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Thursday, 9 February 2012
Page: 596

Ms SMYTH (La Trobe) (13:24): I am very pleased to speak in this debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011, because for me it represents one of the most stark contrasts between us on the government benches and the conservatives opposite. It really goes to the heart of how political parties recognise what it means to be an ordinary worker in Australia and the things that really matter to ordinary workers in Australia—namely, protection of their rights at work, the assurance that they will continue to have a job and the assurance that their rights at work will not be unreasonably interfered with. That is entirely what this debate is about and has always been about. So I am very pleased to be able to speak on a bill that will have the effect of abolishing the ABCC.

The ABCC is one of the many legacies of the Howard government that has seen workers targeted. It really saw workers as the enemy. It was the masthead of the Howard government's industrial relations—and it appears, from the tone of the debate today from those opposite, that it continues to be the masthead of the Leader of the Opposition's policies for Australian workers.

Earlier I caught a little bit of the contribution of the member for Mayo. In addition to all the usual ideologically driven arguments that come from the opposition about the rights of workers and about ensuring that we are tough on workers, the member included a line that, as I recall, said something about the ABCC legislation bringing the rule of law back to the industry. I find that deeply ironic. It seems to me that this debate is entirely about arbitrarily depriving one group of people in our society of certain rights. My conception of the rule of law has always been that it is about ensuring that no-one in a society is arbitrarily deprived of their rights. So it is extraordinary to me that that was the tenor of the argument coming from the member for Mayo earlier today.

This government committed to abolishing the ABCC. It did so at the election, and today I am very pleased to be able to speak to the bill that will achieve that. It really is time for the ABCC to go. At the core of Labor's industrial relations system is fairness. The ABCC, from its very inception, represented everything that was unfair in the Howard government's workplace policies. In my electorate I have certainly had a number of constituents who work in the construction industry and who have come up to see me at mobile offices to tell me about their unease with the ABCC. In addition to concerns about all the practical things the ABCC been capable of doing in the past, the ABCC is symbolic. It says to these workers that they are undervalued, that they are devalued, that their rights are not regarded as significant—certainly by the Howard government—and that they as construction workers are vulnerable to having their industrial rights interfered with.

Although I know that some changes were made to the operation of the ABCC in 2010, including some changes that reflected the recommendations of Justice Murray Wilcox in relation to the use of coercive powers, construction workers still know that the Howard government originally established the ABCC for the express purpose of targeting them. They do hard work and they do work that can be dangerous, and they expect that their industrial rights will be upheld and respected.

We made a commitment to the Australian people that we would replace the ABCC with a new body to provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations in the building and construction industry. Apart from anything else in this debate, it is simply the case that the ABCC is not an appropriate regulator. It needs to be replaced with a new body that is part of the mainstream fair work system, a system that is working well.

The result of the 2007 federal election made the public's intentions about their work rights very clear. It told us that the public was not prepared to tolerate the kind of arbitrary and harsh interference with their work rights that the Howard government was trying to put over. It told us that the public understood that workers, particularly construction workers, were being targeted by the Howard government for purely ideological reasons—because it was always Howard's plans to smash the unions and to smash workers, just as it is the Leader of the Opposition's plan to do so today. The Leader of the Opposition is trying to play nice and pretend that he is interested in workers at the moment—manufacturing workers in particular, it seems. The fact that he is keeping up this rather elaborate pretence while at the same time abandoning support for the car industry and the manufacturing workers whom it supports is a truly valiant effort, but I do not think that the Australian public are quite so easily taken in. They know that, at any opportunity, the Liberals will take a swipe at our Fair Work system and that, at any opportunity, the Liberals will undermine Fair Work Australia. We saw it during the Qantas dispute and we hear it almost daily in their remarks in this place.

Even the process of developing this legislation shows the stark contrast between Labor and the conservatives. This legislation has been developed through consultation, with expert contributions from Justice Murray Wilcox, consultation with industry and, most importantly, dialogue with working people. The government carried out extensive consultation with industry, with unions and with state and territory governments in 2008-09 as part of the development of this legislation for the previous parliament. Justice Wilcox also consulted widely with stakeholders in the building and construction industry as part of his 2009 report.

We on this side know that our construction industry is critical to the national economy, to jobs and to productivity. When the Liberals put in place the ABCC, they took a heavy-handed and clumsy approach to the regulation of an industry which is responsible not only for the livelihoods of its workers and their families but also for the health of our economy. It was driven by an obsession with diluting workers' rights.

The bill before us abolishes the ABCC and establishes a new regulator, the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, which will operate in accordance with community expectations and a fair and just workplace relations system. The Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate will operate under a new framework for the industry, which will be confined to on-site building work.

The bill also removes existing building-industry-specific laws that had provided higher penalties for building industry participants for breaches of industrial law and broader circumstances under which industrial action attracts penalties in relation to the building industry. The new regulator will also provide information, advice and assistance to all building industry participants regarding their rights and their obligations under the law as well as seeking to improve the standard of occupational health and safety in the construction industry.

Most importantly, in my view, this bill contains a number of new provisions and protections—provisions such as those which ensure that a person can be represented by a lawyer of their choice and that legal professional privilege and public interest immunity are available. New provisions are also going to be put in place to ensure payment of legal, travel and accommodation expenses and any earnings lost due to giving evidence. The bill also includes provisions which repeal the previous compulsory interview confidentiality undertakings which prevent interviewees telling other parties what took place at an interview. I believe all of these things are extremely important protections and I am very pleased to see that they are being put in place in the bill that is before us.

The topic of coercive powers has come up already in today's debate, and it has certainly been a subject of considerable discussion in the community, and rightly so. As previous members on this side have reflected, when powers such as these are being put in place, we as a community and we as a parliament need to reflect on why they are being put in place, whether it is appropriate that they remain in place and for how long. Certainly due consideration has been given to all those things in the construction of the bill before us today.

I know that there have been calls, including calls this morning, for the coercive powers provisions to be removed now, and I do hear those calls. While coercive powers remain in the bill before us on the basis of the recommendations made by Justice Murray Wilcox, it is important to understand the kinds of safeguards that are being put in place, including external oversight of the exercise of those powers. I will mention a few of those safeguards today, but they are fairly extensive.

The safeguards will require that a presidential member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is satisfied that a case has been made for the use of those powers on each occasion that they are used. As I mentioned, the safeguards require that an individual is able to be represented by a lawyer of their choice. Provisions exist for legal professional privilege and public interest immunity to apply, and safeguards apply in relation to the reimbursement of people who are summonsed to give evidence and to provide information at an examination.

The safeguards also go on to require that all examinations are to be videotaped and that the Commonwealth Ombudsman will monitor and review those examinations and provide reports to parliament on the exercise of those powers. There is an additional safeguard that, prior to allowing an examination to occur, the presidential member of the AAT needs to be satisfied of a series of criteria, including, amongst other things, a requirement that an investigation is actually underway and that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the person to whom the application relates has the information or the documents that are being sought through investigation and is capable of giving evidence relevant to the investigation. It also requires that the presidential member of the AAT consider whether there are other methods of obtaining the relevant information and whether they have actually been undertaken or are appropriate.

Finally, it is extremely important to note that there is to be a sunset in relation to the use of coercive powers, to apply at the end of three years. As I have said, given the gravity of the use of coercive powers in any circumstances, it is extremely important that there is a timely review of the use of those coercive powers, that there be appropriate safeguards put in place for the use of those coercive powers and that they be considered regularly and reviewed. All of those things are features of the bill before us today.

Ultimately this bill is about restoring the confidence of a group of ordinary workers in the construction industry about their industrial rights. It is about restoring balance to the rights of participants in the construction industry as a whole. It is about respecting their rights under a reasonable fair work system, rather than the extreme, unfair and ideologically driven system that was put forward by the Howard government and seems, unfortunately, to be being revisited daily by those opposite. The opposition want to see a return to Work Choices. They want to see a return to those things that were rejected outright by the Australian public in their decisions at the 2007 and 2010 elections in relation to their industrial rights. None of this surprises me, because they are out of touch on so many issues. They have revealed themselves particularly in recent days in their unwillingness to ask questions about matters of economic policy or matters relating to the future of this country in areas as diverse as the minerals resource rent tax, health and education—all of those things which we on this side are regularly concerned about. They show themselves to be out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Australian workers today in their position in relation to this piece of legislation.

They have also shown themselves to be out of touch in relation to ordinary workers on other occasions, including in their opposition to the superannuation increase that will occur under the government's proposal for a minerals resource rent tax. They have no regard for the circumstances of ordinary workers now. Nor do those on the other side have any regard for the circumstances that ordinary Australian workers might find themselves in on their retirement. We on this side want to ensure that ordinary Australian workers have the funds to be able to enjoy their retirement. Those on the other side have no regard for the superannuation arrangements of ordinary Australian workers or for ensuring the continued prosperity of ordinary individuals.

During the global financial crisis we saw more evidence that those on the other side have no regard for the jobs of workers in this country. Indeed, there were some substantial and notable absences during the debate in relation to the surplus and the way in which it might support jobs for workers in this country. Those on the other side have no plan for investment in new technologies and new industries while those on this side have a plan for the future of ordinary Australian workers as we invest in the National Broadband Network, and inevitably the industry that that will generate and as we encourage a cleaner energy future through the clean energy future package, and all of the things that that will mean for the industries and workers of the future. On all fronts, those opposite have nothing to say on the rights, continued employment, prosperity, retirement income, health or education of workers.