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Thursday, 16 February 2012
Page: 1581


Mr SHORTEN (Maribyrnong—Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation and Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) (09:42): I have listened to the contributions made by honourable members to the debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. Before I make my concluding remarks about this bill, there are some fundamental points and misconceptions raised during the debate that need to be answered.

The construction industry is fundamental to Australia's future success. It is how we build our key national infrastructure—our hospitals, our schools ,our homes, our roads—how we enlarge our ports, how we span our bridges, and how we make the most liveable country in the world even more liveable and more prosperous. The Gillard government is a government focused on the future. We understand and recognise the importance of the construction industry—the civil construction industry, the mechanical construction industry, the building construction industry—and we understand, and we are focused on, those who work within it.

I listened carefully to the contributions of those opposite, but instead of talking about the bill the opposition have used this debate to rehash all their old, tired, union-hating, anti-worker arguments. They have used it to peddle so-called data about the effects of the ABCC. Their data has been shown to be wrong. They used it to peddle misinformation about what actually happens on Australian construction sites. While many of those opposite who made contributions to the debate have probably never set foot on a large construction site, I have. Instead of the picture the opposition try to paint of the horrors and difficulties of working on construction sites in Australia, I can tell the House that all in the construction industry—the workers, the independent contractors, the subbies, the managers, the employers—just want to get on with the job. They want to do a good job, they want to receive good pay and they want to be able to complete quality work on time, so that each night they can get home to their family safely. I can assure the House that that goes for everyone from the labourer and the peggy cleaning the sheds to the site manager, and everyone in between.

What disappoints me most is that some in the opposition have used the debate on this bill to again attack the Australian union movement and working Australians who choose to be union members. Australian employees are entitled to participate in the success generated by their hard work—their physical, mental and emotional exertions. Australian employees, if they so choose, are entitled to be represented at work. I, for one, am certainly proud to have spent many years representing working Australians. Australian employees, if they so choose, are entitled to come together to bargain in the workplace with their employer and negotiate conditions and pay through an agreed, constructive, mutual process—just as they did, for instance, at Holden recently. That is a workplace and an employer that deserve to be congratulated, not criticised, by the Leader of the Opposition.

The opposition forget that Australia has a proud history of economic and social reforms that have been for the benefit of working Australians, the Australian economy and Australian business. Many of these have been the subject of efforts by union members on behalf of working people. I believe that a modern, moderate trade union movement has a strong and steadfast commitment to building and developing our nation, ensuring that generations of Australians have regular, safe and just employment.

Listening to the contribution of the opposition, I have to ask: why does the opposition oppose allowing employers and employees to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit? Why is it that the opposition lends its voice against those who would seek to provide a safe workplace for employees or to ensure that workers' entitlements are paid? Why is it that the opposition never ever back worker pay rises? When was the last time the opposition issued a press release welcoming a pay rise, expressing concern about workplace safety or even acknowledging the efforts of unions to improve workplace conditions? It is one of the fundamental fault lines between us on this side of the House and those opposite.

The Leader of the Opposition said on Monday morning about his time as minister for industrial relations that, 'I think the highlight of my record was the establishment of the Cole royal commission into the commercial construction industry. I am pleased to say that the changes from the royal commission did boost productivity in what was previously a very troubled industry and again the studies suggest that those improvements were to the benefit of our economy to the tune of about $5 million a year.' He said that on Monday, 13 February 2012 on 2SM. But, in fact, he was not right, and we need to get some facts into this debate.

The government requested the honourable Murray Wilcox QC to review and report into possible regulation for the building and construction industry. Justice Wilcox expressly called on those participating in this inquiry to provide hard evidence to inform his consideration and recommendations. I certainly do not think the contributions of those opposite in this debate would have passed the test. In fact, the Econtech statistics relied upon by the opposition and the Leader of the Opposition were found by Justice Wilcox to be deeply flawed. He said in paragraph 5.48 of the 2009 report that they ought to be totally disregarded. I repeat: Justice Wilcox found the opposition statistics to be deeply flawed and thought they ought to be totally disregarded. It is widely accepted, in fact, that a combination of economic reforms dating back to 1993 and the effect of monitoring and enforcement of these reforms has contributed to productivity improvements in the industry. The new regulator will continue to effectively monitor and enforce fair and reasonable laws for this industry and continue productivity improvements.

If you listened to those opposite you would think there were no more coercive powers—another lie, another scare campaign, another day at the office for the opposition. This bill retains a specialist inspectorate for the building and construction industry. The bill retains penalties for contraventions of industrial relations law. The bill retains coercive powers, as indeed Murray Wilcox QC recommended. I acknowledge that many in this place have put strong personal views about this element of the bill. I want to stress to those who are concerned about coercive powers that this bill also includes important safeguards recommended by Justice Wilcox for those who seek to use the powers and those who may be subject to them. The bill also contains a sunset on the use of these powers after three years, but only after a review. Together, these elements are measured and appropriate. I also think it is important to note that the coercive powers were used only once during the ABCC's most recent reporting period to 30 September 2011 and in less than two per cent of ABCC investigations in 2010-11.

We heard unfounded opposition allegations about thuggery and violence. Let us be clear: violence at work is unacceptable. It does not matter what industry you work in. The ABCC was never a body designed or empowered to deal with criminal behaviour. Those who suggest otherwise are misinformed and misleading. Criminal behaviour has always been and will continue to be the responsibility of the police.

The government's position on the ABCC has been clear for a long period of time. Prior to the 2007 and 2010 elections, Labor made commitments to the Australian people that it 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, a body that is part of the Fair Work system. This bill honours those commitments.

The government have consistently stated that anyone who breaks the law should feel the full force of the law. The government will not tolerate an environment in which people choose which laws to obey and which ones to ignore. This goes for all industry participants. The government understand that the industry contains unique challenges for both employees and employers. As a result, we have always supported a strong building industry regulator to ensure lawful conduct by all participants and a strong set of compliance arrangements for the building industry. This bill honours those commitments. We committed to a review of the building industry regulation and we committed to introducing safeguards for the use of coercive examination powers to achieve the balance required to ensure compliance with the law and the fair treatment of individuals. This bill honours that commitment.

I also foreshadow that the government intends to move one amendment to the bill. That amendment will ensure that all building industry participants are not subject to multiple proceedings in relation to matters that have already been the subject of discontinued litigation. The amendment will also ensure that the resources of the Fair Work building inspectorate are appropriately targeted to matters which remain unresolved.

In conclusion, this is a parliament that should surely task itself to look with optimism and positive ideas to the future of work in Australian workplaces and how to build a stronger economy in the interests of all, not just some. These are complex and substantial topics that occupy the minds of all on this side of the House. But this big debate is not assisted by some of the cynicism, negativity and misinformation that we have seen too regularly in this debate. I commend the bill to the House.

The SPEAKER: The question is that this bill be now read a second time.

Bill read a second time.