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Thursday, 9 February 2012
Page: 586

Mr LYONS (Bass) (12:42): I rise in the House today to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. This bill provides the framework for cooperative and productive relations in the building industry. It is based on the recommendations of Justice Wilcox QC, who said the new regulator should retain coercive information-gathering powers while removing the existing higher penalties for building industry participants for breaches of industrial law and introducing safeguards in relation to the power to compulsorily obtain information and documents.

I am proud to be here today to say that after six years we are on the verge of seeing the end of the Australian Building Construction Commissioner, the ABCC. The ABCC was created by the Howard government in 2005 to enforce its laws and 'criminalise' much union related activity on construction sites. It was:

… provided with powers to enforce workplace laws, to address the problems that the building and construction industry encounters.

… Its key objective is to ensure that workplace relations laws are enforced in building and construction industry workplaces.

To give a bit of history, its predecessor, the Building Industry Taskforce, was set up in the wake of the politically driven Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. It is okay for employers to salt away their capital and withdraw their labour but it is a criminal act for employees to do the same, under the Liberal's law. While its brief was to oversee adherence to industrial law, the ABCC evidently fails to investigate or prosecute employers for underpaying workers or breaching safety regulations. Rather, it has been alleged that it targets individual workers involved in union or collective activity not strictly related to EBA negotiations.

This bill will abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and create a new agency, the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, to regulate the building and construction industry. The new regulator will provide information, advice and assistance to all building industry employers and employees regarding their rights and obligations under the law, as well as seek to improve the standard of occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry. As Minister Evans said, the inspectorate will have the powers and responsibilities to ensure employers, organisations, employees and trade unions abide by their obligations under the law. The bill implements the key recommendations of the report Transition to Fair Work Australia for the Building and Construction Industry by the honourable Murray Wilcox QC. Mr Wilcox undertook a considerable amount of work, and I take this opportunity to thank him for his efforts and his thoughtful and balanced report.

The inspectorate will retain the coercive information gathering powers. The bill removes existing higher penalties for the building industry participants for breaches of industrial law and introduces safeguards in relation to the power to compulsorily obtain information and documents. The bill creates an office of Independent Assessor who will on application by stakeholders determine that compulsory information gathering powers will not apply to a project. The bill includes a three-year sunset provision for the compulsory information gathering powers. A review will occur prior to the sunset of the compulsory information gathering powers. The bill does not impact on the provisions that establish the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner or the OH&S Accreditation Scheme.

At the heart of Labor's new workplace relations system is fairness. It is what we have strived for and it is something I am very proud of. Under the Liberal Party's Work Choices scheme, protection from being sacked unfairly was stripped away from more than three million workers. Thousands of workers were pushed onto AWA individual contracts: 70 per cent lost shift loadings, 68 per cent lost annual leave loadings, 65 per cent lost penalty rates, 49 per cent lost overtime loadings and 25 per cent no longer had public holidays. Those on the other side of the chamber should hang their head in shame for what they did to everyday working Australians. I cannot comprehend why they would have devised and voted for such a destructive scheme. As workplace relations minister, the member for Warringah actually opposed a paid parental leave scheme and said it would be introduced over his government's dead body. We cannot trust the Liberal Party on workplace relations.

Liberals seem to think that the stick will make the donkey work harder, but they are wrong. There is significant criticism of the former Howard government's ABCC, especially its targeting of building unions, by the wider community and by the labour movement. Here, today, we are taking a stand. We are creating a new body to provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations in the building and construction industry. Labor understands that the construction industry contains unique challenges for both employers and employees. As a result we have always supported a strong building industry regulator to ensure lawful conduct by all parties. The government believes that the ABCC in its current form is not an appropriate regulator and needs to be replaced with a new body that is part of the mainstream Fair Work system. This new regulator will operate in accordance with community expectations of a fair and just workplace relations system. I say here today that the abolition of the ABCC will not result in a return to the industrial disputes of last century, because the building industry inspectorate will continue to regulate the industry fairly and effectively. The opposition is committed to pursuing extreme workplace relations laws rather than ensuring lawful conduct by all parties in the building industry. We cannot trust the opposition on workplace laws and fairness.

Construction workers want to be treated the same as all other workers—not be subjected to the stress of arbitrary interrogations which can hang over their heads for months. Mr Noonan, National Secretary of the CFMEU's Construction Branch, said that since the Australian Building and Construction Commission was created by the Howard government it had achieved nothing except intimidation of workers in the construction industry. Right across Australia construction workers have been under attack from the legacy of Howard's industrial relations laws. As the Australian Building and Construction Commission continues to use its draconian powers, I stand here today with the aim of putting an end to this.

The International Labour Organisation, the UN body charged with looking after workers' rights, has taken aim at the ABCC on several occasions in the past, but earlier last year its condemnation was expressed in the strongest possible terms. The ILO's Committee of Experts, an eminent body of labour law jurists, noted:

… the manner in which the ABCC carries out its activities seems to have led to the exclusion of workers in the building and construction industry from the protection that the labour inspection system ought to secure for these workers under the applicable laws, the Committee urges the Government to ensure that the priorities of the ABCC (or the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate) are effectively reoriented …

We believe the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner needs to be replaced with a body that is part of the mainstream Fair Work system. Only considered, fair and balanced laws will create the sort of long-term change that the industry needs if it is to create jobs and make a positive contribution to national productivity and prosperity.

The building and construction industry is a critical sector of our economy with immediate and direct impacts on jobs, growth and productivity. Its importance is demonstrated by the scale and scope of construction funding the Australian government has committed through the BER projects. Those opposite of course opposed the GFC package. They opposed the jobs it would create and the facilities it provided. In Tasmania, Liberal state parliamentarians and even Liberal candidates for the next election have been happy to attend BER opening ceremonies, even though the initiative was voted against by the Liberal Party.

We know that the Labor Party is the only party that supports a fair and effective industrial relations system. We abolished Work Choices and created a balanced industrial relations system that returns fairness to our workplaces, while boosting national productivity. All the independent evidence shows that our industrial system is working well for employers and for workers. We have very low unemployment: more than 750,000 jobs have been created since we came to office, with 120,400 in the last 12 months alone. Wage growth has been moderate and fair. Industrial disputes remain at low levels: days lost due to industrial disputes are a third of the number during the Howard years. During the Howard years, 13.6 working days were lost per 1,000 workers per quarter; under this Labor government, 3.6 working days have been lost per 1,000 workers per quarter. Record levels of successful workplace agreements are being completed. The way we handled the Qantas situation in 2011 demonstrates the effectiveness and fairness of the laws put in place by this Labor government. The Labor government stands for fairness. It abolished Work Choices and ended individual contracts that stripped away Australian pay and conditions; set up Fair Work Australia, an independent umpire, to help resolve workplace disputes; introduced a new no disadvantage test to make sure workplace agreements left workers better off; and provided a fair minimum safety net for Australian employees, comprising 10 national employment standards and a modern award system.

As Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the current Leader of the Opposition, the member for Warringah, sought to trade government support for the car industry for them implementing a radical IR agenda, including individual contracts. He insisted the car companies set up a $1 million fund to sue workers and unions. Later, as Minister for Health and Ageing, he tried the same thing, asking drug companies who received PBS income to implement AWAs. And let's not forget that he refused to release documents detailing the government's involvement in the protracted meat dispute at G&K O'Connor, where union members were locked out for nine months and endured pay cuts of up to 60 per cent.

If he ever becomes Prime Minister, I have no doubt in my mind that he will bring back Work Choices. He said on 19 March 2008:

The Howard Government's industrial legislation, it was good for wages, it was good for jobs, and it was good for workers.

We all understand that Work Choices is in the Liberal Party's DNA. They do not believe in protections and regulations at work. They do not believe in protecting basic rights such as holiday pay, sick pay, redundancy, overtime, and health and safety. Shame on them. No matter what they try to call it, they will bring back its key elements—stripping away basic employee rights such as unfair dismissal protections.

The Gillard Labor government believes in making this nation stronger and fairer. The government understands that only considered, fair and balanced laws will create the sort of long-term change Australia's building and construction industry needs if it is to flourish, create jobs and make a positive contribution to national productivity and prosperity. The Gillard Labor government is working hard at building a strong economy, a sustainable environment and a fair society that provides every Australian the opportunity to prosper and succeed in life. What the Liberals do not get is that putting people under threat reduces productivity and industry. Our first priority is keeping the economy strong—protecting jobs, driving new growth and creating opportunity for all so that no person and no place is left behind. We are striving for fairness and balance. I commend the bill to the House.