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Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Page: 200


Mr HENRY (12:25 PM) —Commissioner Cole, in his final report into the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, stated that it was universally accepted—by governments, by employers and by unions—that OH&S is of fundamental importance to the industry. Between 1998-99 and 2001-02 there were 189 fatalities in the building and construction industry. Statistics show that people working in the industry are more than twice as likely to be killed at work than the Australian all-industries average. It is interesting to reflect on that in light of the comments from the member for Banks, whose only interest a little while ago seemed to be in ensuring right of entry to union officials rather than ensuring that the safety issues on sites were addressed, particularly when you consider that statistic I quoted from the Cole royal commission. The statistical information annexed to the report clearly shows that the safety record in the industry is poor. Commissioner Cole further stated:

The likelihood of suffering a workplace related injury or fatality is greater for workers in the building and construction industry than for workers generally. The only industries where the risk of injury is higher are the maritime, agricultural, forestry and fishing, mining, and transport and storage industries. In only the transport and storage industry is there a higher risk of a fatality.

The building and construction industry workforce comprises a broad range of people, from young apprentices to fully qualified tradespeople, including plumbers, plasterers, electricians, form workers, painters, steel fixers and many others; both skilled and unskilled labourers; operators of plant such as bobcats, cranes and heavy earthmoving equipment; along with a myriad of other people all working on the same site, including foremen, supervisors and managers at all levels. Each person on site is entitled to expect the workplace to be a safe place to work. However, the very nature of construction and building sites means that there is a level of risk. Everyone associated with the industry must be prepared to accept responsibility to ensure that risk is reduced to an absolute minimum.

We expect when we attend work each day that we will return home to our families safely. Sadly, each year for approximately 50 people working in the construction industry this is not the case. On current statistics, building and construction workers are more than twice as likely to be killed at work than the all-industries Australian average. The rate of serious injury is about 50 per cent higher. These statistics demonstrate that this is not a matter that should be exploited. Occupational health and safety is a critically important issue that, if not taken responsibly, will result in serious injury and possible death. Yet the CFMEU for too many years have acted in a less than responsible way in addressing safety on building and construction sites, all too often using safety as an opportunity to pursue wage or site claims that have nothing to do with site safety and everything to do with exploitation, disruption and harassment.

For many years I worked on building and construction sites cutting and drilling concrete, so I appreciated the safety risks that existed at that time and I took every necessary precaution. I also recognise the improvements that have occurred in the industry over recent years. Unfortunately, we do not see any improvement in the exploitation of health and safety issues by the CFMEU in Western Australia on site or in their public stance. It is disappointing that they continue to misrepresent their role and intent, which seems to be all too easily demonstrated in their misleading advertisement which was recently slammed by the Australian Building Industry Commissioner, John Lloyd. He said:

It is most unfortunate that the CFMEU has chosen to exploit occupational health and safety in this manner.

Such a blatant misrepresentation of the facts only serves to undermine the efforts of many in the industry to reduce its unacceptable rates of death and injury.

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act establishes the powers and functions of the Federal Safety Commissioner and provides for the establishment of the Australian government’s building and construction industry occupational health and safety accreditation scheme. The scheme was developed in response to a recommendation by the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. It was designed to allow the government to use its influence as a client and as the provider of capital to improve the construction industry’s occupational health and safety performance. Currently, the scheme seeks to improve occupational health and safety standards in the building and construction industry by requiring the accreditation of persons entering into building contracts with the Commonwealth or Commonwealth authorities. The effect of the amendments would be that the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority is required to take appropriate steps to ensure that such persons are also accredited for the duration of the building work.

Until the government moved to ensure changes to the building and construction industry, Australia’s approach to workplace safety was ad hoc. Based on the recommendations of the Cole royal commission report, the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 received royal assent on 12 September 2005. Section 3 of the act sets out the main objectives, but put simply it aims to provide an improved workplace relations framework for the building and construction industry to ensure that building work is carried out fairly, efficiently and productively for the benefit of industry participants and the Australian economy as a whole. It legislates the government’s response to the Cole royal commission’s report, specifically the important occupational and safety measures such as the establishment of the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, along with the establishment of the Federal Safety Commissioner to oversee an accreditation scheme that contractors undertaking Australian government funded work will be required to comply with.

Workplace health and safety is an important issue for all Australians. Those working on construction and building sites deserve as much protection in the workplace as any other worker, which is why the promotion of work safety practices is a key aspect of this government’s initiative. It has promoted the development of the National Occupational Health and Safety Strategy and has worked diligently to encourage its adoption by all Australian governments and peak employer and employee bodies. It provides an integrated approach for workplaces to be free from work related death, injury and disease.

This government leads the way in promoting an environment in which employers and employees are encouraged to take a cooperative approach to identifying and eliminating hazards that can cause injury or death. Its approach is based in prevention rather than punishment after the incident. This fosters a workplace environment which promotes safety rather than allocating blame, which differs greatly from the occupational health and safety legislation introduced by the New South Wales Labor government. In 2005 the New South Wales government’s Occupational Health and Safety (Workplace Deaths) Act was enacted. The objects of that act were: (a) to amend the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2000 to make it an offence for a person who owes a duty of care under part 2 of that act to engage in reckless conduct that causes death at a workplace; and (b) to amend the Criminal Appeal Act 1912 to provide for a right of appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal where a person has been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by the Industrial Relations Commission in court session for the proposed new offence.

Employers face up to five years jail and a $165,000 fine if they are convicted of causing an employee’s death through recklessness. These laws place employers and employees in what can only be described as an adversarial workplace setting. After extensive criticism and review of that act, the New South Wales government circulated a draft bill last year aimed at relaxing those laws. Law firm Allens Arthur Robinson published an article in the May 2006 edition of their Workplace Relations Publication Focus, which states:

... the Draft Bill adopts a more realistic and practical standard that does not penalise those acting reasonably and responsibly.

Occupational Health and Safety legislation will not be effective if it is too tightly prescribed or regulated.

The Cole royal commission identified some 20 occupational health and safety regulations that the industry has to comply with, in addition to a further 34 other regulations which have some implications for the industry. Commissioner Cole best sums it up, and I quote:

The result is a fragmented, disjointed and uncoordinated system of occupational health and safety and regulation which, when applied on a national industry such as the building and construction industry, is inequitable, wasteful and inefficient.

Whilst workplace health and safety is primarily a matter within the jurisdiction of the states, it is not easy to understand why a worker in one state should be exposed to a lesser or different safety regime to a worker in another state.

The aim must be to have a regime of the highest possible standard applicable uniformly throughout Australia. The statistics show that the risk of injury is materially different in different states and territories.

In addition, there were numerous and differing codes of practice operating in each jurisdiction. Aside from the inconsistency and volume of the state based regulatory regimes, the regulations and codes that underpin the principal acts are generally prescriptive and process driven. This places a significant compliance burden on businesses of all sizes. A trend towards increasing occupational health and safety regulation is unfortunately evidence that the states have failed to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses. Reform must be undertaken on a consistent basis across all jurisdictions.

The national occupational health and safety accreditation scheme for construction work aims to protect workers from hazards associated with construction work. It provides an example of how the government is encouraging consistency in regulation. The adoption of the scheme will remove inconsistencies across Australia and mean that the same standards will apply for all construction work regardless of where it is being carried out. The government is committed to promoting greater national consistency in occupational health and safety.

It is a little over a year since the establishment of the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner. The commissioner uses the government’s purchasing power and influence as a client to bring about better occupational health and safety outcomes on federal government funded construction projects Australia wide. The Federal Safety Commissioner has developed an occupational health and safety accreditation scheme for government construction projects, requiring all successful tenderers for federally funded building and construction work worth over $6 billion to be accredited. Some 64 builders have now received accreditation. This ensures that another recommendation of the Cole royal commission has been implemented.

This bill reflects the Australian government’s commitment to improve the occupational health and safety performance of the construction industry and to develop a culture where work is performed safely as well as on budget and on time. By making accreditation under the scheme a requirement for builders on construction projects for which the government has contributed significant funding, the government will be able to further drive the cultural change that is needed in the construction industry.

The amendments to section 35 of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 will provide clarification that the scheme is only intended to apply to builders who actually perform building work, and will provide that steps must be taken to ensure that those same builders remain accredited while undertaking building work for which scheme accreditation is a requirement. By simplifying the process for engaging federal safety officers, the bill will also assist the Federal Safety Commissioner in more effectively administering the scheme.

I am very concerned with the remarks of the Australian Labor Party only last month that they would abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. It is also interesting to note a headline in the Weekend Australian a few weeks ago, stating ‘Union boss awaits return of ALP glory days’, and I will quote from the article by Paige Taylor:

Knowing that should Labor win the next federal election, his nemesis—the only authority in 20 years to rein in his hardline and volatile union—will be destroyed. And Mr Kevin Reynolds as West Australian Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, along with his colourful deputy, Joe McDonald, will again have total control over almost every major construction site in the booming West Australian capital and right across the state. It is a daunting thought. Along with the powerful Labor candidate and ACTU leader Mr Greg Combet, Kevin Reynolds and others plan to run Australia. Indeed Mr Combet is credited with saying ‘We should return to a time when the Unions used to run this country.’

Let us look at Labor’s record in the state of Western Australia, where Mr Reynolds is one of the most influential factional players in the Labor Party. Within 24 hours of being elected, the WA Labor government neutered the WA Building Industry Task Force that had effectively addressed the excesses of union intimidation, thuggery and a culture of lawlessness, improving productivity and reducing industrial action. Now we find that police stations across the state are being closed down because they do not have enough policemen. They have abandoned the graffiti task force, which has seen a huge increase in graffiti in electorates like Hasluck. They have also closed regional and community hospitals across the state.

Can we believe Labor when they say they will retain the ABCC? No way! Clearly the building and construction industry in Western Australia and all other states needs the ABCC. Indeed, it is worth reflecting on the Econtech report, The economic impact of the ABCC. The report estimates that, as a result of the ABCC, GDP is 1.5 per cent higher than it otherwise would be, the CPI is 1.2 per cent lower than it otherwise would be, and there has been a real increase in consumption of 0.8 per cent. The report concluded that the ABCC has influenced an average fall in construction costs of 5.2 per cent and a rise in construction activity of 2.9 per cent—a great result for an organisation that Labor, at the direction of its union masters, will do away with.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission has the power to investigate contraventions of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005, the Workplace Relations Act 1996 and the Independent Contractors Act 2006, including issues relating to workplace agreements, federal awards and orders of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It can also initiate legal action against those alleged to have contravened those acts. It can also refer allegations of breaches of other laws to relevant agencies or authorities, such as the Federal Safety Commissioner, the police, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations or the ACCC.

In an article published in the Sunday Age on 22 April this year, the Master Builders Association chief executive, Wilhelm Harnisch, said:

... what we fear will simply come back is unfettered right of entry by union bosses and heavyweights and thugs.

We saw the previous speaker, the member for Banks, argue strongly to ensure that union organisers and union shop stewards have unfettered right of entry. That was more important to him than addressing the safety issues. The article also said:

We’ll get back to a ‘no ticket, no start’ situation. The biggest risk is the reintroduction of pattern bargaining and the inflexibilities that imposes on employers—one deal done for the whole town. They pick off the vulnerable contractor, and that becomes the benchmark other contractors are effectively bullied into adopting.

Under the commission’s surveillance and other changes, he said, building costs had been reduced by 20 per cent to 25 per cent and long delays to big projects almost eliminated. The AXA project in Docklands and Eastlink are ahead of schedule.

That is because the union excesses of the past have been somewhat curbed. I think a 20 or 25 per cent reduction in building costs is probably very conservative. I am sure that the costs on union building sites in Perth were over 40 per cent above those sites where non-union labour was used.

There are currently 75 building and construction matters being investigated by the ABCC, with some 130 finalised. It is no surprise that the Labor opposition intend to abolish the Building and Construction Commission because it is efficient and effective and achieves an honest outcome, having changed the culture and productivity significantly for the better. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows the incidence of industrial disputes has fallen to a new record low. The key statistic for cracking the level of industrial disputes is ‘working days lost per thousand employees.’ The rate for the year ending September 2006, the first full year of the operation of the ABCC, was a very low 1.6 working days per thousand workers, as opposed to the corresponding quarter in 2005, prior to the ABCC, when it stood at a much larger figure of 37.4. That is a huge reduction. When you look at the figures from the September quarter of 1996, you see that a massive 263.9 working days were lost per thousand employees. Do we as a country really want to go back to pre-1996 days when the unions used to run the country?

These figures demonstrate that it is little wonder that union membership is declining, because working families in Australia would rather work than be bullied into industrial action to massage the ego of some union organiser or their Labor Party puppets. Just who are the Australian Labor Party appealing to with their plan to abolish the effective Australian Building and Construction Commission? I commend the bill to the House.