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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23656

Dr EMERSON (5:00 PM) —Before my contribution on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2003 was so effectively interrupted by question time, I was referring to the Prime Minister's proud boast at a speech just a few weeks ago of his achievements. Right at the top of his list of achievements was the reduction in the proportion of the private sector work force represented by trade unions to 18 per cent. It is obvious that the Prime Minister thinks that the lower that figure the better and that, if he could get his way, there would be no trade unions in this country at all. But he fails to recognise that those who are represented by trade unions in this country total 1.8 million working Australians.

There are 1.8 million proud trade union members; they have joined a union because that was their desire, despite a hostile regulatory environment. The first wave of industrial relations legislation was passed in 1996, making it more difficult for members of the work force to be represented by a trade union and for trade unions to discharge their responsibilities and services back to those members. Yet 1.8 million Australians remain represented by the great Australian trade union movement and that great movement has strong links to the great Australian Labor Party—links of which we are all proud.

We are proud of our links with the trade union movement in this country. I also point out that the 1.8 million proud Australians in this country who are members of trade unions have relatives, sons, daughters, wives, husbands and friends. They are a very big force in this country—a force for fairness and for a sense of a fair go. Mobilising these 1.8 million Australians with their families, their friends and their relatives is a very worthy task, because with that sort of force behind the Australian Labor Party we will be incredibly hard to defeat at the next election.

The Prime Minister might think that this de-unionisation is a good thing. We do not think it is a good thing at all. We support the right of working Australians to be represented by trade unions, and we will reinstate the right of Australians to bargain collectively. Employers will recognise that, when Australians choose to be represented by a trade union, they will need to bargain with that trade union.

In respect of this legislation, a Senate inquiry has been established—and for excellent reasons. The Cole royal commission was effectively a hatchet job on trade unions in the building industry. Its terms of reference were set up that way, and that was the outcome. It was anything but an even-handed or an unbiased royal commission. In my view, it helped tarnish the reputation of royal commissions in this country—so heavily biased was its conception, its political motivation, its operation and its report.

I will not go to enormous lengths in explaining the deficiencies of the commission's voluminous report, other than to point out that very important issues in the building and construction industry in this country were either glossed over or ignored, and hence the need for a proper Senate inquiry. That is why the Senate established a reference inquiry into the building and construction industry—to look at the matters that were effectively ignored or glossed over by the Cole royal commission. I refer in particular to the non-payment of workers' entitlements, the non-payment of superannuation entitlements, and the use of phoenix companies to avoid these obligations and to evade tax.

In addition, given that this industry is one of the most dangerous in Australia where one worker dies on average each and every week in this country, the Senate reference committee will look at the adequacy of health and safety in this industry—and so it should. Young Joel Exner fell off a building under construction a few weeks ago in Sydney and died. He was just a young boy, a 16yearold, who was working on a very unsafe building site. There was no harness, no guardrail and no scaffolding, and a young boy—16 years of age, and with his life in front of him—fell off that building and died.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations says that a couple of unfortunate incidents involving assaults makes the case for tough new anti-union laws in the building and construction industry. It does no such thing. There is already a crime called assault; it is a criminal offence and it does not require this minister to bring into parliament a building and construction industry bill to deal with the crime of assault. But when a young boy like Joel Exner tragically falls off a building under construction and dies, you do not hear the minister for workplace relations saying that maybe we should toughen up our laws on occupational health and safety in relation to, for example, employers in the construction industry who allow building activity to go ahead on very unsafe work sites. I do not hear the minister for industrial relations saying that perhaps we need tough new laws there; but, when there are a couple of incidents possibly involving union officials, it is there that we need tough new laws.

I think the minister's behaviour in relation to this has been disgraceful and despicable. He ought to have a look at the circumstances of the death of Joel Exner and consider whether there is any case—and I think he should consider this very seriously—for looking at the adequacy of the occupational health and safety laws in this country. I do not think he will doing that, because this government always approaches these issues from one side—always from the side of the employer and always, conversely, against the interests of the working men and women of Australia, and certainly against the interests of those working men and women who choose to be represented by a trade union in this country.

So this Senate references committee will proceed; it has already started its work and has a well-established program. There is, therefore, no clear merit in having a debate on these bills before the conclusion of that Senate inquiry. But here we are, in the last week of the parliament before it rises for the Christmas break, and the minister brings in this legislation for debate. I do not see the sense in having this debate because the Senate inquiry will, you would think, come up with a set of recommendations. If the minister were fair dinkum he would examine those recommendations and incorporate the good ones into legislation; therefore any final legislation would be very different from the bills that are in the parliament now and being debated. But he is a very determined minister. He is obviously going to proceed along a particular course irrespective of the hard work and the deliberations of that Senate inquiry.

Labor has always made the case that if there are areas in this industry that warrant reform, the best way of going about it is through cooperation, not conflict; but this government is brimful of conflict and rejects the course of cooperation. The National Secretary of the ACTU, Mr Greg Combet, wrote many months ago to the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and offered a conciliatory approach—a process of examining reform proposals that involved cooperation among all of the key players in this very important industry. But, predictably and sadly, the former minister rejected that approach, as has the current minister. The minister's rejection is evident in the fact that he is pressing ahead with this legislation. This legislation will be debated here in the House of Representatives, but when it gets to the Senate I would imagine that the Senate will consider not examining it in any detail while the Senate inquiry takes its course.

I think it has been poor tactics on the part of this government to bring into this parliament a poorly conceived, misguided piece of legislation. It is legislation that is designed to not advance the building and construction industry in this country; it is designed to fail. Then, when it does fail, the minister feels that he will be able to go to the industry and say, `See? I tried.' That is not good enough. That is not from a true legislator but just a political operator who does not want any improvement in this industry. If he did, he would be talking to us about a cooperative approach. It is for all those good reasons that I move:

That all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

`the House declines to give the Bill a second reading and condemns the Government for:

(1) persistently seeking to erode the bargaining capacity of working Australians;

(2) its one-sided, confrontational approach to reform in this industry; and

(3) failing to address the non-payment of employee entitlements and tax evasion in the building and construction industry'.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Is the amendment seconded?

Ms Ellis —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.