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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23667

Mr BARRESI (5:52 PM) —I have been listening to the member for Burke going on about how this is an attack by a government that is ideologically biased against unions and how the democracy of our nation is at stake because of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003, and it is just laughable. I want to say to the member for Burke that he and his colleagues should go back and re-read what this bill is all about. It has been totally misrepresented and, if anything, the ideological opposition to this is because of the single-minded hatred by members on the other side of the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. That is what it is all about. This is just an attack against the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. What the Australian public know and know all too well—and they did not need the Cole royal commission to tell them—is that the building industry is corrupt and it has been corrupt for many years.

I will address a little later on some of the comments by the member for Burke, in particular, regarding occupational health and safety and the undermining of its safeguards that he alluded to. But before that, I want to say that this bill really has come about as a result of the much publicised Cole royal commission and the recommendations made by the commissioner to clean up the industry. I welcome this opportunity as action against lawlessness and inappropriate conduct in the building industry is long overdue. The findings of the Cole commission are a real wake-up call: to the government, the opposition, building employers and the employees of Australia associated with that industry. The Cole commission found that, over time, a culture of lawlessness has developed in the building industry. This has led to a widespread disregard for criminal, civil and industrial law.

As I said, there would not be a single Australian who, if asked, would disagree with the proposition that the building industry has, for too long, been corrupted—principally by lawless union officials but also, in some cases, by shonky building industries all too willing to cut a deal with a union. And while the Cole royal commission was eagerly awaited and clearly overdue, the task now is for the government to respond to the findings in an astute and responsible way.

The newly elected Leader of the Opposition talks about doing things that are right for this country—advancing this nation in a bipartisan way. This is a great opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition, who has stated through various speeches and writings over time that the union movement has got too big and is not really representing the interests of a lot of ordinary people out there in the work force. It is the government's and the parliament's response that can put statutory substance to the commission's recommendations, and it is the responsibility of the government and the opposition to make sure that lawlessness does not go unanswered in this country. Wherever it may be—whether with the employers or with the union movement itself—it needs to be addressed in an urgent way.

I urge all members of this House to take all matters into consideration when considering this bill, not to be ideologically biased but to really read through the commission's findings, to read through some of the evidence that was given and to read through the recommendations that were made rather than simply hold onto some sort of pathological hatred towards the former Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. It can help send a strong signal to anyone in the building industry who threatens to flout the law, and it sends a message that thuggery and intimidation cannot and will not be tolerated.

The building industry, as in other workplaces, is governed by laws designed to regulate disputes. Perhaps even more important than this, these laws are designed to protect the health and safety of all industry members. Unfortunately, the building industry has provided numerous cases of these laws being blatantly and dangerously flouted. This bill was designed to place resolution measures into law, which is a deficiency within the current Workplace Relations Act. When the former workplace relations minister, Tony Abbott, introduced the bill on 18 September this year, he highlighted such problems. In particular, Minister Abbott specifically mentioned that the onus for compliance lay with the parties involved. Businesses were obliged to enforce the law against unions while unions were to enforce the law against businesses. The problem with this scenario is that it enables workers all too often to be caught in the crossfire.

I want to voice concern that the building industry will remain flawed as long as the union movement is determined to preserve an undue dominance. The Cole royal commission's findings reveal that this dominance is extreme, unhealthy and tantamount to a quasi monopoly. To breathe life into the ranks, the building industry needs to embrace individualism and to stamp out the blatant disregard for freedom of association laws.

I am not alone when I express my concerns about widespread malpractice within the building industry. The Cole royal commission identified that, in many cases, building sites were tantamount to a law unto themselves. The commission's findings were a real wake-up call for the building and construction industry. These included extensive illegal and improper payments, a blatant and chronic disregard of legally binding agreements and regular flouting of orders issued by courts and the Industrial Relations Commission. But sadly, the commission's findings highlighted more sinister problems at grassroots level namely—a culture of coercion and intimidation. And not only does such a culture affect the efficiency and productivity of the industry; it is also detrimental to the health and safety of its workers, which all of us in this place must find simply unacceptable.

The Cole royal commission was an extensive and necessary inquiry. All up, the commission conducted 171 days of public hearings in which over 700 witnesses gave evidence. I find it pleasing that the commission also received over 20 official submissions from interested parties throughout the building and construction industry. It plainly demonstrates the gravity of concern that malpractice such as union thuggery generates.

During the life of the commission 1,489 summonses to attend public or private hearings and 1,677 notices to produce relevant documents were issued. This is no small breach taking place in the building industry. The sheer numbers involved in the summonses and in the hearings indicate how widespread the malpractices and the lawlessness have been within the building industry. I believe that the depth of this inquiry shows how critical the building and construction industry is to the Australian economy in general.

Let us have a look at some of the figures. In the 2001-02 period, the total production of the commercial construction industry was $40 billion. This represents 5.5 per cent of Australia's GDP and 7.5 per cent of the nation's employment. Not only does a culture of lawlessness have a significant negative effect on the Australian economy; it also permeates the lives of workers and their families. The industry makes a huge and multifaceted contribution to Australia. A 5.5 per cent contribution to GDP is no small industry, and to allow an industry of such magnitude to continue to operate in a lawless way is really a dereliction of our duty as law-makers in this nation.

The establishment of the Cole royal commission resulted from, amongst other factors, calls for an inquiry from significant participants in the construction industry. Above all, problems in the construction industry led to higher prices, fewer jobs and a lower standard of living for all. I believe that these problems are serious and it would be foolish for a parliament not to act on them when they can be addressed.

In all, the Cole royal commission made 212 recommendations in its final report. This bill seeks to implement over 120 of these recommendations, giving the federal government and the parliament a tangible opportunity to tackle the corruption in the building and construction industry head-on. The commission was a thorough and damning appraisal of the industry. This bill provides a chance to act on these findings and implement the real and lasting reform of the building industry that I believe is so desperately needed by the community.

Members across the floor may well have conflicting views on what the commission's in-depth investigation into the building industry set out to achieve. Indeed sections of the union movement, to which the Australian Labor Party is spiritually and financially beholden, have claimed that the Cole royal commission was an anti-union witch-hunt or, more blatantly, a war on workers. I cannot see how attempting to get to the bottom of an industry where backhand deals and blatant thuggery are rife is a witch-hunt. Change is the essence of what this bill is about, and the opposition has a real opportunity in its new found role with its new leader to make that step and improve the industry—for the sake of not only the industry but the very workers it purports to represent.

The blatant failure of current workplace relations measures on building sites is apparent. The report from the Cole royal commission highlighted several key instances where union officials have used thuggish, strongarm tactics to express their concerns. This is of particular interest to me as a demolition firm, Able Demolitions and Excavations Pty Ltd, based in my electorate of Deakin, was one of those organisations that had been targeted by the union and is also one of those industries that gave evidence to the Cole royal commission.

In late 1999 to early 2000, Able—not an insignificant demolition company, by the way; it is a prominent demolition and excavation company with specific experience and expertise which very few others have—tendered for a demolition contract in the reconstruction of the National Gallery of Victoria. After winning the contract, Able took control of the NGV site in July 2000, with its workers covered by a mutually agreed 1998 enterprise bargaining agreement with the Australian Workers Union. The conditions of this agreement, although mutually recognised, angered the rival CFMEU. In an effort to express their anger, the CFMEU confronted Able and the AWU, a fellow union organisation, at the NGV site on 10 August 2000.

Rather than using conventional channels for industrial action, the CFMEU used strongarm, thuggish tactics by violently entering the site. Once inside the site, CFMEU members proceeded to damage property, threaten Able staff and campaign aggressively against—of all organisations—a fellow union, the AWU. It perplexes me that such behaviour is tolerated, let alone promoted, by senior union officials. By not allowing this bill to go through, the opposition is condoning that very behaviour.

During the CFMEU's protest at the NGV site, union leader Martin Kingham blatantly flouted health and safety laws. These laws were in place to protect the welfare of workers, the interests of whom he claims to represent—the same health and safety laws which the member for Burke said were important and needed to be protected. Once the forced negotiations between site management and the CFMEU fell through later in the day, Kingham's response was to continue occupying the site and, in turn, force a strike upon the Able workers. To implement this so-called strike, the CFMEU left 20 of its henchmen to prevent Able staff from returning to work. The move was backed up with a threat from Kingham. He argued that any move by Able to return to the site would result in 600 CFMEU members flooding back to beef up the picket line.

I believe that the actions undertaken by the CFMEU highlight a blatant disregard for the law. Able workers were covered by a mutually agreed EBA with the AWU. The company competed in an open tender for the NGV demolition contract and they won it. The thuggish actions of the CFMEU merely represent the desperate tactics that sections of the union movement within the building industry will resort to. Such tactics attempt to maintain a level of power that is detrimental to competition, detrimental to the industry and detrimental to workers.

Sadly, Able have continued to be targeted. I understand that, since they gave evidence to the commission, they have struggled and there have been a lot of impediments in their way to winning some of the state government contracts. There is no doubt that there has been some level of intimidation—a phone call made by the CFMEU to state government ministers basically saying that Able are on a black list. Yet they are the dominant demolition company in the industry. Their participation in the Cole royal commission has been to their financial detriment.

Thankfully, through an administrative arrangement and on the recommendation of Commissioner Cole, a building industry task force has been set up. This building industry task force is effectively, using the former minister's terminology, `a cop on the building industry beat'. Its task is to ensure that the rule of law and order is adhered to on building sites. The task force has direct power to inspect sites under the powers of the Workplace Relations Act, but its other powers are limited, which is one of the reasons why this bill is needed, why a commissioner for the industry is necessary and why a commissioner for safety is also being recommended through this bill.

In response to the member for Burke with regard to safety and the establishment of a commissioner, let me remind the member for Burke that the new rules will not prevent an employee from stopping work based on a genuine concern that there is an imminent risk to health and safety. The rules promote the use—the genuine use, not the fraudulent use—of OH&S issues as agreed through the workplace procedures. But what we found through the royal commission was that it is very common for unions in the building and construction industry to manipulate occupational health and safety issues in order to advance their industrial agenda—not the safety agenda, but their industrial agenda. Contrary to what the member for Burke was saying, this tactic trivialises occupational health and safety and undermines genuine efforts to improve OH&S in the industry. The bill aims to limit the scope for spurious occupational health and safety concerns to be used to justify industrial action about other issues, while maintaining the right of employees to stop work without penalty where there is a genuine and imminent risk to a person's health and safety. They are the safeguards. It is not just about cleaning up the lawlessness in the industry; it is also about ensuring that a highly dangerous industry such as the building and construction industry has safeguards and that it has a commissioner to look after the interests of the employees when it comes to safety and occupational health.

Thuggery and lawlessness are not new in the union movement. From a general perspective, reforms should begin at the grassroots level. To their credit, a few influential union officials have attempted to crack down on violence and intimidation. As many in the House will be aware, one such official was Doug Cameron, the National Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. However, as we found out in recent times, because of the pressure he brought to bear to weed out violence, Mr Cameron himself became the victim of a vicious bashing outside his home. Workplace relations minister Kevin Andrews touched on this issue on 2 December. Minister Andrews informed the House that the Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Mr Greg Combet, had clearly stated that he has been trying to clean up this sort of intimidation and thuggery. I believe that the bashing of key union officials, such as Mr Cameron, shows that these apparent moves are not working. Another bashing and hospitalisation of a Victorian plumbing union official last week at, of all places, a strategy meeting demonstrates that the culture of the building industry needs true reform. This bill offers true reform that puts paid to the hard work undertaken by the Cole royal commission. Lawlessness and thuggery in the industry, even within the union movement itself, must come to an end.

I find it perplexing that members on the other side of the House argue that the efforts to weed out such lawlessness are purely ideological. I disagree with this and argue that they are logical. As former Minister Abbott stated on 18 September:

Econtech also estimates that if labour productivity in commercial construction matched labour productivity in housing, the CPI would be one per cent lower ...

This is a very significant improvement. On the one hand, the issue of ideology is all the more evident when applied to the Australian Labor Party. On the other hand, they have taken a high moral ground and attempted to distance themselves from corruption, extortion and criminal behaviour in the building industry. However, Labor's rusted-on links with the trade union movement see them oppose this bill. Why wouldn't they oppose this bill when, between 1996 and 2000, the Labor Party received over $3,866,669 in fees and donations from the CFMEU? This bill is a bill about cleaning up the industry. This bill needs to be supported by all members of this parliament. (Time expired)