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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1451

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (17:49): I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. I have just listened to the member for Forrest. It is very easy to paint a one-sided view of a situation, as she has just done. I am sure workers in the construction industry around Australia would willingly come into this place and tell a story different from the one we have just heard from the member for Forrest. I am well aware that, in the Cole royal commission, their view was that their voice had not been properly heard. I am not in a position to judge that one way or the other but I am in a position to make the comment on their behalf that they felt they did not get a fair hearing. From the transcripts which are available, I believe the record will show that they are probably correct.

I come back to some of the very issues related to this bill, to that commission and to the new legislation, which touch upon the very reasons this legislation is good legislation and the reasons this government believes in fairness for workers and industry across this country. I make this comment with respect to the comments by the member for Forrest and others when they talk about the influence of some of the unions, making allegations as to corruption or similar by people involved in them. It takes two parties to get involved in corrupt activity. It is not simply a one-sided affair. Yet when you look at the record, it appears that the focus is always towards one group only and that is the workers.

I believe the extraordinary attack on workers' rights by the Howard government was a key factor in the ultimate downfall of the Howard government and in Prime Minister Howard's loss of his own seat. Like Prime Minister Stanley Bruce before him, who lost his seat in 1929, Prime Minister Howard had turned his back on Australian workers. Peter Reith's waterfront debacle of the late 1990s, the Work Choices legislation and the establishment of the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commission were part of a warped ideology to turn back the clock on fair working conditions that had been hard won over decades of struggles and to destroy unions. It is as simple as that. Those attacks were un-Australian and Australians knew it. The members opposite know that as well. That is why they will not mention the term Work Choices any more. Their leader wants the term 'dead, buried and cremated', at least in name; I do not believe in substance.

Australians are pretty easygoing people, but they believe in a fair go. The ABCC legislation was everything but that. It was legislation that was not only an assault on workers' conditions but an assault on human rights—human rights which Australia has agreed to as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Australians have fought and died for the freedoms and fairness that Work Choices, the ABCC and the waterfront events sought to take away from them. When the ABCC was established in 2005, following the Cole royal commission, it was intended to intimidate and break organised labour in Australia.

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011 creates the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate to regulate the building and construction industry. This new agency will replace the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. It renames the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 as the Fair Work (Building Industry) Act 2011 and either repeals or amends many of the BCII Act's provisions. The bill implements key recommendations of the Transition to Fair Work Australia for the building and construction industry report by the Hon. Murray Wilcox QC. It is interesting that the member for Forrest referred to the Cole royal commission but made no reference to the report by the Hon. Murray Wilcox, who also makes some very pertinent comments regarding the ABCC legislation. Conveniently, they were left out.

With the exception of minor non-policy changes such as the inclusion of changes resulting from amendments to the Acts Interpretation Act, the bill is the same as that introduced during the previous parliament. The bill removes existing higher penalties for building industry participants for breaches of industrial law and introduces safeguards in relation to the power to compulsorily obtain information and documents. The bill creates the office of Independent Assessor, who may, on application by stakeholders, determine that compulsory information-gathering powers will not apply to a project. The new regulator will also provide information, advice and assistance to all building industry participants regarding their rights and obligations under law, as well as seek to improve the standard of occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry. The bill includes a three-year sunset provision for the compulsory information-gathering powers. A review will occur prior to the sunset of compulsory information-gathering powers. I note that the bill does not impact on the provisions that establish the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner and the Occupational Health And Safety Accreditation Scheme.

Criticism of the former Howard government's ABCC has not just come from the labour movement in Australia and the wider Australian community. There has also been international condemnation of the coercive powers of the ABCC and its targeting of building unions. The International Labour Organisation, the United Nations body charged with looking after workers' rights, has raised its concerns on a number of occasions. The ILO's Committee of Experts is an eminent body of labour jurists. Early last year, this committee circulated the following statement:

… the manner in which the ABCC carries out its activities seems to have led to the exclusion of workers in the building and construction industry from the protection that the labour inspection system ought to secure for these workers under the applicable laws …

The ILO's concerns were very well illustrated by the Ark Tribe case in South Australia. I am reasonably familiar with that case because I followed it from day one. The Ark Tribe trial was pivotal in further raising community awareness of the ABCC's potential to encroach on the industrial and human rights of Australian workers.

In 2008, Ark Tribe attended a safety meeting at a construction site in Adelaide. At that meeting, ongoing safety concerns at the site were discussed by workers and a union investigation into conditions was carried out before workers returned to their work. The ABCC then summoned Ark Tribe to a meeting in order to determine the legality of workers' actions. When Ark Tribe refused to attend, prosecutors for the ABCC commenced legal proceedings against him. Ark Tribe was not a union official or a union delegate. A large protest was held when court proceedings took place. Several hundred people were present for the first day of the trial on 15 June 2010, including prominent international civil rights campaigners Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill. Industrial rights are, after all, civil rights—that is, human rights.

On 24 November 2010, Ark Tribe was cleared of the charges against him—charges which should never have been laid. Ark Tribe should never have been subjected to the intimidation and injustice which he had been put through. I am pleased to see that the courts came to the same conclusion and cleared him of those charges.

In 2007, the government made a commitment that, if elected, it would replace the ABCC with a new body to provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations in the building and construction industry.

The construction industry contains unique challenges for both employers and employees. Nobody denies that. Too many Australians die on building and construction sites each and every year and hundreds more are injured, and that has been the case for decades and decades. Building workers have been exposed workplace dangers associated with unsafe work practices, unsafe worksites and unsafe building materials. Poor scaffolding, working from heights, the danger of structural collapse, exposure to dust, asbestos, hazardous chemicals and even extreme weather conditions have taken their toll on the lives of construction workers and on their families for decades and decades. Indeed, much of Australia has literally been built on the blood, sweat and tears of construction workers. Labor supports a strong building industry regulator to ensure lawful conduct by all parties. But it does not support laws that deny workers basic rights, like being represented by a lawyer of their choice.

The context for changes was further developed late last year when Qantas Airways grounded its fleet. In the future we may well reflect on this incident as an important moment for industrial relations in Australia. Currently, if Qantas's action is held to be illegal industrial action under the Fair Work Act, the maximum fine it would face would be one-third of the maximum fine the CFMEU could face for taking illegal industrial action on building sites. Where is the fairness in that? The widespread public criticism of Qantas's action suggests that our industrial relations body should be designed to achieve greater conciliation instead of having coercive or litigious functions.

In conclusion, I have tried to summarise the importance of this bill, and I know that there is still some concern with it in respect of the coercive powers. I also know that those powers have been limited to the extent that there have to be certain processes before they can be applied. I believe that a reasonable balance has been struck in respect to them. However, I believe that this bill corrects an injustice that currently exists in Australian industrial laws, whereby some people are treated as lesser than other people—in other words, there is currently discrimination in the laws that apply to workers in this country, and this bill seeks to rectify that. I commend the bill to the House.