we had a Liberal Party in this country which stood up for those kinds of values of liberal democracy and those sorts of basic rights, but, unfortunately, those values have gone out the window under this government.

In conclusion, let us not pretend that this legislation is anything but what it is—thinly veiled union bashing. It is an attack on the organising bodies that working people have long relied on to protect themselves from governments like this. This government has form. Every time it gets into power it tries to take away union rights and working rights, and it is doing it again now. (Time expired)

5:30 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak to the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation and put on record my opposition to it, along with that of my fellow Greens colleagues—a number of whom have already spoken about the legislation. We need to be absolutely up-front right from the get-go. This legislation is designed simply as a union bashing exercise. It was the baby of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and you have to wonder what on earth is going on in the current Prime Minister's office when he continues to skip and whistle to the tune of Tony Abbott week after week, despite the fact that Tony Abbott, one of the most unpopular prime ministers the country has ever seen, was booted out a year ago—was dumped by his own colleagues. Now he stands in the shadows puppeteering every action of Prime Minister Turnbull. This legislation is one of the best examples of that.

This legislation is the whole reason that we went to an extraordinary election earlier this year—the double dissolution election—and the infamous eight-week election campaign. It was to give the Prime Minister the numbers that he would need in order to pass this bill. He did not get them. Even in his own perhaps frayed wisdom he realised that the Australian people were not going to be voting for a Prime Minister on the basis of a public campaign against some of the hardest working members of our workforce in the country—our building and construction workers. Every day they are out there on building sites; every day they are working hard to make sure that Australians have homes and that there are buildings for people to work in, and they do so under extremely difficult circumstances. In fact, fatality rates in relation to construction workers soared, sadly, last time the ABCC existed. There were more deaths on building sites when the last piece of legislation was enacted that made it more difficult for unions to represent workers to ensure that workplaces were safe and to give individual workers the protection to stick their head up and say, 'Hang on, I'm not going to do that, because that's unsafe.' It is extraordinary that the spike in the death rate on working sites correlated so clearly with the last introduction of the ABCC—you would wonder why any government would want to do that again. But this government is obsessed—absolutely obsessed—with union bashing. That is what all of this is about. It is being fanned by some of the more ultra-right members of the crossbench, who are seeing this as a brilliant opportunity for them to use this desperation from the government as their bargaining chip to get their agendas up.

I want to go to the issues relating to Senator Leyonhjelm, who has been out crowing for the last week about the list he has demanded from the government in order to secure his vote for the ABCC legislation. It is an ever-growing list. We even had more things added to it this morning. Firstly, I want to point out how extraordinary the reports are in relation to the Prime Minister declaring and demanding that his own Liberal Party administration drop the legal challenge to Senator Leyonhjelm and his party, the Liberal Democrats, over the use of the name. The Prime Minister himself has requested that the Liberal Party of Australia stop their legal challenge and withdraw from the courts, in order to satisfy Senator Leyonhjelm. If that is not an inducement, what is? This government is so desperate to get this legislation through that they are now willing to, effectively, not just trade on their name but give their name away—sell their own name in order to secure a vote for this piece of legislation. It is extraordinary. If we had a federal anti-corruption body like an ICAC in this country, that is exactly the type of thing that would be referred to it. How on earth can a Prime Minister put an inducement like that on the table and nobody bats an eyelid? It is extraordinary.

We know that Senator Leyonhjelm's shopping list is growing longer day by day. Today, we heard about his obsession with attacking and beating up the ABC and SBS broadcasters—they are now in Senator Leyonhjelm's firing line. He did not get the importation of the Adler and more firearms into the country, so he has decided to have a go at shooting the ABC and SBS. What an extraordinary precedent for this Prime Minister and his frontbench to suggest that our national broadcasters can become bargaining chips in this type of policy and vote negotiation only minutes before midnight. It is extraordinary. It sets a very dangerous precedent.

At a time when journalism is under pressure in this country, when we need robust, independent, well-funded journalism more than ever to scrutinise the government of the day and other interested groups and when the ABC and SBS in this country are held so dearly in the hearts and minds of the Australian people we see the Prime Minister so desperate to get his Tony Abbott legislation through this chamber that he is going to trade away the rights and protections for the ABC. I do not know exactly what the deals are—none of us do, and that is precisely the point. We do not know the details of these deals but we do know that Prime Minister Turnbull and his ministers are prepared to sell anything in order to get this legislation through this place before Christmas. It sets a very dangerous precedent.

We know that the ABC and SBS need to be strengthened and funded properly. We need them more than ever when we have such alarmist and crazy propositions being promoted by the ultraright wing in this country. The last thing we want is these public institutions caught up in the clutches of the ultraright in this place and on the crossbench. It sets a very dangerous precedent. While we have Senator Leyonhjelm negotiating this you can bet your bottom dollar that Senator 'Wackiest', also known as Senator Roberts, will be looking at this and taking inspiration from this—

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hanson-Young, I remind you that personal remarks are disorderly. I invite you to reframe your comments.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I believe the wackiest senator in this place is Senator Roberts. I believe he will be taking inspiration from this deal struck by Senator Leyonhjelm today. We know that the ultraright who sit here on the crossbench would love nothing more than to take pot shots every day at our national broadcaster. They desperately want in their clutches the possibility of dismantling the ABC. Of course there are members of Malcolm Turnbull's own frontbench and backbench who want to do the same. Tony Abbott could not be prouder of a deal that both gets through his union-bashing legislation and gives a good kick to our national broadcaster on the way through. Tony Abbott would be very proud of this deal indeed. It shows how desperate this government is to get this through before the end of the year.

This legislation is incredibly undemocratic in that it attacks a select group of the Australian community, some of the hardest-working Australians that this nation has. It treats them as second-class citizens under the law. This is not good enough. That is not how we should be treating Australian workers at a time when unemployment is rising, particularly amongst our young people. We need our construction sites to be safe and good places to work. We know we need young people in this sector more than ever. Treating them as second-class citizens just is not okay. I do not care how much Tony Abbott wants to thump his chest when it comes to beating up on the unions or how desperate—

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, I have a point of order. I remind the senator to address members from the other chamber by their correct title.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Fawcett. Yes, I do remind Senator Hanson-Young and other senators that it is appropriate to use proper titles when referring to members in the other place and of course in here.

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Tony Abbott is so prevalent in this debate that it is hard not to use his name so casually when referring to the drafting of this legislation. Mr Abbott's whole persona is in this legislation. It is Mr Abbott's legislation that is now being prosecuted desperately by the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

However, let me return to how undemocratic this legislation is. It undermines the basic rights of construction workers to be treated equally under the law. It does things like take away their right to silence. Heavens above, why is that needed? We have the common law in this country that everybody has to abide by. If somebody is not abiding by it then you tell the police and they will go in, investigate, charge, arrest and prosecute. Why are we making a particular group in the Australian community suffer more than other ordinary everyday Australians? It is beyond me. The government has not provided the evidence or a clear case at all of why this is needed.

One thing the Greens will do throughout this debate has been spoken about several times by my colleagues already, but I want to reiterate. We oppose this legislation—we always have and we always will—however, if it gets through to the committee stage, we will move some amendments to try to make things at least a little bit better. One of those things is really important for my home state of South Australia. That of course is the code to mandate the use of Australian steel. We know the steelworks in Whyalla are under immense pressure. We have construction projects right across the country, many of which are commissioned by state and federal governments and relevant agencies. If we are going to go so far as to implement particular building codes then let us ensure that it is mandated that 90 per cent of construction uses Australian steel. That would keep our steelworks in business and ensure that we do not see further deterioration of our steel industry. It is something that would be very important for South Australia—in particular, for Whyalla—but it would also have positive knock-on effects across the country. We know there are also steelworks under pressure in New South Wales, and it would go some way towards dealing with those issues as well.

The reality is that this legislation is one of the cruddiest, nastiest and most pathetic pieces of legislation that this parliament has had to deal with in a long time. We have debated it before. This issue has been hanging around since Tony Abbott was desperate to bring it back when he was Prime Minister, but it did not pass this parliament previously; it was rejected strongly by this chamber previously. Now, because there is some change in the make-up of the membership and the various voices being represented here, Malcolm Turnbull wishes to bring it back. The bill itself has not changed. It has not got any better—in fact, you would almost argue it has worsened, because the government's arguments and position for why we need this little piece of legislation have gotten weaker and weaker as the days, weeks and months have gone on.

I am not just concerned about the elements of this legislation that treat construction workers as second-class citizens and second-class workers in this country; I am very concerned for the safety and livelihoods of young workers on these construction sites. I was in Adelaide only a few months ago when there was another death on the construction site of the new Adelaide Hospital. It is not okay that we see workers, young or old, with families, sons and daughters of everyday Australians, going off to work in the morning and not coming back at night because an accident on the worksite which could have been avoided has cost them their life. What are we going to do when young people on these sites are too intimidated to speak up and confront their boss when their boss says: 'Nah, don't worry about it, mate, it'll be fine. She'll be right'? What are you going to say to the mother or the father of a young worker who dies on a construction site because the safety checks and balances are just not there?

It is about building a culture that promotes advocacy and safety. It is about trying to ensure that our young people, who we desperately need in this sector and in this industry, know that they are going to be looked after when they get there, that they are not going to be abused and treated appallingly, and that there are people who will listen to them when they say: 'No, I don't want to get up that high. I don't think that scaffolding is safe.' Who is going to stand up for these overtired and delirious young workers, pushed to work extraordinary hours in order to finish the job, with the pressures of deadlines, if the government has stripped away their ability so speak for themselves? If their unions are beaten up and kept off site, who will they turn to then? We are setting up a recipe for disaster for young construction workers right across this country, the moment this piece of legislation enters the parliament.

While Senator Leyonhjelm might want to trade off his vote for the ABCC, thinking it is a bill on the ABC—his chance to get stuck into the national broadcaster—and Mr Abbott is rubbing his hands together in glee because he cannot believe his luck that his two favourite things are going to happen at once, the young workers on our construction sites are the ones who are going to suffer. It is their parents and their loved ones—perhaps their young children—who will wake up the next day and realise that the deaths on our building sites could have been avoided if the culture had been different and if people could have spoken up and refused to work in dangerous circumstances, and if there had been independent inspection and analysis about how safe things really were on those sites.

The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 is about union-bashing for the government, but for the rest of us it is about protecting the rights of workers, particularly those young people who we desperately need to give an opportunity to get back into the workforce, and about the protection of proper safety regulation and implementation so that they can do their job properly. I do not want to see this setting a precedent, where every time a government cannot argue their case, they start to trade away basic elements in other areas, whether it is our national broadcaster; the importation of guns, for heaven's sake; or, indeed, dropping legal challenges outside of the parliament in order to secure people's vote. This is inducement at its most sickening level, and if we had a national ICAC—which we should—this type of carry-on and deal-making would not cut it.

5:51 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I just say, before I start my remarks, that I am not the minister summing up; I am merely a senator making a contribution to the debate.

After listening to the previous contribution, I am really quite astounded to hear this kind of thing in this place from a member of a party that has traded their votes on numerous things when they were part of the government. It is quite extraordinary, when the boot is on the other foot, that Senator Leyonhjelm, Senator Xenophon and a number of others seeking to get good outcomes for their states by suggesting that some other legislation might be looked at are somehow seen as doing something that is outrageous and never been done before. If you have a look at the track record of people in this place, apart from the two major parties, you will see this is an age-old tradition that has been going on since any parliament ever started. So I will just put that little piece of hypocrisy on the record before I start my contribution on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and a related bill.

The reality is that this bill was brought in in 2013. It was one of the things that the coalition government said that they were intending to pursue when they were first elected to government in September 2013. It was to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission because we believed that the Fair Work Building and Construction commission was a weaker regulator and that we needed to get back to a position where we had strengthened this particular industry.

It seems really quite extraordinary that in much of the comment that has gone before us you can have one side of parliament saying one thing and the other saying something completely different. If you research and have a look at the statistics, it seems quite bizarre. But the other side seem to be able to rummage around and come up with a whole heap of weird and wondrous numbers.

But there is nothing weird and wondrous in the numbers. As of October 2016, there were 113 CFMEU officials before the courts for more than 1,100 suspected contraventions in relation to building laws. It does strike me that that statistic is a matter of fact. If anybody can go out and find evidence to suggest that that is not the case then please do. But it is very hard to move away from something that is quite clearly available in the public domain. Yes, 113 CFMEU officials were before the courts last month. In recent years more than $8 million in fines have been imposed for breaches of those laws. Once again, these are matters of fact. They are not matters of supposition. We did not just makes them up; they are on the public record. The reality is that we need to do something about that. No business, no union and no individual should be allowed to continue to break the law at the kind of rate that we have seen the law being broken on construction sites and to get away with it.

Probably the most distressing thing about this is the cost to our economy. We in this country are trying very hard to deal with the debt and deficit problem to ensure that we are going to have a prosperous economy so that our children into the future are going to be able to live the lives that we expect for them and that we are living at the moment. But unless we do something about the productivity of this nation we are not going to achieve that. We really have two choices in dealing with our debt and deficit. We either increase the productivity within Australia or we focus on our export market. This government would like to do both so that we can move to a more prosperous nation where we can afford all those wonderful things that we would like our children to have without continuing to go deeper and deeper into debt.

It is really quite disturbing when you find that the rate of industrial action in the construction sector is now nine times higher than the average across all other industries. That is a pretty serious statistic. Currently two out of three working days lost to industrial disputes are in the construction industry. We in this place all sit and debate time and time again about absolutely essential infrastructure for education and health care. Our schools and our hospitals costs 30 per cent more than they need to because of the number of days that are lost due to industrial action and other activities that occur on building sites. So it does not take terribly long to start painting a picture about why it is so important that we put these reforms in place.

I must admit that I have always been a great believer that if you are doing the right thing you should never fear anybody having a look at what you are doing. It is a little bit like complaining about getting a speeding fine if you were speeding. If you are not speeding then you are not going to get a speeding fine. If you are not doing anything wrong on a construction site, the ABCC is not likely to interfere in any way with what you are doing.

To once again reinforce the importance of this particular piece of legislation, the construction sector is the third largest industry in Australia and it contributes eight per cent to our GDP. It employs nearly 1.1 million Australians, and there are more than 300,000 small businesses that rely on this sector for their very existence. You would have to say that it is a tremendously important industry.

One of the things that we have heard time and time again in the contributions that have been made in this place since the debate commenced is about the issue of safety. I would just like to put on the record that I find it quite extraordinary that anybody would use safety as an issue to try to scaremonger, because there can be nothing more important than the safety of Australian workers. I do not think there is any deviation between any of the parties in this chamber or in the other chamber on the importance of safety. But we have to be real and we have to tell the truth about safety. The ABCC bill does not amend any workplace safety laws. I think that is extraordinarily important to mention.

We saw the same kind of hysteria occur prior to the election over the debate about owner-drivers and the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. We saw the TWU trying to prosecute the issue that the changes they were proposing would deliver safety. One of the most despicable things I saw occur during that particular debate actually occurred in my home state and Senator Hanson-Young's home state of South Australia when the TWU wheeled out a lady who had lost somebody due to trucking accident. She was particularly upset, as you would imagine, having lost a very close member of her family in a trucking accident. The union was yelling and screaming that their owner-driver changes would have assisted this particular lady's loved one to not be involved in an accident. But it was not an owner-driver accident that caused that death. So I think when we start talking about the very important issue of safety we need to make sure that we back it up with the truth and do not just use scaremongering. I can assure you that the distress that was occurring because of this particular instance is something that I never want to witness again.

The ABCC legislation will not prevent legitimate safety issues being raised or addressed by employees, unions or health and safety officers. The rate of construction industry deaths has been trending down for the past decade, and we should all be very proud of that fact. It really does strike me as somewhat mischievous, to say the least, to use the safety of workers as a method or tool by which to try and wedge a particular situation. The reality is, if you look at some of the comments that have been made before, that it does not seem an unreasonable thing for a government to be seeking to legislate to stamp out thuggery, lawlessness and bad behaviour in any industry. I cannot understand why anyone in this place would not see the desire to do that, together with the desire to return productivity to an industry sector, which has so much capacity to have a positive benefit on the Australian economy, as a positive thing. Even the royal commission suggested that it was absolutely essential that we combat an industry that was characterised as experiencing lawlessness. What other industry in Australia would believe that lawlessness, thuggery, bad behaviour, physical abuse, discrimination and the like were acceptable ways to conduct yourself in any work environment? It does a disservice to every other industry sector which abides by the law and the rules to think that there could be as sector which thinks that because of their might and their power that they can behave beyond the law and do not have to meet the same requirements as every other worker and industry in Australia.

The reality is there is a toxic culture in the CFMEU, and it causes big problems. We intend to fix it. The ABCC, in its previous existence, had a proven track record of dealing with many of these issues. It tackled the lawlessness and thuggery in our building industry. It was the tough cop that enforced the law. As I said, if you are not breaking the law, you do not need to have the law enforced. If everybody is out there doing the right thing and not being lawless, then nobody should be even remotely concerned about any watchdog on the beat. By ensuring unlawful action could be appropriately investigated, dealt with and penalised, the ABCC got the results and the productivity that the building industry so desperately needed in this country.

Before the ABCC was introduced by the Howard government, the rate of industrial disputes was about five times the average across all industries. During the reign of the ABCC's operations, disputes fell to just twice the national average. On average, since the ABCC's abolition, disputes have gone back to five times the average. It does not take a rocket scientist to realise that the very presence of the ABCC created a much better culture on building sites and, commensurate with that, an increase in productivity, which benefited all Australians—and not just those people who were the beneficiaries of building site activities. We all benefit when the productivity of any industry rises, and especially one as important as the construction industry. Since the ABCC was abolished in 2012 by Mr Shorten, the rates of dispute in the construction sector have increased by 40 per cent. This is against a trend in all other industries, where the rate of industrial dispute has declined by 33 per cent. It makes it that much worse when you consider that not only is it going up but it is going up against a downward trend in every other sector.

When the ABCC was in force, the productivity in the construction sector grew by 20 per cent; since the ABCC was abolished productivity has flat lined. There are some pretty significant statistics on the public record; they are not something that can be disputed or made up; and they point to the need to restore a level of lawfulness to our building sites to ensure that we deliver the kind of productivity to the construction sector that is expected from such a major sector in our economy. If any other sector of the economy was not lifting its weight to the same degree that this one was, I am sure there would be an absolute outcry.

I am sure there are many others in this place who would like to make a contribution on this bill, but suffice to say I, along with my coalition colleagues, commend this bill to the Senate. We see it as such a fundamentally important reform to enable all the businesses associated with the construction sector to feel that they are playing in fair and reasonable environment but most particularly so that we can return productivity to a sector that is so tremendously important to the future of Australia.

6:05 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before turning to the substance of the bill, I would like to take a moment to look at the path it has taken to get here. When the Prime Minister used this bill is a trigger for a double dissolution election, he talked about how important and urgent the bill was. That is not borne out in any way by the path that the bill has taken. The first time it came to the Senate was in February 2014. It was in March 2015 that we had the second reading debate. We had constant delays; it sat on the backburner for months at a time; and, suddenly, it became very important when the Prime Minister dipped in the polls and started having difficulty in negotiating in the Senate. This bill has never been about policy for all of the window dressing. This is simply a bill about politics and about tactics.

The double dissolution election was four months ago. There have been seven clear sitting weeks since then. If the bill was so important, why are we only getting to it now? The answer is of course: just tactics. The government were holding off because they were worried it would not pass. Now the Prime Minister thinks that he might get a win, and he desperately needs a win—because this is a Prime Minister that desperately needs a win to keep him going over the summer break. But the problem is that this would be a win that only helps the Prime Minister and does absolutely nothing to address the issues that we as a nation are actually facing.

Way back when, in the Prime Minister's letter to the Governor-General, he said that the ABCC bills 'represent important elements of the government's economic plan for jobs and growth, and of its reform agenda'. If what the Prime Minister said in that letter is true, if that is the plan for jobs and growth, and its reform agenda, then that is very disappointing and we should be very, very worried. I understand that the Prime Minister needs to throw some red meat from time to time to the right wing of his party. His hold on his leadership is tenuous, and they ask more and more of him. But he did promise economic leadership—that was his pitch. That was his reason for displacing Mr Abbott as leader of the coalition. He did that because he said that Mr Abbott had failed to deliver economic leadership. But we are not seeing much economic leadership here. Instead, the Prime Minister is going back to basics, back to what is always trotted out when the Liberal Party are in trouble, and that is some pretty unproductive union-bashing.

There are real economic issues that we should be talking about instead of this. In the last fortnight, the ABS issued its labour force figures, and we see that employment growth has slowed to 0.9 per cent, down from 1.9 per cent months ago. There are now 1.8 million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We know what that means for those families and we know what that means for the long-term ability of those people to contribute to the economy. Wage growth has hit a fresh low—below two per cent. Workers across all industries are seeing pay increases that barely match the cost of living.

The deficit continues to blow out. We have had a report which projects a further $24 billion deterioration of the Commonwealth budget under Mr Morrison and Mr Turnbull. That follows a deficit for 2015-16 that blew out by eight times what had been projected at the 2013 election. But the only plan that is ever presented by those opposite is cuts to services, and an unfunded corporate tax cut that will blow out the budget even further.

We could talk about housing—the fact that a fraction of rental and share house accommodation is affordable for people who live on government payments, that young people's rate of property acquisition is falling or that older people are trapped in inappropriate rental accommodation. In the last year, we had a committee inquiry into women's economic security in retirement, and people told us that the single biggest predictor of whether or not an older woman will live in poverty in retirement is whether or not she owns her own home. Do we see any comment about that, any action on that? We see nothing—absolutely nothing. All we see is a bill which claims to support jobs and growth but which has a very, very tenuous relationship indeed with that agenda. There are no plans.

In the Prime Minister's letter to the Governor-General, he also said:

The ABCC Bills relate to one of the largest sectors of our economy, which employs over a million Australians and is responsible for around 8 per cent of GDP. The re-establishment of the ABCC aims to improve productivity in this crucial sector, protecting and promoting employment.

But the thing is the ABCC did not lift productivity last time. The Productivity Commission looked into it and said that the evidence for aggregate productivity increases and cost savings was 'weak'. The Prime Minister has claimed that re-establishing the ABCC will increase productivity by 20 per cent. Nobody knows where that figure comes from. What is clear is that the introduction of the ABCC saw the number of workers' deaths climb. The truth is that, if you want to lift productivity in the Australian economy, there are better places to start.

The finance sector is much bigger than the construction sector, and much more systemically important. You have to remember that it was not industrial relations in the construction sector that jeopardised the entire global economy eight years ago. Hundreds of thousands of Australians did not lose their retirement savings because of misconduct on building sites. It is the finance sector, isn't it, that has been embarrassed by all these financial scandals decorating the front pages of our newspapers, and that has been examined in this place and in Senate committees, with calls for a royal commission? But we do not see a special institution being created to oversee that sector, do we? No. In fact, we see a repudiation by the government of any need to examine in any serious way the shortcomings in that industry that are holding back productivity not just in that sector but across the economy. There is no response—nothing meaningful. We do not see anything about that.

What we see instead is this bill, a Trojan Horse of a bill, the effect of which is excessive and unfair regulation that is out of step with the needs of workers and the needs of the construction industry. At the heart of this is simply union-bashing and an antiworker ideology.

6:13 pm

Photo of Brian BurstonBrian Burston (NSW, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013. This bill would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. I believe this legislation is in the national interest because it will boost the productivity of our building and construction industry, which employs more than one million Australians. It will also increase the natural justice, fairness and decency of workplaces around Australia, and all Australians have a stake in that.

When I was a boilermaker, I belonged to the metalworkers union. Subsequently, I was a teacher and belonged to the New South Wales Teachers Federation. So I have extensive experience of unions and unionised workplaces. I have seen the good work they do, protecting workers rights, but I have also seen things that are bad for the economy and for fair play.

Following my five-year boilermaker apprenticeship—and I served that at BHP Newcastle, probably one of the most dangerous sites at that time, where up to eight people a year, on average, were killed in industrial accidents—I worked at the Liddell power station in the Hunter Valley in 1969, during its construction. Following that time, I worked at Kurri Engineering, where I witnessed vexatious strikes by the union. They called strikes on the flimsiest of excuses. Unfortunately, the company operated on a strict timetable. The union knew this but nevertheless persisted in what amounted to guerrilla industrial relations. 'Wildcat strike' does not really describe the systematic sabotage I saw. As a result, Kurri Engineering went bust. Everyone lost their job. That was a blow to economic productivity and to jobs, and it was a blow to natural justice. Everyone at that business witnessed the cynicism and the ruthlessness of the union officials and saw them get away with it. Their members suffered, as did the company—and nothing has changed. The rule of law must not only be returned to building sites; it must also be seen to be returned. Let us hope that the passing of this legislation symbolises in the public mind that justice has at last been done.

The arguments against the bills ignore these realities. Consider the opposition's argument that the proposed legislation would reduce workplace safety. They complain that the legislation would reduce flexibility for union safety officials entering worksites. In particular, the legislation reverses the onus of proof onto employees who cite safety concerns as justification for unilaterally stopping work or taking other measures that disrupt their work group's functioning. The legislation would require employees to prove that they were not motivated by any reason other than safety. The opposition make their argument out of context. They do not admit to the sorry history, the sorry reality, of union disruption. If the onus of proof remains with employers, worksites can continue to be disrupted by unscheduled stop-work meetings and walk-offs. The legislation will in no way diminish existing safety regulations and procedures, but it will reduce the hooliganism of some unions and the class-warfare group culture that inhabits them.

At the last election, the government campaigned on these bills. It promised to re-establish the ABCC and it was returned to office. One Nation disagrees with the government on a range of issues, but it is right on this one. The Australian people are sick and tired of misbehaviour on worksites. They want the rule of law returned to the building and construction industry. They want an end to thuggery. One Nation supports this bill.

6:17 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to make a contribution to the debate on these important pieces of legislation, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. In name, this legislation is about the building and construction industry, but it is also important to the strength of our economy as a whole. Of course, this is a debate which has long been running. In my view, it is a debate which has gone on for much too long. This really should not be an issue of great controversy. After all, this legislation merely seeks to ensure that those who work in the construction sector are able to go about their work day to day without experiencing harassment and without experiencing threats and intimidation at the hands of rogue union officials. This legislation does nothing more than make certain that the rule of law is respected on construction sites across the nation—just as we expect the rule of law to be observed and respected everywhere else across our country.

I find it absolutely extraordinary that, in effect, we have been having a debate on this legislation for more than three years and through the life of two parliaments. It is really quite incredible that, for the life of two parliaments now, senators opposite have come into this chamber and sought to explain away and to make excuses for thuggish and intimidatory behaviour on the part of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the CFMEU. The people of Australia have now voted for this legislation twice. It was a key element of the coalition's industrial relations platform that was taken to the 2013 federal election, and, of course, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, which is now before us, was one of two bills that led to the double dissolution election in July this year, at which the coalition government was re-elected.

I say to the Labor Party: there comes a point at which you have to accept that the game is over, that the game is up. The people of Australia long ago woke up to the real reason for the Labor Party's stubborn attitude to what is a sensible, prudent piece of legislation. It is unfortunate that the Australian Labor Party cannot survive without the rivers of cash that flow to it from the CFMEU. In fact, I and many Australians find it tragic. Of course, I disagree with the Australian Labor Party on a great many policy issues, but, despite those disagreements, I acknowledge that their party has a proud history and genuine policy achievements to which it can point. That is why I find it tragic that, after more than a century of existence, the Labor Party now finds itself dependent on donations from a discredited and corrupt organisation like the CFMEU merely to survive.

However, the Labor Party's financial problems should not become the nation's problem. In particular, they should be not used as an excuse to hold our economy's third largest sector to ransom, because problems in the construction industry are problems which ultimately affect every Australian. In day-to-day life, all of us are dependent on services delivered by the building and construction sector, in the sense that we simply cannot survive without the infrastructure it creates. The houses and apartments we live in, the offices we work in, the shopping centres in which we purchase our essential goods and services, the roads and public transport systems which we use to reach them, the schools and universities we send the next generation of Australians to learn in and the hospitals we need, which deal with the health challenges of an ageing population, all have to be constructed. So we need to be very clear about the fact that, when we talk about issues in the construction industry, we are very much talking about issues that impact our daily lives.

Putting aside those practicalities, there is also the fact that the building and construction industry is the nation's third largest industry, responsible for generating around eight per cent of Australia's gross domestic product. It is responsible for employing around 1.1 million of our fellow Australians. Within the industry, there are around 300,000 registered small businesses, many of them family-run and operated. Accordingly, maintaining the health of our building and construction industry is critical to Australia's overall economic wellbeing, and it is the view of this coalition government that the construction sector cannot be healthy so long as it remains host to the toxic culture of lawlessness that permeates the CFMEU.

This bill will finally re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a genuinely strong and independent watchdog that will maintain the rule of law to protect workers and constructors and improve productivity on building sites and construction projects, whether they be onshore or offshore. This legislation will at long last reverse some of Labor's changes to the nation's workplace laws which underpinned the Australian Building and Construction Commission before it was abolished by the Gillard government in 2012, when the now Leader of the Opposition was the responsible minister.

The bill will reassert the rule of law on Australia's construction sites, preventing unlawful industrial action, unlawful picketing and coercion and discrimination. I think it is worth noting just how widespread the problem has become across our country. If you accepted the word of Labor senators who have participated in this debate, you would think we were discussing a very minor problem, but that is far from the truth. As of October this year there were 113 officials of the CFMEU appearing in courtrooms around the nation, between them charged with over 1,100 breaches of the law. Over recent years penalties totalling around $8 million have been imposed on the CFMEU for breaching the law.

Then there is the question of productivity in the sector. The current rate of industrial action in the construction sector is nine times higher than the average across all other industries in the economy. Two out of every three days lost to an industrial dispute in this country are lost within the construction industry. Since Bill Shorten abolished the ABCC as industrial relations minister in 2012 there has been a 40 per cent increase in the rate of disputes in the construction industry, while the rate of disputation across other industries has declined by 33 per cent on average. When the ABCC was still in existence, productivity growth in our construction industry was around 20 per cent. Today, it is flat.

By any measure, these are not inconsequential statistics. They tell a clear and compelling story—a story that needs to be corrected. Can you imagine if we were talking about any sort of organisation other than an Australian union? If it was a major company—dare I say a major bank—and 113 of that organisation's officials were appearing in courtrooms across the country, charged with breaching the law, do you think for a moment that the Labor Party's attitude would be, 'There's nothing to see here; please move on'? Yet because it is the CFMEU, without whom today's modern Labor Party cannot survive, we have been subjected to the sorry sight of Labor senators trooping into this chamber to try to defend the indefensible and in the process destroying a once proud Labor legacy.

What is most staggering in all of this is the Labor Party's refusal to learn from history, because we have been through this sorry exercise before. In 2001, when the Howard government was in office, the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry found serious and systemic breaches of the law on the part of the CFMEU. In relation to my own state of Western Australia, that royal commission found that 'the rule of law has little or no currency in the building and construction industry in Western Australia', that the building and construction industry in Western Australia is 'marred by unlawful and inappropriate conduct' and that 'Fear, intimidation and coercion are commonplace.'

It was this type of behaviour that the ABCC was designed to address—a strong specialist regulator that would tackle the problem head-on and enforce the rule of law in the building and construction sector, and from the time the Howard government established the ABCC until such time as Bill Shorten abolished it in 2012 it managed to do this very effectively. In fact, research undertaken by Independent Economics found that, because of the cost and efficiency improvements that flowed through the construction sector as a result of having the ABCC in place, consumers were better off by around $7½ billion every year. Any responsible political party would look at that and concede that the ABCC was of enormous benefit to the Australian economy.

You might have thought that instead of putting so much time and energy into first abolishing the ABCC and, since 2013, fighting efforts to re-establish it every inch of the way the Labor Party would have been better served by convincing its CFMEU allies to operate within the confines of the law. Yet so weak has the modern Labor Party leadership become that instead of working with decent unionists—and, of course, there are plenty of them—to clean up the situation, Labor has capitulated to those thugs who run the CFMEU. Again, this demonstrates an utter failure to learn the lessons of history.

Again, I turn to a living, breathing example from my own state of Western Australia. Notorious CFMEU boss Joe McDonald's history of criminal thuggery is well known to Western Australians. It became a source of national embarrassment for then Labor leader Kevin Rudd in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election. To give Mr Rudd his due, he was unwilling to have a thug like Joe McDonald in the upper echelons of the Labor Party that he led. He subsequently ordered Mr McDonald's expulsion from the party. Julia Gillard, former Labor Prime Minister, was right onboard at the time, saying, 'Kevin Rudd and I have made it clear that under our leadership of the Labor Party there will be zero tolerance for unlawful behaviour and thuggish behaviour in Australian workplaces.'

Yet, as was often the case, Ms Gillard's principles came a distant second to the political imperatives of her party. During her time as Labor leader, Joe McDonald was readmitted to the ranks of the Australian Labor Party and he has systemically worked his way back into the heart of its internal affairs in Western Australia. And less than one month ago we had a powerful demonstration of just how tight a grip Joe McDonald now exerts over the Western Australian Labor Party when a video emerged of him boasting to a meeting of workers about just how far-reaching his influence is within the Australian Labor Party in Western Australia, reaching all the way to its leadership here in Canberra.

Sitt ing suspended from 18 : 30 to 19 : 30

7:30 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the debate be adjourned.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the debate now be adjourned.

7:37 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the resumption of the debate be an order of the day for a later hour.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that that motion be agreed to.