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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7776


Mr BRIGGS (9:55 AM) —This is my first attempt at addressing the chamber from my new position. I rise to oppose the government’s attempts to water down or destroy the very successful ABCC today. This is, as we have just seen from the speech from the member for Longman, a campaign being run by union members for union bosses, not for the interests of actual workers on the ground. Let me just address a couple of points the member for Longman made in particular on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2009, the first being that those of us on this side do not care and nor does the ABCC about worker safety. It is an absolutely outrageous slur on anyone in this place to suggest that anyone would not care about the death of a worker, or the death of anyone for that matter. It is a suggestion that is beyond repute but not beyond those on the other side because that is the way they operate. It is a disgusting slur, it is not unusual, it is a CFMEU tactic, it is a Labor Party tactic; and it is not right.

Let us deal with OHS in the building and construction industry. The member for Longman comes from Queensland. As I understand, there has been a Labor government in Queensland all of this century. Who looks after OHS on work sites? Labor state governments. If you want to make a criticism of governments not caring about deaths in the construction industry, start looking closer to home, Member for Longman; start looking to those in your state government who seem to be more interested in getting kickbacks for services delivered on projects than they are in actually looking after your workers’ safety. If you want to start to make accusations about who cares or who does not care about workers and their safety, look closer to home. That is the first issue: state governments have the fundamental responsibility for OHS in this country.

An aspect of the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry was the establishment of the Federal Safety Commissioner, which this bill, as I understand, seeks to continue. So the link between safety on work sites, deaths in the construction industry and the ABCC is a deliberate slur in place of an argument. If you want to be critical of the OHS performance in your state, look at Premier Bligh, look at Premier Beattie and have a look at your state Labor governments who have run this country for the best part of the last 10 years. If you are serious about looking at safety, have a look at the record of your state Labor governments. Let us deal with that in the first instance. Let us deal with that slur that they continue over there because they have got no argument on this point. All they have got is a slur. If you want to look at safety, look at the performance of your state Labor governments. Any death on a work site is tragic. To suggest that anyone does not care about that is a complete and utter slur and should be withdrawn.


Mr Sullivan —I am not sure that is what I said.


Mr BRIGGS —It is absolutely what you said and you allege the ABCC does not care about it. In fact, Commissioner Lloyd has said:

The ABCC is committed to do all it can to improve the industry’s poor occupational health and safety record and to support those specifically charged with this task …

Those charged with this task are the Federal Safety Commissioner established by the former Howard government and the state OHS officials. So much for union officials doing so much for safety if the record is so poor. Let us deal with the history of this industry.


Mr Sullivan interjecting


Mr BRIGGS —So where have the OHS officials from the state government been, Member for Longman?


Mr Sullivan —They were there.


Mr BRIGGS —Oh, they were there. It really mattered, didn’t it? Their record has been outstanding on this, hasn’t it? It is a poor link in place of an argument, which you do not have.


Mr Sullivan —I have got a great argument.


Mr BRIGGS —The argument run by the other side is that being run by the CFMEU, and they are just placating in this place. But we will deal with that.

Let us look at the history of this industry and where the ABCC comes from. It comes out of a royal commission that those on the other side now seek to slander, as they have since it was established. They did not mind when Commissioner Cole investigated a campaign by the then member for Griffith, but the royal commission held when he investigated the building industry did not have as much value, apparently.

Let us look at what that royal commission found. It found an industry which was basically snubbing its nose at the rule of law. It was conducted from August 2001 and was established to inquire and report into the nature, extent and effect of any unlawful or otherwise inappropriate conduct in the building and construction industry. The commission sat for 171 public sitting days, accumulated 16,000 pages of transcripts and heard from 765 witnesses. In addition, 1,900 exhibits, including confidential exhibits, were tendered to commissioners, and some 29 general submissions were presented from interested parties throughout the building and construction industry.

The final report from Commissioner Cole was tabled in parliament on 26 and 27 May 2003 by the then Minister for Workplace Relations, the member for Warringah. It outlined the royal commission findings that the industry was characterised by widespread disregard for the law, and catalogued over 100 types of unlawful and inappropriate conduct. The commission also found that existing regulatory bodies had insufficient powers and resources to enforce the law.

Let us deal with some of the issues that the royal commission found. The findings provide a very compelling insight into this industry, prior to the beginning of the ABCC. The royal commission found:

(a)   widespread disregard of, or breach of, the enterprise bargaining provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (C’wth);

…            …            …

(d)   widespread requirement by head contractors for subcontractors to have union-endorsed enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) before being permitted to commence work on major projects in State capital central business districts and major regional centres;

(e)   widespread requirement for employees of subcontractors to become members of unions in association with their employer obtaining a union-endorsed enterprise bargaining agreement;

(f)   widespread requirement to employ union-nominated persons in critical positions on building projects;

(g)   widespread disregard of the terms of enterprise bargaining agreements once entered into;

(h)   widespread application of, and surrender to, inappropriate industrial pressure;

(i)   widespread use of occupational health and safety as an industrial tool;—

This is just what we saw the member for Longman do in defending this case.

(j)   widespread making of, and receipt of, inappropriate payments;—

This is very similar to what happens in Queensland at the moment, as I understand—

(k)   unlawful strikes and threats of unlawful strikes;

(l)   threatening and intimidatory conduct;

…            …            …

(n)           disregard of contractual obligations;

(o)   disregard of National and State codes of practice in the building and construction industry;

(p)   disregard of, or breach of, the strike pay provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (C’wth);—

They were completely thumbing their noses at the law—

(q)   disregard of, or breach of, the right of entry provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (C’wth);—

This is a bit similar to what is happening at Woodside in WA at the moment, with 170-odd right of entry applications in four weeks—four weeks!

(r)   disregard of Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) and court orders;

(s)   disregard by senior union officials of unlawful or inappropriate acts by inferior union officials;

(t)   reluctance of employers to use legal remedies available to them;

No wonder!

…            …            …

(w)   inflexibility in workplace arrangements;

(x)   endeavours by unions, particularly the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), to regulate the industry; and—

last of all—

(y)   disregard of the rule of law—

which applies in our country.

What was the effect that we found this had on our economy and on general mum and dad punters? We saw an industry whose productivity had been lifted by 10 per cent as the ABCC was introduced, we saw a lower CPI, we saw a higher GDP and we saw an annual economic welfare gain of $5.5 billion per year. But all these results are disregarded by those on the other side purely for their political purposes. Those on the other side stand hand in hand and side by side with the CFMEU officials who are identified in this royal commission report as being the perpetrators of the economic destruction of this industry.

The ABCC has actually brought law back to this industry. It has brought back a legal framework which employees, employers and subcontractors can operate under. It has removed the bullying and the intimidation which—for too long—made this industry a laughing stock not only in our country but other countries as well.

So let us not have this ‘ABCC are all a bunch of neophyte Liberal-lovers who run around trying to destroy the union movement in Australia’. The ABCC has reintroduced the concept of the rule of law into Australian workplaces in the building industry. This is not a matter of dealing with workers’ rights or safety; it is actually a matter of dealing with inappropriate, illegal conduct on building sites.

Those on the other side will stand up and talk about how we do not support workers’ rights and how we are all out to get unions and so forth. That is completely untrue. Those on the other side seek to denigrate this royal commission and argue it was done for political purposes; but this royal commission found an industry held up by illegal conduct and which was damaging our economy through this behaviour. They seek to defend that behaviour and to reinstate the power and privileged position of certain officials in the CFMEU and other unions like the ETU in Victoria—I notice the member for Deakin is not speaking on this bill, which surprises me a great deal. They seek to take us back to the bad old days.

In its short time, the ABCC has achieved quite significant benefits to the Australian economy. It was established due to a recommendation of the royal commission. In 2003 the first steps to implement the recommendation were begun by the member for Warringah, followed by the member for Menzies, successive workplace relations ministers. Following the 2004 election, in October 2005, the commission was established, led by Commissioner John Lloyd, who has done an outstanding job. It is a credit to his work ethic. Members can shake their heads and denigrate a public servant if they wish—they are good at it—but he has done an outstanding job of reintroducing the law into this industry.

What we have seen from the KPMG-Econtech research—which those on the other side will disagree with—is industry productivity up by 10 per cent, an annual economic welfare gain of $5.5 billion, a lower CPI, a GDP higher by 1.5 per cent and a significant reduction in the days lost through industrial disputes and illegal behaviour on worksites. That is what we are talking about here: illegal behaviour on worksites. No-one has anything to fear if they actually follow the law; that is the point. If they follow the law and respect the rule of law in our country, which I thought those on the other side stood for, they have nothing to fear.

What those on the other side want to return to is the privileged position that a certain union had. What does it mean? Increased membership means increased financing. Increased financing means increased donations. It is a revolving slush fund, and that is what they want to go back to. This is not about safety or workers’ rights—not at all. This is about union power; make no mistake. The arguments mounted by those on the other side will quote workers’ rights and OH&S concerns. They will ignore the facts that the OH&S is looked after by their state Labor mates, that there is still a Federal Safety Commissioner and that safety is the concern of all of us. Deaths on work sites should not be used as political pawns, but all too often we will hear speeches from those on the other side peppered through with fatality statistics, suggesting that what we did in government and what we seek to do today is to continue unsafe practices, which is completely untrue and a slur.

So we had a royal commission and we had the recommendations implemented. We have seen the results of the recommendations: an improvement in this industry, for the workers as well as the employers. The member for Longman made the point that in this industry building employers from time to time do not follow the law either. If that is the case, they will be prosecuted. Anybody in this industry, or any industry for that matter, who does not follow the law should be prosecuted by the relevant authorities. That is common sense. But what we saw in this industry—the reason we had a specific piece of legislation and a royal commission into this industry—was that there was a specific circumstance in this industry and a specific behaviour with a disregard for the law. So there was specific legislation built. The legislation has worked, the ABCC has worked and we have seen the improvements, so why change?

Let us look at what has happened in recent times. The Labor government was elected in November 2007 on promises including the abolition of the ABCC and the establishment of a specific inspectorate division within Fair Work Australia from 1 February 2010, until that time maintaining the full powers and operations of the ABCC and a strong cop on the beat at all times—because that sounded like they were being tough—ensuring new arrangements are simple and retaining the principle of the current framework. What we see in this bill is those promises largely implemented following the review by Justice Wilcox. The other thing this bill does is to introduce this concept of switch-on and switch-off with the coercive powers, which basically is switching off—the removal of the coercive powers. The powers in the current law are there to compel witnesses to give evidence that is needed and to provide protection to those who want to give evidence to the ABCC without fear of payback or retribution. What we found with the ABCC—let us remember what we went through earlier on—is that this industry was full of intimidatory practices where people were snubbing their noses at the rule of law. So we needed specific provisions, and that is one of the reasons this has worked.

The existing powers are capable of being used against everyone in the sector: employees, employers and subcontractors—you name it. The proposed restrictions on investigation powers are cumbersome, but they are there because this is the out, you see—this is the deal. I referred today in an article on a website to Ross Fitzgerald, not a well-known supporter of our side of politics. There was a Ross Fitzgerald article earlier this week in the Australian, where he talked about the performance of the Deputy Prime Minister, the woman most likely to succeed when the current Prime Minister runs out of time. He refers to her performance on the Q&A program against the Leader of the Opposition last week, and he is not kind in his analysis of her performance. He says:

She is all style and very little substance. Long on rhetoric, but short on delivery. All foam, no beer.

It is quite a cutting analysis of her performance, and you see that in this bill. What you see is the talk that there has been this great brawl with the CFMEU and the bullyboy unionists—‘I’m standing up to them and we’re keeping this tough cop on the beat’—but then you actually see the detail, which shows that that is simply not true. There are the little opt-out powers which remove all the beneficial aspects of the ABCC.

You will see the removal of Mr Lloyd at some point—you can guarantee that. We saw the reaction from those opposite when I mentioned his name, and there are head nods now; that pretty much confirms that that is what will occur, because this is what happens. If you have someone who those on the other side do not like, who might actually be doing his job properly, you will see a personal campaign of vilification against him. You saw that with the Cole royal commission; you will now see it with Mr Lloyd.

This is the behaviour of those on the other side, who seek to implement their real agenda. They cloak it under a language which pretends that they are tough on illegal or inappropriate behaviour, but in truth they are not. In truth what they are doing is reducing the role of the ABCC, because that is what the unions want. And who benefits from that in the end? The Labor Party. The Labor Party benefits from it in the end. It is all froth and no beer. This is what this bill is: all froth and no beer. It is implementing the true desires of those on the other side: the removal of the institution which has reintroduced the rule of law into this industry, an industry which needed a specific royal commission into it, which found over 100 instances of illegal or inappropriate behaviour. It is an industry which has been for many years subject to inappropriate and illegal behaviour and which will go back to the worst of the excesses of those who seek to implement their own agenda for their own benefit into the future.

We have seen the benefits of the ABCC from the Econtech research and we will see the outcome of the removal of these powers. This is being done for politics. This is not being done for the benefit of the Australian consumers. This is not being done for good policy reasons. This is being done for political reasons. It is a political deal—they have to reward their mates when they are in government. But, instead of being honest about that, what this bill seeks to do is to claim they are standing up when indeed they are not. This is the undercutting of the powers of the ABCC. The removal of these powers is the very essence of the reason that the ABCC has been successful, because remember that the major finding of the royal commission was that this is an industry guided by illegal behaviour and inappropriate conduct. This is a very Labor bill from a Deputy Prime Minister who is all froth and no beer.