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Wednesday, 10 August 2005
Page: 123

Mr KEENAN (6:10 PM) —Listening to the member for Reid deliver that speech reminded me of one of the most disturbing aspects of modern Australian politics: that the opposition party in this country is wholly bought, paid for and staffed by one particular section of society—the union movement. That means it has no freedom of action when it comes to assessing any policy that is brought before this parliament. So, when the government introduces a policy that aims to apply the rule of law to rogue unions that have been terrorising building sites in the home state of the member for Reid and in my home state of Western Australia, all the Labor Party can do is downplay those unlawful actions while attacking the people involved with the royal commission who sought to highlight them and eradicate them from the building industry in Australia. It is a terribly sad indictment of the Labor Party. It is prepared to justify breaches of the law because it has no freedom left to move when it comes to anything to do with the union movement. It cannot see anything but the union movement’s point of view, and I think that is extraordinarily sad.

I fully support the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 to restore the rule of law to building sites and to make unions accountable for unlawful strike action. This bill goes a long way to providing the construction and building industry with the support it needs to get on with the job of building our nation and creating job opportunities for our community. It will protect many businesses around Australia, particularly in my home state of Western Australia and my electorate of Stirling, from becoming victims of unlawful strike action taken in an attempt to intimidate and cause financial harm. It will give those affected by such actions the opportunity to seek redress for their losses, and it will also punish those who incite these unlawful actions.

This bill is of particular relevance to the Western Australian community and Western Australian businesses, who have sadly received absolutely no support from the Western Australian state Labor government in tackling unlawful union action. It is saddening to note that as soon as the Labor Party gained power in Western Australia in 2001 ‘no ticket no start’ signs began to appear on building sites. The reaction of the Labor government was to completely ignore this evidence that the union movement was again preparing to flex its muscles in the Western Australian construction industry. It is a testament to the depth of the union movement’s control over work sites that the threat implied in this action went unchallenged.

But, of course, what can we expect from a political party that, as I said before, is completely bought, paid for and staffed by the union movement? That a union can openly display such contempt for freedom of association laws is nothing short of a disgrace. Freedom of association is something that governments at all levels should protect. It is something that as a society we should be prepared to protect also. But when it comes to the unions there are few in the Labor Party who are willing to champion basic, fundamental rights that underpin our democracy. One has only to look at Labor’s continuing opposition to voluntary student unionism to see that. The prospect of anyone being forced against their will to join a particular organisation in order to get a job or an education undermines the very foundation of our democratic system. Australians should be free to choose what organisations they do and do not want to become members of.

The atrocious state of affairs in the Western Australian building and construction industry was highlighted earlier this year. In February, the Australian reported that the four quarters average of working days lost per 1,000 employees in Western Australia rose over a two-year period to September last year from 36½ days to 108 days. That represents almost a trebling of days lost.

And why were these days lost? For petty and ridiculous reasons that included demands that the Eureka flag be flown over the work site and complaints of inadequate television jacks at site accommodation. So the massive cost of these days lost not only to the employers but to the workers who were trying to earn a living and support their families can be attributed to such trivial matters—matters which, as common law dictates, surely could have been sorted out without having to stop work.

Those days lost figures for Western Australia were significantly worse than those for any other Australian state, although I do note in passing that in Victoria and in New South Wales, the home state of the member for Reid, there were also massive increases in the number of days lost. Recently we saw further days lost when workers called in sick en masse in Western Australia—the so-called blue flu. This is a situation that the Western Australian Labor government condone through their complete and utter inaction. Last week 200 CFMEU members on the Perth to Mandurah railway line all took sickies on the same day. This is a common tactic on Western Australian construction sites and it is an attempt to avoid the penalties for industrial action that would otherwise be unlawful. The response of the Western Australian IR minister was to say on radio that he would talk to the CFMEU and ‘hopefully they will have a change of heart’, which, I think you will agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, is an extraordinarily weak response to unlawful action.

Despite this appalling record, the Western Australian state Labor government has repeatedly refused to act on the findings of the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, which found that the building industry was beset with corruption and unlawful practice. Some may think this unsurprising, given the union movement has donated over $47 million to the ALP since 1995. Of the major building unions, the CFMEU has donated almost $5 million. It might not be surprising when you examine the links between the CFMEU and the state Labor government: Shelley Archer, an upper house MP, is married to CFMEU boss, Kevin Reynolds; Norm Marlborough, the member for Peel, has such a close relationship with Reynolds that he was MC at the Reynolds-Archer wedding; Graham Giffard, another upper house MP, is a former BLF official; the Minister for Education and Training, Ljiljanna Ravlich, has links to the CFMEU and related associations, as does the member for Riverton, Tony McRae; Minister Bob Kucera’s son is an industrial officer with the CFMEU; and Minister Ravlich and Minister Alan Carpenter have ministerial advisers with links to the BLF and the CFMEU.

We can see how deep these levels of influence go. Fortunately, we as a coalition are not beholden to particular interest groups and we have implemented 170 out of the 210 recommendations of the Cole royal commission. I say ‘fortunately’ not only because someone has to take a stand in support of people and businesses that go about their business in a lawful way but also because the building industry is worth about $46 billion to the Australian economy. Independent economic research undertaken by Econtech and outlined in its report An economic analysis of the building and construction sector found that if productivity in the construction sector matched the most efficient residential building sector GDP would rise by over one per cent. That is a gain to the Australian people of $2.3 billion—a gain that the ALP and its union masters deny the Australian people.

It is useful to reflect on some of the activities of the building industry task force in Western Australia which highlight why the federal government has been moved to implement this bill. The task force in Western Australia has completed a total of 605 site visits and notices to produce have been served on 63 occasions—figures that are very high. A recent task force case was against CFMEU organisers. It related to action taken by workers at the Barclay Mowlem railway station site at Thornlie, part of the Perth to Mandurah railway project. The strike occurred over four days in July and August 2004 and the hearing related to breaches of section 170 of the Workplace Relations Act for engaging in industrial action and a breach of the dispute settlement procedure under the relevant certified agreement.

The magistrate in charge of this case was moved to say in his findings that there were ‘no safety issues of any significance’ associated with the strike and that the evidence did not support claims that the industrial action was based on a reasonable concern by the employees about an imminent safety risk. The magistrate rejected claims by the CFMEU that they had played no part in the action and decided:

There is an irresistible inference that the union by its officers … played a significant part in the activities which led to the withdrawal of labour and, in turn, the breach of the agreement.

This decision is an example of the task force assisting in the restoration of the rule of law. That ability will be further strengthened by the new penalty provisions contained in this bill. The bill reintroduces the penalty provisions of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003. When enacted, the penalty provisions will make unions and those taking unlawful action liable to pay penalties. The penalties include fines of up to $110,000 for a body corporate and $22,000 in other cases. It will provide for orders to pay substantial compensation to those affected by unlawful action. Both the Building Industry Taskforce and, once established, the Australian Building and Construction Commission inspectors will be able to act on breaches of these provisions. The Federal Court will be able to order uncapped compensation to any person who suffers damage as a result of unlawful industrial action.

I am also very pleased that this bill contains retrospectivity provisions that will see these new penalties apply from March of this year. It is vitally important that these provisions are available because building unions are currently menacing employers and placing enormous pressure on them to enter into a new round of enterprise bargaining agreements before any new industry legislation takes effect.

I thought I might take the opportunity to inform the House about the sorts of things that the union movement is pushing within this EBA. It makes claims that quite clearly are outrageous and unsustainable. For example, it is saying that you do not have to be actually sick to take sick days off and that you are entitled to 10 of those days a year. It is saying that if you do not take those 10 sick days then that sick leave can be converted into cash. It is saying that workers should have one rostered day off every second week—that is 26 days a year. It is saying that the standard working week should be reduced from 38 hours down to 36 hours per week but at the same time is demanding a 12½ per cent pay rise. It is saying that the employer will not have the right to sack an employee that is affected by drugs or alcohol, regardless of how many times the employee attends the work site affected by drugs or alcohol. It is saying that employees should be allowed to continue to work if they are affected by drugs and alcohol if they can demonstrate to a committee of their peers that they can work safely. It is saying that every subcontractor on site—for example, bricklayers, glaziers, carpenters, tilers et cetera—needs to employ a union imposed safety representative and that every single one needs to be issued with a fully fitted-out office. It is saying that employers need to grant to all workers additional paid leave to attend union training courses and that no limit should be put on the number of union training courses that employees can attend. Finally, it is saying that union officials need to be given unfettered rights of entry, without notice, on to a work site for no reason at all, even if not one union member is on that work site.

I think you will agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the EBAs that the union movement is trying to push at the moment—and, fortunately, which this legislation will stop them pushing—are just outrageous and totally unsustainable for the building industry around the country. Entering into these agreements before the current EBAs expire in October would mean that the unions would not have to comply with any legislative reforms until the new EBAs expire in about three years time, which would be some time towards the end of 2008. This effectively will lock in these outrageous work practices. In particular, unions are currently pursuing unprotected industrial action that is in breach of existing EBAs and is unlawful under the Workplace Relations Act. Employers, sadly, are in a weak position to resist and the powers of the current Building Industry Taskforce are insufficient to effectively protect them.

There is no credible argument against this retrospectivity. Crocodile tears from unions that may have breached these provisions between March of this year and the time that this legislation is passed will be seen for exactly what they are. The simple fact is that the building industry has had 12 months notice that the government intended to pass penalty provisions such as those contained in today’s bill. Despite this awareness, unions have pursued actions that they knew would be unlawful. They are only pursuing such action now in an attempt to menace employers into the new EBAs before this bill is enacted. In doing so, however, they are acting unlawfully by taking actions before the expiry of the current EBAs, as industrial action during the term of an existing agreement is unlawful under the Industrial Relations Act. The passage of this bill will help to restore the rule of law to building sites around the country. No-one is above the law in Australia, and these measures will ensure that this applies just as rigorously to the building unions as it does to every other Australian.