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Wednesday, 10 August 2005
Page: 109

Mr HENRY (5:08 PM) —I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2005. I also appreciate the passion with which the previous speaker spoke; it is such a shame that it is somewhat misdirected. He spoke about the government putting the boots into the poor construction workers in the industry. Just a few weeks ago, there was an article in the West Australian talking about lollipop men. Those lollipop men were earning something like $95,000 a year. Their role as lollipop men was to direct traffic into construction sites. Their base rate was $46,000 and the rest was made up of a range of different allowances et cetera. I bet they appreciated the tax cuts that they got last month.

Further, the member for Corio referred to his mates the Geelong construction unionists and said that this legislation was having a go at the Australian construction unionists. He also referred to the obsession of the PM. The reality is: the obsession is on that side of the House, in the seats of the opposition. Their obsession is with the union and working on their behalf rather than on behalf of the constituents of their electorates. That is why they are on the opposition benches. In an article in the Australian newspaper several weeks ago, Steve Lewis spoke of the deadwood on the opposition benches, the union hacks serving out their time. I suspect that in the not too distant future we will see the white ants having a field day over there.

As someone firmly committed to the fundamental principle of the rule of law, I was staggered today to see the front page of the West Australian. It says, ‘Reynolds warns of class war over IR’ and he also made the comment that he preferred to see his members in jail than on the job. There is also a great picture of the two CFMEU unionists, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who are causing havoc in the construction industry in Western Australia and creating huge costs to constituents in Western Australia because of their belief that they should be entitled to a place in the sun against all else. The member for Corio was talking about his union mates and the great job that they do and how hard done by they are. It has been reported that Mr Reynolds is the co-owner of a hotel in partnership with a director of a building company and he is a shareholder or part owner in racehorses, so these hard done by unionists seem to be doing fairly well. Certainly I have no objection to that. It just seems to me that they claim to be working on behalf of these poor, downtrodden workers in the construction industry.

I welcome the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 as an appropriate and measured response from this government. It is needed to deter unlawful and corrupt practices within the building and construction sector. The bill increases penalties for unlawful industrial action and grants increased powers to the Building Industry Taskforce to fully prosecute illegal practices that are rife within the building and construction industry, particularly in WA.

The building and construction industry is worth over $50 billion to this nation. It is a vital part of the Australian economy that provides employment for tens of thousands. However, it is an industry in crisis, beset by industrial unrest instigated by what can best be described as bandit unions determined to hold construction companies, subcontractors and their employees to ransom. The fact that the building and construction industry is being held back from reaching its full potential by restrictive union practices is well illustrated by a study produced in March 2003 by independent economic researchers Econtech. The report, entitled An analysis of the building and construction sector, found that if productivity in the building and construction industry was to improve to the level of the more efficient home building sector, Australia’s gross domestic product would rise significantly, by at least 1.1 per cent. That equates to a gain to our economy of over $2.3 billion. It is a very significant sum in anyone’s terms, and the failure to attain such a productivity improvement cannot be ignored if Australia is to continue to prosper.

The building and construction industry is a sector of our economy failing to reach its full potential because of the determination of some unions to dominate the industry at everyone else’s expense. Such an outmoded approach to workplace relations has no place in a modern economy and it is time for the union dinosaurs responsible to take their places in the museums where such fossils belong, or maybe on the benches on the other side. Unions such as the CFMEU and the CEPU are on record as saying that they will continue with their campaigns of industrial sabotage irrespective of the requirements of their respective enterprise bargaining agreements or the Workplace Relations Act. Without legislation such as this bill to protect them, employers, their businesses and their employees will be in a precarious and untenable position.

Employers have the right to expect that government will stand with them to put this industry in order, although the WA government do not think it is their problem and have, in effect, washed their hands of any responsibility for the CFMEU’s action on the job. Without support, employers will be left with little choice but to give in to the demands being made on them. It is not just the employers that will suffer should the unions go unchallenged but the economy and the people of Australia as a whole. The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 introduces new penalty provisions that will render unions and those taking part in unlawful industrial action liable to significant financial penalties of up to $110,000 for corporate bodies and up to $22,000 in other cases. Under the provisions of the bill, the Building Industry Taskforce and, once established, the Australian Building and Construction Commission will be empowered to take action for breaches of the bill’s requirements.

The bill also contains a welcome provision allowing federal courts to render those responsible for engaging in unlawful strikes or other forms of illegal industrial action liable to pay uncapped compensation to those who suffer damage from such action—and there are many. This provision gives the bill real teeth. Unlawful strike action is costing the industry hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity. In my state of Western Australia, the WA chamber of commerce, in an article that appeared in the West Australian on 7 October 2003, estimated that a single day’s strike action in Perth by around 2,000 workers from the construction and building industry cost employers over $20 million. That is $20 million for one strike for one day in one state. In that same article the Director of Employee Relations of the WA Chamber of Commerce, Mr Bruce Williams, is quoted as saying:

Really, what is expected is that the State Government and its inspectors should be investigating these stoppages and prosecuting the Union ... it is a lack of political will that is allowing the Union to break the law.

Sadly, for an increasing number of people, such a lack of will from a state Labor government hardly comes as a surprise. Rather, it is recognised for what it is: gross mismanagement of the state’s industrial relations and a lack of will in standing up to their CFMEU mates.

Many of my constituents in Hasluck find themselves bewildered by the industrial thuggery that has beset and plagued the construction industry over the last 18 months or more, particularly in Western Australia, where opportunistic industrial action seems to be absolutely rife and strikes under the guise of so-called ‘blue flu’ have reached pandemic proportions. Unions are currently hell-bent on locking employers into unrealistic agreements that will also lock out non-union workers from construction sites. Contractors and subcontractors are often forced with the threat of violence into union agreements. The Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry heard evidence of many contractors being forced into agreements, often involving violence or the threat of violence. Reform, therefore, is long overdue and is needed to meet the recommendations of the Cole royal commission, which found that the industry was beset by corruption and unlawful practices. The Cole royal commission produced over 200 recommendations to tackle the corruption and illegal activities the commission found in the industry. The government, to its great credit, has implemented around 170 of those measures, and this bill will build on that very commendable trend.

Unions continue their illegal and unlawful tactics, as well described in today’s West Australian. They do so in the knowledge that Labor controlled state governments lack the will to act. Just last week in Perth the minister for employment protection, John Kobelke, following an outbreak of so called ‘blue flu’, said that he would talk to the CFMEU and hoped they would have a change of heart. As for the national Labor Party, they will, at the union movements bidding, oppose any bill introduced by this government, even though it is designed to bring order to an industry so clearly in crisis. Many of my constituents, particularly those small business owners who act as subcontractors to major construction companies and who know what it is like to be targeted by rampant unionists, are asking why that should be. It is a reasonable question. In fact, to listen to the rhetoric of the Labor Party and the unions, it is the employers, contractors and business owners who are the problem.

Of the $47 million-plus that has gone into the Labor Party’s coffers over the last 10 years from the ACTU, $4.94 million has come from the CFMEU and a further $3.3 million from the CEPU. The Labor Party therefore has a financial incentive to turn a blind eye to a real problem that has to be tackled with vigour and determination. The people of this country recognise that only this coalition government has the will and capacity to undertake that. That is demonstrated in newspapers in Western Australia which have shown that the Premier and the minister for employment protection have sat on their hands for several weeks, at a significant cost to the community of Western Australia.

The country is fed up with Labor’s white-flag union policy, particularly on overdue workplace relations reform that everyone, except Labor and its union mates, recognises is necessary for a modern economy to grow. In this regard, the people of this country seek firm direction from this government, rather than the ‘there’s nothing more to be done’ arguments of Labor’s leadership. The bullying, harassment and standover tactics employed on construction sites by unions such as the CFMEU are well documented. Indeed, these days it seems to me that senior union officials consider having at least one conviction for breaching industrial and workplace relations laws as a must for their resumes and an essential requirement for office holders. Again, that is demonstrated in today’s West Australian, where they say they are more than happy to go to jail for breaking the law.

Their record across Australia and in Western Australia is shameful. The figures speak for themselves. In the first three months of this year nearly half of all days lost to industrial disputes across Australia were lost in WA. That is a massive 21,300 days, or 48 per cent of the national total. In the last three months of 2004, the industry in WA recorded the highest number of working days lost, at 567 days per 1,000 employees, due to industrial action of any state or territory. This is a shame.

An article that appeared in the West Australian on Friday, 29 July 2005 highlighted the inaction—it amounted to virtual paralysis—in the Labor WA state government’s response to this unacceptable situation. In the article, the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Master Builders Association said the state’s lack of leadership on this issue was now damaging WA’s reputation not only nationally but with overseas investors. The WA phenomena of ‘blue flu’, whereby construction workers have been taking part in en masse sickies, and the refusal of the state Minister for Consumer and Employment Protection, John Kobelke, to acknowledge that such a union tactic exists is, frankly, farcical.

An article entitled ‘Industrial relations threats cool WA growth’ that appeared on 22 March 2005 in the Australian Financial Review further illustrates just how bad the situation has been and is becoming. The article describes the reluctance of several major developers to start on new construction projects in the heart of Perth because of the stoppages being experienced on other programs such as the Perth to Mandurah railway. It was announced by the state government recently that this project’s budget has already blown out by a further $45 million, largely as a result of time lost in industrial action. That is a clear demonstration of the impact on communities and taxpayers when industrial lawlessness is left to its own. That particular state government construction project has been plagued by industrial strife from the very beginning.

A West Australian newspaper article on 28 July 2005 entitled ‘Another day... another strike’ highlighted one of the key motivating factors behind these strikes: an attempt by the construction unions to subvert federal legislation aimed at reforming the industry. In the article, a Master Builders Association spokesperson is quoted as saying that the CFMEU wanted to force employers to sign up to an EBA because it would help to avoid many of the changes that would flow from the federal government’s industrial laws. And what was the state government’s response? The state employment protection minister, John Kobelke, claims he has no jurisdiction over the state’s own project that is consuming $1.5 billion of WA taxpayers’ money.

One thing is sure—workers in Australia under a Labor government would be a lot worse off. Labor would be forced by their union mates to agree to ‘no ticket, no start’. This would lead to no choice for workers, and no jobs unless they belonged to unions. This would be Labor’s guarantee to workers—and that is Labor’s choice. In his April 2005 speech to the Melbourne Institute’s Sustaining Prosperity conference, the Leader of the Opposition suggested that reform requires leadership and a government that puts the national interest first—and ahead of its short-term political interests. He is absolutely right; it is a shame he does not do that. Unfortunately, by opposing this bill the federal Labor Party has shown that it lacks that leadership, the will and the ‘stomach’—a word used by the member for Corio—to attain much needed workplace reform.

Workplace reforms epitomised by this bill really work. They pay real dividends for real people and lead to improved productivity, improved competitiveness, more job opportunities and increases in the standard of living and personal wealth enjoyed by Australians at all levels, whether they are low-, middle- or high-income earners. That is why this bill has my full support and I commend it strongly to the House.