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Monday, 2 December 2002
Page: 6915


Senator LUNDY (11:20 PM) —In 2001, the Minister for Workplace Relations, Mr Tony Abbott, announced the establishment of a royal commission into the building and construction industry. Union leaders were rightly incensed by the move. Clearly Mr Abbott was using the industry as a political football. In establishing the royal commission, the Howard government has sought to implement an industrial agenda that will curtail the rights and entitlements of workers in the Australian building and construction industry. In light of significant indications that anti-union legislation will be introduced into parliament early next year, I want to reflect on this war of words.

The Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, the Cole commission, was set the task of examining matters relating to the building and construction industry. A special mandate to include any unlawful or otherwise inappropriate practices focused the commission on eradicating corruption and coercion within the building industry. This appears a noble task, with the CFMEU having reported serious issues of corruption in the industry in 2001. In fact, there are a range of matters in the building industry that require government attention. These include a series of large-scale GST scams in the industry, which have threatened the security of workers' entitlements, and occupational health and safety standards that are being dangerously disregarded at the cost of workers' lives and health.

These are serious issues that affect Australian families. They must be addressed by government. Yet the Howard government, with Minister Abbott leading the charge, are far more concerned with political point scoring and fulfilling their economic agenda at the expense of workers' wages, rights and conditions than they are in cleaning up the building industry. Immediately prior to the establishment of the Cole commission, Mr Abbott heralded it as:

... a real chance, a once-in-a-lifetime chance, to clean up this very important industry, this industry that has been a hotbed of industrial and economic trouble. It's the last bastion of old-fashioned, ultra-militant, bloody-minded and quasi-Marxist unionism.

This gets to the bare bones of the issue—Mr Abbott's focus is not cleaning up the industry but rather a new round of union bashing.

In contrast, Labor politicians have argued consistently at state and federal levels that there are many real issues that need redressing in the building and construction industry. Predicably, in the midst of general antiunion rhetoric from the coalition, the real focus of Mr Abbott's attention is those traits of the CFMEU, proud traits of militancy and conviction—the union working with, and standing up for, its members. A unionised and militant work force contradicts the coalition's conservative agenda, which places private profit above the rights of ordinary Australians.

The Cole commission has been set the task of legitimising what John Sutton, the National Secretary of the CFMEU, Construction Division, predicts will be a raft of legislative changes which would seek to undermine the strength and rights of the CFMEU. These legislative changes may well include the possible deregistration of the union. The effect of this would be disastrous for the hundreds of thousands of building and construction workers around the country. The deep concern and anger felt by building workers is in evidence through the rallies held and attended by thousands of building workers from across the country outside the Cole commission hearings. Their feelings were summed up well by Peter Lewis from Worker's Online, when he said:

... ordinary building workers—

realise that—

their jobs will be more dangerous and less secure as a result of the Abbott-Cole agenda. They're the ones who are going to get hurt and they are beginning to realise that it is them, not just their union, who is being set up for the biggest sucker punch in recent political history.

In retaliation to this, Minister Abbott claims:

... the problems of this industry are costing taxpayers, they are costing consumers, they are costing the economy and they are costing jobs.

This is aimed purely at arousing antiunion sentiment by attempting to lay the blame where it does not belong. Mr Abbott has consistently made these claims in the context of job productivity in the building industry, arguing that corruption and coercion on the part of the union in relation to industrial action are driving up the costs of construction in Australia. However, statistics fly in the face of these claims. One of the most recent discussion papers produced by the Cole royal commission, the Tasman economics paper, warns:

... reducing strike activity is not a panacea for improving productivity.

Workers whose rights are legislated against, in denying their rights to organise and to strike, will not kowtow to business demands of increased productivity. Also, these claims of the need to increase productivity are also questionable—labour productivity in the Australian industry ranks near the top of OECD nations. An Access Economics report from 1999 placed only the United Kingdom in front of Australia. This means that productivity in Australia ranks higher than that in the United States, which has far more restrictive trade union regulation than Australia, and so supports the suggestions of the Tasman economics paper that stamping on the rights of workers to organise will not increase productivity in the industry. Mr Abbott's focus goes against statistical and historical evidence, and belies a dogged ideological opposition to the rights of workers to organise. And costing consumers? What of this question? John Sutton rightly pointed out that this claim was made against the very industry that delivered the grounds and infrastructure for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games before time and under budget.

In Melbourne, where Mr Abbott and the Cole commission's most vicious arguments have been levelled, there is wide acknowledgment that:

... despite union agitation, the—

Melbourne—

CBD skyline has continued to boom under the Bracks Labor Government.

One of the most proud and militant unions in the country, the Victorian Branch of the CFMEU, has worked with the Bracks government, which has no irrational ideological opposition to trade unionism and continues to ensure workers are accorded decent pay and conditions to get the job done.

It is not the union, or building and construction workers, that are costing Australian taxpayers, the economy and consumers. It is the Cole commission itself. The Cole commission has to date cost Australian taxpayers almost $50 million. The victims of corruption in the building and construction industry are overwhelmingly workers and their families, yet the Howard government has moved prior to the handing down of the commission's report to establish a task force with the aim of weakening their union representation. The government is not sticking up for these workers, and at the same time it is weakening the union that is trying to stick up for them. If the government were serious about these protections, far more would be invested in eradicating corporate crime which in the past couple of years has left thousands of Australians jobless. The government, in funding a witch-hunt aimed at legitimising its own unpopular industrial agenda, is costing taxpayers and consumers the most.

I will not support any proposed legislation that seeks to implement the coalition's anti-union agenda at the expense of Australian working families. I passionately agree that there are issues that need to be addressed urgently and with government action in the building industry. Most notably, the implementation of occupational health and safety standards in the industry must be ensured for the protection of building and construction workers across the country. Workers' entitlements must be protected and corruption eradicated from the industry. Unlike Mr Abbott, however, I see trade unionism as a means of ensuring these conditions for Australian workers. Unionism is part of the Australian tradition and Australian values— mateship, a fair go and working together to make things better. As John Sutton said in his speech to the National Press Club on this issue:

Australia is founded on principles of collectivity and it will take more than a Liberal Government with a zealous industrial relations agenda and a kangaroo court at its disposal to change that.

Senate adjourned at 11.29 p.m.