The fact that we are here in parliament today debating these bills, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2], just goes to show the desperation of this government. Mr Turnbull took the extraordinary step of proroguing parliament just so he could have these bills considered in time to call a double dissolution election.
When I say that proroguing parliament is an extraordinary step, it should be noted that this mechanism has only been used four times in the recent past. The parliament was prorogued following the death of Harold Holt in 1968, and in 1970 parliament was prorogued because Prime Minister John Gorton did not have his government’s program fully prepared for the first sitting after the 1969 election. Parliament was also prorogued in 1974 and 1977 to allow Queen Elizabeth to open the new sessions. But what makes this move particularly extraordinary is that the parliament has been prorogued for political advantage, because proroguing parliament and recalling parliament is the only mechanism through which Mr Turnbull can set up a double dissolution election while also delivering a budget.
Now that the Greens have helped the government pass voting reforms to give them a political advantage, Mr Turnbull wants to pull the trigger on an election before his popularity plunges to even greater depths. I doubt he had that discussion with the Greens when he was negotiating with them. And he realises that going to an election without a budget would expose this government’s complete lack of an economic plan. They are hoping that their incompetence, lack of vision, policy confusion and broken promises will be hidden by the lights and noise of an early election.
They have not just taken their bat and ball and gone home. They have not just cancelled the season. They have also tried to get rid of a few teams along the way. They see an early election as the only way to contain the damage that has been done to them. By calling a double dissolution immediately after the budget, the government’s budget will escape the scrutiny of budget estimates; their ministers will not have to front Senate committees and confess their embarrassing lack of policy or plans for Australia’s future.
But the Australian people, I have no doubt, will see through these tactics. They know the government’s move to recall parliament is an absolute farce. The ABCC bills are not urgent. If the bills were urgent, why didn’t the government vote to bring them forward when they had the chance in the last session of parliament? There was even a motion before the Senate to add them to the bills to be debated before the Senate rose, yet the government voted against debating the bills then. The bills are simply a cover for the government’s dirty tactics. They are not a priority for the government, nor are they a priority for the Australian people.
In fact, do you know how many constituent queries I have had to my office calling for the reintroduction of the ABCC? I have had plenty of people contacting me about restoring funding to the ABC, the broadcaster. I have had dozens of emails calling for the reversal of the government’s cruel cuts to bulk-billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging and I have had hundreds of people coming to my office to sign a petition to maintain Medicare and Centrelink services in Kingston, where my office is, in Tasmania. I have had many people telling me they have trouble connecting to the National Broadband Network or are concerned about their private health insurance premium increases or are livid about the dirty deal between the government and the Greens to increase their numbers in the Senate. So many people have talked to me, phoned me or emailed me about those issues, but how many of my Tasmanian constituents have contacted me about the urgency to bring back the ABCC? Let me tell you. In over 2½ years of those opposite being in government, I have had just one. So, obviously, this is not a priority of the people. It is only a priority of the government because they want another double dissolution trigger, because trying to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is a terrible double dissolution trigger. The government are absolutely desperate to talk up a double dissolution. They are desperate to talk about reinstating the ABCC and they are desperate to talk about anything that will distract from the fact that they have no plans for Australia’s future.
The Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, has clocked up more than six months in the job and what does he have to show for it? Absolutely nothing—zilch; nothing. The closest thing we have had to substantive policy was a thought bubble on the states levying income tax, and that bubble burst about as quickly as it was created. Then Mr Morrison admitted it was all bluff anyway to shift the blame to the states for the $80 billion cuts to health and education that has occurred under this government. There was all the talk about being an agile government, an innovative government. Well, they do a lot of back flipping—I will give them that—but Mr Turnbull has nothing to show for it. There are no plans for tax reform, no plans to tackle the deficit, no plans to create jobs and no plans to grow the economy.
The greatest disappointment from Mr Turnbull is that he has turned his back on all things that he so passionately believed in: emissions trading, marriage equality and the republic. He has absolutely turned his back on all those things. Mr Turnbull dumped Mr Abbott as Prime Minister because the government was directionless and Australians were understandably angry about Mr Abbott’s cruel cuts and broken promises, yet he has kept Mr Abbott’s policies and progressed nothing. He has not progressed anything—zilch; absolutely nothing. He is leading a very divided and a very dysfunctional government and they are at war amongst themselves. He is beholden to the right wing of the Liberal Party who want to cut penalty rates and dismantle Medicare but do not have the patience to wait until after the election to do it. The Australian people are still waiting for the good government that Mr Abbott talked about all those months ago.
Senators on that side of the chamber and their government colleagues in the other place must be shaking their heads in wonder, thinking: ‘What was it all about? Why did we dump Mr Abbott for Mr Turnbull?’ With six months to make some decisions about the future of this country, Mr Turnbull’s first major decision as Prime Minister was to take the extraordinary measure of proroguing parliament so we could debate a bill that they could have brought on five weeks ago, so I am not quite sure about the urgency issue. It appears that his second decision will be to call a double dissolution election so he can put up Mr Abbott’s policies to the Australian people as if they were his own. No wonder Mr Abbott said in an interview on Sky News that it would be easy for him to campaign for the Turnbull government because the Turnbull government is running on the record of the Abbott government. This is the best they can come up with: the reintroduction of the ABCC, a dictatorial yet highly ineffective organisation.
The Australian public should not be fooled into thinking that these bills represent any kind of substantive policy agenda from the government. In fact, this is just a cynical attempt by the government to paint Labor as being unwilling to do what is necessary to tackle corruption in the building industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Labor abhors corruption wherever it occurs and we have a strong track record on tackling it. When Labor was in government, we passed legislation to increase the accountability and transparency of registered organisations, including unions, and tripled penalties for those breaching the law. In fact, if anyone can be accused of walking away from tackling corruption it is the current government. After Labor introduced legislation to put a stop to corrupt practices in the financial services industry, those opposite tried to water it down and, despite the thousands of cases brought to court by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, hundreds of which resulted in prosecution, we do not hear a peep from those on the other side about corporate corruption, yet they continue to have an obsession about unions. So, when those opposite try to preach to us about corruption, just remember: they speak with forked tongue.
Recently, we had revelations that hundreds of Australia’s largest companies pay no tax, the Panama Papers were released, exposing some of the dodgy practices of those companies, and we had revelations about the practices of CommInsure, trying to deny medical insurance claims. But what did the government do? The government decided to waste $80 million on a witch-hunt—an inquiry into their political opponents. A great example of how transparent the government’s motives are is the fact that they have not sought to amend the registered organisations bill nor the ABCC bills based on the recommendations of their $80 million royal commission. So it just goes to show that the trade union royal commission was a monumental waste of taxpayers’ money and was established for purely political purposes.
When it comes to the ABCC bills there are a few uncomfortable truths for this government—uncomfortable truths which provide plenty of good reasons for us to oppose these bills. We know that those opposite do not want to hear these truths because they shut down debate in the House on the bills. But they do not have the numbers in their own right to shut down debate in the Senate, nor can they shut down debate in the media, so they will often just try to yell over the debate, or, in some cases, just screech.
When the ABCC was in operation under the Howard government it was a draconian agency. It was draconian then and, as it is proposed in these bills, it is draconian now. With the reintroduction of the ABCC the government proposes to bring back powers that are extreme, unjust and compromise civil liberties. These include unfettered coercive powers—and Senator Cameron mentioned those earlier as well—including secretive interviews and imprisonment for those who do not cooperate. People who are interviewed would have no right to silence and would be denied the right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice.
In March 2010 the International Labour Organization’s Committee of Experts released a report that said that the ABCC was likely to breach a number of labour standards, including freedom of association, the right to organise and collective bargaining. Ah, that’s right! That is what those on the other side do not like. They do not like freedom of association; they do not like the right to organise—and they certainly do not like collective bargaining. There is no justification for having such extraordinary powers apply to a particular industry. It undermines the principle that all workers should be equal before the law.
The 2009 Wilcox inquiry found that there is no need for different substantive industrial relations laws to apply to the building and construction industry—and, despite its politically motivated bias, even the recent trade union royal commission came to that same conclusion. That’s right. The trade union royal commission came to that same conclusion. You do not hear those on the other side quoting that! Curtailing the ability of union officials to stand up for their members on building worksites has an impact on safety in the workplace, and there are figures to back this up.
A Safe Work Australia report released in June 2015 showed that under the ABCC there was a significant rise in workplace deaths. The former ABCC came into operation on 1 October 2005. In 2006 there was a 37 percent increase in fatalities in the industry—not just injuries, but fatalities. In 2007 there were 53 deaths. After the ABCC was abolished in May 2012, the numbers dropped significantly, with only 21 deaths—which is still 21 too many, I admit—in 2013.
Safety is of particular importance to workers in the building and construction industry—which is pretty obvious—because it is one of the most dangerous industries to work in. Despite there being plenty of evidence of corruption and malfeasance on the part of employers in the building industry, the former ABCC overwhelmingly focussed on pursuing the investigation and prosecution of guess who? Workers and trade unions. It failed to adequately address the widespread problems of underpayment and nonpayment of workers’ entitlements, workplace safety or sham contracting. This was despite sham contracting in the industry costing Australian taxpayers almost $2½ billion per annum.
Those opposite may try to argue that the extreme powers of the ABCC are necessary, that extreme measures are needed to tackle an extreme problem, that the ends justify the means. Well, we could have a debate about that if, in fact, the ends were justified. But, as well as being draconian, the ABCC is also ineffective. So what is the point of suffering the side effects, if you cannot even treat the disease?
As I said earlier, Labor abhors corruption, and we are serious about tackling it. In government we introduced the Fair Work Building and Construction agency as a watchdog for the building and construction industry. While those opposite continue to argue the need to reintroduce the ABCC, the Fair Work Building and Construction agency is actually outperforming the former ABCC. It has undertaken more investigations, concluded more investigations and has brought matters to court faster. Just to give you a quick example: from their own figures in the 2012-13 financial year, Fair Work Building and Construction recovered $1.6 million in wages and entitlements for over 1,300 workers and closed 63 sham-contracting investigations. The outcomes of these cases included three with court penalties imposed, 15 settlements, one written undertaking and five letters of caution.
If anyone following this debate wanted to see evidence that the reintroduction of the ABCC is about going after unions and workers, they need look no further than the advance release of the proposed Building Code. As highlighted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions in their submission to the Senate inquiry into these bills, the code contains a number of restrictions on legitimate workplace relations practices.
These restrictions include: individual employment contracts can be made, but collective employment contracts cannot; enterprise agreements with building companies cannot prescribe safe staffing levels; enterprise agreements with building companies cannot contain terms to ensure that labour hire workers are not discriminated against in their rates of pay for doing the same work; enterprise agreements with builders cannot insist on only skilled, trained tradespeople doing dangerous work; building company managers and union representatives are not allowed to agree to meet at building sites; and the Fair Work Commission is not allowed to resolve disputes freely—for example, if workers complain about unfair rostering or unfair treatment of their leave requests, the Fair Work Commission cannot remedy the unfairness because it is not allowed to limit the employer’s right to determine who does what work when.
The ACTU submission also reveals the farcical requirement that enterprise agreements must be compliant with the code from the 24 April 2014. That’s right—2014. In other words, a number of businesses would be noncompliant once this legislation is passed. The only way they could become compliant is by seeking to vary or terminate their existing enterprise agreements, which could lead to legitimate disputes.
I hear those opposite continue to argue that we need a strong watchdog to clean up criminal behaviour in the building industry. This argument is a complete furphy. Why? Because neither the ABCC nor Fair Work Building and Construction has been charged with investigating breaches of criminal laws; they cannot do it; they deal with contraventions of industrial law, which has always been civil matters not criminal matters. Even in the bill’s explanatory memorandum, and in speeches from government members and senators both here and in the other place, we hear this argument advanced—that somehow the ABCC will crack down on violence and thuggery. But those opposite know very well that it cannot, and will not, do any such thing. If senators opposite truly believe that the current laws are not adequate to tackle corruption, violence and thuggery in the building industry, then why not introduce legislation that is actually directed at those things? The completely false assertion that this debate has anything to do with thuggery and violence is a ploy to paint Labor as not being serious about addressing it. The government is trying to scare people. The reality is that it is the government who cannot be taken seriously—because they do not even understand the provisions of their own legislation.
Back in February, when Senator Ruston reintroduced these bills to the Senate, she quoted the thoroughly discredited Econtech report in support of the government’s case. The government would have more chance of digging up and reviving a corpse than restoring the credibility of that report. I do not know how many times we have to say it before it sinks in, but this report is clearly not worth the paper it is written on. It was written by a firm that has a history of churning out reports that launch ideological attacks on workers and unions. This firm has a reputation for producing modelling so inaccurate that even former federal justice Murray Wilcox said their work was ‘deeply flawed and ought to be totally disregarded’. For all it’s worth, the paper the Econtech report is written on may well have been used to wrap our fish and chips in. The government relies on this report for its argument because it cannot quote any credible modelling. The government seems to have an almost obsessive focus on union corruption, when the evidence is that corruption is far more widespread in other sectors, particularly in corporate Australia. The truth is that it is not union corruption that the government is so obsessive about going after, it is the unions themselves.