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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1361


Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (11:50): Following the member for Petrie's rather confused contribution to the debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011, it is incumbent on me to say, firstly, that it is not a workplace safety issue; it is properly the jurisdiction of occupational and health and safety legislation. This is really about the ABCC, commissioned in 2005, which came out of a royal commission which found that there were over 100 types of unlawful or inappropriate conduct in the building and construction industry. The member for Petrie carried on about workplace safety. But what about the unlawful conduct which was found by a very thorough royal commission, and their recommendation that, without somebody with the power to do something about entrenched unlawful behaviour in the building and construction industry, we would continue to see declines in productivity and obstacles in the place of properly conducted economic activity? The corporations the member for Petrie refers to must comply with occupational health and safety regulations or their employees go to jail. What about the people in Australia found by the Cole royal commission to be engaging in unlawful activity hindering our economic progress?

We know that the ABCC has been a tough cop on the beat and, yes, was given wide-ranging powers by the Howard government. Why? Because the ABCC, which works quite successfully, has helped the building and construction industry to increase productivity by 10 per cent since it was set up. The biggest challenge in Australian economic industrial relations today is how to lift productivity. We have seen a well-functioning body lift productivity in this sector by 10 per cent; yet the government of the day is proposing to weaken and undermine the role of this body in the building and construction sector. Why would it be doing that? Why would the government of the day undermine an institution that is lifting the productivity rates in a critical sector of our economy like building and construction? We know why the Labor government is undermining this body. Indeed, if you do not think that adding 33 additional procedures into the ABCC is undermining the effectiveness of this body, then I think you are absolutely crazy—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms S Bird ): The member will not cast aspersions on the chair.

Mr HAWKE: Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, I certainly was not doing that. I should have said that about the member for Petrie and the others who have made contributions in this place about this matter along the lines of, 'All we want to do is streamline this body,' and, 'We need to make sure that people's rights are being considered.' The Cole royal commission found that unlawful behaviour was occurring and recommended that a strong regulator be put in place. The Howard government responded by doing so, thereby lifting productivity, reducing the number of working days lost annually per thousand employees from 224 in 2004 to 24 in 2006 and lowering building costs by 20 to 25 per cent—it worked a wonder.

How the introduction of 33 additional procedures that are diverting attention away from ensuring lawfulness is maintained in this sector is a better thing is beyond me. This is part of an ongoing theme that we see in this Gillard Labor government of Orwellian titled bills: Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition To Fair Work) Bill. The government says it is improving the system through this bill when everybody knows, whether it be people on the Labor side of this chamber or people on this side of the chamber, that there is no such improvement to the role of the regulator here—33 additional processes, extra bureaucracy and procedure. All of the provisions of this bill will slow down, hold back and constrain the role of the regulator in this important sector of our economy—a regulator which has already lifted productivity, improved economic outcomes for ordinary Australians and improved the ability for us to get things done in this country.

Why would we do that? We know why the government is proposing to do that. It is purely a ploy by the Prime Minister to bring the unions and the Labor Left onto her side and save her leadership. It does not matter which group in Australian society you ask. The Australian Industry Group, who have made a series of submissions about this and who have to deal with the construction and building industry all the time, say that behaviour has significantly changed for the better since the ABCC was introduced—that means less unlawful behaviour. There are many indications that the industrial environment in the industry is deteriorating. Watering down protections for the industry and for the community at this time would send entirely the wrong message to those who engage in unlawful or inappropriate behaviour.

We are not talking about any facet of industrial relations here. We are not talking about occupational health and safety, as the member for Petrie tried to divert us onto. We are talking about unlawful behaviour in the building and construction industry. We are talking about things that have held this country back for so long, things that have slowed down our productivity and our ability to get ahead and have made us less competitive internationally. This is very serious economic territory.

It is true that the industrial laws arising from the royal commission treat employers and employees in the construction industry differently from those in other sectors. But why is that? It is because of the profound nature of the unlawful behaviour that was going on in this vital sector of the economy. It was appropriate that we had a profound response and it has worked well. Nobody is disadvantaged by this legislation. Who is the government standing up for—people acting unlawfully? What is the government saying—that there are these shrinking violets out there, union members and union activists, who are being persecuted by police unfairly? Is it seriously the contention of the government that it will weaken this legislation and change the regulation of this industry? I do not think there is a strong case for that. All of the evidence points to the fact that this system is working well, that the current legislation is delivering the results that it was intended to and that any watering down will lead to more industrial disputation. This government wants to take us back to that level we saw in 2004—hundreds of days lost per employee every single year, a drop in productivity and a decline in economic activity—and back to that system where, as the royal commission found, the CFMEU were getting up to $1.5 million per year in casual ticket money. Burdens were placed on business where to get around the old system you had to basically pay additional allowances to get your building and construction work done. This was weakening the strength of our economy. Why should that continue to be the case?

Companies have to pay tax and they have to go through huge regulatory hurdles to get construction and building going in Australia today. Why would we encumber them further with unlegislated procedures through unions or other groups that seek to use their power to threaten industry and construction in this country? Industry and the community at large think there should be strong oversight and regulation of this sector so that we can get on with the business of construction and building.

We saw under previous Labor administrations the difficulties of getting things done in this country. Productivity on the waterfront was so low that something had to be done to lift the productivity rate—and things were done. It used to be the case, and I have heard colloquially from people who worked in the industry at that time, that if you wanted to get goods moved off the waterfront the best thing you could do was to go down to the waterfront and offer a few slabs of beer to the workers. That was the best way to get your goods actually moved on time. We know that in the building and construction industry it is not as nostalgic as that. It was not a nice laid-back Australian approach; it was unlawful activity. The royal commission found hundreds of examples of serious unlawful behaviour that was preventing proper economic activity. Let us look through the provisions. It does not matter whether we are talking about the increased bureaucracy in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, with the presidential member being required to be satisfied that a case has been made before an interview may proceed. It does not matter whether we are talking about the so-called sunset clause, which is in a very short time, just three years, when what business and building and construction really need is a longer period for certainty of investment and the certainty of economic climate. It does not matter about involving the Commonwealth Ombudsman—if you want to bog something down, you bring in the Commonwealth Ombudsman to have a good look at it. It does not matter what provision you go to. Each of these provisions is designed to slow down, impede and reduce effectiveness and to blow out the time that it will take for an effective regulator to make sure unlawful behaviour is not happening. How is that a benefit to anybody?

The only people who will benefit from these changes are the unions. We know that the unions are heavy donors to the Labor Party. We know that the Labor Party is the party of the unions. It is important to ask why, when we are desperate to lift productivity in any way, we would do something to damage productivity in such a vital sector as the construction sector. We do not want to go back to the old days of unlawful behaviour in our construction sector. That would have massive cost implications for our country and it would slow down our economic recovery just when we are coming out of the GFC. It is the wrong time to be doing this—if there is ever a right time.

I could understand all of that if the government were saying, 'Well, we've got into a situation where there is no unlawful behaviour in the construction and building industry. We have reached a point where things are now on a more even keel and we do not need these extraordinary powers.' They are extraordinary powers, I grant you, but it was an extraordinary situation that the royal commission found. There was extraordinary commission of systematic, unlawful behaviour completely crippling and adding a massive burden on a major sector of our economy. If that nirvana has been reached then let the government say so. If it has not then let us not impede the right actions of the tough cop on the beat that have produced such stunning improvements in economic activity, in days lost to strike activity and in productivity, the key challenge of our economy at the moment. Let us not reduce the powers or the scope of effectiveness of the regulator.

I warn the Labor Party that, while they might be wearing fake smiles, glibly enjoying these bills, knowing that there will be a bureaucratic bogdown in procedure in the ABCC and that it will be tougher to enforce the law of this country, the laws in Australia are there for good reason. They are there so that the proper economic activity of the building and construction sector cannot be impeded by unions or other members behaving unlawfully. That is why we have these laws. That is why we have regulation in this sector.

The ABCC has done a great job in delivering these improvements. It is very important in my view for the economy, while we are moving out of the GFC, to ensure that we have a tough cop on the beat, a good-quality regulator that is producing results. We have one in the ABCC and we should not allow a politically driven campaign that will stop that. It is a campaign on behalf of unions, who want to see a resurgence in industrial disputation as a legitimate method. We have seen that in Qantas and in BHP, where there is a week-long strike this week. There is nothing wrong with legitimate industrial disputation—nothing at all. Workers have the right to engage in it. But what we are talking about in the building and construction industry was systematic unlawful behaviour. That is why these bills should be strongly opposed and why we should retain the ABCC as the tough cop on the beat.