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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23663


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (5:31 PM) —I rise to make some remarks about the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003 and its cognate bill, the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2003. The member for Fairfax certainly considers that there are some parts of this legislation that would go towards improving productivity in the workplace in the construction industry, and it may well be the case that he is genuine in that view. However, from the time that the government initiated the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, it was clear to many observers inside this place and to independent commentators that the government's intention, in the main, was about going after a strong trade union, a union that represents many thousands of employees who are hard workers and contributors to the Australian economy. The building industry is a very important industry to the economy.

I think it is fair to say that there are clearly echoes of former Minister Reith's efforts in the maritime industry, where we had training of replacement employees in Dubai—secret training outside Australia—and we had goons, balaclavas and attack dogs. Those things were done with the imprimatur of this government. This legislation is just another step in the government's plan to undermine and weaken collective bargaining in this country.

This government likes to boast that it believes in a market economy, it believes in deregulation and it believes in parties making decisions. But this legislation reminds us that what the government really wants to see is an obsequious work force, a tame work force, a divided and dispirited work force, that is not able to bargain genuinely and does not have the capacity to bargain equally with its employers. It is clear to me why there is no examination of other industries. I am sure there is some corruption in the building industry; there is corruption in every industry. There are people who act unlawfully in all industries. There would be members of the CFMEU who have acted criminally—there are over 100,000 members of the CFMEU. There are doctors who have acted criminally, there are teachers who have acted criminally and I am sure there are lawyers who have acted criminally. But we do not blame the AMA because doctors have acted criminally.

So what we see here is a government that is quite happy to see a deregulated industry where there is very little bargaining power for those employees. If they are not unionised, they have very little collective capacity to bargain equally with their employer, and the government is happy. You do not see any intervention by this government when employees are having difficulty bargaining equally with their employers. The only occasion in which you see this government intervene in an industry is where the employees are bargaining effectively and collectively. That is what we see here: a pattern where the government argues that it wants to encourage a market economy but where the government itself becomes the greatest intervener in the market where employees are bargaining genuinely, collectively and effectively. That is clearly the intention of this government—and that, I think, exposes the plan of this Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, who has of course inherited these tactics from his two predecessors, and the intention behind this bill.

If, for example, this bill had genuinely looked at occupational health and safety matters in the building industry, I might have at least a tempered view on it. If the royal commission that was established had genuinely considered the deaths and injuries that have occurred in this industry, I might have a different view of this bill. If the royal commission had been charged with the responsibility of seeing how they could stop underpayment of employees in the industry by unscrupulous employers, then I would think it was a balanced effort by the government to consider problems.

But the government was not able to do that, because it had one agenda and one agenda only: to go after a strong trade union and go after working people—who are, as I said, a very important, productive part of our economy—because they choose to bargain collectively. That is really what is happening here, and I think it is a disgrace. I think it is the wrong thing for any government to do, particularly one that keeps saying that there should not be too much intervention. When you argue that you want almost a laissez-faire approach to the economy, it is very hard to then explain what you are doing intervening so heavily and so proscriptively in an industry, which is what occurs in the building industry.

I have some grave concerns about the intentions of this government on this matter because they cannot be trusted. The government cannot be trusted, because they are ideologically in pursuit of unions. I use the word `ideology'—a word that is perhaps not used very often anymore—but this government's ideology can be defined by what they hate or what they would like to deny people rather than something that I could define as being positive.

Clearly, this government wants to see people denied bulk-billing. It set about to diminish the capacity of the Medicare system to provide proper health care. Clearly, this government is quite happy to see children behind barbed wire. We have made a plea to the Prime Minister—an effort was made by the Leader of the Opposition today; he beseeched the Prime Minister—to allow those children out before Christmas. But this is a cruel and harsh government which has no regard for children behind barbed wire.

The government has no concern for people who are having to pay back enormous amounts of money because of the faulty tax benefit system—a system where people have accrued enormous debts and are now in a position where they have to pay back moneys. The way in which this government set this up is another indicator that this is a government that does not care about ordinary working people or about recipients of social welfare in this country. Ordinary working Australians are the natural enemy of the Liberal Party, of this government.

With all the effort that has been put in and the millions and millions of taxpayers' dollars that have been spent on the Cole royal commission, the government still could not make effective recommendations to sort out the deaths, fatalities and injuries that have arisen in what is a pretty tough industry, a hard industry. To work as a builder on a construction site is a tough and potentially dangerous job. To put up a scaffold or to work harnessed is very dangerous, and the government have no regard for that.


Mr Hockey —Where did you ever work? Did you ever work?


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —I understand that the minister wants to have a go at me.


Mr Hockey —Were you a union official?


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —I am happy to respond to the Minister for Small Business and Tourism—though the only thing small about him is the fact that he represents small business. I have worked in many jobs, but I am not here to speak about myself. I know that Joe likes to talk about himself all the time.


Mr Hockey —What jobs?


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —I have done a lot of jobs in factories and all sorts of places.


Mr Hockey —Actually working in the factory or a union official?


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. B.C. Scott)—Minister, you are out of your chair.


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —I am very happy for the minister to provide me with an opportunity to explain that I have worked on assembly lines in factories, at petrol stations and as a cleaner in hospitals. I am happy to say that I have rubbed shoulders with decent, ordinary working Australians of this country. I have done that for many years, and I am very happy to say that. Unless Joe had goggles and a white overall on and he was touring a factory for a photo shoot, he would not be in a factory. He would never have been in a factory unless he had been there for a photo shoot—and that is obvious. That is where the divide is between the two major parties in this country. We know what ordinary working people aspire to and we know those people because we work amongst them—we always have—unlike the Minister for Small Business and Tourism, who has never rubbed shoulders with ordinary working people.

It is a shame that he thinks that this is such an unimportant matter that he wants to make fun while I am talking about fatalities in the building industry. The government has not responded to the concerns of many who have said that, if this commission had at least attempted to look at some of those other matters, there would have been a belief that, whilst not agreeing with the government on all points, they were being fair dinkum in at least some areas. Unfortunately, the terms of reference of the royal commission were too narrow to take in the genuine concern of those who represent the employees in the industry that more had to be done about health and safety.

One of the concerns I have with this bill is that it tries to prevent people stopping work in the event that there may be an OH&S dimension to the matter. In other words, there are attempts in this bill to diminish the capacity for people to stop work if they think the workplace is unsafe. As the shadow minister, the member for Rankin, has said, this legislation is designed to restrict the capacity of unions in this industry to represent their members and take lawful industrial action. It appears to me that the only reason we have this bill focused purely on this industry—and not upon other places where there is very little collective bargaining—is that this industry is collectively organised. The government therefore reveal their enmity towards ordinary working people who choose to collectively bargain.

I will make reference to some other matters in the bill. As the member for Fairfax said, the commission was established in August 2001 and it reported to us in, I think, February this year. There are some real concerns about some of the provisions. Firstly, there is a concern that the definition of `building work' is very broad and includes parts of the manufacturing industry. Therefore, even though players in the manufacturing industry were not called in to be examined evidentially, if you like, this bill may apply to the employers and employees who were not even involved in the commission.

There are also concerns raised by many on this side of the House about the attempts to establish the ABCC—the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner—and the Federal Safety Commissioner. However, the establishment of the Federal Safety Commissioner's position, in my view, is the government's weak attempt to show that it is addressing occupational health and safety issues. In other words, that position is the only thing that has been achieved out of this commission with respect to occupational health and safety. It is window-dressing in an area of such importance. Clearly the government has paid scant regard to that very important area.

It is also important to note that the provisions being considered are restrictive and establish so many procedural and technical hurdles that it would almost be impossible to take legal protected industrial action in the building industry. I do not want to live in a country where people do not have the lawful right to withdraw their labour. The only countries I can think of where, historically, citizens have had no right to withdraw their labour are those that in many cases have been under fascist regimes and Communist totalitarian regimes. I do not want to live in a country that would deny, in effect, the right of ordinary working Australians to withdraw their labour if they are looking to bargain for their conditions, wages and entitlements. Indeed, there is no reference to the employers' capacity to lock out workers—there is no attempt to diminish that capacity. The focus has been on looking at the way in which they can prevent employees taking industrial action.

Really what is happening here is that the government are making a special case for these employees. I have said already that I think this effort really exposes the government's agenda—that is, they will punish work forces that collectively bargain and they will leave with no protection at all those workers who are non-unionised or who are not bargaining collectively. They are very happy with that. But if there is a growing effort in an industry to come together and negotiate at the table on behalf of a large workplace or the work force as a whole, then this government will be after them. That is what this bill highlights: this government will be targeting those employees who democratically choose their right to bargaining collectively.

Another concern I have had with respect to this bill is that there is an effort to limit the right of entry to workplaces. The right of entry of a union official is critical to a democratic workplace. The right to enter workplaces on notice has been allowed for over a century. With that right comes responsibility. I accept that there needs to be responsibility with that right and therefore of course there needs to be notice provided to the employer. A union official is an agent for a principal: in agency law a union official is acting on behalf of another in the same way that a lawyer or, indeed, any advocate is. To deny a group of people the right to have representation, whether it is about a matter that relates to dismissal or their rights in general, is to deny natural justice—the basic human right to allow people to be represented. There are enough lawyers in this place, and I know the Minister for Small Business and Tourism would agree that you should not deny people the right to be represented. I think there are efforts made to diminish the capacity for people to be properly represented in the workplace, and that to me is a worrying sign as well.

We know the reason behind the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, setting up this commission. It was about going after a union that effectively represents the work force. I do not know how many stages there were but this was the second stage—the first stage being the attack dogs and the balaclavas and the goons at the waterfront. I think the Australian public know that the efforts of this government are driven by an ideological hatred of registered organisations that represent employees. The government is on the wrong track if it thinks ordinary Australians believe the way to go about things in this country is to attack democratically organised unions. Those governments that have done that most brutally in our history, of course, are dictatorships. Countries without unions that have the capacity to bargain are dictatorships. That is the way we are moving and I ask the government to reconsider its position. (Time expired)