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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 968

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (16:46): This bill, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Amendment Bill 2017, tells you about everything that is wrong with this place. It tells you that if the parliament legislates and strikes what it thinks is an appropriate balance but big business do not like it, they will get you while you are lying on the beach over the summer holidays and get the parliament to change its position. We will talk a bit more about that in the moment.

The previous speaker and all of the other government speakers who came before him spent a huge amount of their time talking in support of this bill by talking about claims of criminal behaviour that apparently go on on building sites. They may not know this but the bill does not deal with criminal behaviour. The ABCC has no power to investigate criminal behaviour. That is left up to a quaint organisation called 'the police'. The police investigate claims of criminal behaviour. The police prosecute them. And we have in this country a thing called 'the rule of law' where a judge decides whether you have broken the law or not.

But because they have absolutely no justification for this bill, other than for delivering for their corporate masters, they come in here and dress up this bill as if it has something to do with crime. If one single member on the government benches could point me to a provision in the building construction industry legislation or in the ABCCs remit that deals with crime, maybe some of the things they have said would be relevant. But they are not relevant. All the backbenchers trot in here and trot out their repeated lines about claims of criminal activity without realising, because they have not read the bill, that this organisation has nothing to do with claims of criminal activity. That is left up to the police. If you have claims of criminal activity, refer them to the police. The union has done that from time to time. And I am sure that any government members who have claims about that could leave it up to existing law enforcement agencies. And the rule of law could follow its usual course, as it does in a democracy.

But no, this party gets up here and says, 'We can never have any regulation of commercial activity. We have to let people negotiate their own contracts. Far be it from the government to step in and tell business what to do. We've got to get rid of red tape.' Apparently that all falls down when it comes to the workplace, because what this legislation does is say that if you negotiate an agreement in your workplace for certain wages, conditions and protections the government is going to come in and tell you whether you have got it right or wrong.

Under this bill and its accompanying code, which the government now wants to bring into force much more quickly, the government sits down at the negotiating table of every workplace in the country in the construction industry and rewrites their agreement for them. This government is all for market forces except when you negotiate an outcome they do not like. Then they come in and say, 'We're going to rewrite it.' What utter hypocrisy. When this government is prepared to sit down and rewrite the wages and conditions of everyone in this country, just because of the industry that they happen to work in, they no longer have any credibility. They no longer have any credibility when it comes to saying that somehow in their mind the market is different. They do not care about the market. They care about delivering for big business. Nowhere is that more apparent than when you look at the chronology of this bill.

The government went to the election saying, 'We want to introduce legislation around the ABCC.' It was an election issue. It was a double dissolution trigger. We then had months of discussion about it after that. During a late night sitting of the Senate—after hearing all of the evidence, after many committee inquiries and after the government agitating for it in the public realm—we had the Senate agree on a package of amendments to the bill. I did not agree with that package of amendments. I did not agree with the bill. But after hearing everything that is what the Senate resolved. That is the way things sometime happen in this place. Government says, 'We want to do all of these things.' The Senate says, 'Hang on, we want some protections built in.' So what ends up passing into law is sometimes what could be called a compromise package that allows the government to do what it wants but contains some protections or some compromises.

What happened after the Senate had done all of that, exercised its role as a house of review and managed to enshrine some minimal protections for people who happen to work in the construction industry? What happened after that? Big business came up to certain senators and the government and said, 'We don't like the deal that you've struck. We know that you've struck a deal that says, "You can have your law. You can have your code. You can have your Building and Construction Commission, but we need time to get the industry in order so that we don't have people on two sets of agreements—some of which might be code compliant and some of which won't. We will have a grace period to work out whether or not our agreements are compliant with the new code."' Big business came and said, 'We don’t like that, sorry. I know democracy was at work in the Senate when you agreed on that but let me tell you why it's wrong. It's wrong because it is going to cost us a bit of money and we want this in right now.'

So what happened? Senator Xenophon and his team and Senator Hinch came out in a blaze of glory in the papers and said, 'We've changed our mind. We heard from big business over summer and, sorry, those protections that we negotiated, we don't want them anymore.' The government stands up, applauds the conservative crossbench and says: 'Thank you for doing the right thing. Thank you for doing the right thing by big business. Thank you for doing the right thing by us. Thank you for making our donors happy, because that will increase our coffers again come election time, and thank you for doing the work of taking away people's rights at work just because they happen to work in the construction industry.'

And what is going to be the result of this? There are going to be a couple of things that will happen. One is that there is a very clear message that is sent to the whole of the community that this government does not believe in people negotiating their own contracts or their own agreements. If you negotiate something this government does not like, it will come in and take away the rights and protections that you have negotiated. So, as a result, forget about seeing agreements that contain protections in them that might increase the number of apprentices or that might increase other people's participation in the workforce or that, heaven forbid, might increase safety in the workplace. All of those things are now out of bounds.

Secondly, what I think the government probably understands but does not care about, but the crossbenchers certainly do not understand, is the chaos that this bill is going to introduce. Where I think the penny has not dropped for the government and for a number of the crossbenchers is that you now have an industry where a lot of people are on agreements that were struck before the code, and now you have a number of people who are going to be on agreements struck after the code, and you have the government saying with this bill: 'Well, you might have struck what was a lawful agreement and complied with the law at the time, but, effectively retrospectively, we're going to say that, if you have one of those things, you're not going to get any Commonwealth work. If you have one of those things, even if it's not on a Commonwealth job, forget about getting Commonwealth work.'

What do you think is going to happen in response to that? Every one of those agreements in the country is going to be opened up for renegotiation. That is why the grace period was inserted in the first place: to give people time to work this through. So when you see now, on building sites around the country, people saying, 'Well, we thought we had a lawful agreement, but the government was quite happy to legislate retrospectively to say it's no longer a lawful agreement and I can't get any government work because I happen to have this even on an unrelated site,' people are going to come up and say, 'Well, if you're going to take those conditions away from me, I want something for it in return.' So this government has just basically reopened negotiations on almost every building site around the country. That, I think, has not dawned on Senator Hinch—that he has been sold a pup, and Senator Xenophon has been sold a pup as well. When it happens, it can be laid squarely at their feet.

But the last and perhaps the most significant consequence of this legislation is that it sends a message that the Senate may be a house of review but there are certain senators in there who do not take that obligation seriously and who are prepared to trade away whatever they negotiate one day if someone taps them on the shoulder overnight and says, 'Listen, you haven't got the right deal for us in big business; we want you to change your mind.' I will tell you what: after watching this performance and after seeing how Senator Xenophon and his team in the Senate behaved and how Senator Hinch behaved, I would not trust them to walk in, negotiate on my behalf, get protections and even tell me it was worth something because they put them into law, because what I now know, and what everyone in the country knows—and especially what people in South Australia ought to know—is that, when Senator Nick Xenophon tells you he has negotiated a protection and that it is going to go into law, he is quite happy to vote against it the next week if someone in big business taps him on the shoulder and tells him to remove it, because he is more concerned about currying favour with the government and with big business than with standing up to protect people's rights at work. That is the lesson that ought to be brought home to everyone in South Australia and to everyone in Victoria: now there are people in the Senate who will trade away people's rights if someone from big business gets them while they are lying on their towel on the beach over their summer holidays or at any other point in time.

This will set an incredible precedent in this place, because we have legislation coming up about paid parental leave, about child care and about cutting the big business tax rate, and we have senators now who, by their own admission, are prepared to vote one way one day and say, 'Oh, but it's all right; we've given the government something they want but we've got this for you over here on the side,' but then will take away that side deal the next day. So not only are we left in the dark at the moment about what negotiations are going on around cutting paid parental leave, child care and so on from Senator Nick Xenophon's team in the Senate or any of the other senators—we do not really know about that and will find out what deal they do to facilitate the company tax cut for big business or to help the government rip hundreds of millions of dollars out of welfare—but we also know now that if they try to say to people in South Australia, 'It's okay because we've negotiated a quid pro quo; we're about to give the government a big tax cut for big business, but it's okay because I'm getting this over here on the side, and we're about to help the government with their welfare payments, but it's okay because I've got this for you over here,' that promise is not worth the paper it is written on, because even if the government puts side deals with Senator Xenophon or Senator Hinch into law we now know they will trade them off a few weeks later if they think it is in their interest to do so.

I do not know what Senator Hinch and Senator Xenophon are getting for this grubby deal. I do not know what they are getting in return for backflipping on something that only a few weeks ago in the parliamentary sitting calendar they thought was a good deal to enshrine some minimal protection for people's rights at work. Perhaps when they make their contributions to the Senate they might enlighten us as to what quid pro quo they are getting for this. But they now need to know that, if they vote for this bill and this bill passes the Senate, their credibility as defenders of people's rights is shot forever, because we now know not only that they are prepared to trade and do side deals but that those side deals will get repealed the very next day.

I say this: if this legislation passes, the whole of the country ought to know that the parliament is a wholly owned subsidiary of big business in this country, because certain senators have failed to stand up and do their job. The reason that we have a house of review, the Senate, is to provide a check and balance on the government and to say to the government, 'If you're just doing this because it's in the interests of big business, we will stop you and make you act in the public interest.' That is partly what they did last year. They did not get it completely right, in my opinion, but at least they reined in some of the government excesses. But now even that is thrown like confetti in the wind. When this bill comes before the Senate, if it passes this place, it will be incumbent on those senators who have changed their position in a very, very short period of time to explain to the public what they got for it but also to explain to the public why they should ever be trusted again. Why trust any of those senators ever again if they will tell you that they will put your protections into law one day and then, a couple of weeks later, they come around and take them out again?

I will be opposing this bill, and the Greens will be opposing this bill, just as we opposed it in the Senate last time, because there is something to be said for standing up for your principles and there is something to be said for standing up for them even when you have to have a difficult conversation with someone from big business. Unfortunately it seems we cannot rely on the others to do that.