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Thursday, 16 February 2012
Page: 1578


Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Werriwa) (09:32): Last evening I was turning to the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. Not to put too fine a line on it, a person who was a student confrere and a close associate of the former Prime Minister was enlisted to carry out this investigation. Millions of dollars of taxpayers' money were expended on an inquiry which resulted—despite all the gruesome detail with which we were daily regaled in the media, particularly by the Sydney Daily Telegraph and co.—in no convictions whatsoever. No convictions emanated from this investigation.

It has been very interesting to watch those opposite. They have made no reference to the subsequent inquiry by Justice Wilcox, which, in contrast to the Cole royal commission, was a balanced analysis of what had happened. It called for the continuation of government and judicial intervention in the industry to ensure that there were protections but it came down with a far more neutral, far more balanced approach. Not one opposition speaker has referred to that more recent analysis of what has gone on in the industry.

It is interesting to note the rhetoric opposite, particularly that of the member for Mayo, who was an architect of the attempt to diminish people's working conditions in this country, about union thugs, bosses and officials going onto building sites—the theory that, if you give access by unions to their membership so that they have what are internationally recognised rights, in some way the workers are intimidated and forced against their own interest to take industrial action that they themselves would not have undertaken. That is preposterous. And—to show the way that the opposition are totally dedicated to the commercial interest of large corporations—they are doing this in the same week that we have seen them come before this parliament and defend the interests of the private health companies, trying to force, cajole or give incentives to people to buy a product that they just do not want. These people talk about the market et cetera. We have seen them this week come in here and say that people earning millions of dollars should be assisted, subsidised, by the Australian taxpayer to buy a product that they just do not want or might not want. So it is quite hypocritical for them to talk about class warfare as being the motivation of the government in the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011.

In the course of the existence of this body that they are so vigorously defending, which they say has been a perfect ideal, we have seen no effective prosecutions. We have seen it bring people before courts. We have seen it try to intimidate individuals and bring them to investigate what happened in regard to meetings about safety and we have seen a fairly unimpressive list of legal defeats for those people who have operated this agency over the period. That is the total outcome.

We have heard what the opposition thinks about this—and, as I say, it is a group driven by commercial self-interest, whether it is the tobacco industry or the private health industry. In contrast, we have had views from other bodies. The ILO, a tripartite organisation that represents governments, employers and unions, with far more credibility than those opposite, says that Australia has gone down a road in industrial relations which is perhaps paralleled in Guatemala and Honduras and a few other jurisdictions but in the Western advanced nations is quite extreme. It has talked about the withdrawal of rights for unionists and workers and the fact that there are very strong coercive powers that are very unusual in the Western advanced world, and it has not been backward in criticising the way Australia has gone.

We have heard much in the last few months about whether governments have mandates and whether people have backed off on commitments. This legislation has its genesis as far back as 2007, when Labor said that it would not have separate regulations and rules for one industry in particular. Legislation was introduced as far back as June 2009 and, when a direction was disallowed in June of that year, debate was adjourned in February 2010. This legislation has been part of a very long process. It has been discussed. It has been the subject of an inquiry by Justice Wilcox.

The background of this is that this existing body has had a strong partisan industrial flavour. It has failed abysmally to do anything about the very serious safety issues in this country. Internationally, a worker dies every second in the world. On ILO figures, 6,300 workers a day die. The annual cost to the international economy is $1.25 trillion. In contrast to US President Obama, who last year was very active around the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, those opposite have no interest whatsoever in occupational safety. If we talk about those international figures, we appreciate that one of the worst areas is in the building industry. Part of what those opposite want to do is erode the rights of union officials to go on to worksites, to have effective working committees and to make sure that safety is a very important aspect of the industry. We could have all the rhetoric in the world from those opposite—that they are neutral in this debate, that they are concerned about safety—but what we have seen manifest in this organisation's operation until now is a studied disinterest in occupational safety and a studied disinterest in sham contracting, which is a major problem in this industry. Just down the road in Canberra we see the other problem evident in this industry: on one building site alone, 30 illegal workers were found to be employed by a single employer who did not know that any of them were illegal.

I recommend this legislation. It will bring balance back to the industry, it will give workers back their rights to safety protection and it will ensure that the previous government's attempt to reduce their conditions will be terminated.