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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7807


Ms GILLARD (Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion) (12:12 PM) —in reply—I rise to sum up this debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2009. This bill is about three things: it is about delivering on the Rudd Labor government’s election commitments—our promise to the Australian people; it is about ensuring that there is always a strong cop on the beat in the building and construction industry; and, of course, it is about delivering workplace relations laws in the national interest that get the balance right. I am well aware that there is opposition to these laws. They are opposed by trade unions, and they are opposed by many employers. The government has approached this task to get the balance right in the national interest.

During the course of this debate, we have heard a number of offensive and erroneous remarks from the opposition about the impact of this bill, and I will go through those misrepresentations one at a time. But I say more generally to the Liberal Party: at some point, they need to ask themselves why the Australian people do not trust them on workplace relations—because the Australian people do not. The Australian people repudiated them on workplace relations at the 2007 election. The Australian people do not believe that the Liberal Party can be trusted with workplace relations. And they do not believe that because the Liberal Party did not tell them the truth about Work Choices in the run-up to the 2004 election. The Liberal Party did not tell them the truth about Work Choices when it was hurting working Australians, and the Liberal Party is not telling them the truth now about their intentions to reintroduce Work Choices. So there needs to be a fundamental rethink by the Liberal Party; they are not trusted and they are not respected on workplace relations. And when you listen to the contributions to this debate, it reinforces the fact that the Liberal Party should not be trusted or respected on workplace relations because their arguments in this debate have been all about misrepresentation, all about offensive remarks about members of the government; there has been, as usual, no substance to their debate. So I would say to Liberal Party: at some point they should come clean with the Australian people and say, ‘We are the party of Work Choices and if ever re-elected we will reintroduce it,’ and then, at that point, we can have a decent and honest debate.

In the meantime the Rudd Labor government will do what we were elected to do, what we promised the Australian people. I know members of the Liberal Party think promises to the Australian people are not worth much. That is why, when in government, each and every time it came to breaching a promise, they did so. The party of non-core promises is the Liberal Party. But we in the Rudd Labor government believe that promises to the Australian people are important. At the 2007 election we gave the Australian people the following promises. We said that we would always keep a strong cop on the beat for the building and construction industry—and this bill delivers on that promise. We said that we would replace the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner with a Fair Work Australia inspectorate from February 2010—and this bill delivers on that promise. We said that we would consult widely with stakeholders about the required changes for the regulation of the industry—and we have delivered on that promise. We promised that we would enact strong, fair and balanced laws for the industry—and these are those laws.

Apart from the fact that people do not trust the Liberal Party on workplace relations, it needs to be recognised that the laws before this parliament are the product of an extensive consultation process convened by a respected former judge who was asked by the government to provide advice on this area of law. This bill delivers changes consistent with the advice of the Hon. Murray Wilcox. I thank him for those efforts and I thank him for that advice.

In introducing these laws I made it clear in my second reading speech and I make it clear today that the Rudd government has no tolerance for the pockets of the industry where people think they are above the law, where employers flout their obligations to staff, where people think that threats and violence somehow have a place in our society. They do not. Anybody who breaches the law should feel the full force of the law. That is the position of the Rudd Labor government and this bill delivers on that commitment.

This bill contains tough provisions. It will create a building inspectorate that will be charged with enforcing the building industry’s compliance with the law. Many silly words have been used by Liberal Party members to describe this body, but its charge will be to ensure lawful conduct in the building industry. It will have powers at its disposal to do so, including safeguards recommended by the Hon. Murray Wilcox—coercive powers where necessary. This bill delivers these powers and delivers that kind of compliance. This bill enacts, as recommended by the Hon. Murray Wilcox, the equalisation of penalties for building industry workers and workers generally under the Fair Work Act.

Members opposite, during their contributions, have criticised that. Interestingly, at the same time as they are saying the ABCC is doing a good job, they have criticised that recommendation of the Hon. Murray Wilcox and that provision in this legislation. What members opposite clearly do not know—or they are unconcerned about the degree of inconsistency—is that on many occasions when the ABCC litigates for penalties, it litigates for the penalties that are in the Fair Work Act and that were in its predecessor the Workplace Relations Act 1996. Indeed, in more than half of the court cases in which the ABCC has successfully obtained penalties, they were penalties prescribed by this act. So if you say the ABCC is doing a good job then you must say it has done a good job when it has successfully litigated those cases under the kinds of penalty provisions in this act. Members opposite cannot have it both ways and say that that is somehow inappropriate—given that it was recommended by an independent judge and is part of the way the ABCC has gone about its work in successful prosecutions.

Beyond that criticism, there have also been criticisms of the new safeguards that are being put in place on these coercive powers—the compulsory examination powers—under this bill. We have heard claims from the opposition that they are too onerous, that they are red tape, that they will stop a quick response. All of these claims fall away when you hold them up to the light of day and actually have a think about the facts, as opposed to the spin and rhetoric that comes from the Liberal Party. I would draw the House’s attention to the fact that, according to the ABCC’s last annual report, less than nine per cent of its investigations included the use of compulsory examination powers—these powers tend to be used when investigations are well underway. So any nonsense and spin from the Liberal Party that somehow these safeguards prevent ABCC inspectors from doing their work and will create hurdles in all investigations clearly falls away. These coercive powers have been used in nine per cent of investigations when the investigations are in a deep state—and often the ABCC has said publicly that these powers are used as a last resort, not as a first-instance response.

Let us hear about the safeguards. It is just not clear to me what the Liberal Party thinks is unreasonable about these safeguards. Does the Liberal Party—and I stress the use of the word ‘liberal’, given its meaning in political philosophy—really say it is inappropriate for someone to be represented by a lawyer of their choice? Is that the Liberal Party’s philosophy today? The Liberal Party would say that it is the party of individual rights. If you look at its political pedigree over the ages, one of the things the Liberal Party would say about itself and its history is that it has been the party of individual rights. What is exceptional, what is objectionable, about the right to be represented by a lawyer of your choice and the associated right to client legal privilege? What could be objectionable about that?

The next safeguard is the payment of reasonable costs incurred. If you are asked on a compulsory basis to go and do something, is it so unreasonable, so absurd, so ridiculous, so objectionable, that the reasonable costs that you incur in getting there are met—when you have been compelled to do so?

The oversight of the Commonwealth Ombudsman—is that objectionable? Is it objectionable that, when we have action under a coercive power, there is an independent statutory person who can look at that? Is scrutiny a bad thing in the Liberal Party today? Do they not like things being scrutinised? Is that objectionable?

Then there is the fact that one needs to go to a presidential member of the AAT—once again a coercive power. This is a statutory body. The AAT does a lot of things. I would have thought that oversight by independent office holders of government decisions and the decisions of statutory bodies would be viewed as reasonable in the modern age. What is objectionable about that from the Liberal Party point of view? It is very hard to see.

Then the Liberal Party talk about the five-year sunset provision. But of course they fail to say that the sunset provision was recommended by His Honour Murray Wilcox, as were all of the things that I have just listed and talked about, and that I have specifically said—and this was recommended by His Honour Murray Wilcox—that a review will occur prior to the sunset on all matters relating to compliance in the building and construction industry, and such a review will be inclusive of the views of all stakeholders. It is hard to see what is wrong with that, with enacting what His Honour said should be enacted and with having a review which will listen to all views, as I laid out in my second reading speech and as I have said on a number of occasions publicly since.

Then the opposition have criticised the government’s decision to have an independent assessor with the power to switch off the compulsory examination powers on peaceful projects. In this regard, I think perhaps members of the Liberal Party ought to get out more and they ought to talk to employers and people within the industry.


Mr Keenan —You should get out and talk to some people in the industry and see what they say to you.


Ms GILLARD —I have done it myself on many, many occasions. When I have those discussions with people in the industry, they point to projects where workplace relations have been peaceful, have been a model, where projects have been delivered on time, on budget and, on some occasions, before time. In my own state of Victoria, for example, the EastLink project, an enormous piece of civil construction, was delivered ahead of time with exemplary workplace relations—hardworking decent Australians going to work every day, working hard to make a living, not causing any industrial disruption or trouble and then going home.


Mr Keenan interjecting


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr AJ Schultz)—Order! You may disagree with what the minister is saying, but the minister has the call.


Ms GILLARD —Another great Liberal value, the right to free speech, is not honoured in the modern age as much as it used to be, just like the right to a lawyer! The Liberal Party is staggering around in opposition, having lost its way.

For projects like that, an application could be made to switch off the coercive powers. That would be assessed by an independent assessor. Should there be a subsequent problem with industrial unrest, then it can be switched back on. But this is a recognition that there are parts of this industry that are peaceful, that are characterised by good employers and hardworking people, and we believe that in the legislative framework we should recognise that. Of course, this is also an industry where there are parts of it with significant industrial troubles and disruption. I have publicly talked about those. For those parts, there should be absolutely vigorous, hard-edged compliance and no tolerance at all for unlawfulness. This bill delivers that as well.

I conclude by saying that the Wilcox review found, and I absolutely believe, that there are problems in parts of the building and construction sector that cannot be ignored. As a government, we have no tolerance for conduct which breaks the law, whether it is unlawful industrial action or underpayment of employees. Each and every breach of the law is wrong and each and every breach of the law should be acted upon. This bill ensures that we have got the balance right for all participants in the Australian building and construction industry. It ensures, and it is the government’s intention, that the use of coercive powers is focused where they are needed the most. This is a bill that gets the balance right and honours each and every one of the government’s pre-election commitments. I commend it to the House.

Question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.