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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1359

Mrs D'ATH (Petrie) (11:41): I rise to speak in support of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. I am not surprised to hear those on the opposition side opposing this bill, but I do believe that the speakers on the other side go too far when they talk about the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner providing fairness and ensuring fairness in industrial relations. That is not what the ABCC did. It is not the reason that it was established by the Howard government.

The Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner was set up by the Howard government to attack unions and to target workers who were outspoken in their workplaces. It was not a balanced office about making sure that both sides abided by the laws and regulations. I have no objection to ensuring that all parties—employers, employees, unions—are complying with the laws and doing the right thing by the industry. I have no problem with laws being in place to do that. However, you cannot say that the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, the ABCC, as it existed was set up to ensure fairness or that it in fact provided fairness. The harshest part of this law has been the ABCC's coercive information gathering powers.

We have just heard the member for Herbert saying that it was a strong policeman and that we need a strong policeman. In fact it was more than that. The powers given to the inspectors under the ABCC were stronger than the powers any of our police officers have in this country. They had powers the police do not have in relation to compulsorily requiring persons to come before them and provide information. The ABCC did not allow those people to have representation. Under the ABCC, people were threatened with imprisonment if they did not come along and sit down in a closed room without representation, and say what was happening in their workplace. This is not fair law.

I was elected to ensure that we provided fairness in the workplace, not just by getting rid of Work Choices but by ensuring fairness in the building industry as well. I believe that there should be equal laws for all workers. Having said that, I do support the bill that is before the House and I do so for very good reason. The bill makes changes to the current ABCC and regulations that make real headway towards providing that fairness. It will ensure that, when it comes to those coercive information gathering powers, no longer can an inspector decide for themselves to mandatorily require someone to come before them. Under this bill, they will be required to go and get an examination notice through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to actually be allowed to use those powers. So there are now checks and balances in place and a mechanism which ensures that individuals are treated fairly and reasonably in the way they are brought before the tribunal and required to answer questions. It ensures that people required to attend an interview may be represented by a lawyer of their choice and that their right to claim legal privilege and public interest immunity will be recognised. These are not rights which workers had under the Howard government's laws. Persons required to attend an interview will be reimbursed for the reasonable expenses and all interviews are to be videotaped and undertaken by the director or an SES employee. The Commonwealth Ombudsman will monitor and review all interviews and provide reports to the parliament on the exercise of this power.

Importantly, these coercive information gathering powers have a sunset clause. Under section 46 of the bill, those powers will cease three years from the commencement of this legislation. We owe this to workers across the country. I said at the beginning I have no problem with ensuring that the laws are complied with by all people in the building and construction industry but we must make sure that those people enjoy the same basic rights as any other person before any court in this nation. Previously, a person accused of a criminal act had more rights than a worker under the ABCC. We will correct this imbalance to ensure that only in cases considered by a presidential member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal should powers be used in such a way that people understand that their basic rights to representation, legal privilege and public interest immunity will be honoured, and that they will be reimbursed for costs.

Many people have already spoken on this bill and the minister has gone through it in detail in the explanatory memorandum. It is my intention simply to put on the record what I consider were the harshest parts of the laws in relation to the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. I believe this Labor government has done a lot on changing the guidelines and definition of 'construction' because it was not just about coercive powers. When we talked about building and construction under the Howard government, the definition was so wide that it applied to many industries, well outside what we would consider to be the building and construction industry. In making sure that the definition more accurately reflects the industry, this legislation will apply to many fewer people than previously and to fewer workplaces. That is fair as well.

People are still required to comply with laws. They are still required to comply with the Fair Work Act. They are still required to comply with workplace health and safety legislation but they are placed where they should be—on an equal footing with other workers across the country. True to say that those in the building and construction industry will still be set up under a separate set of laws and there will be a new agency to oversee them but at least that agency will fall under the auspices of Fair Work Australia. I believe that is where it should sit because that is where all other workers rights' are respected and implemented.

What I hope to see out of these changes is a much more balanced approach to looking at this industry. We need to make sure that everyone is complying with the law. That also means that we need to be holding building and construction companies to account where their practices are such that people's lives are at risk. Too many people are permanently injured, or killed, in this industry each year. Through this agency and these laws we will hold to account all people who may be responsible. There is nothing more important than the safety of workers at the workplace. They deserve to go home to their families each night.

The Safe Rates campaign by the transport industry is a fantastic campaign which I fully support. It is important we make sure that not just those on the roads are being looked after but that also those in the building and construction industry, like every other worker, are being looked after.

It is my pleasure to support this bill and the changes it seeks to introduce. I believe it goes a long way to creating more fairness and ensuring there is a balanced approach in compliance with laws and safety regulations in the building and construction industry.