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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1375


Ms RISHWORTH (Kingston) (12:49): I am very pleased to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. It was interesting that the previous speaker talked about how this bill would make it overly bureaucratic in terms of fairness in the workplace. To the previous speaker I say that I do not see it as bureaucratic to put in some checks and balances and oversight to ensure that individual's rights are being properly protected. I see it as fundamental in a democracy that we do not have an authoritarian group with no transparency enforcing very big impingements on personal rights. There is a need for oversight and checks and balances. That is what it means to live in a democracy. I disagree strongly with the previous speaker's suggestion that this is just a bit of over-bureaucratic paperwork. It is an important bill for providing important oversight and checks and balances to the impingement of rights of workers, which the Howard government was so proud of.

Fairness in the workplace is a core value of the Australian Labor Party, and this Labor government has always strived to ensure that workplace relations is built on a system of fairness. This is in very stark contrast to the previous Liberal government, which made it very clear to working Australians that fairness in the workplace was not high on its priority list. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the previous Liberal government showed contempt for working people and their right to fairness in the workplace. We all know that former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard ripped away the wages and stripped back the conditions of ordinary Australians in both his first and second waves of industrial relations reforms. Mr Howard really showed contempt for the rights of working people through the establishment of the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner.

The previous Liberal government's Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner has not functioned in a fair way. It has taken this Labor government to act to replace it to ensure that a new body is part of the mainstream fair work system and incorporates new safeguards to protect the rights of workers.

While I recognise the legislation before the House today does not go as far as perhaps some would like, I believe it strikes an important balance between the rights of workers and those of employers. The operation of the previous Liberal government's industrial regulator has been criticised by many people, including me and many other stakeholders, for a long time. I am pleased that this bill will inject some fairness and some checks and balances into this area.

The purpose of the ABCC is allegedly to monitor and promote standards of contact in the building and construction industry and involves investigating suspected contraventions and bringing legal proceedings when required. As a statutory body, the ABCC should have been play the role of an umpire within the building and construction industry. But, as we know, that was not the case. The ABCC was extremely unbalanced in the way it did its job. In reality, the ABCC's role has been an application of a system that unfairly targets employees without affording them the appropriate safeguards and protections, and it has consistently failed to enforce the responsibilities of employers. It is clear from the number of prosecutions of employee organisations when compared with employer groups that this regulator has unfairly targeted unions. More importantly, it has unfairly targeted ordinary Australians. The opposition may try and argue that that is because more employees do the wrong thing, but I can tell you that I have been out on worksites where there have been employers doing the wrong thing and it would be very hard to imagine that every building and construction employer in this country always did the right thing. We know from a lot of health and safety reports in a whole range of areas that this is not the case. Instead, the ABCC was focused on just targeting employees and employers. The ABCC has created a culture of intimidation for workers, who have at times felt unable to voice legitimate concerns for fear of compulsory interrogation, which failed to afford workers appropriate protections and safeguards, including their right to full legal representation.

We have often heard of the effectiveness of the ABCC. One test I am sure many Australians would like to apply to the ABCC is whether it stopped dangerous occurrences in the construction industry. In 2004-05 there were 18 fatalities recorded in the building and construction industry, in 2005-06 there were 25, in 2006-07 there were 28 and in 2007-08 there were 36. You can see that with the ABCC coming into effect in 2005, it has not decreased the number of fatalities in the building and construction area but has been correlated with an increase. Rather than holding both employees and employers to account it would seem that the ABCC has operated in a way that has unfairly targeted employees and their unions while paying little attention to whether or not employers are paying their workers correctly. One particular case is the case that the member for Wakefield mentioned, and that is the case of Ark Tribe. During the time in which he was being pursued by the ABCC there were reports of migrant Korean workers being worked to death by unscrupulous employers. But where was the ABCC on this issue? It was not heard.

It has come to this Labor government to fix this system and ensure that there is balance and fairness. The bill before the House does seek to abolish the ABCC and is in line with the recommendations outlined in the Transition to Fair Work Australia for the building and construction industry report by the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, released in 2009 by Justice Murray Wilcox QC. Justice Wilcox engaged in extensive consultation with all stakeholders in the building and construction industry. The government consulted with industries and state and territory governments as part of developing this legislation. One of the important points that was raised was that the ABCC did need to be replaced, and replaced with a fair work building industry inspectorate. This was part of the recommendations of the report. The building inspectorate created by this bill will be headed by an independent director appointed by the minister. Importantly, the director managing the operations of the building inspectorate will have full operational autonomy and will receive recommendations on a whole range of issues, including from a newly established advisory board. The creation of the inspectorate will significantly improve the rights and safety of construction workers by ensuring that they are treated equal to employers.

The bill will also make a number of other changes to improve the rights of workers. For example, if a person is summonsed, which will only occur if the information cannot be retrieved in any other way, they can choose to be represented by a lawyer and their right not to disclose legally sensitive information will be recognised. I find it interesting that the opposition has decided that this is not an appropriate change. This is about the rights of people and their right to have representation. I am surprised that some of the members opposite who are have regularly stood up in this place and talked about how representation is important and how people have the right to be legally represented should decide that they could not support this for construction workers. Why shouldn't they be able to have legal representation? Why should they be different from other workers in this country? Is it because the coalition just does not like workers in the building and construction industry? It is hard to know why they would deny them these rights.

Workers may also be reimbursed for reasonable expenses and have their examinations videotaped and reviewed by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Once again, something that the previous speaker said was 'too much bureaucracy'. Well, I would say that this is an important check and balance to ensure that any particular powers that are used by the inspectorate are monitored and able to be looked at properly. Furthermore, any person who has been interviewed will no longer be prevented from telling others what happened. This allows for transparency to ensure that there is no secrecy. The bill also includes a sunset clause which will mean that coercive powers will cease to exist after three years so that a review can be conducted to assess compliance in the building and construction industry following the implementation of this legislation.

These are very important recommendations. This is very important legislation to ensure we return fairness to the workplace—fairness where both employers and employees are treated equally—so that employees are not unfairly targeted where employers who do the wrong thing get away with it. We know where the coalition stands on this. They refuse to recognise the rights of ordinary working Australians. They have done it once, they will do it again. However, it has been left to this government to restore fairness, to restore balance. We are going ahead with an inspectorate that will focus on the building and construction industry, but with that we will have some oversight, we will have some checks and balances and we will restore fairness for both employees and employers with a truly independent umpire.