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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23680

Ms HOARE (6:52 PM) —The opposition are proud to oppose the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2003 as this legislation is just another attack on the trade union movement and, as we call it, the wider labour family. That is something we have come to expect from this government. Hopefully this is the last time we will see legislation like this introduced by the government before workers across the country have their say at the next election and elect a Latham led Labor government.

The purpose of this legislation is to introduce specific workplace relations and occupational health and safety regulations for the Australian building and construction industry by establishing an Australian building and construction commissioner and a federal safety commissioner, and by altering the bargaining framework by focusing on genuine bargaining at the enterprise level, restricting pattern bargaining and providing for mandatory cooling-off periods during which protected industrial action is not permitted. It makes unlawful all industrial action within constitutional limits other than protected industrial action, with industry participants able to recover any losses they suffer due to unlawful action. It strengthens freedom of association provisions so that a wider range of behaviour identified by the royal commission is effectively dealt with by amending the right of entry system to clearly spell out the rights and responsibilities of parties. It limits the scope for state law to be used to circumvent federal requirements, it ensures that registered organisations are accountable for the actions of their officials and employees, and it strengthens the compliance regime by increasing penalties and increasing access to damages for unlawful conduct. By laying the purpose of the legislation out in this way, I have detailed every single reason why we are opposed to it.

This legislation has come about following recommendations made by the Cole royal commission, which was set up by the previous Minister for Workplace Relations in this place, Minister Abbott. To put this legislation in context we need to talk about the facts of the Cole royal commission. In reality, the Cole royal commission was a trial of those who dare to organise and improve the lot of building workers—their pay, conditions and safety. The Cole royal commission was a coalition government set-up, designed to justify taking draconian measures against the building and construction unions and to give the coalition an election issue to beat up the Labor Party with. We say: `Bring it on.'

Minister Abbott found $60 million to ferret out the so-called truth. Government lawyers received $19.1 million of this, at a cost of $50,000 per hour of sitting. Cole himself received $660,000 per year plus houses supplied in both Melbourne and Sydney, allowances and air fares home to Sydney. In excess of 90 per cent of the commission's efforts could be categorised as inquiring into anti-union, anti-worker activities. The commission ducked the big issues in the building and construction industry—namely, lack of compliance by employers with awards, agreements and superannuation and payroll tax obligations; workers compensation premiums; workers redundancy entitlements; and the all-important paramount issue of the health and safety of construction workers.

The CFMEU analysed all the public transcripts, witness appearances and witness statements of the Cole royal commission. The analysis showed that the royal commission spent the overwhelming majority of its time investigating anti-union and, in particular, anti-CFMEU topics. Its efforts to investigate neutral topics were minor, tokenistic and away from the gaze of the national media. I have been provided with a summary of the CFMEU's analysis of that material, and I would like to go through a few points from that.

Of public hearing time, 90.33 per cent was spent investigating anti-union topics. None of the public hearing time was devoted to investigating anything positive about trade unions, while 3.3 per cent of public hearing time was devoted to topics which adversely reflected upon employers and 34,874 minutes of public hearing time was devoted to topics which adversely reflected upon the CFMEU. Most of the commission's time was spent on matters relating to the CFMEU in some way. The commission spent 81.06 per cent of public hearing time investigating anti-CFMEU topics, and it spent more time investigating anti-union topics in Sydney than in any other capital city, including Melbourne. This is indeed significant, given that the commission was based in Melbourne and heard all of its nationally based matters in that city.

Of the time spent by counsel assisting in delivering long statements—usually referred to as opening statements—93.1 per cent was spent on anti-union topics. Of the time large employers spent in the witness box, 62.2 per cent was spent making accusations against unions, while 82.6 per cent of the time other employers spent in the witness box was spent making accusations against unions and 80.1 per cent of the time union officials spent in the witness box was spent defending accusations about unions. Only 419 minutes of public hearing time was spent with a worker in the witness box, while 17,554 minutes—which is 41 times more than 419 minutes—was spent with an employer, or a representative of an employer, in the witness box. Union officials spent 11,981 minutes in the witness box.

The style of questioning of the counsel assisting changed depending upon the kind of evidence being given. Where witnesses were defending accusations made against unions, counsel assisting usually questioned them in an accusatorial manner. In contrast, when witnesses were making allegations against unions, counsel assisting became more friendly and gave them an easy time. The analysis concludes that, in general, counsel assisting interrogated union officials and delegates while giving employers an easy time.

We are all aware that the $60 million Cole royal commission was set up from the start to undermine and attack organised labour in Australia, particularly the construction union. Royal commissions should not be used as political tools. This process has shown a great disrespect to the institution of the royal commission and shows the government is prepared to bring into question the use of royal commissions when such blatant political purposes are behind them.

A worker has every right to expect that he or she will return home uninjured and alive after each day of work. The fact that the commission did not examine this issue with the depth that it deserves is absolutely outrageous. The shocking reality is that, on average, one building worker is killed each week in Australia—and those are just the reported deaths; how many go unreported? The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission figures show that one in every 10,000 construction workers will die on the job. Comparing the risks with other industries, around 20 per cent of all workplace injuries happen on building sites. The safety commission estimates that the annual cost of building industry deaths and injuries is $20 billion.

In 1998-99, 54 construction workers died as a result of their work and 12,630 suffered non-fatal injuries. As I said, one in every 10,000 construction workers will die at work. More than one in five construction workers have suffered a workplace injury of some kind. In the Cole royal commission, workplace safety was confined to a two-day conference. In an industry where one person dies every week, not one employer was put in the box to be examined about poor safety practices.

I would like to now go to the so-called confidential volume, volume 23, of the royal commission report. To do this properly I need to quote from an article that was published in the Australian Financial Review on 29 September this year, entitled `Cole inquiry's empty charges'. I would like to go through a couple of the points made in that article:

While the $60 million, 18-month-long Cole royal commission generated some sensational headlines about violence, there are just 10 possible assaults listed in the secret section of its report. The worst case involves a union official “punching” an employer's hand, causing an object to be knocked to the ground during a heated conversation.

Still, the 26 cases documented in this volume paint an industry marred by an undertone of violence, where employers and unions intimidate, threaten and speak abusively to get their way.

Most of the alleged crimes in the volume emanate from this sort of behaviour. About 70 of the proposed charges relate to threats to spark industrial action to inflict financial damage or to extract payments or threats to harm someone or their family for similar ends.

... ... ...

Just five of the possible Cole report charges relate to - relatively minor - property damage. In fact, there is no mention of some of the most sensational allegations made during the hearings, involving payments to underworld figures, vandalism of building sites and bribery.

This is the volume that the government did not want to see. The article goes on:

Of the 31 people accused of crimes, 22 are union officials and nine are employers or managers; none are so-called “colourful identities”...

Along with threats and assaults, the charges range from fraud, contempt, obscenity, disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly and trespass to more arcane acts such as uttering ...

... ... ...

So far, only two CFMEU officials have faced civil charges arising from Cole.

CFMEU state secretary Martin Kingham was prosecuted for contempt of the commission for failing to hand over documents. But a magistrate said he was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the document sought by the inquiry existed. He said he was “more satisfied” that Kingham “at no time had the documents in his actual possession, custody, power or control”.

... ... ...

The only other criminal prosecution to have occurred is that of Salvatore “Sammy” Manna, a NSW CFMEU official who was charged with perjury after he told the commission that he had had sex with the wife of the manager of a Sydney building company.

Further on, the article says:

... [the] head of the interim taskforce established by the Howard government to crack down on unlawful practices in the building industry, told a parliamentary committee that it had dropped 32 of the 84 matters referred by the royal commission because they were too old, because there was insufficient evidence or because witnesses had refused to co-operate.

... ... ...

Cole [himself] highlighted in the introduction to his 23rd volume the fact that the commission's threshold for making findings was much lower than in a court of law. ... “Most of the matters investigated by the commission `might' have constituted a breach of civil or criminal law,” he said.

Also, unlike the HIH royal commission, Cole only allowed limited cross-examination of witnesses. Extensive cross-examination might have highlighted any failings in the evidence given.

Cole said:

In my opinion, procedural fairness does not invariably require commissions to permit cross-examination ... That is so even where evidence has been given that is adverse to the interests of the person who wishes to conduct the cross-examination.

So that article, published in the Financial Review at the end of September, highlights the lack of integrity (1) of the royal commission itself and (2) of the procedures of the royal commission with regard to some of the allegations and charges that were laid during the commission but which have not eventuated. Yet the government has seen fit, on the basis of that royal commission, to bring into this place legislation—which does not look at the health and safety of construction workers—to totally regulate the building and construction industry and also to attack and try to dismantle the CFMEU, the trade union that covers the construction industry.

Mr Deputy Speaker Barresi, you would know that Alan Jones is rarely a friend of the Labor Party, but I would like to quote him, also in September, from the editorial he has on the Today show every morning. He said:

It tends to be fashionable in this country to have a hit at the union movement.

And I have to say I've been guilty of that in the past.

But when you see the farce that is Ansett and the extent to which companies just go belly-up and leave workers whistling with nothing, then perhaps some sections of the union movement aren't tough enough.

There has been a fairly major exercise in union-bashing going on for some months, calling itself a Royal Commission into the building industry.

Remember, this is the same building industry that delivered the 2000 Olympic Games and all its infrastructure miles ahead of time.

But the Victorian secretary of the CFMEU has been charged and faces a fine or gaol because he refused twice in July and August to give the name of shop stewards who attended CFMEU training workshops in 2001-2002.

So a union official is subject to criminal charges because he refuses to give up the names of union activists.

He simply said he wasn't going to put the livelihood of them and their families at risk.

Well, you might remember that the national secretary of the CFMEU John Sutton, called for the Royal Commissioner Mr Justice Cole to stand down because a report was issued in August critical of the New South Wales branch of the CFMEU, allegedly without hearing evidence from the union.

And the union released at the time some unbelievable figures.

Now surely in all of these things fairness has to be real as well as apparent.

But a bloke refuses to give up the names of his shop stewards and he faces criminal charges.

It sounds fairly un-Australian.

We say it is unfair and unjust. There was a recent survey conducted by Essential Research into community attitudes to the federal government, unions, the royal commission and the building industry. It sends a stark message to members of the government if they continue to pursue this line. In summary, the survey found:

Unions received positive support from the community on core issues.

Job security remains an issue of high concern.

Community support the right of workers to take industrial action to protect wages and conditions.

The public believe that the role of Government in industrial relations is to bring all sides together to sort problems out.

Community see that there are corrupt practices in the building industry, and that projects do not get completed on time or on budget.

The community supports tough action on unions, but a greater percentage support tough action on companies.

The public do not support de-registration of the union.

The public believe that the Government is more interested in the behaviour of unions than the behaviour of company directors and executives.

The public believe that building workers are well looked after by their union, and that they should have a right to belong to whatever union they choose. The public understand that it is a tough industry and that health and safety is a real issue.

In conclusion, the summary states:

The Government would not be supported if it was seen to be acting unfairly to target the union.

Martin Loosemore, a professor of construction management at the University of New South Wales, says that this legislation arising from the Cole royal commission is `narrow, divisive and confrontational'. Professor Loosemore said that the construction industry needed to lift its game on training practices, contractual reform, human resource management, procurement practices and the fact that price rather than quality drove investment. None of these issues, he said, has been addressed by this legislation. This bill seeks to severely restrict the ability of building workers to take industrial action over safety, wages and conditions. It would introduce massive fines and prison terms for union members who breach its provisions; allow union officials to be barred from the industry, even for technical breaches; and would be policed by a special taxpayer funded task force.

As I have said in this place, we on this side of the parliament are proud to represent the workers right around this country. We are proud to have alliances with the trade union movement. We are proud to be here. We will be even prouder when we are sitting on those benches opposite and are able to get rid of a lot of this draconian legislation which this government has introduced. If the government wants to fight an election on industrial issues, we say, `Bring it on.' We will win because we have a proud tradition of supporting the workers of this country.