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Thursday, 9 February 2012
Page: 576


Mr MITCHELL (McEwen) (11:59): Isn't it a pleasure to follow the Barbara Cartland of Australian politics, the member for Mayo, with his romantic fiction about how big and bad the world is going to be when we have a fairer workplace, harking back to the good old days as the architect of Work Choices—the man whose idea of fair work in this country is you work hard and he will take the money? It is an absolute joke to have him stand there and conjure up all these thoughts of dark clouds and the world falling down because what we want to do is let industry and workers have a workplace that is fairer to give everyone a go.

I am very pleased to be able to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011 because it is built on the foundations of what is great about the Labor Party: fairness in the workplace. On this side of the House, we know how important the building and construction industry is and how in turn this industry has directly helped to create jobs and boosted our economy during the global financial crisis, and which continues to strengthen and grow the economy today.

Not only has our nation-building plan, with projects such as the Building the Education Revolution, kept our economy strong, it has also kept Australian workers in jobs, with their families getting food on their table and paying their mortgage payments and their bills and still having a lifestyle during the global downturn. The delivery of our nation-building projects is reliant on the construction industry and that is why it is pleasing to speak on a bill which abolishes the Howard government's Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. Despite what was said earlier, this bill will deliver on Labor's commitment to replace the ABCC with a new body which provides a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations in the building and construction industry. The ABCC is not a suitable regulator and needs to be replaced with a new body which is part of the mainstream Fair Work system and it will operate in harmony with community expectations of a fair and just workplace relations system. As the Prime Minister has previously stated, this bill will ensure that a new regulator is established to provide information, advice and assistance to all building industry participants regarding their rights and obligations under the law, as well as seek to improve the standards of occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry.

The government appointed Justice Murray Wilcox QC, a person of very high standing, to consult and report on the matters related to the creation of a new building industry inspectorate to regulate the construction industry and, after Justice Wilcox's extensive consultation with all stakeholders, we are now moving to deliver on abolishing the ABCC and establishing a new fair regulator. The bill honours the government's commitment and gives effect to the principal recommendations in the Wilcox report. The bill aims to provide fairness in the industry by ensuring that information, advice and assistance is available to all participants in connection with their rights and obligations under all the relevant laws. It also provides effective ways for investigation and enforcement of the relevant laws while balancing the rights of the building industry participants through the provision of appropriate safeguards in relation to the use of enforcement powers. The bill seeks to improve the level of occupational health and safety in the building industry, something that we on this side of the House are very mindful of. We want to make sure that when people go to work they go to a safe workplace and they can come home to their families. That is why this bill is important, to ensure that we do see the OH&S standards lifted. The bill also retains the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner and its related accreditation scheme, which have resulted in demonstrated improvements in the OH&S practices and records of accredited companies and related projects. The creation of the building industry inspectorate will work in compliance with the general workplace relations laws, as prescribed in the Fair Work Act 2009, by all—that is important—building industry participants.

The ABCC showed the contempt that the Liberal Party has for workers. Let us remember that the ABCC in conjunction with Work Choices illustrates the lack of respect those opposite have for the hardworking men and women of Australia. They have never supported them and we know they never will. It is not in their DNA. Think about the data that was collected during the dark days of the Howard Liberal government. The results of the data that they wanted collected were so bad that the Liberal government went to the Office of Employment Advocate and said, 'Stop collecting the data. It's showing how bad it is. We've got to stop it immediately.' That was their way of hiding the truth: 'Let's just shut it down and hide it and no-one knows about it.'

Once our new regulator is established it will have the powers and responsibilities to ensure that employers, their organisations, employees and trade unions all abide by their obligations under the law. As I have said, this bill will abolish the office of the ABCC and create a new agency, the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, to regulate the building and construction industry. The bill implements the key recommendations of the Transition to Fair Work Australia for the Building and Construction Industry report by the Hon. Murray Wilcox QC. The bill removes existing higher penalties for building industry participants for breaches of industrial law and introduces safeguards in relation to the power to compulsorily obtain information and documents. It also creates an office, the Independent Assessor, who will determine, on application by the stakeholders, that compulsory information-gathering powers will not apply to a project.

In the development of this legislation, the government carried out very extensive consultation with industry, with unions and with state and territory governments in 2008-09 and Justice Wilcox also consulted widely with all stakeholders in the construction industry as part of his 2009 report. And while we do this, the opposition are still committed to pursuing their extreme workplace relations laws rather than ensuring lawful conduct by all parties in the building industry. It is our government, the Gillard government, that is continuing to support a fair and effective industrial relations system. We abolished Work Choices and created a balanced industrial relations system that has returned fairness to our workplaces while, at the same time, boosting our national productivity. This means that 2.8 million more Australians have protection against being unfairly sacked.

As I travel through the electorate of McEwen, I find that Australians are getting sick to death of the Leader of the Opposition saying no to everything. But it seems the one thing he can say yes to is Work Choices. Wherever you look it is deep in the hearts of those opposite. They cannot get rid of it. They want an unfair industrial relations policy. They can say it is 'dead, buried and cremated' but it rises again like Frankenstein. We know from their talk over the last six months that they have been thinking of reintroducing a Work Choices system. They do not want Australians to have a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. That is the crystal clear difference between us sitting on this side of the House and those who sit opposite. We want to make sure that everyone gets paid fairly. We want to make sure that for a hard day's work everyone is delivered a fair day's pay in a safe workplace.

Under the Howard Liberal government thousands of Australian workers were worse off. There were the unfair dismissal laws. The most vulnerable workers were forced onto those horrible things called AWAs. AWAs stripped away conditions like penalty rates, rest breaks and overtime—conditions that are so important for people who do not earn as much as we do. Those opposite decided to strip those conditions away from them to make sure that they could not afford that little bit extra for doing an extra bit of hard work. This is not something that the Leader of the Opposition shies away from. His only current policy seems to be Work Choices mark II. Let us go to a speech that he gave in 2001 to that interesting group called the Nicholls Society. He said:

One of the most important Howard Government policies has been the introduction of Australian Workplace Agreements.

He thinks it is a good thing that 64 per cent of the AWAs cut annual leave loading; 63 per cent cut penalty rates; 52 per cent cut shiftwork loading; 46 per cent cut public holiday pay; 40 per cent cut rest breaks; 36 per cent cut declared public holidays; and 22 per cent provided workers with no pay rises at all—none, and some for up to five years. They ripped off workers. It is an absolute disgrace that they sit there and say: 'We care for workers now. We've turned over a new leaf.' They have not changed their spots at all. Give them two minutes on this side of the House and I can guarantee that they will be back to where they were under Work Choices, ensuring that we have a two-level society. It will be them taking the money and the rest of the country working hard and delivering the benefits into their pockets and those of the shareholders.

All data shows that our industrial system is working well. We have low unemployment. We have contained wages growth. We have low levels of industrial disputations and record levels of successful workplace agreements. Labor ended the AWA individual contracts that stripped away all the pay and conditions of hardworking Australians. We established Fair Work Australia, an independent umpire—that is the key word, 'independent'—to help employees and employers resolve disputes in the workplace. The Fair Work Act is delivering the outcomes promised to Australians in Labor's Forward with Fairness election policy. It is delivering a record number of agreements, low unemployment and contained wages growth—all three are important to keep our economy growing. It has restored the balance to the industrial relations landscape in this country—a balance that was lost under the dreadful Work Choices.

For all the heat the opposition attempt to create in industrial relations, the reality is that there is precious little to support their views. We have broadened the definition of pay equity so that it does not simply provide equal pay for equal work but provides equal pay for equal work value so that discrimination does not have to be proven as grounds for bringing a case forward. Labor has provided a fair minimum safety net for Australian employees consisting of 10 national employment standards in a modern award system. Labor has helped young families with Australia's first Paid Parental Leave Scheme—a parental leave scheme that the Leader of the Opposition said would happen over his dead body—another promise he broke.

Labor has extended the rights for unpaid parental leave in the National Employment Standards. We have introduced a no disadvantage test to make sure that workplace agreements leave workers better off. We have restored protections from unfair dismissal to 2.8 million Australians. Seven million employees are now eligible for unfair dismissal claims—almost double what was available under Work Choices. We are out there protecting Australian workers and their families. We have streamlined and strengthened the general protections for workers with the freedom for them to choose to be represented in the workplace as a key part of our new system. We are not going to give ground when it comes to protecting the rights of working people.

The Labor way is to support working Australians and the Liberal's way is to abandon them for big business. This legislation is an important step, an important policy, that we are delivering and we need to see it go through to ensure that we have safe and fair building and construction industry workplaces. I wish this bill a very speedy passage.