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Thursday, 11 August 2005
Page: 14

Ms HOARE (10:08 AM) —I join my colleagues on this side of the House in rising to speak against the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2005. The main bill seeks to enact legislation that would make some forms of industrial action illegal. It would provide for additional sanctions against these actions in the form of injunctions, financial penalties and compensation. The bill before the House of Representatives is very similar to the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2003, which was passed by this House and then lapsed last year due to the election but not before it was rejected by a Senate committee. However, only part of the 2003 bill is being reintroduced at this moment. The remaining parts of the previous bill, including the creation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, are to be introduced by the government at a later date. We will continue to debate and we will continue to oppose further bills which continue in a vein similar to this.

The Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations said that this bill is designed to send a message to employers and unions. It will increase the penalties in the Workplace Relations Act and will establish a task force to prosecute illegal activity. The message that it is sending to employers is, ‘We are giving you greater power,’ and the message to unions and employees is, ‘We are stripping away your rights at work.’ This bill has been brought on in part by the findings of the Cole royal commission. Although the commission believed that there were so-called ‘criminal problems’ in the building industry, only one criminal prosecution followed that commission. The Cole royal commission found that change was needed in some areas, and the government has pounced on this like dogs pouncing on a bone to pursue an ideological attack on the construction union. The Cole royal commission’s recommendations included, among other things, the introduction of an industry specific act, the establishment of a regulatory body and improvements to occupational health and safety—a joke, which I will go into further on.

In November 2002, in response to these recommendations, the Interim Building Industry Task Force, which has since had its powers extended, was set up. This task force is a forerunner of the proposed Australian Building and Construction Commission and its role is to investigate and take legal action in relation to freedom of association breaches and breaches of conditions surrounding workplace agreements. The new extended powers of the task force are set out in the Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt) Offences Act 2004. These new powers include new investigative powers, protection for whistleblowers, fines, and imprisonment for up to six months for failing to cooperate. Protection for whistleblowers, which as I just mentioned is one of these extended powers, is designed to pit worker against worker and to pit mate against mate, and it is a disgraceful power to give to the government and employers. These powers are extreme and they should be rejected by a democratic society which is supposed to respect human rights and workers’ rights. Under present legislation, workers that are in a bargaining period can be protected from civil action, in accordance with section 170 of the Workplace Relations Act. The legislation before us strips away that protection for workers in the construction industry.

This is a nasty and dangerous piece of legislation, an antiunion bill. It is the first in a long list of the legislation we will be debating in this place now that the government has control of the Senate and can abuse its unfettered power to push through the Prime Minister’s ideology of returning to an 1800s master-servant relationship between employers and employees. The government’s industrial relations proposals will radically alter the basic rights and protections that Australian workers and their families rely on. If the current proposals are implemented, job security and regular working hours will become luxuries that few will enjoy. Family and community life will suffer accordingly. Also, Australia will be even more out of step with internationally recognised core labour standards, such as the right to collective bargaining.

The government’s plans are not about true choice for employees; they are squarely about giving employers greater power over employees’ working conditions. Further legislation which the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the Prime Minister have foreshadowed will also include protection from unfair dismissal being abolished for those who work in companies with fewer than 100 staff, individual contracts which will cut take-home pay and reduce employment conditions to only five minimum standards, lower minimum wages, the award safety net being replaced with just five conditions, employees having less access to unions at their workplaces and having their capacity to bargain collectively reduced, and the gutting of the independent Industrial Relations Commission. As we heard in this place yesterday, when the Prime Minister was asked some years ago whether he would take a knife to the Industrial Relations Commission, he stated at that time that he would stab it in the stomach. The further legislation will also include the reduction or the abolition of states’ rights in industrial relations.

This legislation and further legislation, as I have outlined, has its basis in the Cole royal commission, set up by this government as the attack dog to sic the construction union in the same way that the former minister, Peter Reith, tried to take on the Maritime Union. In that case Reith failed, and in this case it will be the same. Australian workers, who are well organised and well represented, will not sit back and allow these attacks to occur. The Cole royal commission was a union witch-hunt set up by this government at a cost of $66 million. What was the result of this royal commission? One single prosecution—at $66 million the most expensive prosecution brought by a government in Australia’s history.

As a result of the Cole royal commission the government set up the building industry task force, adding more dogs to the pack. Let us look further at the cost of maintaining this pack of attack dogs. The government originally allocated $6.5 million to carry the building industry task force through from October 2002 to July 2003. In June 2003 a Senate committee was told during the estimates process that the 2003-04 budget for the task force was $6.9 million. In February 2004, the committee heard that the budget was $8.9 million. Assuming the latter figure is correct, the building industry task force had cost taxpayers almost $750,000 per month in the period October 2002 to June 2004. In almost 2½ years, at a cost of more than $15 million, they finalised nine court cases, six of which resulted in fines totalling $15,200. So $15 million was the cost; the fines that were imposed amounted to $15,000.

The 2004-05 budget allocation for implementing the recommendations of the royal commission was $136.3 million, including $9 million to extend the life of the building industry task force to 30 June 2005 and a massive $96.1 million to set up the new Australian Building and Construction Commission to take over from the task force when the government’s further legislation is passed.

I am sure that all workers in this country, who are under increasing attack by the government, would be astounded and outraged to know that their taxes have been funding this ideological attack by the government on construction workers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The government should be using its current $20 million public relations campaign on industrial relations to alert Australian workers to these facts. The changes contained in this legislation will restrict the rights of building workers to bargain for wages and conditions, drastically strip back building awards and place severe restrictions on unions’ right of entry to work sites. These changes were included in a bill introduced by Tony Abbott in 2003 that was rejected by a Senate committee before the last election.

The effect of these laws is that building workers will be second-class citizens with weaker awards, less access to unions and a reduced ability to protect their rights through industrial action. It is a further attack on safety in the construction industry, which is appalling in an industry where more than 50 workers lose their lives in any year. On the safety issues in the construction industry, the CFMEU has always been the instigator of improved work practices. I refer to a court case brought by the building industry task force. Just last month, Justice Merkel of the Federal Court dismissed a case against a CFMEU organiser, Fergal Doyle. When responding to the decision, the CFMEU Victorian State Secretary, Martin Kingham, said:

This kind of secret taping and attempted entrapment has no place in Australian industrial relations. And all this happened before the Taskforce got their new powers to compel workers and union officials to be interviewed in secret with no right of silence.

The organiser was on site to deal with serious concerns that the workers had over safety. The court found these concerns were real. More than 50 workers die every year in our industry, yet when this union organiser went to site to ensure that they are safe, Mr Howard’s industrial police take them to court. They have their priorities wrong.

He went on to say:

Instead of spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on prosecuting union officials, the Taskforce should support safety in the building industry and allow unionists to get on with their job—protecting wages, conditions and safety.

The organiser whom the government tried to prosecute, Fergal Doyle, said:

If the Taskforce thinks attending a site for a safety inspection makes me a criminal then perhaps there is something wrong with the laws of this country.

I could not agree more.

This is also happening in the shadow of the death of 16-year-old Joel Exner nearly two years ago. Joel was killed as a result of his boss cutting corners to maximise profits. A young worker was unnecessarily killed. I have a 15-year-old son who wants to go into a trade and I want his safety at work to be protected when he does. I want to know that, when he goes to work of a morning, he is going to come home of an evening—that is every mother’s right. To try and prosecute union organisers for trying to protect the safety of our sons and daughters in workplaces is an absolute disgrace and a blight on this government’s term in office. Union organisers are prosecuted by this government for trying to prevent further tragedies occurring. This government’s legislation allows it to happen and ensures that it does happen.

I turn now to more examples of the building industry task force being criticised by the courts in the cases they have taken against the CFMEU and individual workers or companies. In the case of Alfred v CFMEU New South Wales branch, in referring to the building industry task force Justice Hughes said:

Who, for instance, alerted—whoever this group is—this sort of shadowy group. What did you call it?

Sorry, the taskforce ...

A shadowy group. In the case of Thorson v Pine in 2004, in relation to accessing workers’ bank account details Justice Marshall said:

Roving inquiries may be an apposite expression for broad ranging inquiries into alleged tax fraud and the like under income tax legislation but such notices are foreign to the workplace relations of civilised societies, as distinct from undemocratic and authoritarian states ...

In the Smith Plant Hire case Justice Wilcox said:

... the applicants’ case—

that is, the building industry task force—aka the government—

was beset with legal difficulties that would have required it to be dismissed in any event. Even on the view of the facts propounded by the applicants, their case was hopeless. It was instituted without reasonable cause ...

In this particular case, the task force spent $287,000—over a quarter of a million dollars—in legal costs during the failed prosecution. The task force spent 12 months investigating the case and, quite rightly, was then forced to pay the union’s costs. In the case of Pine v Seelite Windows, with regard to strike pay Justice Finkelstein said:

The amount of wages involved is insignificant. In these circumstances it would be quite wrong to punish the respondents. Nothing would be achieved by the imposition of a pecuniary penalty.

There is no need for a specific deterrent: it is simply not necessary. And if any penalty were imposed it would be so low that it could not act as a general deterrent.

In relation to workers rights and human rights, Cameron Murphy, the President of the Council for Civil Liberties, said:

The Building Taskforce’s new coercive powers have no parallel in democratic societies. Construction workers have been deprived of fundamental civil liberties which we all take for granted.

These are not radical left wing socialists in our country; these are well respected judges, well respected leaders of our community, who are making these comments against the government, the Building Industry Taskforce and the components which are going to be enacted in this legislation.

I want to conclude this speech with the words of John Robertson, the Secretary of Unions NSW, when he made a presentation on Sky Channel during the mass meetings of workers which were held around New South Wales on 1 July. I attended a meeting at the Cardiff Workers Club. It was packed. It has been a long time since I have seen unionised workers and concerned citizens, pensioners, young people, people in paid work, people in unpaid work and unemployed people gathered together to protest against what they see and know will take away their rights at work for all Australians. That will continue to happen. There will continue to be protests right around the country. John Robertson, in his presentation, said:

... the government passed laws that allow a secret police force to use anti-terror style powers against building workers.

So building workers will be secretly taped, they will lose the right to silence and they will face jail if they try to improve their families’ living standards.

All based on a $66 million Royal Commission that led to a single, solitary prosecution—perhaps the most expensive legal case in Australian history.

This is a disgraceful, nasty and dangerous piece of legislation. It should be opposed. We will oppose it and we will continue to encourage some of the senators on the government side who agree with us to oppose it so that construction workers can continue to have their conditions and continue to enhance safety conditions in workplaces.