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Wednesday, 26 March 2003
Page: 10239

Senator NETTLE (4:44 PM) —We have known all along that this royal commission was set up by the government as an opportunity to have a go at trade unions in the lead-up to the last federal election, when this government was looking for a leg-up and was in a tight spot. Journalist Jim Marr commented:

It was set up not as an inquiry but as a prosecution of a single party within the industry.

Eighty-one per cent of public hearing time was devoted to attacking one particular trade union. Not one statement was obtained by investigators and presented to the commission that presented unions in a positive light. From the outset, Murdoch newspapers such as the Australian wrote:

Is the royal commission a political stunt? Yes.

Journalist Ashley Crossland said:

It's as if someone devised the perfect mechanism for destroying the public standing of building unions. Unfortunately, the Cole royal commission may also end up the perfect mechanism for destroying the already threadbare authority of royal commissions.

A US study found that productivity for unionised contractors compared with non-unionised contractors was 30 per cent higher for commercial buildings, which is what this royal commission focused on.

The greatest impediments to an increase in productivity growth in the Australian construction industry are a falling level of employer investment in training and the proliferation of small undercapitalised businesses. This proliferation results in companies going bust and being unable to pay workers' entitlements. They then often re-emerge as another company with the same work force. The Cole royal commission investigators failed to come up with one witness statement alleging these phoenix operations anywhere in New South Wales. The Australian Tax Office, however, identified it as a problem for the industry, and has 30 staff dedicated to a special phoenix project dealing with hundreds of cases. Yet somehow Minister Abbott manages to describe this as a model royal commission.

In the year ended June 1999, the construction industry lost over 95,000 weeks due to workplace injury—five times the amount of time lost to industrial disputes. Yet the Cole commission investigators did not produce a statement from a single person in New South Wales alleging illegal or inappropriate practices with regard to workplace safety. And it has continued to be called a model royal commission. The treatment of unions and employers was vastly different. Employers were given weeks to prepare for allegations to be raised in the commission, whereas union officials were not given any advance notice of allegations. Does the minister truly believe that this is the sort of legal process we should be aspiring to in royal commissions in this country? The control of the media exercised by the royal commission was phenomenal and it was used to smear trade unionists. Throughout the royal commission there were constant examples of biased treatment and blatant lies against trade unions and trade unionists. There was nothing model about this royal commission unless, of course, the minister means a model for bashing unions.