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Wednesday, 10 August 2005
Page: 120

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (5:55 PM) —The previous speaker, the member for Mitchell, spoke of extortion rackets and of the need to support decent people. I am somewhat concerned that some of the previous speakers on this side have been a bit unfair to the government. They have given a picture that there is no support for the government’s proposals in the building industry. That is very untrue, and I refer to Jim Marr’s book, First the Verdict. That goes to some of the star witnesses that the government nearly had in the Cole royal commission. There was, of course, a man described in that book as disgraced, convicted and imprisoned former detective Roger Rogerson. He decided that he wanted to enter the rigging business in New South Wales, and he was very supportive of the royal commission and intended to give spectacular evidence. He went on the record as saying that he would be happy to give evidence. He is quoted by the Sun-Herald as saying:

I’d give them a gobful. I hate the building industry, I hate unions and I hate the CFMEU.

He was one of the people who were really prepared to stand up with the government on the question of extortion rackets in this industry. He was not alone. Another well-known identity, Mr Tom Domican, was also entering the industry, was supportive of government intentions and thought that the royal commission was going in the right direction. The royal commission, of course, involved the exposure of the laundering of money to disgraced New South Wales officials of the union, Mr Bates and Mr Warner. Their approaches to opponents of the New South Wales leadership of the union to have money laundered through a number of companies, to give favours to particular companies in the industry and to penetrate the industry on behalf of organised crime were very effectively supported as a result of the direction in which the government was going.

The statutory declarations of Rees Ginns and the meetings that he had with Mr Domican and Mr Bates in an attempt to undermine the leadership of the union were very interesting. He detailed in evidence the processing of cheques, worth less than $10,000 originally, and the laundering of individual sums of up to $70,000 in a very long-term process to undermine the leadership of the union and using the royal commission to attack the leadership of the state branch. He also detailed to the commission 23 proactive consultant invoices dated between December 1998 and November 1999, along with deposit slips and bank statements.

When we start talking about rackets, extortion and corruption in this industry, it is very interesting to see who some of the supportive friends of the government and of the royal commission are. There has been less citation of the royal commission in recent weeks and months as to the government’s position, because it is an inquiry that has been somewhat discredited. When we look at the figures that have been supplied with regard to that inquiry, we find that 90 per cent of public hearing time was spent investigating anti-union claims, 3,484 minutes of public hearing time were devoted to topics virtually reflecting upon the CFMEU, 81 per cent of public hearing time was spent investigating anti-CFMEU topics and 93 per cent of time was spent by counsel delivering long statements, usually referred to as ‘opening statements’, on anti-union topics. So there is a degree of discredit around the way in which this inquiry operated, its purposes and the direction in which it went.

Mr Keenan interjecting

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON —We have an interjection from the opposite side. I am not the only person who is critical of this inquiry. I cite well-known, renowned Sydney conservative radio commentator Alan Jones in September 2002. With regard to the whole process which has led to our consideration of the building and construction industry legislation today, 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.

…            …            …

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.

Mr Jones went on to cite similar statistics, undermining the credibility of the leading counsel in this inquiry. Riding instructions were given to this inquiry: it was told the direction in which it should go and it was told the outcomes that it should reach. Although there were occasional references to minor issues, such as the death of one worker a week in the industry in this country and ‘maybe we should have a few throwaway lines about doing something about occupational health and safety’, this was the facade of a broad agenda to assault the unions and to undermine the unions role in the industry.

The previous speaker said there is a need for the major building sector to be similar to the residential building sector. What characterises the residential sector? It is one facet, essentially: it is not unionised. There are very low proportions of unionisation in that industry, which is characterised by rampant unsafe work practices. If you go out to the region where I live in Western Sydney, you will find constant involvement by state government industrial safety groups. There are constant complaints to councils, and those complaints are usually supported by independent as well as Labor aldermen. There are accidents proliferating in that industry on a weekly basis. If they are the kinds of credentials the previous speaker thinks should categorise this industry, I for one have difficulty with that.

There have been a number of criticisms of this legislation: of course, it is retrospective; it comes at a time when thousands of agreements, EDOs, have been reached between employers and unions around the country without a day’s stoppage; the situation is one the employers have chosen. Maybe the government do not like it, just as they did not like people not having private health insurance so incentives and disincentives were given to them to force them to do things. The previously Liberal philosophy of people having choice has been seriously undermined in this and other areas in recent years. But whether the government like it or not, a significant number of employers have signed up to these agreements. That is the whole motivation behind this assault: to overcome collective bargaining in the industry, to try to undermine the organisational ability of people to band together to try to get a better outcome for themselves and to drive people into situations where the individual essentially has to accept what they are given or basically go jump. That is the agenda here: to retrospectively intervene in the industry, to try to have a very wide definition of building and building work, to bring in very harsh penalties with this action and to cease protection for industrial action previously allowed et cetera.

As some previous speakers have said, significant building jobs are in train around this country and employers have chosen to negotiate with the unions. I stress again that there have been no industrial stoppages around these agreements in Melbourne and Sydney. We can cite the problems in the Western Australian industry and the stoppages there, but as I understand it they have not been around the issues being canvassed in this legislation. The situation has come at a time of a broader government agenda to destroy the independent arbitrator in the industry, an independent arbitrator they dislike. That has been heightened more particularly in recent days by the decision on paternity leave. It is also part of an attempt to pare back conditions in Australian awards. It is accompanied by the extreme liberalisation of skills entry into this country through migration. A record 97,000 people have entered this country this year as skilled migrants, bringing to 400,000-plus the number of people who have entered through skilled migration during the government’s term in office. That number was 25,000 a year when they first came to office. This is all part of the same pattern of undermining conditions through liberalising entry into the labour market.

The Cole inquiry decided to look selectively at one of the problems as they saw them in the industry. From the government’s legislative initiatives, one would think that this was the only problem that characterised the industry. However, that is not the case. To show the dimensions of the issues that really confront this industry the things that should be tackled are whether in addition to the need for some change there are even more important issues that the Cole inquiry somehow failed to look at, including of course the issue of safety. I have detailed that this industry loses a worker a week. It has hit locally in my area. I recently walked into the local laundromat and the owners told me about the death of their neighbour a few weeks previously. Andreia Viegas, the wife of that man, made this point on Sky Channel on 1 July 2005:

Glen has missed out on seeing Makayla crawl for the first time. He missed out on her first Xmas, her first birthday, her first steps but most of all he missed out on his son’s first soccer game. We know he didn’t mean to miss out on all these special events. We know he would have loved to have been at all of them.

This woman, who has just lost her husband because of a lack of interest in occupational health and safety in this industry—an area in which the union has been so active and which the government has been so upset about its activity—said:

The Howard Government wants to attack the right of entry of trade union officials, stopping them from going into dangerous workplaces and cracking down on safety problems.

…         …         …

The Howard Government has proved where their interest is. In the last three years they have spent over $100 million dollars on the Cole Royal Commission and the Building Industry Taskforce, yet not one cent of that money has been to improve safety ...

Firstly, we have the most obvious and blatant question of safety. When the government talk about the proportion of industrial action in this industry as opposed to other industries in this country, they use an unreal figure. For instance, it does not reflect the degree of safety issues in those industries, it does not reflect the degree of unionisation in each industry and it does not reflect the industrial realities of each industry. So it is very misleading to say that this kind of legislation is justified because of the proportion of industrial action in the industry. We know the nature of this industry. We know the realities, even those opposite know them, and to say that this industry is comparable to other industries is ridiculous.

But there is not only the failure by the government to act on industrial occupational health and safety; there is also the question of phoenix companies in this industry—companies that flash in and out of the industry, leaving subcontractors unpaid. There has been no action on that front. There is the question of employees’ right to benefits when those companies collapse. There is the question of the non-payment of employee entitlements, whether that be with regard to superannuation or workers compensation payments. Insurance companies should be subject to financial penalty where the certificates of currency they issue are based on obviously false wage and workplace estimates.

As I say, there are a variety of issues. There is no move by this government to do a national review of occupational health and safety issues. There is no attempt to strengthen workers’ rights to representation and involvement in workplace safety. In fact, there are attempts to undermine right of entry. This legislation is retrospective. It comes at the time when the industry is in reasonable shape. It has not come in here at the behest of the major building companies who themselves have chosen to negotiate with the unions. What is the contrast with the other side? They are preoccupied with the supposed standover tactics of the unions.

And what have we seen in Sydney in recent weeks? We saw a person who had worked for 26 years with Masterton Homes—a carpenter who was given a taste of the reality that faces everyone in this industry under the government’s agenda. He was told that, despite 26 years of loyal employment with this company, he could either take a contract offered by the company or get the sack. And he was terminated. He was not terminated because of his involvement in extortion or rackets. He was not terminated because of his failure to do his job properly. He was not terminated after 26 minutes; he was terminated after 26 years because of the agenda and the reality that will come from the legislative moves by this government. Of course, the contract that he was offered involved wage cuts, the end of flexi days, the end of overtime et cetera. But, fortunately, a community protest—not just a protest by a few union officials but a community protest—led to pressure on that company to reinstate him.

In conclusion, this is a move by the government to stymie negotiations, stymie collective bargaining and ensure that union organisational rights, and thereby the rights of the individual worker to resolve his or her industrial situation with other people, are undermined. All the scare stories, terror stories and extortion stories have to be seen in the context of a royal commission whose credibility was seriously eroded. It was not just conservative radio commentators like Alan Jones who questioned it; there was a broad questioning of the process, the agenda and the bias shown by the commission. We cited some of the figures earlier as to what percentage of the inquiry dealt with anti-union questions as opposed to other crisis issues in this industry.