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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1458


Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (18:22): The Prime Minister made a number of promises to the Australian people before the 2007 and 2010 elections. She promised that she would be economically prudent, and yet her Treasurer has delivered four deficits of more than $167 billion in total and a gross debt ceiling of $250 billion. She promised not to introduce a carbon tax only days before the election and then broke that promise. She promised that that no Australian worker would be worse off as a result of her industrial relations laws and that her reforms would not have a negative impact on productivity or our nation's economy—another broken promise. The government's changes have wound back the industrial relations clock, not just to a time before Work Choices but to a time before Hawke and Keating. The Prime Minister also promised that she would have a 'tough cop on the beat' in the building and construction industry. Today, I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011 that is before this House. This bill breaks that last promise, the latest broken promise in a long list of the Prime Minister's broken promises.

When the Prime Minister brought in her Fair Work Act she said it would 'increase productivity'. We hear from the Prime Minister and Treasurer on a repeated basis that productivity is the key to this nation's prosperity and that we must increase our productivity to ensure that our nation grows. We on this side of the chamber agree with this. Productivity-enhancing reform is, as the Chairman of the Productivity Commission has so rightly stated, 'the mainstay of economic progress'. No doubt we will hear again from the other side of the chamber that this legislation is also supposedly 'productivity enhancing'. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

In the September quarter we saw that that GDP per hour worked was lower than in the last quarter of the coalition government. This is a decline, not simply a slowing in the rate of growth. The coalition government delivered an increase of more than 25 per cent in GDP per hours worked in our 11 years. The Labor-Greens government has seen a fall in GDP per hours worked in less than four years. Annual productivity growth has gone from on average 1.2 per cent during our time in government to -0.9 per cent during the Labor-Greens government.

A tough cop on the beat is critical in the construction and building industry. The Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner is that tough cop on the beat. It was born out of the Cole royal commission which, 10 years ago, investigated the lawlessness, thuggery, intimidation and corruption that existed as part of the entrenched culture on construction sites—a culture that saw itself as above the law and, in the words of the commission 'flagrantly' breached the law without any thought of consequence. Examples brought before the commission ranged from unlawful entry of sites by union officials to violence, obstruction of building sites and payments by builders to the unions for industrial peace. One such example in WA saw a builder pay more than $1.5 million for so-called casual tickets to WA's CFMEU. When the Cole commission followed the money trail it could only trace $500,000—the rest of the money to the CFMEU simply disappeared. These examples were commonplace and have more in common with organised crime than a 21st century construction industry. This culture significantly increases the cost of building and the flow-on economic effects are enormous.

In the time that the ABCC has been operating the benefits of a strong watchdog for the construction industry are clear. According to research undertaken by KPMG Econtech, since the inception of the ABCC productivity in the sector has risen by 10 per cent, there has been an economic welfare gain of $5.5 billion per year, inflation has been reduced by 1.2 per cent, GDP has increased by 1.5 per cent and it has helped facilitate significant reductions in days lost through industrial action.

Significantly, the powers of the ABCC have led to successful court action, with more than $2.5 in penalties imposed by the courts in the last financial year. Most recently, two unions and a number of union officials have been fined more than $1.3 million by the courts for obstruction, violence and intimidation on the Westgate Bridge project. Yet this Labor-Greens government plans to unwind these economic and workplace reforms by shifting power away from the independent umpire back to the unions. The legislation before this House will make a eunuch of the ABCC and will guarantee three things: a decrease in productivity; that the unions dictate the terms on which the construction industry operates; and a return of the old school practices of delay, intimidation and union payoffs for industrial peace and increased costs.

Like everyone in this chamber I meet regularly with people from different industries. At a recent meeting I was told by several builders that they had been coerced into 'advertising' in a union magazine. They told me this was standard practice so as to avoid their sites being shut down through guerrilla tactics or equipment failing to turn up. This, they considered, was a cost of doing business.

The abolition of the ABCC in its current form will ensure that some of the more nefarious activities will return in force. I wish to highlight five key ways in which this legislation will damage the construction industry. Firstly, the bill strips power from the ABCC's replacement body, the Building Industry Inspectorate, by enshrining in law that the minister has the power to issue directions as to how, where and when it should go about performing its functions. Given the serious unanswered questions about potential government interference in the Craig Thomson saga, this is a retrograde step.

Secondly, by lifting the test for what is a 'lawful' strike we will start to see an increase in trivial strikes action, the kind of strikes that were rampant at the Wonthaggi desalination plant.

Thirdly, reducing the penalty for unlawful strikes will remove the disincentive for unlawful industrial action. We can see through the Westgate Bridge case that there is a need for tough penalties for those who do not comply with the law, with over $1.3 million of fines being ordered by the ABCC. In that case, workers needed to be moved by an ex-army troop carrier in and out of the site to ensure their safety. We should never forget employers are also entitled to their rights, including their right to conduct business without the threat of intimidation or reprisal. Employees are also entitled to their rights—the right to a safe workplace free from threats and intimidation. The unions would have us believe that the right of unions to go about their business should be paramount, but it is not. Rights are not a one-way street.

The increase in red tape for compulsory information-gathering powers and a sunset clause after five years will see these powers used rarely, if at all, and a return to retribution actions taken against anyone who speaks out about the culture on construction sites. The fact that the sunset clause will not even be reviewed before being removed indicates that the real motivations behind these changes are to silence critics of union thuggery, violence and intimidation. Reduction of building inspectorate powers to investigate by allowing such powers to be switched off means that the building inspectorate will not have the freedom and independence to investigate all complaints.

Make no mistake; this legislation is simply to allow the Prime Minister to pander to the union leaders that installed her and nothing to do with making Australia a better or more prosperous nation. The union campaign in support of the election of this Labor government in 2007 amounted to more than $36,430,588 in direct donations and political expenditure. In 2010 it amounted to $24,578,719. The Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, received more than $360,000 across both elections as a direct donation from the CFMEU, ETU and AMWU. Labor and the Greens are not interested in maintaining law and order on work sites and improving the economic welfare of the nation but are instead keen, through this legislation, to pay back their union masters.

While I do not doubt that Labor will continue to receive the hard earned money of union members, such as those from the Health Services Union, the Greens pretend that they are on a higher moral plane. If the member for Melbourne and the Greens leader, Bob Brown, were true to their high-minded rhetoric and so-called high standards regarding political donations, they ought to hand this money back. But I bet they will not. The Greens simply set standards for others, never for themselves.

Mr Bandt: Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: it cannot be parliamentary conduct in this place to allege someone has received sums of money that they have not received.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): I must admit I have only just arrived in the chair. I will just say to the member for Higgins that, if she is going to make an allegation about someone, she should do it by a substantive motion.

Ms O'DWYER: The member for Melbourne can correct the record after question time if he feels that he has been misrepresented. I will continue. The Greens simply set standards for others, never for themselves. The leader of the Greens and the member for Melbourne talk about rights, but will not ensure the rights of workers to be free from thuggery and intimidation on building and construction sites.

The coalition has a proud record of increasing the productivity of the nation whilst maintaining world's-best-practice working conditions. I stand by our record of productivity gains on the waterfront. I stand by the productivity gains that the ABCC was making in the construction industry. The unions and their political wing, the Labor Party, will consistently cry foul that any productivity gain equates to a reduction in labour standards. But I defy anyone in this chamber to name one other country that has working and wage conditions at the standard Australia has. We truly are the lucky country.

I do not stand alone in pointing out the flaws in the government's plan to abolish the ABCC. It is not just this side of the chamber that has been sounding the warning bell on what this bill would mean for industrial disputation and increased cost in the construction industry. The government's favourite business adviser, the CEO of the Australian Industry Group, Heather Ridout, warned:

Unless a strong, well-resourced regulator and strong legislation is maintained, the risks associated with industrial lawlessness will again be priced into construction contracts, at great cost to project owners, including governments, and the Australian community,

Let me interpret that statement for the benefit of the House: the abolition of the ABCC will be a throwback to the old days of union militancy, industry disruption, kickbacks and intimidation in the construction industry.

Construction managers are also expressing concern over the fact that the abolition of the ABCC will have a particular impact on small to medium firms that cannot defend themselves from the aggressive actions of the more militant unions. Gerry Hanssen from Perth based construction firm Hanssen Pty Ltd has warned that, should the ABCC be abolished, the corruption and standover tactics will be 'back in a flash'.

As with the Treasurer's comments in relation to productivity, the government know how to talk the talk but so rarely do they walk the walk. In the time since the Prime Minister introduced the Fair Work Act, union activism and industrial disputation has increased. In the June 2011 quarter, working days lost due to disputation jumped from 19,700 in the previous quarter to 66,200. In the September quarter it increased again to a staggering 101,300 days. That is a 500 per cent increase in two quarters. This should concern all in this chamber and everyone who simply wants to contribute to building a stronger economy and a better nation. John Mullen, CEO of port operator Asciano Ltd, has cautioned that, 'In the current industrial climate, the country is going backwards.' These are all very dire predictions of where this country is heading and the abolition of the ABCC is a giant leap in that direction.

The government's response to any analysis or criticism of its Fair Work Act is to mount a scare campaign, flogging again the dead horse of Work Choices. But this is wearing thin, like so much of the government's rhetoric. It is plain that the industrial relations system in this country has gone backwards and unless the government starts to address the concerns that are raised by businesses, both big and small, and their employees, there will be ever-increasing industrial action, unrest at the workplace and decreased productivity. The best way the government can start to address this issue is by abandoning this legislation and keeping the ABCC with its full powers.