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Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Page: 993

Mr HAMMOND (Perth) (18:32): I am delighted to rise to address this place in support of the speech made by our shadow minister for employment and workplace relations, the member for Gorton. I join him and all the others on this side in vigorously opposing the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Amendment Bill 2017. This bill is a terrific example of how you do not necessarily need legislation—or proposed legislation—that is War and Peace in order for it to have a potentially devastating effect upon the workplace.

I have not been in this place for terribly long and would never pretend to have been, but I am quite astounded that such an innocuous-looking proposal as is contained in this bill could actually have such a profound effect upon stability and certainty in workplaces throughout the country. The devil is in the detail in this bill, both in the extent to which it seeks to wind back the exemption period for non-code compliant companies from two years to nine months and in the impact on the ground as to what will happen for stability and certainty in harmonious industrial relations, insofar as the enforceability of thousands and thousands of enterprise agreements that have been struck all over the country in good faith between employees, employee representatives in trade unions and employers, and the extent to which those enterprise agreements are almost certainly going to be struck down on the basis of their incompatibility with what is required in order to comply with the code.

I listened with great interest to all of my colleagues' speeches in relation to this bill and I think they are all to be commended for their eloquence, their accuracy and the manner in which they have spelt out the impact that passing this bill will have in workplaces around the country. I think it is a blight and it is an incredible shame that we have so few speakers from the government who are prepared to go in to bat for this bill. It speaks volumes that there is a dearth of advocates on the other side to say anything positive about this bill at all. They parade in here, constantly espousing sanctimonious notions about how the conservative side of the fence is the one which promotes stability, minimises sovereign risk and is all about productivity—ironically, the name of this bill—whereas even a cursory glance shows that this bill, if enacted, will produce anything but those outcomes. My colleague and good friend the member for Whitlam, for the benefit of the members on the other side, took this place through the various provisions insofar as they are likely to impact upon the workplace. I would also like to do this for those who are playing at home. It does not take long to see just how disastrous the implementation of these amendments will be in relation to the workplace.

The first port of call is the code itself. The code makes very clear, at section 11, the manner in which the contents of existing enterprise agreements are likely to be struck down to the extent they are inconsistent with the code:

(1) A code covered entity must not be covered by an enterprise agreement in respect of building work which includes clauses that:

(a) impose or purport to impose limits on the right of the code covered entity to manage its business or to improve productivity.

Not both, but potentially just to manage its business. If I may, not professing to have any significant expertise in parliamentary drafting, I can tell you from a cursory glance that that is wider than this continent when you consider what within an enterprise agreement purports to impose limits on an entity to manage its business. Shortly I will come particularly to an application of that clause in relation to asbestos and exposure to asbestos in the workplace and discuss what a disastrous effect it may have insofar as protecting workers from unnecessary exposure to asbestos is concerned. That is clause 11.

We need to then marry that with what is actually proposed. The current act is already deplorable in limiting the rights of workers in the workplace to a safe environment, amongst a litany of other egregious clauses restricting the rights of workers and trade unions in relation to protecting the workplace environment. I draw attention to section 34(2E), which relates to when an employer can enter into a contract pursuant to the code on a worksite. The section states:

If a document issued under subsection (1) includes requirements in relation to the content of building enterprise agreements, a building industry participant may, before 29 November 2018 …

Strike that out to read '1 September 2017' if the government gets its way, not to mention the crossbenchers. Do not think for one minute the crossbenchers are to escape any of the wrath here. As a matter of fact, quite frankly, they deserve an equal apportionment of wrath as the conservatives. The section states a building industry participant may:

… submit expressions of interest, tender for and be awarded building work funded … by the Commonwealth …

The trick to this is focusing on not only tendering for but being awarded the building work. What is so controversial about that, I hear you ask? What is really sneaky and devious about the proposed amendment is that section 34(2E) is due to be amended to delete the provision upon which an entity can be awarded the contract. If we go forward in time seven months to 1 September 2017, which creates a level of uncertainty as it is, there is simply no point in an employer trying to get the work when it considers the prospect that it will not be awarded that work if it maintains a devotion to what has previously been agreed or negotiated in its enterprise agreement. The absence of the word 'awarded' completely changes the utility of the enterprise agreement formally negotiated in good faith.

When one then applies the fact that an employer may tender for the work but not get it, according to a literal reading of the bill, to how it chooses to manage its business, we ask ourselves the question: how different is life going to be on a worksite insofar as the enforceability of the Building Code is required in such a short period of time? The fact of the matter is that, in relation to workplace safety, it may be incredibly different. One does not need to go any further than an industrial agreement that is publicly available, a Brookfield Multiplex enterprise agreement approved by the Fair Work Commission. It sets out at clause 26.4:

The Employer agrees that it will, within three months of the commencement of this Agreement, schedule a nationally accredited asbestos awareness training course, for each employee covered by this Agreement.

Further, the Employer agrees that it will, within three months of the each new Employee commencing employment, ensure that the Employee successfully completes a nationally accredited asbestos awareness training course.

It provides that the employer will cover all costs associated with the training. That is a fundamentally important right. It is a complete travesty that such a clause is even required in enterprise agreements at all in this day and age, when you consider what we know about governments being aware of the dangers of exposing workers to asbestos, which goes back to the turn of the century—but that provision is in the agreement. The problem is that the application of this bill would render a clause like that inconsistent insofar that it will be struck down and there will be no obligation whatsoever on an employer to honour that clause of the agreement. What will that do? It is very clear. If this bill is passed, it will go one step further to create a culture on the worksite that says it is okay to expose workers to asbestos in the course of their employment in 2017.

It says so much about the attitude of this government and those crossbenchers, team Xenophon included. The role which Senator Xenophon and his party have played in approving these amendments is, quite frankly, shameful. The senator pretends to be a friend and supporter of victims of asbestos disease and yet he is allowed to get away with such an amendment, which will have the effect of serving precisely the contrary purpose and causing workers to be exposed to asbestos. In this day and age, very tragically, we know due to the actuarial evidence that over 700 people this year will die of an asbestos related disease as a result of exposure to asbestos in the past. How is that likely to track in the future? The answer does not get any cheerier at all. As things currently go, that number will continue to increase or stay at about the same rate all the way through to about 2020. By 2040, 23 years in the future—due the lag time in relation to terminal diseases—there will be 350 deaths per year as a result of exposure to asbestos. That is the evidence according to the modelling, and what does this government do? It sits on its hands and promotes a culture where it is okay to be exposed to asbestos on worksites. The list is so long that, with the little time I have left, I will not even scratch the surface.

Considering the fact that imported asbestos was banned from 31 December 2003, we ask ourselves the question: how is this mob's monitoring of exposure to asbestos on worksites working out? It is working out diabolically. It is working out criminally. We need look no further than exposure to workers as a result of the Great Wall of China motor vehicles in 2012, and in relation to children's crayons in 2015. Late in 2016, Australian Border Force tested 3,700 children's crayons, confirming that all of them contained traces of asbestos.

Perhaps the biggest scourge in relation to worksites and exposure to workers of asbestos dust and fibre, relates to the importation of products for Yuanda, Australia. But we have seen that all over the country. In my home town of Perth, the children's hospital construction ground to a halt for litany of reasons, but one of them, in particular, was that, in July last year, asbestos was found in roof panels installed throughout the building. Tests confirmed the presence of asbestos in 200 roofing panels, with hundreds of workers exposed to asbestos dust and fibre. It also occurs on the other side of the country in relation to the presence of asbestos in worksites in Brisbane. We have seen exposure to asbestos as a result of Australian Portable Camps in 2010 onwards, and also exposure to asbestos in Melbourne as a result of exposure at Robert Johnson Engineering.

What we see here in this bill—and this is really only the start—is yet another example about the culture on the other side, and the culture of these crossbenchers, particularly in the Senate, in that they are saying that this is okay. It is not just in direct examples; it is woven throughout their conduct in relation to workers in this country. This mob on the other side, the Prime Minister and those who are sanctimonious and stand up and talk about jobs, are not fair dinkum when it comes to protecting Australian workers and protecting their right to a safe work environment. This bill will do quite the opposite and it should be opposed every step of the way.