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Thursday, 11 August 2005
Page: 10

Mr KATTER (9:48 AM) —Some of the grave apprehensions that many of us have about the government’s industrial relations program have been more than vindicated by the comments of the last speaker, the member for Rankin, Dr Emerson. I am assuming he has got them all right. There is no doubt that if those things are correct all of us should hold some grave apprehensions with respect to the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005. Unfortunately for the people of Australia, the government does not seem to have anyone in it that has worked in the sense of getting dirt under their fingernails or having a boss over them and having to turn up early in the morning and go home late at night, except in a suit, a shirt and a tie.

In the real world in which the vast bulk of the Australian people live, there is danger in the work that they do. In the construction industry, there is intrinsic danger because you are dealing with heights of two metres or more. A good friend of mine recently lost his leg after falling off a ladder from a height of two metres. There are great dangers once you get above a single floor. Even on a house, putting a roof on becomes a dangerous occupation. The element of danger is intrinsically in this legislation. The worker must have a right to withdraw his labour where there is an issue of danger or workplace safety. You say that there is a process by which this can be gone about. There are not a limitless number of industrial inspectors. Most certainly in country areas of Australia it is very hard to find them at all. I am not criticising governments for that; it is very expensive to have industrial inspectors all over the place. But if you have a situation that is dangerous then men must be able to withdraw their labour. If they are not allowed to withdraw their labour then we have a situation which is extremely dangerous indeed.

The reality of the world is that people do not like to lose their jobs. Contrary to the belief of the government, the average worker these days is terrified of losing his job. He has huge commitments to meet. According to their own figures we are in negative savings in Australia. People have massive individual debt. They are paying off their houses, which are at ridiculous prices for the average couple to pay off, they are paying off a car and oftentimes they are paying off a computer, which is hard to get along without these days. There are numerous things they will put on the charge account. They have huge debts. They are most certainly not inclined to be running out on strike every four seconds. The figures would indicate that there is a vast diminution in industrial action in Australia.

We are inventing solutions for which there are no problems. If there were no strikes at all then I believe you would have a very unhealthy country. The communist countries were characterised by the fact that they never had any strikes. And some of the dangerous right-wing countries in the world were similarly characterised by a no-strikes regime. So if you have a no-strikes regime just remember you are putting yourself in a category of countries that I most certainly would not like my country put in. Yet it seems that the government is absolutely determined that there will be no strike action in this country. Just remember, when that is achieved history will pass a judgment upon the government, and it will be a very harsh judgment indeed.

I want to talk about an intrinsic right and freedom. The previous speaker made issue on a person’s right to silence, which is one of the foundation stones of the rule of law. It would appear that under this bill if you are not at work on a day when there is a strike or if it is alleged that you are out on account of a strike action of some description then the onus of proof shifts to you to prove why you should not be fined $20,000 or $30,000. If you do not pay the fine, the courts have the right to distrain. The courts also have the right to issue an injunction: they can direct you to go back to work. If you do not go back to work, you are in breach of the court’s direction, which is a jailable offence. We have really draconian legislation being debated here. The people who are drafting these acts simply do not understand the basic premise that you are innocent until proven guilty. Habeas corpus—you cannot be taken without due process of law. The reverse onus of proof is inherent in this bill.

There is another pernicious aspect of the bill, which I picked up and was amazed about. This government prides itself on trying to do the right thing—most certainly the Prime Minister does, and I applaud him for it—but the briefing notes say:

The retrospective character of this Bill will ensure that unions that take unlawful industrial action prior to the nominal expiry date of these and other existing agreements in the coming months, will be subject to the sanctions and greater penalties provided by the BCII Bill. Likewise parties who are affected will be able to seek damages to recover any losses they suffer.

A previous Liberal government got themselves into dreadful trouble over retrospective legislation. Everyone shudders in fear when people start talking about retrospective legislation. I have no reason to believe that the briefing paper is wrong. In fact, if anything the briefing paper is very slanted towards the government in every respect. I do not think that statement would be in the briefing paper if it was not a true description of the bill.

One of the basic premises of a country that has a rule of law is that you have the law and you act in accordance with it because that is the law. But then you find that the law that was is now deemed not to be the law that was, and your actions are retrospectively illegal, even though you acted in a legal manner at the time. That is another pernicious aspect of this bill.

The government have gone completely overboard, unfettered by the restraints provided by the Senate for the last 25 years. We can only hope and pray that some people, such as the rather courageous Barnaby Joyce, will stand up and bring the government to their senses. If they do, then they will belong to a government that can walk with pride as not having trammelled the basic tenets of justice upon which our economy has been built.

If I believe—and I do—that the employer has the right to sack, then I must also believe that the worker, in order to get a better pay deal, has the right not to turn up to work. The employer should be able to say, ‘You’re not working efficiently and I want an operation that is working efficiently so that I can make more money. If you’re not going to do that, I’m going to sack you.’ I am referring to unfair dismissal laws. If I, as a reasonable person, have taken the position that the employer should have the right to sack then surely every dictate of logic should say that the worker should be able to say, ‘You haven’t paid me enough money. I want to make a bit more money so I’m not going to turn up for work tomorrow.’ What is good for the goose is surely good for the gander. But if you are going to take a partisan view such as the government is taking that the worker is wrong and the employer is right, then you are going to construct a society which is unfair.

Maybe I was not watching for it before, but I have never seen on the media such a massive projection of a country that is going so marvellously well. Unemployment rates are going to be released today. I have not done my homework on this for a couple of years but I most certainly did my homework a few years ago when Mr Costello got up and said that he had reduced unemployment by 400,000 people. It was true—the unemployment figures produced by ABS showed a reduction of 400,000. Over the same period of time the number of people on the disability pension had increased, over its normal increase, by 396,000. The Treasurer claims to be a reputable person and to have integrity, but he stood up in a public place and made that statement. In fairness to the Treasurer he seems to have gone a bit light on this lately, but he cannot have it both ways. He cannot complain about all of the unreasonable people who are on the disability pension and at the same time skite about the unemployment figures. I use that as one example.

An interview by Maxine McKew in the Bulletin magazine had a wonderful heading which said, in part, that  Australia was ‘floating on an artificial boom created by property speculation financed by overseas borrowings’. That really hit the nail on the head. Its concluding remark was ‘overseas borrowings that have to be repaid’. We are watching the collapse of families throughout Australia because mothers and fathers have to work enormously long hours. Whilst the government says Australians are on higher incomes, if you work it out per hour they are on anything but high incomes; they are among the more low-paid. Sydney journalist Ross Gittins brought out a book comparing Australia’s vital statistics with those of other countries. The book shows that Australians are being paid, per hour, much less than people in other countries. So the government can put up all these propositions in the media—we see them continually.

That brings to mind a wonderful quote—which one of the newspapers got onto, and I must give them their due for that: ‘The economy is plateauing and we can look forward to the same prosperity we enjoy today out into the distant future. The rises and spectacular increases we have seen in the past will not take place. However, the wonderful prosperity we are now enjoying will continue.’ That claim was made by a university professor in June 1929, some four or five months before the Great Depression hit America. Almost every one of the indicators that the United States government was touting in 1929 was positive. But anyone who was doing in-depth assessment of the performance of the United States economy in 1929 would have realised that the entire economy was being fuelled by ‘billows of bulldust’.

In a chapter of his book The great crash 1929 entitled ‘In Goldman Sachs we trust’, John Kenneth Galbraith described how Goldman Sachs had set up a company that owned another company, that owned another company, that owned another company and so on. You had to go through some 13 companies before you got to a company that actually owned any assets. That was magnificent leverage upwards in a rising stock market, but, if the stock market for one moment faltered, it was magnificent leverage downwards. If you knew that there was always a cycle, then you knew that all the elements of disaster were being built into that economy. It was a false economy built on speculation.

If there is a classic description of the Australian economy in the year of our Lord 2005—and we are dealing with the building industry—it is that it is floating on property speculation fuelled by overseas borrowings that will have to be repaid. If there is great prosperity in property speculation and the building industry then the workers should be entitled to participate in it. If they are being left behind, how do they catch up? Anyone on the government side of the House who says the ‘drip-down effect’ will catch them simply does not know how the real world works—particularly where workers have to go through the process of individual contracts. As I have said in this place on many occasions, it is obvious that the people on the government side do not live in the real world. In the real world, if you go to your boss and start making waves and asking for better pay and conditions, he will show you the door. That is the real world. I worked in those situations for the best part of five years—not all of my life but a significant portion of it—and I can tell you it is absolutely true. The number of complaints put by employees to their bosses would be absolutely negligible. When I ask people about this they say: ‘You’re not going to do that. You’ll get thrown out the window. You won’t have a job. How will you keep up your house payments or car payments? You’ll be thrown out on the street.’

People are put out on the grass in any healthy society, but this bill talks about distraining their assets! Are we going to kick doors in, throw families out on the street and take their furniture or their cars? That is what distraining their assets means. And we talk about people going on strike. That is something Australians have done since the dawn of time. I remind this House—as it should be reminded—that the reason we enjoy decent pay scales today is that our forefathers stood on picket lines. Geoffrey Blainey, the great doyen of conservatives in this parliament—I think he is a magnificent historian; I do not hesitate to say he is one of the greatest Australian historians—says in his book The Rush That Never Ended that the only way Australians can rise is through collective action—through a trade union.

If you want any verification of that, Bob Menzies’ grandfather was the leader of the trade union movement at Ballarat around 20 years after Eureka Stockade. So the forebears of this place were the men who stood on the ramparts, who, were they here now, would be thrown in jail under the legislation that is coming forward. The grandaddy of the Treasurer, Mr Costello, actually did go to jail in those days for his trade union activities. So the people who now enjoy huge money, huge status and huge power in this country are the inheritors of a wonderful society that was created, to quote Geoffrey Blainey, by a collective action of the trade union movement. Unlike the people on the other side of the House, I was in a government which took on the unions head on. I do not resile from that; I was one of the people who made that decision. I am not saying that I went along with the party or anything like that. I made a conscious decision that the time had come to stand up because the trade union movement had taken power which was excessive and needed to be restrained. But there is no case out there now to restrain that union power in the way that it is being done here today. (Time expired)