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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5317

Senator COOK (4:51 PM) —I rise to speak on the Workplace Relations Amendment (Registration and Accountability of Organisations) Bill 2002. I want to emphasise the title `registration and accountability of organisations'—that is, industrial organisations registered under the Workplace Relations Act and the obligations on them as registered bodies. That act governs a lot of their rules and all unions in Australia are thus registered and some employer organisations are as well. We are talking about governance in this sector of industrial relations.

Typically, Minister Abbott in announcing this legislation did so as part of his normal anti-union fanfare—and he got the headlines that he wanted at the time—and it is part of what is a relentless campaign by him to demonise unions. But now this bill will, I believe, pass without opposition because the government has accepted opposition changes in the other place. Those changes have not attracted the same fanfare, headlines and colourful language that the minister used in introducing the bill and so there has been little media interest about what has been done to put a human face on otherwise very bad legislation. But that is a typical tactic that we have become used to from this government in industrial relations and we will see more of it, no doubt, as the Victorian election and elections in other states draw near and as our own next federal election becomes imminent.

Senator Sherry, on behalf of the opposition, gave a definitive speech about the Labor Party's concerns about this bill and why we support passages of it. I adopt and endorse his remarks but I want to turn now to one of the other elements of industrial relations accountability that the government's chief anti-union warrior, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Abbott, has been central in promoting and would regard as an accountability measure. I use the word `accountability' in this context with considerable irony.

It seems to be clear from the Cole royal commission that it is open for the commission to form a recommendation that a union or unions or part of a union be deregistered. If that recommendation were to be made and the government were to move to adopt it, then the accountability measures we are talking about this afternoon would come into play as a test as to whether or not such a recommendation would be justified. I believe that, in the context of this bill, that requires us to look at what in fact is happening with the Cole royal commission, the nature of its inquiry and the manner in which it is conducting itself in pursuing its goals.

The Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry is costing Australian taxpayers $60 million. That is to be compared to the $29.9 million that the government is spending on the royal commission into the HIH scandal. We know HIH was the biggest corporate collapse in Australia. Five billion dollars is at stake in that company rort and the inquiry into it is valued at $29.9 million by the government, yet mum and dad investors have been badly hurt by this collapse and it has sent shock waves through the corporate sector and has damaged people who are dependent on returns for their superannuation. As well, it has been central to massively increasing insurance premiums. It has had a massive economic impact on Australia. Compare that to the $60 million for the Cole royal commission and you have to ask yourself: why does the Cole royal commission deserve to be funded at twice the level of the HIH royal commission?

The first thing about this royal commission that becomes obvious is that Commissioner Cole, whose salary is $660,000, is now Australia's highest paid public official. His salary is almost three times that of Mr Justice Neville Owen, who is presiding over the HIH royal commission. While the government was contracting Commissioner Cole for $660,000, it was arguing in the living wage case that the lowest paid workers in Australia should have their wage increases capped to be no more than $10 a week. It does suggest, on the face of those facts, that there is special attention being paid to this commission, that there is obvious hypocrisy in the treatment of particular individuals and that Cole is indeed receiving an extravagant amount of taxpayers' money.

So what is this royal commission doing? The CFMEU has put forward in the public domain figures on the amount of time that the royal commission has spent on various elements of its terms of reference. Those figures have been in the public domain for some time. They remain uncontradicted by any spokesman for the government or for the royal commission or for anything else and thus need to be treated as authoritative figures. They show that 97 per cent of the hearing time of this royal commission has been devoted to anti-union topics, that 604 employers and only 33 workers have been called to give evidence, that three per cent of witnesses have been rank and file workers while 71 per cent of witnesses have come from employers or their representatives, and that only two per cent of hearing time has been spent on topics which do not adversely affect the CFMEU union. It certainly does sound like a witch-hunt.

As well, the royal commission does have extensive powers that go to its ability to tap telephones in Australia. The royal commission itself does not have those powers but officers from the AFP, the National Crime Authority, the Western Australian Police Service and the Victorian Police have been seconded to the commission and all those four agencies can apply for phone interception warrants under federal law. As Senator Carr found, on asking a question in a Senate estimates committee hearing on 27 May, yes, the royal commission is involved in telephone intercepts. His question was:

Has the commission received information from other agencies as a result of warrants issued under the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979?

The answer was:

I am advised that the answer to the honourable senator's question is as follows: yes.

That is the answer, so we do know that this royal commission is tapping telephones and is tapping them by virtue of those other agencies, but any questions about how and why and what they were doing were regarded as operational matters and they would not answer questions under that heading.

The other issue for concern here is the modus operandi of the commission: how it has been handling itself and how it has allowed allegations that have been made in the public domain to stand unchallenged as if they were true and to gain root and authority because they remain unchallenged. I think attention should be drawn to a number of particular features that I think are unjust and unfair.

Firstly, there is evidence available generally that shows that the approach taken by the commission is to allow allegations to be made amid considerable press fanfare. Sometimes those allegations are later corrected in the evidence and, when they are corrected, the corrections show that the original allegations were false. But the headlines generated by the original allegations stand, the impression created by them remains, and the correction is quietly done and attracts little or no media attention. That is a favourite device in this commission.

Secondly, there is also evidence in the public domain that a number of contractors have been approached and harassed to sign statutory declarations alleging impropriety by unions. When they have refused to sign those statements because they believed the statements to be false, this is made to appear as though the contractor concerned has backed off because of union pressure. A number of examples of where that has occurred and where contractors have voluntarily come forward and said so are available but none of these have received anything like the media publicity that the original allegation did.

Thirdly, there is another device. That is, a fiction has been developed where issues are settled by industrial relations law, particularly industrial relations law governing the right of entry or industrial relations law affecting occupational health and safety— which are rights unions have that can be properly exercised. When those rights are exercised they are somehow taken as examples of union excess or, in extreme cases, of union intimidation. In fact, the exercise of those rights is lawful and proper and settled under Australian industrial relations law that goes back many years.

A fundamental reason this type of modus operandi has grown up unchallenged is that the commission in the early stages of its inquiry decided that the union, or individuals under investigation, would not be able to have legal counsel present to examine witnesses as they come forward. As a consequence, allegations are made and are untested. The union is not allowed to examine witnesses to establish the truth of the matter and so you have hanging for months untested allegations made under privilege that cannot be argued and that attract massive publicity and headlines. They are often untrue and, if properly tested, they would be put in context where it would be seen that events claimed as extravagant were, in fact, normal or ordinary and the plain person would have accepted them as reasonable under Australian law.

A number of union officials have not been given access to the royal commission to refute allegations made against them personally. One of them who just recently did appear, the Secretary of the CFMEU in Western Australia, Kevin Reynolds, was examined for only an hour and then not about most of the allegations made about his character and his alleged business dealings. It was trivial in the extreme and it was not a real example of an opportunity to address charges made about an individual and his reputation. There is also a lack of balance in this royal commission. Should the amendments we are now proposing to the Workplace Relations Act be carried—and I believe they will—and should there be any effort to deregister a union or part of union, this is a major issue that ought to be canvassed and considered.

The building and construction industry in Australia employs over three-quarters of a million Australians. It is a major industry sector. It is a productive industry sector. It completed the massive constructions for the Sydney Olympic Games ahead of time and within budget. It has a fine reputation for quality output. But that is not to say that it is an industry sector without problems. There are significant problems which, if constructively addressed, would advance the profitability of the industry both for employees and employers and reduce costs to consumers of the industry including home buyers.

Some of those issues go to training. This is an industry that absorbs a massive number and requires a constant supply of skilled labour. That skilled labour needs to be well trained, properly trained and fully trained. This royal commission could have done a service to the industry by examining the training facilities available, how they are made user friendly, and how they should work to serve the needs of the industry and the workers employed in it. In my submission, there is some sort of crisis in training that needs attention here, and this royal commission has ignored it.

Fourthly, this is an industry in which there has been extensive evidence about tax avoidance—none of that in the royal commission, I might say. In the GST inquiry that this Senate conducted ahead of the implementation of the GST, evidence was given that over $1 billion is avoided in taxation by cash-in-hand payments and in the black economy, and nothing has occurred since that suggests that is untrue. The government initially gathered its skirts and showed a bit of nerve that it was going to wipe it out but then weakened and, for ideological reasons, backed off because the people they were going to have to make pay tax were some of the people in the subcontracting area whom they regarded as John Howard's battlers—and you obviously do not attack them either before or after an election. If they are tax avoiders—and the evidence is very strong that up to $1 billion is being avoided here—then of course they should be made to pay tax like everyone else. If they do not, we all pay more tax because of their refusal to do so.

This is an industry sector too in which company fraud is rampant. It is an industry where fly-by-night operators and shonks are a dime a dozen, where a $2 company goes into liquidation, leaving a long queue of creditors unsatisfied and leaving workers without payment for back wages or for other entitlements. There are myriad examples of that throughout the industry. Workers and their families and businesses have been driven to the wall because of it. It is endemic in this industry and needs to be tackled, but this royal commission is not bothering.

In the field of occupational health and safety there is a very strong story to be told. The typical building site, particularly a major construction site, is often a hazardous workplace. On average there is one death a week in the Australian construction sector. It is a major drain on productivity as a consequence. It is a cause of family stress and human trauma as people recover from serious injury and have to change their lifestyle as a consequence. Over three times as much lost time is suffered by this industry because of industrial occupational health and safety problems as is lost due to industrial disputes. Where would you think the priority of this royal commission would be? You are wrong. It is on industrial disputes, not on settling occupational health and safety matters. There have been many efforts to try to get the commission to focus on occupational health and safety matters. It has a desultory attitude towards it.

Let me go to what I think is a fifth problem and that is the pre-emption of this royal commission. We know that the Treasurer has said that he will not pre-empt the HIH royal commission and introduce tougher corporate law until that commission has run its course and settled on its recommendations. But we know that the minister for workplace reform, Mr Abbott, has decided to pre-empt the Cole royal commission's full findings and act on a threadbare recommendation with no reasons, on time and on cue, to set up a building industry task force in Melbourne just ahead of the Victorian elections. That will duplicate work already done by other law enforcement or industrial relations agencies, without any justification based on the evidence before the royal commission and do it, one would have to conclude, on a political agenda.

Mr Acting Deputy President Hutchins, I know that you are familiar with many of these things, given your record and respected role in the field of industrial relations. One of the people I know that you would not regard necessarily as a soul mate in any political sense is Alan Jones, the well-known radio talkback host. I would like to conclude my remarks by quoting from a transcript dated 25 September 2002 in which Mr Alan Jones, on the Today show, provided an editorial. Let his own words speak so that there can be no accusation that this is a Labor rant. This view is shared widely—indeed, so widely that it encompasses even Mr Jones whom I regard as often having a right wing agenda far removed from that of the Labor Party. He said:

It tends to be fashionable in this country to have a hit at the union movement.

And I have to say I've been guilty of that in the past.

But when you see the farce that is Ansett and the extent to which companies just go belly-up and leave workers whistling with nothing, then perhaps some sections of the union movement aren't tough enough.

There has been a fairly major exercise in union-bashing—

`Union-bashing' are his words—

going on for some months, calling itself a Royal Commission into the building industry.

Remember, this is the same building industry that delivered the 2000 Olympic Games and all its infrastructure miles ahead of time.

But the Victorian secretary of the CFMEU has been charged and faces a fine or gaol because he refused twice in July and August to give the name of shop stewards who tended CFMEU training workshops in 2001-2002.

So a union official is subject to criminal charges because he refuses to give up the names of union activists.

He simply said he wasn't going to put the livelihood of them and their families at risk.

Well, you might remember that the national secretary of the CFMEU—

I have to say this is still Jones—

called for the Royal Commissioner Mr Justice Cole to stand down because a report was issued in August critical of the New South Wales branch of the CFMEU, allegedly without hearing evidence from the union.

And the union released at the time some unbelievable figures.

97 per cent of hearing time had been devoted to anti-union topics.

604 employers called to give evidence: only 33 workers.

3 per cent of the witnesses from the rank of the worker: 71 per cent from employers or their representatives.

And only 2 per cent of hearing time spent on topics which didn't adversely affect the union.

Now surely in all of these things fairness has to be real as well as apparent.

But a bloke refuses to give up the names of his shop stewards and he faces criminal charges.

It sounds fairly un-Australian.

I think that says it all. There are other references I could cite as well from independent commentators.