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Wednesday, 3 December 2003
Page: 23685

Mr HARTSUYKER (7:11 PM) —I rise in the House tonight to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2003. These bills implement the findings of the Cole royal commission into the unlawful or otherwise inappropriate practice and conduct in the building and construction industry. The royal commission found that the construction industry was rife with lawlessness. It found there were breaches of the criminal law, breaches of the general law and numerous breaches of the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. It found that many of the participants in the building industry were flouting the law—the same laws that the rest of the Australian community and Australian business are required to follow. There was total disrespect and total disregard for the rule of law. I think that is unAustralian.

What the government is proposing in this legislation are measures to clean up this vitally important industry. The industry is indeed vitally important. In 2001-02 the building and construction industry was a $60 billion industry—almost six per cent of GDP in fact—employing over 700,000 people. This legislation is about fundamental and structural change to fix up the inherent lawlessness which was found by the Cole royal commission to be running rife throughout this very important industry.

The findings identified a number of problems in the New South Wales industry. About one-third of the building and construction industry is in New South Wales. It employs about 30 per cent of the people in the industry, or about 215,000 people. There is a culture in New South Wales which survives because of the symbiotic relationship between head contractors and the CFMEU. The CFMEU has been directly involved in deliberately preventing employees and employers in the industry in New South Wales and other states from having the opportunity of choosing the most appropriate agreement for their particular circumstances because they are effectively compelled to enter into union endorsed EBAs.

The whole notion of freedom of association, along with any sense of the need to obey the laws of the community, cannot apparently be found anywhere. There is no following of this government's highly successful workplace relations reforms. Interestingly, the commission found there is a widespread underpayment of workers' entitlements, and certainly that is something that Australians hold dear—that is, that people should be rightly paid the remuneration to which they are entitled under the law. There is evidence in the commission's findings of nonpayment of workers compensation contributions by employers. The royal commission's findings indicate there have been some improvements in respect of occupational health and safety; however, there still remains a high level of avoidable fatalities, accidents and injuries.

The building industry task force, which was set up in 1992 to discourage unlawful conduct in New South Wales, was disbanded in 1995. The findings of the Cole royal commission were that since that disbanding there has been a rise in industrial disputation in New South Wales. Unprotected action is a common occurrence and is regularly threatened in the New South Wales industry. The royal commissioner made findings on 25 separate incidents of unlawful conduct committed by individuals, unions and employers in the New South Wales industry. Royal Commissioner Cole said in his report on the situation that in New South Wales the categories of unlawful and otherwise inappropriate conduct which have been identified compel the conclusion that there is an urgent need for reform and cultural change in the New South Wales building and construction industry.

There were also findings handed down about the range of inappropriate actions taking place in the industry—these were not unlawful but only so because the current law is deficient. The commission made a number of recommendations with regard to inappropriate actions dealt with under the law, and this bill acts on those recommendations. The types of inappropriate conduct identified in the royal commission's findings include head contractors and unions jointly applying pressure with the intent of forcing subcontractors to sign union endorsed EBAs; head contractors and unions agreeing to work on a project where subcontractors must have union endorsed EBAs; union officials asserting that union endorsed EBAs are required to work in the industry in New South Wales; union officials making unfounded allegations in an endeavour to force subcontractors to sign union endorsed EBAs; and union officials pressuring subcontractors to abandon their non-union EBAs and enter EBAs which were sanctioned by the union.

There has also been the inclusion in EBAs of an automatic productivity allowance in circumstances where no productivity rises are foreshadowed or are likely. There have been cases of union officials threatening to prevent subcontractors who employ workers under terms of Australian workplace agreements from working on sites; head contractors requiring all employees of their subcontractors to be union members as a condition of the right to work on a site; and head contractors and subcontractors disregarding proper standards of occupational health and safety, resulting in risk to the safety of workers—and that is vitally important. Many businesses around the country are grappling with the problem of occupational health and safety issues. Occupational health and safety, or the lack of it in many cases, is driving up workers compensation insurance premiums in New South Wales. There is already a range of businesses in my electorate having difficulty competing because businesses in Queensland are enjoying lower workers compensation premiums. Anything that is pushing workers compensation premiums up is not a good thing. There have also been instances of union officials raising safety allegations and requiring work to cease where the cessation of work is manifestly excessive or unnecessary and, finally, unions and their officials and members disregarding the orders and directions of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

The government's legislative package, which we are considering here, is targeted at comprehensive reform and a new system of dedicated law enforcement in this vitally important industry. The key measures of the bill include setting up the Australian Building and Construction Commission to monitor and implement new guidelines developed under a new industry code. The commissioner's functions will include site inspections. Furthermore, there will be established a federal safety commissioner to oversee the issues identified in the royal commission's findings on occupational health and safety in Commonwealth funded construction projects; improvements to the bargaining framework by focusing on genuine bargaining at enterprise level; restrictions to pattern bargaining and provision for mandatory cooling-off periods during which protected industrial action will not be permitted; moves to make unlawful all industrial action within the limits of the constitution other than protected industrial action, with industry participants able to recover any losses they suffer due to unlawful action; strengthening of the freedom of association provisions so that a wider range of inappropriate behaviour, as identified by the Cole royal commission, can be effectively dealt with by the law; changes and enhancements to the right of entry system to clearly spell out the rights of the parties and their responsibilities and also to limit the scope of state laws which are used to circumvent federal requirements; moves to ensure that registered organisations are accountable for the actions of their officials and employees; and improvements in the compliance regime through increased penalties and the enhancement of the damages which are available against unlawful conduct.

There are a great many benefits across the board with these reforms. Independent research indicates that improvements in practices in the building and construction industry workplace could bring a gain in the order of $2.3 billion each year—I will repeat that: $2.3 billion—for the Australian economy, with the CPI falling by one per cent and construction costs falling by 6.5 per cent. They are pretty staggering improvements and I think that the members opposite should support the sort of economic improvement these reforms could bring.

Cheaper building costs will mean savings for businesses and citizens alike. The reforms will create a better working environment for decent employers and employees, with greater choices and a reduction in the entrenched culture of intimidation and fear. The royal commission made a compelling case in its findings for urgent cultural change and systematic reform. The recommendations and the government's response have been welcomed by industry groups, and that is quite fundamental because no industry should have to deal with the kind of unlawful behaviour going on in the building and construction industry. Change is needed, and this government is determined to achieve change. I call on the members opposite to support these vitally important reforms.

Both the Labor Party and the unions are on the record as saying they will not tolerate corruption, extortion and criminal behaviour in the building industry. I call on the members of the Labor Party to support these reforms and this bill, to give up the old Labor dogma and to join us in trying to improve the building industry. But, unfortunately, a Labor Party spokesman has come out and said the royal commission was a politically motivated witch-hunt and against the union movement—the same old chestnuts they dredge up all the time. The question is: does the Labor Party really care about improving occupational health and safety? Does the Labor Party really care about improved economic outcomes? Does the Labor Party really care about a better building industry or is it merely beholden to its union mates? The Labor Party and the unions just oppose, oppose, oppose. The ACTU statement of values says:

Unions believe that workplaces should be safe, secure, healthy and free from harassment, intimidation, violence and discrimination.

It is about time the members opposite gave up the tired old Labor rhetoric and supported the reforms which are embodied in this bill. There is a compelling case for reform out there. It was clearly identified by the Cole royal commission. We want to get rid of the lawlessness. We want to get a quality industry; we want to get a more economic outcome; and we want a better building and construction industry. If Labor is serious about a safe and productive building industry, it will support these bills. If Labor wants to play its part in the economic and social development of this nation, it will support these bills. If Labor wants to prove to the Australian people that it is not beholden to union thuggery, it will support these bills. If Labor wants to break from its way of doing business in the past, its way of mindless and endless opposition, it will support these bills. Certainly I believe that these bills will result in a welcome improvement in the building industry, and I commend the bills to the House.