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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1297


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (12:17): I rise to speak against the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. These bills seek to take a step back in time to the dark old days of the Howard government and the Work Choices era. They would bring the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission, or ABCC, back from the dead.

Firstly, I would like to point out that there is absolutely no need for a new body. Nor is there anything unique or special about the building and construction industry that separates it from other sectors of our economy. The Fair Work Building and Construction agency already has significant powers to respond appropriately to any unlawful behaviour in the industry—a fact that this bill wilfully ignores. There is no function gap. There is no fair and reasonable function that a resurrected ABCC would provide that would not be supported within current systems. In fact, the Fair Work Building and Construction agency is working more effectively than the ABCC ever did.

Quite frankly, this is an attempt to restore a failed body that was built on flawed premises in order to demonise construction industry workers and those that represent them. And for the Prime Minister it is clearly the continuation of a very personal vendetta. This can be traced back a very long way, but a pivotal point in time was his 2001 decision, as the then workplace relations minister, to establish the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. The stated justification was the alleged fraud, criminality and corruption within the building and construction industries, despite there being little evidence of a systemic problem. This commission was then used by the Howard government to provide cover for their plans to establish the ABCC and their reprehensible Work Choices legislation at the same time.

The 'findings'—and, for the benefit of Hansard, I use this word in very big inverted commas—of the commission regarding alleged unlawful and criminal activity are highly questionable. Claims of endemic thuggery, violence and criminal activity in these industries were wildly overstated. Records of referrals to criminal prosecutors and the almost complete absence of successful prosecutions in the decade after the Cole commission report prove how inaccurate this really is. Similarly, this commission made conclusions on the building industry's productivity that were, quite frankly, wrong. At best they were flawed. At worst they were hysterical or absolutely nonsensical or both. They were never justifiable. The truth is that this commission was little more than a political stunt that wasted $66 million of taxpayers' money and failed to produce one single criminal conviction.

Those opposite talk about a return to a 'sensible centre' on industrial relations. Well, the legislation before us today is not sensible; nor is it a moderate centre, by any reading. This is not about fostering cooperative, productive workplaces. It is not about addressing an actual problem. It is about sowing the seeds of fear and division in order to weaken unions and their ability to effectively represent their members. As we well know, the Howard government tried anything they could to smear the reputation of unions, demonise their members and staff and shackle their ability to function effectively. They did this not because there was any inherent problem that needed fixing but because they needed to weaken unions in order to strengthen their own attacks on the conditions and rights of millions of Australian workers.

And, as we know, this government has shown itself to be just the same. Bernard Keane captured the motivations of those opposite perfectly when he said:

The Fair Work Act has delivered significant labour productivity growth and moderate — at the moment, low — wage growth, with industrial disputation far below the average level of the Howard years, suggesting it's not real-world outcomes that the Coalition is concerned about in IR, but business bottom lines.

Never were truer words spoken, because the government know very well that if they can weaken unions then they can keep the money flowing to the top end of town, because that is exactly what happens.

At this point I want to assure you, Mr Deputy President, that this is not just a bold assertion of mine. No, it is backed up by very recent research at the International Monetary Fund. This research shows a link between lower union membership, ballooning CEO wages and increasing inequality. In an article entitled 'Power from the people' in the latest issue of the IMF's Finance & Development journal, researchers Florence Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron gave a preview of their forthcoming study results. In this article, they note:

… weaker unions can reduce workers' influence on corporate decisions that benefit top earners, such as the size and structure of top executive compensation.

Not only that, but the research shows that income concentration at the top 'can reduce a population's welfare if it allows top earners to manipulate the economic and political system in their favour'. Let's be clear. The IMF is not a body known for its left-wing tendencies. This is not about ideology. This is about the data.

Of course, when you think about it, it is quite obvious. When unions are strong, workers have a better capacity to achieve fair conditions and pay for themselves. When they are weak, workers are left open to exploitation, and there are few checks, balances and protections on disproportionate executive wages and corporate profits. As we all know, inequality is one of the greatest issues facing governments across the globe. Not only does it cast a pall over growth but it also threatens social stability. But it seems that for those opposite growing inequality, and a gaping chasm between the haves and the have-nots, is the natural order of things. Not only do they not seem concerned with addressing this growing global problem, but through their policies—through bills like the ones here before us today—they actually foster and nurture inequality.

With these bills, the government is proposing that the ABCC would have extreme and unnecessary powers—powers that would fundamentally compromise basic civil liberties. ABCC mark 2 could compel ordinary workers to attend secret meetings. Not only that, but they could be threatened with imprisonment in order to get information. They would have no access to legal representation. They would have no right to remain silent. Let's not forget that these are people who have not committed a crime, but they could be treated like criminals. This is the sort of situation you might expect in relation to serious national security threats, or possibly in a dictatorship, but not in the arena of industrial relations.

In fact, in 2007, Professor Ron McCallum described the ABCC's powers as 'similar to aspects of the terrorism laws'. This is very concerning indeed. The proposed laws stand in direct contrast with the basic democratic freedoms such as the presumption of innocence, the right to peaceful assembly, the privilege against self-incrimination, and freedom of expression. This level of brutal legislative force by the state is disproportionate, undemocratic, and highly inappropriate—not to mention very peculiar coming from a party that says it believes in keeping government out of people's lives.

Make no mistake. There is no other worker in the federal system who has this sort of draconian regime imposed upon them, and it is fundamentally undemocratic to impose this on workers in the building and construction industry. What is worse is that this bill would establish a body that goes beyond the original powers of the ABCC, encroaching even further on workers' rights. The Prime Minister has said that the new ABCC would be 'a tough cop on the beat'. I, however, would say Labor's shadow workplace relations minister, Brendan O'Connor, got closer to the truth of the matter when he described the new body as 'an unnecessary workplace bully'.

Those opposite talk about 'improving productivity' and the Prime Minister continues to wheel out the claim that the ABCC led to $6 billion a year in productivity savings. What absolute unbridled nonsense. This particular mistruth comes from a report by Econtech for Master Builders Australia in 2007. The truth is that Econtech's modelling and the $6 billion figure that came from it have been debunked again and again. Unfortunately, those opposite are so determinedly stuck in the past; so stuck in their determination to shackle unions, that they just continue repeating it, because to do otherwise would make their entire justification for the ABCC fall in a heap. Crikey's Bernard Keane has referred to Econtech as:

… a long-term participant in the Howard government's war against the CFMEU, churning out report after report purporting to demonstrate the need to smash the union and restore productivity.

Mr Keane writes that the phenomenon of consultants producing modelling to back industry claims is not new, but he says:

… Econtech has the rare distinction of producing modelling so dismally awful that a judge slammed them.

On this point Mr Keane is absolutely right. Justice Murray Wilcox looked at the Econtech report and the claims in it that those opposite continue to trot out as part of an inquiry into the building and construction industry in 2009. In this inquiry, Justice Wilcox found that the Econtech modelling which underpins the claims of those opposite is 'fundamentally flawed' and said that it 'ought to be totally disregarded'. He was not the only one. The Queensland government's department of industrial relations and academics from Griffith University also found that the data used by Econtech in its report had been 'not accurately used'.

The $6 billion productivity gain claim was again investigated by reputed fact checker PolitiFact Australia during the recent election campaign. Let's be clear about that. PolitiFact is not funded by the Labor Party or anyone who has the interests of the Labor Party at heart. Labor can't tell PolitiFact what it needs to look at, nor can we tell it what evidence it needs to consider. No, PolitiFact is independent. And PolitiFact found the Prime Minister's $6 billion claim to be 'mostly false'.

Of course, Australians are getting so used to mistruths from the Prime Minister that this will come as no surprise. However, we should never let this become a status quo that we come to accept. We should never stop calling the Prime Minister on his detours from the truth, and we should never ever accept policy that is wheeled in under the guise of these mistruths. Put simply, this is bad policy based on a bad foundation that will have bad outcomes.

The bill was referred to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee in 2013, and the committee reported back in 2014. Unfortunately, this government controlled committee was given only 18 days to call evidence on this complex issue, consider it and table a report in parliament. Submitters only had eight days to make submissions, and only 3½ hours was available for the committee to question witnesses in a public hearing. It seems like a one-sided debate to me. The committee did not even wait for the findings of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. As it turned out, both of these committees produced reports which raise serious concerns that the bills would limit, curtail and extinguish a wide range of civil, human and political rights of those working in the building and construction industries. Clearly, the committee was going on limited information, with limited time and, as a result, we must be dubious about the credibility of its findings.

Thankfully, a second committee inquiry was given reasonable time to consider the bill. Thankfully, this committee did take into account the input of the Scrutiny of Bill Committee and the Human Rights Committee. Thankfully, senators on the committee were able to take the time to properly investigate the issues and undertake three public hearings. Clearly, this second committee had the time, the resources, the information and, more importantly, the will to do a much more thorough job.

This committee found that the government has fundamentally failed to make the case for the re-establishment of the ABCC. It has failed to justify it under either economic or productivity grounds. It has failed to address the very serious incursions on human rights that are contained within this bill. It has failed to mount a reasonable case about why the building and construction industry is so unique that it needs a special body with these draconian powers and penalties. It has also failed to provide adequate assurance that the coercive powers proposed for the new body have sufficient oversight and safeguards, and it has failed to provide a convincing case that the ABCC would improve occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry. For those reasons, Labor believes that the ABCC should not be revived, and I therefore urge senators to vote against this very regressive bill.