I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2016 and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013.
It does not matter whether it is the Liberal Party under Prime Minister Howard, Prime Minister Abbott or Prime Minister Turnbull—those opposite have waged an ideological war against working people and their representatives, the trade union movement. But this ridiculous pretence, this charade, this farce—that the government’s anti-worker agenda is actually advancing the interests of working people—would be laughable, almost comical, if the consequences were not so serious. Real people and real lives are at stake. I find it incredible that those opposite would actually think ordinary Australians would fall for their pantomime act when they pretend to stand up for workers. When John Howard as Prime Minister declared, ‘This government is the best friend the workers of Australia have ever had,’ it was simply farcical. Mr Abbott then took it to ludicrous heights when he declared that he was the best friend workers had ever had. The Liberal Party must take the Australian public for mugs, if they are going to attack the trade union movement and undermine workers’ rights and then try to buddy up to workers and pretend to be friends with them. We know that, no matter how hard they try to pretend, attacking workers’ rights is in their DNA. What those opposite fail to realise is that Australian workers can see through this facade, because actions speak louder than words.
When it comes to these bills and the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014, two things are abundantly clear about the government’s motives. Firstly, despite being the triggers for the double dissolution, passing these bills was not really the reason for the double dissolution. It has been almost five months since the election, and close to seven months since it was called, yet here we are debating these so-called urgent bills in the last sitting fortnight of the year. It goes to show that Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to prorogue parliament and to call a double dissolution election was motivated entirely by politics. It was a blatantly political move, the primary purpose of which was to keep Mr Turnbull and his government in power. He knew that the Australian public were starting to see through his facade and he was rushing to get the election out of the way as soon as possible. But he had to deliver a budget first, to make up for the government’s absence of a policy agenda. It is the people of Australia who are now paying the price for this political stunt. For all Mr Turnbull’s talk about innovation and agility, this government is limping on, stuck in a quagmire, beset by internal squabbles and a budget deficit that deteriorates every day.
The second thing that is abundantly clear to the Australian public is that the government is continuing the decades-old Liberal tradition of waging an ideological war against the unions. So obsessed is this government with its attack on trade unions that in the last six months of the previous term it had no substantive policy agenda—except for some bizarre thought bubbles about states raising income taxes and the anti-union bills we are dealing with this fortnight. While the parliament should be debating real solutions to the challenges facing Australia, we are being dragged into this government’s ideological battles and its obsession with organised labour. At a time when billions of dollars are being sent offshore through dodgy multinational tax avoidance arrangements, when there are reports of workers being exploited and ripped off by big businesses in the way they were at 7-Eleven, when there is widespread misuse of 457 visas and other temporary work visas, and when there are ongoing calls to clean up Australia’s banking industry because of the way they are treating customers, this government’s priority is going after the union movement.
As I mentioned in this chamber recently, even when the Liberals had a case of misappropriation of funds within their own party in Tasmania, they swept it under the carpet, allowing it to balloon into a much bigger issue. They did not go to the police, which they should have done. They did not bother informing people. They let Mr Damien Mantach get away with misappropriating funds, and every Liberal Tasmanian senator sat quietly over on that side and let it go through. They swept it under the carpet, because they were so concerned with workers’ rights that they could not bring themselves to realise that bad things were happening in their own party. They are a disgrace.
Yet this government is obsessed with the trade union movement. Their ideological war has been waged on several fronts. One of those fronts was the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. That was $60 million of taxpayers’ money spent primarily to pursue legitimate industrial activity under the guise of pursuing trade union corruption. This political witch-hunt was exposed as an ideological exercise when the commissioner accepted an invitation to a Liberal Party fundraiser. The best indication yet of the political nature of this exercise is that, now that the royal commission has concluded, not one piece of legislation has been introduced to the parliament and not one piece of legislation has been amended arising from the commission.
When a former Prime Minister told us Work Choices was dead, buried and cremated, this government has instead taken an incremental approach—a sort of boiled-frog approach, so to speak—to stripping away workplace entitlements. In the previous parliament those opposite introduced legislation that will make it more difficult for union representatives to enter workplaces or talk to workers. They attempted to reintroduce Australian workplace agreements via the back door by weakening the better off overall test. The government dumped Labor’s Clean Start for Cleaners contracting principles, cutting the wages of cleaners who clean the buildings of government agencies, and their highly centralised approach to bargaining across the Australian Public Service sought to put strict caps on conditions and pay increases.
The government has flagged attempts to cut paid parental leave for thousands of parents, mostly mothers, referring to many of them as ‘rorters, double dippers and fraudsters’. While those opposite learnt the hard way that Work Choices was a step too far, they have opted instead for chipping away slowly at the conditions of Australian workers.
Another front in the government’s war was the registered organisations bill—the bill which, sadly, passed this place last week and was designed to bury trade unions in red tape in an effort to render them ineffective. Labor’s amendments would have led to a bill that genuinely improves trade union governance, and the government’s rejection of those amendments revealed something very sinister about their real agenda. It revealed that the government was not fair dinkum about improving union governance.
The latest front is this bill to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission. To understand what the ABCC is, we simply need to look at its record when it was previously established. It was a draconian body with extraordinary coercive powers that compromised basic civil liberties. The unfettered coercive powers of the ABCC included conducting secret interviews. Those interviewed had no right to silence, were denied the right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice and faced the prospect of imprisonment if they refused to cooperate. This could happen to any one of you—in the chamber, or in the gallery even—if you get on the wrong side of what this government wants. As Nicola McGarrity and Professor George Williams from the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales observed:
… 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.
This view is backed up by a 2010 report released by the International Labour Organization’s Committee of Experts, who said that the ABCC was likely to breach a number of labour standards, including freedom of association, the right to organise, and collective bargaining.
These bills also remove the current protection that requires the director of Fair Work Building and Construction to apply to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to issue an examination notice. Removing this protection is like allowing the police to conduct a search without applying to a magistrate for a warrant. It means there is no administrative protection against abuse of power by the regulator. These bills extend the reach of the ABCC into picketing, offshore construction and the transport and supply of goods to building sites. In doing so they undermine the principle of equality before the law.
The government has failed to make the case for the ABCC’s powers and lack of oversight. The government keeps bringing up examples of alleged criminal conduct to justify the reinstatement of the ABCC. Yet the ABCC, despite having justice powers similar to those of a criminal watchdog, is actually a civil regulator, so any criminal allegations the government brings up to justify these bills are simply a furphy, a red herring, and a distraction from its real agenda.
As with the registered organisations bill which we debated last week, the government’s rhetoric on this bill implies that it is filling some kind of policy vacuum—as if the choice we have to make is between the ABCC and no regulator at all. The problem with that rhetoric—and this is what the government will not acknowledge—is that there is already a building regulator in place, and it is called Fair Work Building and Construction. Not only is there a regulator in place, but it is doing a good job. In fact, Fair Work Building and Construction is achieving better outcomes than its predecessor. Fair Work Building and Construction already has coercive powers which, according to its last annual report, were used 14 times in its 124 investigations. With the exception of an aberrant quarter in September 2012, the number of days lost to industrial action were lower under Fair Work Building and Construction than they were under the ABCC.
Since the abolition of the ABCC in 2012, productivity in the building and construction industry has increased every year. Fair Work Building and Construction outperformed the ABCC in many other areas. They undertook more investigations, concluded more investigations and brought matters to court faster. Despite widespread evidence of corruption and malfeasance on the part of employers the ABCC, when previously established, focused almost entirely on pursuing the investigation and prosecution of workers and trade unions. In contrast to the ABCC’s record, Labor’s Fair Work Building and Construction recovered $1.6 million in wages and entitlements in 2012-13 and closed 63 sham contracting investigations—issues which the ABCC comprehensively failed to address.
In fact, by targeting workers, the ABCC actually made the situation a lot worse for them. They compromised the ability of workers to campaign for workplace safety, which led to an increase in fatalities in the industry. A Safe Work Australia report released last year showed that there was a 37 percent increase in workplace deaths in the industry and that the rate of deaths dropped again after the ABCC was abolished. We heard from Senator Lines earlier about some of the awful cases of deaths in workplaces and how they were treated by the companies—not even calling the police, and letting concrete pours continue. You do have to stop and wonder what those on that side of the house are happy to support. I am not exaggerating when I say that the evidence of past performance bears this out. More workers may die as a result of these bills. I know those opposite will claim that I am being alarmist when I say this, but I take the issue of workplace safety very seriously indeed. When you compare the performance of the two agencies—the Liberals’ ABCC and Labor’s Fair Work Building and Construction—the verdict is quite clear. Those opposite are proposing to change a regulator which has proven to be successful, and which is kicking goals, with one whose performance has been thoroughly underwhelming. There can be no argument that these bills should be introduced because the means justify the ends. As history reveals, under the ABCC the ends would not be achieved.
To summarise, here is what the government is proposing: they are seeking to reinstate the ABCC—an institution which trampled on democratic rights and civil liberties and which undermined the principle of equality before the law, an institution which pursued trade unions and workers while ignoring corrupt behaviour by employers, an institution which slowed productivity growth in the building and construction industry and compromised workplace safety, and an institution which has had less success in concluding investigations and bringing matters to court than the current regulator.
I suggest to those opposite that they drop the pretence that this bill has anything to do with stamping out criminal behaviour in the building and construction industry, because I really do not think anyone is buying it. We on this side can see right through it, and so can the Australian people. The government’s attempt to reinstate the ABCC is nothing more than a continuation of their ideological attack on the trade union movement. There is no justification for these bills. The only reason the government want these bills in place is to undermine, on behalf of Mr Turnbull’s mates in big business, the bargaining power of trade unions. The entire motivation for these bills is the government’s seething hatred of the notion that workers in the construction industry can organise together. It offends their sense of free-market ideology. So intense is their hatred of a united workforce that they are willing to replace a highly effective organisation with a dictatorial and ineffective ABCC. The very issues that the ABCC ignored—the rights of workers to safety, proper pay and entitlements, and an end to sham contracting—are the real issues facing the building and construction industry. Labor’s Fair Work Building and Construction is dealing with these issues, and this government should get out of the way and leave it to get on with the job that it is doing so well.