Wednesday, 27 July 2022
Questions without Notice
Australian Building and Construction Commission
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Senator Watt. At a press conference on 5 June this year the Prime Minister declared:
This is a Government that I lead that will be consultative, that will work with business. There's a new show in town.
What consultation did the minister have with the construction industry and/or the Australian Building and Construction Commission prior to and in relation to the snap announcement on Sunday, 24 July 2022, that the ABCC in its powers will be pulled back to the bare legal minimum as of yesterday?
Now I did a fair amount of preparation for question time, and I anticipated the kinds of questions that I might receive from the opposition. But never in my wildest dreams did I hope that I would get a question from Senator Cash about lawlessness and the rule of law when it comes to industrial relations. But there you go! There you go—we've had it.
It is well understood that this government consulted prior to the election about its policy in relation to the ABCC. What is also well understood about the ABCC is that it has been an utterly ineffective organisation—
Thank you, Madam President. I rise on a point of order, in relation to direct relevance. The question was quite specific. It was not in relation to the abolition of the ABCC, it was in relation to the announcement on Insiders on Sunday 24 July—
Senator Cash, thank you, please resume your seat. You used the words in the initial part of your question as 'consultative with business' and then you went specifically to the ABCC. Senator Watt is, I think, presently describing the consultative piece, so I think he is being broadly relevant but I shall continue to listen carefully. Thank you, Senator Watt.
Thank you, President. As I said, I don't think it could have come as any surprise to anyone in the building industry or anyone in the opposition that this government's agenda was to abolish the ABCC. And why is that? That is because we have seen a gross waste of taxpayers' funds prosecuting workers for stickers on their helmets and flags on their worksites. This organisation has spent nearly $500,000 pursuing Lendlease over the display of Eureka flags.
Thank you, Madam President. Again, I rise on a point of order in relation to direct relevance. It is very clear that the minister is not going anywhere near the actual question. The question, as I stated, was in relation to—
Senator Cash, please resume your seat. I can't direct the minister to answer your questions. I can ensure that the minister is relevant to the points that you've outlined in your question, and I believe that Senator Watt is being relevant. I am listening carefully and if he's not being relevant I will draw him back to the broad basis of your question, which went to consultation with business, the construction industry and the ABCC. Senator Watt.
Thank you, President. As I said at the outset of my answer, there was wide consultation across the industry before the election about the policy. And I understand it may well come as a shock to people in Australia to have a government that delivers on its election promises! Because Senator Cash—
As I said, it may come as a shock to the people of Australia to have a government that delivers its election promises because, of course, that stands in great contrast to the former government, one of whose leaders was Senator Cash, who promised an independent corruption commission and never got around to doing it. Unlike that, we are delivering on our promises—
Yes, President, on direct relevance. There have been repeated rulings of this place which you know very well, which say that the minister should not use the opportunity to attack those opposite. That is exactly, what the minister is doing—
Thank you, President. As I said, we have widely consulted about our policy. We went to the election saying that we would do the policy. We are now delivering our policy. As I say, I, for one, am shocked that Senator Cash, of all people, would come in here and ask questions about workplace rules and workplace lawlessness when she—
Order! Senator Watt, please resume your seat. Sorry, Senator Cash, please resume your seat; I'll come back to you. Senator McGrath, you are constantly interjecting in a very loud manner to the point that I have to keep sitting the minister down. I would ask you to refrain from doing that. Senator Cash?
Again, in relation to a point of order on direct relevance: again, I did not ask a question about the Labor Party's decision to abolish the ABCC. I asked a very specific question in relation to a very specific decision that came into force yesterday—
Thank you, Senator Cash. I don't intend at this point to review my rulings. I have asked Senator Watt to be direct. Your question contained the words 'consult' and 'business', and that is what Senator Watt was just outlining when I had to sit him down because of the disorderly nature of the Senate, and then I entertained your point of order. Senator Watt was being directly relevant about the consultation.
Now, as I say, I'm heartened that all of a sudden Senator Cash thinks consultation is important or giving people a heads-up is important. I don't remember her or her office giving the AWU a heads-up before they leaked the police raid on their offices.
Senator Watt! Just a moment, Senator Brockman; please resume your seat. Senator McGrath, I have specifically called you out for being disorderly and you've completely ignored me and continued to be disorderly. I would ask you to respect my ruling when I ask you to just tone it down a slight decibel or two. Senator Brockman?
In relation to the announcement on Sunday, what consultation did the minister have with the CFMMEU, the ACTU and/or any other union prior to and in relation to that announcement?
It's not my portfolio. I've been a little busy on foot-and-mouth disease. What I do know is that since the election there has been further consultation about our policy to abolish the ABCC with the National Workplace Relations Consultative Council, which not only includes unions but includes business representatives; it includes the small-business council and Master Builders among other organisations, the Australian Industry Group as well.
Again, a point of order in relation to relevance. The minister has taken the question on notice. He has advised the chamber he is not the relevant minister and, as such, needs to consult with the relevant minister. In relation to any further commentary, it is not—
On the point of order, I make the same point of order I made earlier—that the point of order the deputy leader of the opposition has made is erroneous. It is not correct that when a minister takes part or some of a question on notice that minister cannot then address the substance of the question. That has been consistent—and maybe Senator Brockman might wish to stand up and confirm that that is the case if he wishes to engage in a point of order! The point of order is misconceived.
On the point of order: the substance of the question, as has been referred to by the leader of the government, is actually in relation to a specific announcement on Sunday. It is not a wide-ranging substance. It is the announcement on Sunday.
Thank you. I understand that Senator Watt can continue to be directly relevant to the question you've asked. He's taken a substantive nature of it on notice and explained that he is not the actual minister. Senator Watt, do you wish to continue?
Thank you, President. I know the concept of consulting unions is, again, something that is foreign to the opposition—something that they never did in government—
but, unlike the opposition, this government consults both business and industry groups and unions. We see that there is a place for both in the workplace relations system, and that's why, as I say, the advice I've received is that we have continued to consult the national workplace relations council since the election. (Time expired)
Does the minister believe that the courts were wrong when they found the CFMMEU were in breach of industrial laws on the 80 occasions the ABCC brought an action against the union and were successful? Is he questioning the independence of our judiciary?
Unlike Senator Cash, I never question the independence of our judiciary and I don't grossly politicise judicial type bodies like Senator Cash did among her colleagues with the AAT, for instance. We do believe in an independent judiciary, and I have no reason to disagree with any decision of any court. But what I do know, again, is that I am absolutely gobsmacked that Senator Cash, of all people, would come into this chamber and talk about lawlessness, the rule of law and compliance with the law when her office infamously leaked a police raid on the AWU and was caught—
President, a point of order on a matter of relevance. The standing orders are very clear about the need for direct relevance. Senator Watt, on this occasion, is straying well beyond any relevance to the question that was posed. He's clearly reflecting upon another senator in this place and reflecting upon actions of a previous government—not being relevant to this question.
I'll leave it to you to rule, President, but I think that I was directly relevant to the initial question. And, as I say, all I can say is that, of every single person over on that side—and I know there are not as many as there used to be—there is no-one less qualified to talk about the independence of the judiciary, about the rule of law or about lawlessness than Senator Cash. She became notorious across this country for ignoring the rule of law—
Again, President, Senator Watt is reflecting on another senator in this place. Senator Watt is not being relevant to the question which relates to the actions of the ABCC on 80 occasions successfully bringing proceedings to court. He is making general reflections—
On the point of order, if the assertion is that there have been reflections on a senator, Senator Cash has an opportunity under the standing orders to remedy that. If she wishes to take that, we'll be very happy to facilitate that discussion.
Senator McGrath, please resume your seat. I'm going to go to the point raised by Senator Birmingham on the issue of direct relevance. If Senator Watt was straying—and I think he was—he does need to be directly relevant. Senator McGrath, I would appreciate it if, in future, when I ask you to sit, you sit. I made no decision whether I would entertain your point of order or not. If your point of order is different to Senator Birmingham's, I would ask you to raise that now.
I am unclear on what is being sought and if Senator Cash is asking for a withdrawal. I appreciate Senator McGrath's point—he doesn't want the words to which he's reacted to be repeated—but I don't actually know which point he wants withdrawn. The general approach I would like us to take is that, if people wish something to be withdrawn, unless there are very compelling reasons not to, as a matter of courtesy in this chamber, we should do so. But I'm genuinely unclear as to which—
No, there's been a lot of political argy-bargy. Some things have been said by the senator behind you which I have ignored. If Senator Cash wishes something withdrawn, as a matter of courtesy I'll ask the minister to do so.
As I say, this government makes no apologies for consulting both unions and business about important workplace relations reforms. The former government didn't do it. They don't understand the need to do so. (Time expired)