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Wednesday, 10 August 2005
Page: 105

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (4:47 PM) —If there are any unionists or workers who needed convincing of the pernicious and punitive intent of the Howard government to drive the boot into Australian workers, then they only need to read and understand what I term a rotten piece of legislation from the Howard government. This is a government that talks obscenely about legislating for honesty, integrity and good practice in the building and construction industry. It would do the Prime Minister well to straighten out his own political backyard. My suggestion to the Prime Minister and his Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations is simply to practise what you preach and to introduce some honesty and integrity into the government’s own political conduct before you sanctimoniously seek to lecture and legislate this conduct in others.

I remind every worker in Geelong that this is the Prime Minister who gave Australian politics the non-core promise. The most gratuitous insult you could ever pay a working family is to make them a non-core promise, yet this is the stock in trade of a Prime Minister who has led a government that has lied in a political sense to Geelong workers and their families on one too many occasions. This is the Prime Minister who said he would never, ever—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! In pre-empting the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration, the honourable member for Corio will assist the chair by withdrawing the remark—in a political sense or any other way.

Dr Stone —He is saying that the Prime Minister is a liar.

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —The truth always hurts. That is what he is!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member will withdraw unconditionally.

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —I withdraw unconditionally that the Prime Minister is a political liar. However, the Australian people know their politics and so do the electors of Geelong. This is the stock in trade of a Prime Minister who leads a government that has told Geelong workers and their families on too many occasions one thing and then done another. This is the Prime Minister who said he would never, ever introduce the GST and he betrayed the trust of every Australian when he did. This is the Prime Minister who said that he would never, ever privatise Telstra. This is the Prime Minister who made certain statements about the Medicare safety net, the reasons for going to war in Iraq and a host of other policy promises where the deceit of the government has been there for every Australian to see. This is the Prime Minister who now wants Australian workers to believe that this legislation, as well as his announced industrial relations program, is in their economic interest. If any Australian worker believes this, then there really are fairies running around at the bottom of the garden.

Let me tell this House something about the people that the Prime Minister and the coalition are now driving the boot into with this ugly piece of legislation: the workers you are having a go at here are the same workers who have resourced the breakfast program for disadvantaged kids from Whittington Primary School in my electorate. Today I hosted the children from Whittington Primary School in this House, and many of those young students, who came to Canberra to view the proceedings of this place, are here partly because of the good nature and work of members of the union movement in my electorate—unionists in the construction industry. I say to the minister: if he has the guts, he should come and front those kids in this House and explain to them how evil those unionists are who fed them throughout their primary education.

Let me put on the public record and tell this House some of the other things about workers and their families, in Geelong and elsewhere, that members opposite seek to denigrate in this debate and through the legislation that the government now has put before us and proposes to pass through the House. It is not only breakfast programs in schools with serial and serious disadvantage that have been supported by the workers in Geelong. There was another instance of a canteen at a primary school in Geelong that did not meet health standards. The building unions rebuilt and repainted that canteen to bring it up to health regulations so that those children could have the benefit of it. They are the people that you want to pillory in this place and in this debate. Two children died in a car accident and their school wanted to have a memorial garden and pergola built to honour them. Who stepped into the breach to do that for the school? It was the building unions in Geelong, at no cost to the school. And what about the worker who broke his back and whose house needed renovating to accommodate the new situation faced by him and his family? It was the Geelong building unions and the unionists who rebuilt that house for the benefit of the family.

I say to honourable members opposite: you were very quick to take the big lick from the taxation legislation that has just passed through the House. The Treasurer stood there telling Australian workers how well off they were with $6 in their pockets. While you have received the big lick from these taxation measures, the Geelong unionists in the construction industry every year have gone around collecting blueys and donating them to the Wesley Church for distribution to needy families. Perhaps members opposite are trying to denigrate Gerry Benstead, a local CFMEU organiser who puts his heart and soul into promoting and raising funds for the St Albans Football Club—a club that, right through its junior sporting ranks, caters for 400 young footballers and netballers. These are the Australians you are attempting to have a go at in this legislation.

I have only one thing to say to members of the opposition: we have been through it all before. My father and my grandfathers have been through these struggles before. If you think that this little day in the sun comes without some substantial political cost, you had better think again. We have a very simple philosophy across the Labor movement: touch one, touch all. The great pleasure of this place will be that those bright young members who have come on to the coalition benches will have their careers cut short. Their careers will be cut short because of the Prime Minister’s ideological obsessions that are dominating this debate and you weak-kneed nellies in the party room who will not stand up to him.

Dr Stone —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. I think we should again remind the speaker of his language. I know he is a bit excited and perhaps he needs to have a bit of a lie-down soon, but ‘weak-kneed nellies’ is hardly appropriate or parliamentary language.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Whilst it is not unparliamentary, it is very colourful language. To soften the impact of the member’s colourful language, the chair would consider it helpful if he were to refer his remarks through the chair so that they cannot be misinterpreted as being directed at the chair.

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —Certainly, in the interests of orderly debate, I will direct my comments through the chair. But I say to the honourable parliamentary secretary: if you are going to be a little precious about this sort of debate, wait until it gets really tough out there. Wait until the pressure comes to bear on your backbench and wait until the heads roll at the next election. Those opposite will have the Prime Minister and his ideological obsession with this legislation to thank for that.

If we are to examine the detail of this bill, we can see that the case put by the New South Wales government when it analysed this legislation really homes in on the legislation’s significant deficiencies. I thought the House was in the business of constructing decent legislation in this place. This is not a decent piece of legislation by any stretch of the imagination. The New South Wales submission to the parliament opposing this bill says that this is ‘an industry specific bill rather than having broad application’. The upshot is that this bill adds significant complexity to Australia’s industrial relations system. The provisions are biased and extremely punitive. You can legislate until you are blue in the face but, at the end of the day, it is just another tory law. But, as I have said before: touch one, touch all. When you put this legislation through the parliament, do not think it will not come without a political price; do not believe that for one moment.

The provisions are biased and extremely punitive and, rather than simplify workplace relations in this industry, they will promote a culture of litigation. This is a bill that will create adversaries rather than engender cooperation. The argument often advanced by those on the opposite side is that this is an industry riddled with adversarial industrial relations. This bill will compound that problem. It is quite simple. In essence, it militates against good faith bargaining. Not only that, this is a piece of legislation that breaches international labour conventions relating to the rights of workers to organise and collectively bargain. Of course, we hear the sanctimonious hypocrisy on the floor of this place about choice. And when workers choose to collectively bargain you cannot cop it. The great party of choice, the Liberal Party, has abandoned its tradition and is now hostage to the National Party. The National Party is now running the Liberal Party on the major issues and, dare I say it, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would hope that the Liberal Party members get some stomach and stand up to the conservatives in the National Party on many of these issues.

But, having said that, I have to say that one of the major drawbacks of this legislation and one of the major criticisms of it is that it is a retrospective piece of legislation. It creates uncertainties and inequities and it has a simple bald aim: to prevent unions from achieving collective bargains. This bill, along with all the other IR bills the government has in the pipeline, represents a massive attack on the fundamental rights of workers, rights that are enshrined in international agreements and conventions and that 150 countries can agree on—but, of course, the Howard government knows better. Those rights that I refer to are such things as freedom of association, the right to organise and the right to bargain collectively. The government’s industrial relations agenda, not only in this industry but in others, should be about developing the nation’s human capital, developing skills, improving occupational health and safety situations in the workplace, training for the future and improving the motivation and commitment of workers. But, sadly, this is a piece of legislation that does none of that.

This bill when it is passed will apply to everyone in the building industry except home builders. However, will it work for those firms that engage in work that is in both the non-home building sector and the home building sector? That is something that occurs a lot, especially in the regional community that I represent. The building industry under this bill has a very broad definition that includes elements of the manufacturing sector. The legislation is going to apply to anyone who works in the non-home building sector, no matter how small that activity is, and this will be a costly red tape nightmare for businesses in the construction industry.

The minister is obviously paranoid about closing every loophole. What really worries him is what his senior mates in government will say if this legislation does not achieve its aim despite the government having control in the Senate. Let me tell you this, Minister: you will not achieve your aims because the union movement and the ordinary workers and their families who comprise that movement, and other workers, are determined and they are very inventive when it comes to protecting their rights, their wages and their conditions. When you touch one, you touch all.

This is an industry-specific bill, which is an indication in itself of how vindictive and ideological the government is. With the passing of this bill, work to rule will be defined as industrial action and will be illegal. Everyone in workplaces recognises how annoying work to rule can be sometimes, but traditionally in all areas of work it has been seen as a first step, a low-key piece of industrial action that indicates to the employer that they have a problem and an issue that needs urgent attention. Trying to define work to rule action will be interesting. It will present the lawyers with plenty to get their teeth into and, of course, plenty of income.

In this bill the onus of proof for industrial action based on occupational health and safety issues has been reversed. The employee must provide proof of imminent risk to health and/or safety. Workers will face fines and they might possibly be sued if they take action over an issue that is proved not to be unsafe. All in this place know that the building and construction industry is very hazardous, with one death per week on average, not to mention the countless injuries that occur. The cost in personal terms and in dollars lost is very high, yet we always get a very shallow, insipid approach by those on the other side to issues of occupational health and safety. It would be a different matter if there were one person in the coalition who lost their life per month or per three months as a result of their industrial environment, wouldn’t it? We would get a different response. I say to those members of the coalition: if you have not been on work sites and you do not know what dangerous work is, do not complain to workers who turn up to work of a morning and have a desire to get home to their families in the evening. There have been plenty of workers who have turned up on a Monday morning and have been dead by the Monday evening, not having seen their families again.

We know how coalition governments at state and federal level go soft on the issue of occupational health and safety. No doubt the minister will be ensuring that he makes his bureaucracy available to assist employers with their damages cases when an employee gets it wrong on an occupational health and safety issue. I would rather them get it wrong on an issue on a site and save a life somewhere along the line than lie down like mangy dogs and roll over on the occupational health and safety issue. Much has been said in the public arena about this piece of legislation. Go back to its source: $60 million on a royal commission to get at the union movement while the spivs in the corporate sector run riot with their rorting under this coalition government. All I can say is: game on. (Time expired)