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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1371


Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (12:30): I am sorry that the gallery has had to endure such a speech by the member for Canning. I would recommend the speech by the member for Kennedy if they want to hear a more balanced and thoughtful contribution. The member for Kennedy talked a lot about his younger days working in very dangerous environments in Mount Isa. He talked about the difficulties of raising safety issues at work and what actually happens to workers if they do so.

What we are talking about in this debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011 is the abolition of the remnants of the Work Choices regime—the last remnants of a regime that was born of malice, not facts. It was born of a vindictiveness that coloured the entire Howard government and colours to this day the approach of members opposite. It was all about cutting wages, all about cutting overtime, all about abolishing people's rights. You do not hear much about people's rights in the speeches and contributions of those opposite; it is all about the abolition of those rights, the abolition of dignity at work. That is what their approach was all about under Work Choices.

And that has always been their approach. I remember watching a documentary about 'Red Ted' Theodore, a stalwart of the union movement. He said that the conservatives have only ever had two ideas: feed the donkey less and whip him harder. That is pretty much the approach of those opposite. They are not actually interested in things like the right to be in a union, the right to have a safe workplace and the right to bargain for your wages and conditions in good-faith negotiations. They are interested in taking away your wages, taking away your overtime and abolishing people's rights at work—and it has been ever thus.

The ABCC is just a leftover from that era. It is time this body was reformed. It is time it was sent off into the never-never. It is not a perfect institution. Those opposite would have you believe it is an angelic institution that never put a foot wrong and that always did the right thing, and that its extraordinary powers were never abused. But I have had constituents—such as Mr Ark Tribe, who lived in Thompson Beach in my electorate and is somewhat famous in South Australia and around the country—who have come to the attention of these laws. Ark Tribe was an ordinary building worker, an ordinary man trying to get on and do the right thing by his mates. We know how his case wound up. We know that the use of the coercive powers has been both oppressive and ridiculous.

It is working Australians who have been targeted. It is not union officials, not employers, not the big end of town. They have hardly ever been prosecuted by the ABCC. It has a very poor record of employer prosecutions—less than five per cent of all prosecutions. It defies belief that the prosecution rate would be so small, given the well publicised problems with illegal labour, phoenix companies and safety breaches in this industry.

I can cite the headlines in the Adelaide Advertiser, as I have before. An article called 'Dodgy builders "out of control"', on 9 March 2001, was about underpaid workers, many of them foreign, working here illegally and flooding into the South Australian building industry. The most critical thing in all of this is that they were underpaid, so it is not as though they benefited terribly well. They were underpaid by between $11,000 and $18,000 apiece.

Underpayments and breaches of our immigration law are hardly ever prosecuted by the ABCC. It has been a pretty hopeless regulator, and it has been that way because it was born of malice towards working people and a see-no-evil myopia with regard to business. The government's bill, which is a good bill, is a result of the independent inquiry by Murray Wilcox QC. The bill simply takes the recommendations given by Wilcox and puts them into law. There is to be a strong regulator for the building industry. Nobody is arguing that there should not be a cop on the beat, only that it should be within the fair work system. It will be a regulator that operates within community expectations of fairness and justice. We heard the member for Kennedy talk about habeas corpus and a few other ancient rights that were won by our forebears—and they are important rights.

Importantly, this bill has a sunset clause on the compulsory information gathering powers. Before that there will be a review of how those powers are used. These are extraordinary powers. They are not held widely; they are held by very few federal investigative bodies, and they need to be reviewed so that people's rights are not trampled upon. It is important to have safeguards—and safeguards on the use of those coercive powers are introduced in this bill.

Most importantly, there will be an independent assessor who, if a stakeholder seeks to exempt a project from the application of these powers, may decide that the powers do not apply. Where people are doing the right thing there is no need for such extraordinary powers to apply. The bill also removes the regime of punitive penalties. These were, again, a manifestation of that institutional bias against workers—very high fines designed to scare working people from exercising their rights under Australian law. These fines were held out as a mechanism to prevent workers from acting to protect their dignity at their workplace.

In short, this bill fixes the problems with the conduct of the ABCC through its abolition and replacement with a fair and independent regulator. It is a terribly important thing, because I have talked to building workers and I have received their correspondence outlining their deep worry about the operation of the ABCC and their deep concern about being caught up in very tough laws.

This bill comes into this House with a mandate that was delivered at the 2007 election. Most Australians would ask this parliament to respect that mandate. It has been to an election and I think the instinctive will of the Australian people is towards fairness and justice. This legislation represents the abolition of the last obscene edifices of Work Choices.

Much has been said by those opposite about the ABCC. Of late we have seen some headlines in the papers. There was recently an article in the Australian Financial Review entitled 'Inquiry into failed case against unionists', covering a particular case. The Sydney Morning Herald of Monday, 13 February 2012 contained an article headlined 'Building industry watchdog staff to face inquiry'. The Australian, which is always keen to talk about credit card misuse, noted that there were five instances of credit card misuse at the ABCC. This shows that all regulators need oversight to make sure that their conduct is appropriate, that they exercise their powers appropriately and that they serve the interests and the will of the Australian people through this government.

I think this bill does represent justice to building workers, which has been somewhat delayed. It is profoundly unfair to single out one group of workers and place on them such a heavy burden in terms of the law. It is wrong and it is absolutely unlike this country to do so. We do want people to respect the rule of law and we do want people to behave appropriately at building sites, but we do not want an institutional bias against workers and we do not want selective laws in this country. I commend the bill to the House.