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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1373


Mr MATHESON (Macarthur) (12:39): I rise today to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. The building and construction industry is one of the most important industries in our economy. The Master Builders Association has estimated the value of construction work required over the next decade at $2.4 trillion. The residential building industry in particular is a key driver in our economy. According to a submission from the Housing Industry Association, Australia's housing industries directly contributed approximately $72.4 billion to Australia's economy in 2009-10. This accounted for 5.6 per cent of Australia's gross domestic product. If we combine this with the primary and secondary businesses that indirectly supply to the construction industry, we are looking at much stronger figures in terms of employment and output. The building and construction industry also employs over a million people, representing approximately nine per cent of the Australian workforce. As you can see, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is a very important industry for our country and one that is vital to our economy.

Today, those opposite are trying to introduce a bill that compromises the success of this industry and of those who work in it. They are breaking another election promise by trying to abolish the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, which was established by the coalition in 2005 following the 2002 Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry.

The Cole commission found that the building and construction industry was characterised by a widespread disregard for the law. It catalogued over 100 types of unlawful and inappropriate conduct. This included illegal strikes, pattern bargaining, right of entry infringements and the coercion of non-unionised subcontractors. The Cole commission also found that existing regulatory bodies had insufficient powers and resources to enforce the law. This is why one of its recommendations was to establish a specialist and permanent regulatory body to look into this conduct.

It was the Howard government that established the ABCC in 2005 and the commission has since been instrumental in curbing illegal industrial action and lawlessness in the construction industry. It has also taken a strong stand against union thuggery in the industry—yes, union thuggery—and, by keeping disputes to a minimum, the ABCC has helped to increase productivity and lower construction costs all around Australia. Since its inception in 2005 it has helped the industry to increase productivity by 10 per cent, provide an annual economic welfare gain of $5.5 billion per year, reduce inflation by 1.2 per cent and increase GDP by 1.5 per cent. So it is doing its job. The number of working days lost annually per 1,000 employees in the construction industry has fallen from 224 in 2004 to 24 in 2006. At the same time, building costs have fallen by 20 to 25 per cent and long project delays have been dramatically reduced.

According to the Housing Industry Association, the commission has:

… been doing a sound and effective job of law enforcement, clamping down on unions and others for illegal industrial behaviour and right of entry breaches.

This is keeping the unions in check. It goes on to say:

However its work is far from finished. Aggressive and unlawful industrial action persists as an area of concern for the industry.

It is clear that work still needs to be done and that the ABCC is doing this work independently and effectively. The type of conduct that Cole identified cannot be easily reversed. It is the type of conduct that needs targeted resources to effect lasting cultural change. Whilst the ABCC has succeeded in improving conduct, the culture of lawlessness identified in the Cole report has only been suppressed—and, yes, it still exists.

This bill will abolish the ABCC and replace it with an inferior inspectorate division of the Fair Work Ombudsman. The new body that has been established within Fair Work Australia to replace the Office of the ABCC is not an independent body. It is controlled by the minister. It will become so bogged down in paperwork and bureaucracy that it will not have the time and resources to do its job properly. It is not a simpler model; it is a more complicated model that makes it more difficult to enforce law and order in the building and construction industry. A softened approach is far from what the industry needs right now. This bill will cut the maximum penalties for illegal misbehaviour from $110,000 to $33,000, reducing the disincentives to engage in unlawful behaviour. According to the HIA, the procedural requirements for this bill are 'overly bureaucratic, costly, prescriptive and impractical'. With this bill we see the ALP cowering to the demands of its union paymasters, sacrificing the independence of small business subcontractors and subjecting the building and construction industry to a new era of industrial administration and uncertainty. This bill is another broken promise and a ploy to bring the unions and the Labor Left on side to save the Prime Minister's leadership.

The bill allows for the powers of the ABCC to be switched off for individual worksites that have a good history of industrial relations. This means that the unions can seek to have the law not apply until such times as problems occur. The unions used to protect workers, now they persecute them and suffocate the industries that seek to employ them. The government has already introduced measures that make it tough for the building and construction industry. This will only make things worse.

Increasing productivity and flexibility should be the primary focus of our industrial relations policy. In Macarthur we have many new housing developments and suburbs being built, which will accommodate an extra 200,000 new residents in the area over the next 25 years. That is a population increase of more than 300 per cent. The building and construction work taking place in my electorate employs hundreds of workers from Macarthur and south-western Sydney. It is a major part of the industry that is stimulating our economy and keeping locals employed.

We also have the Macarthur Building Industry Skills Centre right on our doorstep. This state-of-the-art training centre, located in the Ingleburn industrial precinct, was established to meet the needs of industry growth in south-western Sydney. It offers a comprehensive range of pre-vocational, trade and licensing programs. The centre delivers trade training using an integrated project based approach to skills development. This means students can gain experience on real building projects and have access to plant, equipment and resources of current industry standards. We have some very talented young men and women attending this training centre, working hard towards a fulfilling career in the building industry.

The future of these workers and the risk to the Australian economy is why we cannot afford for the building industry to return to its unlawful practices of the past. This is why the coalition strongly opposes the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. We believe that every Australian deserves to be able to go work and operate in an environment where basic law and order is enforced. Employers and employees alike wanted to get rid of the illegality that plagued the building and construction industry. The only people who will benefit from the government's move are of course the unions.

The bill will strip away the protections for workers to work in a safe and lawful environment. It abolishes the body that ensures that law and order is enforced in the building and construction industry. Why would we support this bill when the ABCC has delivered real results for Australia? To put a stop to its good work would roll out the red carpet to union thuggery, coercion and disputation. I ask those opposite to reconsider their responsibility to this country, Australian workers and our economy before voting on this bill.

All we need to do is look back at the recommendation from the Cole royal commission. It stated that we need:

… free of the pressures on the participants in the industry, which will ensure that participants comply with industrial, civil and criminal laws applicable to all Australians …

In its submission, HIA told us that it does not believe the proposed legislation will continue to deliver the strong, independent and robust enforcement body that the building industry requires. It also said that 'a watering down' of the existing powers will result in a return to the industrial lawlessness identified by the Cole royal commission. How could we even consider passing this bill when we know that the Australian building industry needs a strong, independent enforcer to maintain lawful practice and stop the bad behaviours of the past? We simply cannot afford to replace the ABCC, which has helped to increase productivity and lower construction costs around Australia.

In its submission the HIA states that it does not support this bill and that the legislative and institutional framework established as a result of the Cole royal commission must be retained in its current form. We cannot pretend that the findings of the Cole royal commission do not exist.

I believe that we must oppose this bill so that we do not subject the building and construction industry to a new era of industrial administration and uncertainty. We must oppose this bill for the sake of our economy and Australian jobs. We must oppose this bill to ensure the protection and safety of our workers. And we must oppose this bill to avoid the industry's unlawful practices of the past and to ensure its strength and prosperity for the future.