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Thursday, 27 March 2003
Page: 13746

Mr McCLELLAND (9:18 AM) —I thank the minister for moving that motion. As I said yesterday, Australians are tiring of conflict and do not want this report of the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry used as a further excuse for the Howard government to pursue a divisive industrial relations agenda.

Today's report will not allay anyone's fears that the primary purpose of the royal commission was to undermine the role of the building industry unions, with broader industry issues treated rather as secondary matters. Any fair-minded observer would conclude that every opportunity has been taken to attack the unions, while corporate misbehaviour on a range of fronts has virtually escaped similarly strident criticism. Most Australians would agree that, while certain individuals need to face the law and account for their conduct, any improprieties in the industry have not been as one-sided as the Howard government's inquiry suggests.

The centrepiece of today's recommendations is undoubtedly the suggested creation of an industry watchdog. Australians have good reason to fear that what the Howard government has in mind is not so much a watchdog but an attack dog in respect of this industry. Much of the Howard government's industrial relations rhetoric speaks of removing third-party intervention from Australian workplaces. It is hard to think of a worse form of third-party intervention than a coercive regulator, programmed with this government's ideological values, intruding on the scene to inflame a dispute after it has been settled.

As I said yesterday, Australians are people of commonsense. They know the building industry is a tough industry and that, from day to day, disputes arise on building sites about things like unsafe areas and equipment, and unpaid money. Nor can we ignore the anxiety that exists in virtually all Australian workplaces that existing terms and conditions of employment will be undermined by subcontracting out arrangements. This clearly is a very real anxiety in the building industry, and the government is, with respect, quite naive to ignore it. Fundamentally, Australians want the government to provide the means to settle industrial disputes so that work can continue, not to impede their resolution and create yet more conflict.

The second main plank of these recommendations is new legislation to apply to the building and construction industry. Of course, industry specific legislation is not a novel concept; nor indeed are many of Commissioner Cole's suggestions for what should be contained in it. Australians will be guided by their sense of fairness when evaluating these proposals. But there can be little doubt that Australians will see no fairness in singling out workers in one industry for a harsh and oppressive set of rules that go well beyond what applies to the rest of the work force. Ironically, Commissioner Cole has made a number of recommendations that we believe the government will not be comfortable with, such as creating an obligation to bargain in good faith. This should surely be a cornerstone of any fair enterprise bargaining system; yet whenever Labor propose it the Howard government rejects it. It is no use, in our view, spending $60 million on an inquiry if the government's ideological blinkers prevent it from recognising such a fundamental defect in its system.

Obviously stung by criticism that this $60 million royal commission failed to deal comprehensively with important issues facing the building industry, like workplace safety, tax evasion, unpaid entitlements, phoenix companies and illegal labour, the minister has argued that today's instalment contains a rigorous analysis of these matters. Indeed, I recall yesterday that the minister said I would not be disappointed. Unfortunately, I am somewhat. By way of comparison, yesterday the minister announced with great fanfare some 392 instances of unlawful conduct by individuals, conveniently recounted in graphic detail, almost all of which alleged breaches of the Howard government's 1996 industrial laws, and 87 per cent of which were against unionists and workers. Today, the minister tabled volumes which acknowledge in comparative generality that workplace safety, tax evasion, unpaid entitlements, phoenix companies and illegal labour are problems in the industry. An objective reader will note that, aside from a few statistics, there are barely enough examples to fill a few pages, and that is simply because these important matters were not the subject of detailed evidential hearing and inquiry by the commission.

Australians are justified in asking why the government and the royal commission have gone to such lengths to apparently exempt individual corporations and businesses from inquiry into the many instances where these important laws have been broken. In the area of workplace safety, the commissioner makes a number of recommendations that the federal government essentially clean up its own act, but beyond that there is precious little besides recommendations that existing initiatives and further discussions be pursued. When it comes to tax evasion, the commissioner has suggested some tweaking of legislation but has essentially told federal and state tax authorities to do better. I suppose we could all do better, in many respects, but for $60 million we would expect better and more complex recommendations in this important area.

As for phoenix companies, the commissioner has well and truly blown the lid on the Howard government's inaction in this area. In his report, the commissioner observed:

... there appear to be no clear guidelines at the Commonwealth level as to which Commonwealth agencies are responsible for detecting and policing fraudulent phoenix company activity in the building and construction industry.

Is there any wonder workers have considerable anxiety as to who is going to pay their wages, let alone their accrued entitlements? But even in this important area that affects small business proprietors as much as employees, the commissioner has recommended minimal change and yet more discussions between the government and relevant agencies.

With regard to illegal labour, the minister defended the actions of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs in investigating allegations of illegal labour in the building industry. He overlooked the fact that the commissioner recommended that `the department, employers and unions work more closely' in this area. The minister spoke with some pride of 65 warning notices being issued to employers. What he has neglected to say is that his department has not prosecuted a single employer for the use of illegal immigrant labour in the building industry or any other industry despite frequent horrific accounts of exploitation.

It is fair that I recognise that the commissioner highlighted the importance of encouraging a greater number of women to enter the industry, through the provision of family friendly working conditions, better access to child care and, importantly, `consideration of maternity leave'. On this point we agree with the commissioner and note that it is an area in which we have heard a lot of talk from the Howard government but seen little action.

More broadly, the commissioner touches on the complexities of the contracting arrangements that exist on virtually all major construction sites, observing `the organisation of a major construction project is a matter of great complexity'. In these circumstances, it is understandable that both major contractors and unions seek some order and regularity in what otherwise would be an environment of chaos and conflict. Unless there is some degree of cross-site equity, sites can degenerate into a dog-eat-dog mentality. Indeed, the commissioner noted in respect of several sites that actual physical conflict was not uncommon in this industry. The question becomes: how is the balance obtained between establishing fair and equitable conditions against those which are unreasonable and unproductive? Again, we return to the recommendations of the commissioner that there be established a regime for good faith bargaining—importantly, enforceable by the Industrial Relations Commission.

There is a fundamental inconsistency, we believe, between the government's obvious preference for the creation of a building industry watchdog, or in our description attack dog, and its ideological obsession with tying the hands of the independent umpire. There is much at stake here in respect of this important industry. The minister has frequently badgered employers in this industry, accusing them of incompetence and, effectively, cowardice in their relations with unions. If you took the royal commissioner and the government at face value, you would almost have to conclude that the industry is in a state of anarchy and it is impossible to erect a building, factory, stadium or school or other infrastructure in Australia. If this were right, we would not have had the confidence to have even considered bidding for the Olympic Games.

The facts of the matter are that we did have the guts to do it. Our building industry had the capacity to do it, and our building industry work force in NSW, which is a highly unionised work force, delivered ahead of time and under budget the best Olympic facilities in the history of the world. Also, by international standards, the Australian construction industry is a world leader, with labour productivity levels ranking near the top of the OECD nations, and Australian firms are active on the world stage, including Lend Lease Bovis, which is leading the way in the World Trade Centre redevelopment project.

There is a real danger that this report and the government's response to it is talking down Australian businesses and effectively telling the rest of the world that our construction industry is not up to scratch. Quite simply, this is grossly unfair, and members of the industry are fed up with this government, this minister and the former minister badgering them and accusing them of inadequacy and of being wimps unless they blindly adhere to the government's ideological agenda. For $60 million, the Australian people are entitled to expect that this inquiry will deliver long-term fair, safe and productive outcomes for this important industry. In the opposition we will be doing our utmost to ensure that those outcomes are fair, reasonable and based on commonsense rather than an ideological obsession to remove unions from effective participation in this complex and tough industry.

Debate (on motion by Mr Barresi) adjourned.