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Tuesday, 9 August 2005
Page: 93

Mr LINDSAY (8:10 PM) —I well remember when the government embarked on addressing problems on Australia’s waterfront. We heard the same sorts of speeches from the Australian Labor Party as we have heard tonight about unfairness, complexity and how things might be done in a different way. But the Australian Labor Party at that time refused to recognise the problems on the Australian waterfront, as they refuse tonight to recognise the problems in the building industry in Australia.

The government addressed the problems on the waterfront which previous governments had been trying to address for 50 years. The government’s response was to actually do something and to have the hard fight; to work hard to fix the problems that were obviously there. What was the result? The maritime workers said: ‘We can’t be any more efficient. Sixteen containers an hour is all that we can move. It’ll never be any better than that. Not world’s best practice, but it’ll never be any better than that on the Australian waterfront.’ But the government insisted and, to John Howard’s and the Howard government’s credit, we now have a situation where employees got increases in pay and Australia and its exporters got world’s best practice on our waterfront. We are now seen as a nation that has a reliable waterfront where shipping companies can confidently say their ship will arrive at such and such a time and depart at such and such a time, there will be no industrial action, everything will be done and things will work smoothly. It has been a great outcome. I know the former minister Peter Reith suffered enormously at that time, but he will go down in the nation’s history as having achieved something for Australia that has been most valuable.

And so it is that the government now brings back to the parliament laws to address the problems in the building industry. I note that the Australian Labor Party again denies the problems that are there—it skirts around them. The Howard government works in Australia’s interest. It is not beholden to any particular section of the economy, because it recognises that a productive and efficient economic Australia is the best thing to achieve for its people. Look at the problems that the Cole royal commission unearthed. We all knew they were there but it took the government to establish the commission to document the problems. I will give you some examples. The royal commission found there was regular payment of money by contractors and subcontractors to a union, in an endeavour to buy industrial peace or to be able to undertake contracted work under explicit or implicit threat of industrial action, including payment of union membership fees, donations to union approved courses or, in extreme cases, CFMEU T-shirts. On one occasion at a Melbourne building site a subcontractor paid $7,000 to the CFMEU so that he could work on a particular site. The receipt he received from the union stated the money was for T-shirts.

Other examples reported to the building industry task force included an employer being forced to purchase raffle tickets for $10,000 in order to keep the building site open. Other employers have been forced to pay for temporary union membership for their employees even though they worked on the site only for a short period of time. Not surprisingly, the number of membership tickets they pay for is often far in excess of the number of actual employees on the site. These sorts of rorts impact on the productivity of Australian workplaces. There has not been a word from the Australian Labor Party on this.

In December last year, under a giant front-page headline ‘Rort city’, the Herald Sun reported the following rorts, rackets and threats on Melbourne building sites. Listen to this: at the Spencer Street Station redevelopment, now $200 million over budget, employers paid for 23 union officials to supervise the site even though none of them actually did any work on the site. Employers are paying the wages of ghost workers who do not even exist and these wages end up in the pockets of unions. Union officials are extorting $500 to $10,000 or payment in beer—called a ‘big drink’—from developers and subcontractors. A glazier was being threatened with all of his glass on the site being smashed unless he agreed to union demands. There has not been a word from the Australian Labor Party on these widespread actions in the building industry. We just hear the shadow minister saying that it is unfair that the government singles out an industry. Well, it is that single industry where the problems are.

These problems affect all of us, not just the unions, not just the employees and not just employers but all Australians. Excessive building costs—and that is what is happening here—mean Australian taxpayers are getting short-changed when it comes to things like schools or hospitals or even roads. It has to stop. That is why the government has introduced this legislation. The government is committed to reforming Australia’s $50 billion construction industry. Problems in the construction industry deliver concerns for the whole economy. Problems in this industry mean higher prices, fewer jobs and a lower standard of living for all Australians.

I am aware that independent research by Econtech has shown that improving the industry’s workplace relations practices would boost Australia’s economy by a massive $2.3 billion a year, but the Australian Labor Party stand against this, just as they stood against reform in the maritime area. The unions and the Labor Party have ducked and weaved and obstructed the government’s attempts and efforts to reform this industry. It is a terrible shame but you know why it happens. It is very clear. Since 1996 the CFMEU, one of the chief culprits in this, has bought the support of the Australian Labor Party with a donation of almost $5 million.

Everyone knows that the building and construction industry is different. It is a section of our economy where practices that would simply be unacceptable in other parts of the economy have been long tolerated. The rate of industrial action in the building industry in Australia just last year was 223.7 working days lost per 1,000 employees. That is five times the overall national average of 45.5. Nationally, 45.5 days per 1,000 employees are lost, but in the building industry it is five times that, at 223.7. It has also been estimated that the productivity in the commercial construction industry is 25 per cent lower than in the domestic housing construction industry. How could that be? How could that be tolerated? How could the Australian Labor Party defend that? In other words, it costs 25 per cent more to do the same kind of work on a large construction site as it does on a domestic home site.

Here is another point: small contractors are denied genuine freedom to work on their own terms and they are forced, sometimes violently, into deals done by unions and big building companies. I can attest to that from personal experience. Before I entered parliament I ran a contracting operation. I was working on the entire sound system of the Townsville entertainment centre. It was a very large project. My company had the contract to install all the electronics and sound systems in that entertainment centre. I was there working with my staff, as I have always worked with my staff. I had a pair of side cutters in my hand and this union official came up and ordered me to drop the side cutters. How dare I work alongside my staff on a job that my company had won? It is not on. The unions are not going to have that kind of thuggery. I certainly did not tolerate it at that time and it is not going to continue in this modern Australia.

The shadow minister raised safety issues. I have been on many large construction sites. I have recently been in the Pilbara in Western Australia. I have recently been on large mine sites where there is no union influence to protect the health and safety of workers because they are on AWAs. But health and safety is the single, No. 1, most important issue that both management and staff address. Both sides of the equation, the employer and the employee, know that it is in everybody’s interest to have a safe work site. Nothing is spared to ensure that that work site is safe. In fact, I found myself thinking that sometimes they go overboard with some of their health and safety practices, but that is what they do.

Mr Martin Ferguson —There were two deaths in the Pilbara last year.

Mr LINDSAY —I was at the West Angeles mine and everybody on that site, member for Batman, puts health and safety as the No. 1 priority. And they will continue to do that because it is in everybody’s interest.

Mr Martin Ferguson —Fifty deaths a year on building sites, and you say it is not important.

Mr LINDSAY —I thank the member for Batman and I know that he is genuine in his comments but I also know that good employers and good employees put safety at No. 1, and working together they can make sure that there will not be 50 incidents a year on building sites in Australia. I would like to finish by making this observation: nothing could be more truthful than the words of the Prime Minister in this parliament earlier today when he said that the Howard government is the best friend the worker has ever had.