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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1364


Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (12:03): We in the Labor Party believe in fairness. We believe in giving people a fair chance, a fair go. We believe in a fair industrial relations system; a system that balances the needs and interests of both employees and employers. We on this side of the House know that fairness does not come at the expense of productivity. We know productivity measures can be achieved by people cooperating together in the workplace and working towards a common aim—employers and employees alike. Rising productivity means boosting our standard of living. It means more Australians get to share in the enormous benefits this country has to offer.

Fairness is a key feature of the Labor Party's approach to industrial relations, which is why we are introducing these amendments to abolish the unfair Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. The ABCC, especially in its ability to use coercive powers, is an unfair body that is a hangover from Howard era industrial relations. It pits employees against employers, union members against non-union members and worker against worker. It was used to undermine trust and confidence in the construction industry. The ABCC unfairly targeted union officials and the actions of unions. It went after the people who dedicate their lives to protecting the rights and entitlements of others. Employees and unionists in the construction industry faced very different penalties and very different laws from others in the community. That goes against the core of what we in the Labor Party believe in: fairness and inclusion. It is for these reasons that we have always been committed to abolishing the ABCC and replacing it with something fairer. We want to put checks and balances on the powers exercised. We want to make sure there is more consistent treatment of workers in the construction industry, commensurate with what people would expect in the community.

We have long stood by this commitment and have faced challenges in ensuring it becomes law. We are going to keep trying, because it is the right thing to do. We want to work towards a cooperative and productive workplace relations system. We cannot do that if we keep the ABCC in the form that it is in today. The current ABCC is fundamentally against the principles of fairness. Getting the balance right means balancing the rights of employers and employees. That has always been our aim, right across our workplace relations system, and it should not be any different for workers who happen to be in the construction industry.

Labor has always understood that the construction industry is a unique industry. The working environment can be dangerous. Many building workers are men, so it is a pretty robust place to work. It is a transient industry, an industry that is tightly connected with economic booms and economic busts. Construction is normally one of the main indicators of economic growth or decline, and we need to remember that we are talking not just about abstract economic concepts but about people's lives and jobs. We know the industry can be difficult. Because of the unique challenges faced by the industry, it is important to make sure everyone applies the right conduct and continues to be lawful. As is so often the case in industrial relations, that is a tough balancing act—but this is a decision we are not afraid to make. We wanted to make sure workers in the construction industry could be assured they had the same rights as other workers yet also make sure we met the challenges of the industry. We think this legislation gets that balance right. We have ensured safeguards for the protection of employees, and we have also established a specialist inspectorate who knows about the industry. We have made sure that what we are looking at here is a regulator, not an enforcer, who helps the entire industry without pitting people against one another. We wanted to help the industry to work cooperatively and productively, so we have set up a system that will ensure people can work together better. It will help the industry to reach community standards of fairness and it will provide information, advice and assistance to all in the industry.

Many members and employees of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union live and work in my electorate of Fraser. I want to spend a moment here just briefly outlining the important work done by the CFMEU in our local community. The role played by unions in supporting and promoting local community activities is something that is far too easy to overlook. I want to single out Dean Hall, Jason Jennings and Jason O'Mara—three community minded blokes who lead the CFMEU locally and provide invaluable community support. All three are active in our local community. They have all been active for a long time in local rugby league competitions—helping to run them, coaching and playing. Other members and officials are involved with local cricket and soccer competitions. Dean's background in teaching and social work means he is an invaluable asset to the union, providing support for local union members by putting them in touch with services available to them. Even today, as the secretary of the local CFMEU branch, he keeps an eye out for his members and makes sure they are getting the assistance they need.

We know that men's health, particularly men's mental health, has been something we have needed to work hard on. It is too easy for men to neglect their health. In a tough industry like the construction industry, with a premium placed on robust and macho behaviour, this can be even more so. The CFMEU work with the community on men's health issues. They have been extremely active in the area of mental health and have helped set up organisations addressing these needs. The CFMEU provide a barbeque once a week for local workers where people can find out about the various community services available to them. The CFMEU set up a drug and alcohol rehabilitation service. They provide access to financial counselling and superannuation services. They provide access to psychologists. They have set up health and safety training companies and they assist workers and employers to understand their rights and responsibilities. The CFMEU is one of the major financial contributors to the Canberra community, supporting sport, charities and cultural activities. Some of the groups they support include: the W-League champions Canberra United, who were undefeated in their most recent season; women's basketball—

Mr Morrison: Does it include you?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms S Bird ): Order! The member will pause for a moment. I ask members not to cast aspersions on each other's motives across the chamber.

Dr LEIGH: AFL in Canberra; the Special Olympics; and cerebral palsy groups. They are a major supporter of the Maori cultural festival and support various programs in schools. They have helped me out with my annual Welcoming the Babies event, which will next be held on 4 March. Anyone listening is invited along to Stage 88 at 10.30 on Sunday morning. The CFMEU will be providing their fantastic barbeque trailer to enable us to have a mobile barbeque at the event. On top of all of this, they are continuing to do the basics of protecting the rights and entitlements of local workers and, most importantly, staying on top of local health and safety matters. I have always been impressed with the ability of the CFMEU to know exactly what is the safety record at pretty much every construction site across Canberra.

We have spent too long listening to those opposite denigrate the CFMEU, its members and its officials as unrestrained thugs wanting to intimidate people and throw their weight around. But, in my experience through my personal contact with this union, the people they are attacking are some of the most dedicated, community minded people I have had the honour of working with. The approach the Liberals took to the union movement, particularly to the CFMEU, would have threatened most of those local activities and many local sporting groups. Without the support shown by the CFMEU—whether it is financial, providing administrative support or encouraging their members to participate in local activities—lots of local institutions would have struggled.

The current legislation is not a return to the old days of endless industrial disputes. The CFMEU, its members and employers all know that those days are over and there is no desire to threaten the productivity of the industry. When we speak about productivity there are two fundamentally different views in this House. Those opposite hear the word 'productivity' and they think about slashing workers' wages and cutting their conditions. The member for Bennelong wants to cut back on penalty rates. Not only would that hurt workers; there is no evidence it would raise productivity. If you look at a graph of the rate of productivity growth, you will see that it continued to fall in the period in which Work Choices was in effect. There is no evidence that the Work Choices system of industrial relations raised the rate of Australian productivity growth.

We on this side of the House believe that productivity is about investing in people and infrastructure. We believe that raising productivity is about raising the quantity and quality of education. We believe it is about having more infrastructure—building more roads, rails and ports—and investing in infrastructure such as the National Broadband Network. When it comes to industrial relations, we believe that treating employees with dignity and respect means they will work more effectively, and there is plenty of evidence to support that viewpoint in management literature. We on this side of the House know that cooperative workplaces lead to better outcomes. Pitting people against their employers and workmates is not the way to achieve good workplace outcomes and it is not the way to high productivity and high living standards in Australia. Cutting trust in the workplace is bad for workers' morale and bad for their mental health, but it is also bad for the bottom line. It is bad for Australia's long-term living standards.

So we on this side of the House support this legislation. We support a long-term agenda of raising productivity by investing in people, skills and infrastructure and not a short-term agenda of cutting conditions and wages. I commend the bill to the House.