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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1385

Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (13:38): I spoke on this building and construction industry legislation in the last parliament on 13 August 2009. I said then, and I say now, that I believe there should be one law for all. Whether you live in Perth, Palm Beach, the Torres Strait or Tasmania, the law should apply to everyone equally. I believe that should apply to public servants. I believe that should happen in the classrooms, on the construction sites and even in the parliament. Those opposite have form on this issue, and this body, with its draconian laws, is a pet project of those opposite. They persecuted the unions and prosecuted workers. The truth is that those opposite would restore the ABCC if they got into office and they would give power to the ABCC or its new creation. Guess what that new creation would do? I want all those in the gallery to listen to this. This is the power that the ABCC has. It has the power to compel people to attend interviews and answer questions and to compel them to provide documents and information as to that investigation. Those interrogations are conducted in private and interviewers are not allowed to disclose to anyone what happens during that investigation. The penalty for not complying with this notice is six months imprisonment. There is no right to silence under the laws of the ABCC. In other words, people can be compelled under those laws to dob in their mates on industrial matters.

The ABCC and the legislation that covers it were never meant to deal with criminal conduct. It is concerned with the regulation of industrial behaviour. On this side of politics, we believe that if anyone engages in criminal or unlawful activity on a construction site they should be prosecuted with the full force of the law and that the criminal laws in this country, in the states and territories, are adequate. I have not heard anyone opposite say that there is some deficiency in the criminal law of the state, territory and Commonwealth governments of this country which means that we need to criminalise the capacity of a body like the ABCC to persecute and prosecute workers, including friends of mine such as Bradley O'Carroll, the head of the Plumbers Union in Queensland, who was wrongly charged.

I have heard people opposite wax lyrical about what the Howard government did on Work Choices. I have heard them talk about perceived lawlessness and what the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry found. Let us look at what the Cole commission really found. The Cole commission was a partisan, politicised body from the start. The Howard government tried to bring in the ABCC, but they could not because they did not have a majority in the Senate. When they got a majority in the Senate, they brought the ABCC in. Of the 392 incidences of so-called unlawful behaviour in the final report of the Cole commission, only one was ever pursued and it was ultimately dropped without being prosecuted to its finality. Those opposite spent millions of dollars when they were on this side of the place alleging that there was unlawful conduct everywhere, yet no-one was charged and no-one was found guilty.

As I have said, the Howard government established the ABCC. The ABCC is simply geared towards a one-sided approach in industrial relations. In the 2009-10 year, the annual report of the ABCC disclosed that 55 per cent of its investigations were directed at trade unions. Only seven per cent of its investigations in 2009-10 were directed at employers. Unions or employees were the subject of, on average, 76.5 per cent, or more than three-quarters, of all ABCC investigations between 1 July 2006 and 30 June 2009. The overwhelming majority of the activities of the ABCC were geared towards one purpose: to make sure that the unions and their workers on construction sites were both prosecuted and persecuted. That is the reality of what went on. The ABCC carried out secret investigations where legal professional privilege, the right to silence and the right to reimbursement of reasonable expenses were not provided. There was effectively no independent oversight, and we know the person in charge has gone on to work for a right-wing think tank. This body was politicised from the word go.

The truth is that the powers given to this body were extraordinary. Section 52 of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 talks about requirements in relation to excuses. Section 53(1) of the legislation says:

A person is not excused from giving information, producing a document, or answering a question …

Section 52(7) overrides the secrecy provisions in other laws. In other words, these sections override any laws in relation to any other body, including ASIO, and these laws include coercive powers, the protection of journalists' sources, privacy laws and cabinet confidentiality. That is according to Professor George Williams. And that is what has happened.

This government is about bringing in safeguards and oversight. We are about making sure that workers get a fair go in the workplace and that the ABCC is expunged or eradicated from the industrial landscape of this country. The legislation before this House goes a long way towards equalising the balance in this field—a fair, simple and equal balance. Just as Work Choices needed to be expunged, the ABCC needs to go.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.