I have to say I find it curious that the Prime Minister who said that Work Choices is ‘dead, buried and cremated’ seems to take a fairly backward step to the dark old days of Work Choices every time his government seeks to introduce a workplace relations bill to this parliament. While Labor struck a good balance between the rights of workers and the needs of employers in the Fair Work Act, every legislative move by this government has attempted to tip the balance unfairly back in favour of business.
We will be debating legislation this week which would tie up unions in so much red tape that they would be unable to effectively do their job—so much for a government that seeks to reduce red tape. Let us look at what has happened so far. So far we have seen legislation that will make it more difficult for union representatives to enter workplaces or talk to workers. We have seen attempts to reintroduce AWAs via the back door by weakening the better-off-overall test. We have seen the government dump Labor’s ‘clean start for cleaners’ contracting principles, cutting the wages of cleaners who clean the buildings of government agencies, including this place. We have seen a highly centralised approach to bargaining across the Australian Public Service in an attempt to put strict caps on conditions and pay increases. We have seen the government try to cut paid parental leave for thousands of parents, mostly mothers, referring to many of them as ‘double dippers’ and ‘rorters’.
In addition to the legislative attacks on unions and workers’ rights and entitlements we have also seen $80 million of taxpayers’ money already wasted on a political witch-hunt, the Productivity Commission being used as a proxy for the government’s attack on penalty rates and the government flagging plans to legislate to wind back the protection of wages and conditions for Australian-crewed ships.
Work Choices is not ‘dead, buried and cremated’; it is merely in hibernation. They have merely had it lying low. Let us not ever forget that Mr Abbott said Work Choices was ‘good for wages; it was good for jobs; and it was good for workers’. Despite their rhetoric, we know that the coalition cannot walk away from Work Choices. The urge to reintroduce elements of Work Choices is Pavlovian. It is in their DNA. So it should not surprise any of us that the Abbott government will continue its attack on workers by dusting off its draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission, or ABCC.
The establishment of the ABCC, as Senator Smith said, followed the Cole royal commission. Senator Smith had a lot to say on the Cole royal commission, but there are a few things he did not mention, and I will come to those. The Cole royal commission was effectively a futile and very expensive exercise initiated by the current Prime Minister when he was workplace relations minister. It took 18 months and some $66 million to run the Cole royal commission but—and this is the bit Senator Smith did not say in his somewhat biased comments—after 18 months and $66 million of taxpayers’ money, do you know how many criminal convictions the government managed to secure? Would anyone on that side like to hazard a guess? Let me tell you. None, not one, zilch, absolutely zero. So much for the supposed criminality, fraud and corruption in the building and construction industry.
It appears that Mr Abbott and those opposite have not learnt their lesson about the folly of using royal commissions to pursue ideological battles. A royal commission is meant to be an instrument of justice, not a political instrument. It is meant to shine a light in dark places and investigate matters that have been unable so far to be uncovered. But the Cole royal commission was the start of a pattern displayed by those opposite, a pattern of using royal commissions to pursue their ideological battles against political rivals.
Now we have got the long-running, expensive political witch-hunt in the form of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. For those in the gallery and those listening who may not be aware that the trade union royal commission is a political exercise, on this side we are particularly concerned with the royal commissioner’s judgement in accepting an invitation to help raise funds for, guess who, the Liberal Party. The recent revelations about Mr Abbott’s royal commission and his captain’s pick of a royal commissioner, Mr Dyson Heydon, confirm this. The community have legitimate concerns about the affinity of the commissioner with Mr Abbott and the Liberal Party. In fact, over the weekend I do not know how many people spoke to me about it.
I believe the commissioner really needs to consider whether his ongoing role in the royal commission is tenable. The royal commission is and always has been a political exercise commenced by Mr Abbott to go after his political enemies. And who are his political enemies? The Labor Party and the trade union movement. I believe that only a lawyer with a predisposition to the Liberal Party would have taken on this blatantly political royal commission. You only have to look at the terms of reference to know the intention of the government and that it is a political witch-hunt.
In regard to the fundraising event that the commissioner was going to attend, no matter what the commissioner knew and when, it is clear from his own correspondence that his predisposition is to the Liberal side of politics. To top it all off, we have seen the New South Wales Liberal Party absolutely refusing to reveal when the commissioner was invited to speak at the Liberal Party fundraiser, an event that we all know has been addressed by prominent Liberals since it commenced in 2010. So I think there needs to be a bit of revisiting some of the commissioner’s conduct, some of the commissioner’s rulings and some of the commissioner’s conclusions so far and the question needs to be asked: was any of it was influenced by the commissioner’s political world view? The commissioner has consistently gone beyond what might constitute corruption to what is legitimate industrial behaviour dealt with according to the industrial laws in place in this country.
The tendency of those opposite to use royal commissions as a political instrument has many unfortunate consequences. One in particular is that they waste tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ moneys for absolutely no public benefit. Just look at the Cole royal commission. They are an exercise designed to produce a headline, to fight ideological battles and to embarrass the political rivals of those opposite. Another unfortunate consequence—and one I think is really sad—is that they have the potential to undermine the credibility of those royal commissions that actually are being used for public benefit and for justice and that are not merely a political exercise. With the royal commission currently being conducted into the serious issue of child sexual abuse—an issue which everybody in this place knows I am very passionate about—I consider this to be extremely unfortunate.
While those royal commissions that are used as an expensive political exercise by those opposite help to generate a headline, they are also a useful excuse for the coalition to introduce legislation aimed at gaining further power over their political rivals. And this was the other purpose of the Cole royal commission—to be the catalyst for establishing one of the most draconian bodies in Australia’s history.
There is absolutely no justification for this bill we are debating today. There is already a watchdog for the building industry, and it is highly effective. The building industry watchdog that Labor put in place, Fair Work Building and Construction, has actually been outperforming the ABCC. Fair Work Building and Construction is undertaking more investigations, concluding more investigations and getting matters to court faster and recovering more money for workers in the industry. It has secured over $2 million in unpaid wages and entitlements for more than 1,500 workers. Under Fair Work, labour productivity is up, and industrial disputations have dropped dramatically compared to their levels under the Howard government.
The Abbott government use flawed modelling to back its argument that a body such as the ABCC needs to be reintroduced. The firm whose report they relied on, which is now called Independent Economics and was called Econtech, has a history of churning out report after report purporting to support the case for the government to attack the CFMEU. The claims in the report—particularly that the ABCC produced $6 billion in productivity savings—have been debunked by a range of people, including Justice Murray Wilcox QC, the Queensland Government’s department of industrial relations, and academics from Griffith University. Justice Wilcox said the modelling is ‘fundamentally flawed’ and ‘ought to be totally disregarded’. So basically you can disregard any comments that those on that side make in regard to those reports. But far be it from those opposite to engage in evidence-based policymaking, unless they are relying on discredited evidence which suits their predetermined agenda. For those opposite, this is personal and ideological. We know, as I have said, that Work Choices is in their DNA. We know that a coalition government will stop at nothing in attacking the rights and entitlements of workers. And we know that they will stop at nothing to attack those who stand in their way, particularly the trade union movement.
They do not like the fact that workers organise and bargain collectively, that they can negotiate on an even footing with big business—after all, big business are their financial and political backers, their mates. Those opposite, the Liberal-National coalition, are in their corner on workplace relations, just as they are on issues like multinational tax avoidance. Yet, those opposite have learned the hard way that Work Choices is politically toxic, so they try the boiled frog approach instead—introducing legislation bit by bit, aimed at cutting entitlements and attacking the collective power of the trade union movement. I think the Australian people are too smart to be fooled by that. They will not accept Work Choices 2.0 any more than they will accept the first version. Draconian bodies like the ABCC are part of the architecture of Work Choices and they should rightly be rejected.