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Thursday, 18 August 2005
Page: 64


Senator SIEWERT (1:27 PM) —If you were to ask someone to guess which country you were talking about when you described a place where the right to silence was being removed and workers could be thrown in jail for failing to incriminate themselves or dob in a mate, where unions were being locked out of workplaces and could only inspect conditions and safety at the boss’s discretion, where workers could be told to sign up to unfair contracts or not get a job and could be dismissed with no comeback because somebody was having a bad day, what kind of country would you think we were talking about? A proud nation with a long tradition of workplace organisation, a supposed commitment to a fair go, a commitment to site safety and an atmosphere relatively free of industrial turmoil? No, you would think of some despotic dictatorship where workers worked for next to nothing in sweatshops or on building sites and were treated as mere commodities and where the real cost could be measured not in wages but in human lives. And this could be Australia. This is the brave new world of workplace relations under the Howard government.

I find it unbelievable that we are being asked to consider legislation such as the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Bill 2005 and the Building and Construction Industry Improvement (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2005. We are a well-off country and we have a way of life that is the envy of many in the world, yet our government thinks that it needs to attack workers, remove their rights, break unions and lower working wages. Why? So that corporate Australia can make more money and pay its executives even more ridiculous salaries at a cost to workers. This is the second time the Senate has debated such legislation. These bills have been recycled without the amendments previously agreed to by the Senate—sensible safeguards which addressed significant flaws in the legislation. This is yet another indication of the contempt in which this government holds this chamber. Where is the respect for the critical analysis and healthy debate applied to the original legislation? It has been tossed out in the ideological drive. These bills are yet another part of the government’s antiworker agenda, and its audacity is breathtaking.

At the black heart of this bill is the intention to remove the basic civil rights of workers in the building and construction industry. This bill provides that witnesses cannot avoid answering questions or producing documents on the basis that they will incriminate themselves or breach other laws, denying them the right to silence, one of the fundamental tenets of natural justice on which our system of law is based. Not only is that right removed but the penalty for noncompliance in this amended legislation is six months jail—that is, six months jail for doing what should be your fundamental right. This heavy-handed penalty is a clear demonstration of the government’s use of its majority in the Senate to bring about draconian legislation, knowing that the Senate cannot or will not make amendments to safeguard workers’ rights.

At the same time that we are being told that a worker could get six months jail for refusing to say which of his mates attended a stop-work meeting, we are seeing a high-profile personality exercising his right to refuse to incriminate himself in relation to tax fraud charges. Clearly we are developing one law for workers and another law for the rich.

Taking away the right to silence sends a sad message to this nation; that is, that the Senate is prepared to stand by and watch basic human rights and civil liberties being taken away. Those rights and conditions are the result of the struggle of ordinary working Australians over many years. They are the soul of the nation that our great-grandparents and grandparents fought so hard to create and defend—the foundation of our democracy. I believe that as senators we are entrusted with a serious responsibility as the custodians of our democratic traditions. We need to keep this firmly in mind in all that we do and be vigilant and rigorous in defending the fundamental civil rights and liberties that underpin our democracy. Whatever gains in productivity and economic growth we may imagine will arise from these changes, I do not believe that they can be worth selling out the core values of our nation.

This bill singles out a group of people—one class of citizens; in this case, our building and construction workers—and then systematically undermines and removes their rights. Their right to silence, their freedom of speech, their right to privacy, their right to take considered industrial action and their right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty are all undermined or removed by this bill.

This amended legislation establishes the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the ABCC, which has already been provided with $23 million in its first year of operation to roll out the government’s union-busting program—taking over the role of the Building Industry Taskforce. The legislation outlines the watchdog role of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner and gives this watchdog teeth through what are clearly coercive powers. The way in which the governance of the ABCC and the commissioner are set out in this legislation is of real concern, as there is a very clear concentration of executive power, with the minister able to direct the ABCC at his or her discretion. The legislation also hands the minister the power to issue a construction industry code of practice, as opposed to the current situation where the code is enforced only by regulation. We should be very wary of moves to grant ministers carte blanche to determine industry codes and standards.

Yesterday, it was reported that the Office of Workplace Services will be given an expanded role in protecting workers against ‘inappropriate conduct by employers’. Will this watchdog be given the ability to compel bosses to give evidence? Will employers have their right to silence removed? Will the office be able to send recalcitrant employers to jail for not complying with its directions? Will it be able to fine them up to $110,000? I think that we can make an educated guess on the answers. On the basis of what we have seen so far we can expect that the same provisions will not apply to bosses as apply to their workers; we can expect that this watchdog will be toothless.

The next issue of concern to me is workplace safety. Yet again we are seeing workplace safety being compromised in this union-bashing exercise. It will be the workers that suffer. Just as we have heard that the IR changes affecting independent contractors are undermining safety in the trucking industry, so too will these changes in the bill undermine the safety of our work sites. Let me remind you that safety is a big issue on our work sites. While the situation has improved, this industry accounts for an average of 50 deaths per year—that is, almost one death a week on our building sites. And these are good numbers by world standards. How many lives are an extra percentage point of growth worth? Are you really prepared to trade away workers’ lives on the chance, on unproven speculation, that these ideologically driven changes will make our economy a little stronger?

The rates of death and serious injury used to be much higher. This reduction is something that our workers have fought hard for. When they believe that unsafe equipment or work practices are putting their lives and limbs at risk it is important that they have the right to do something about it to protect their lives and those of their workmates. Now the right to safety stoppages is being undermined. The onus is on each worker to prove that they believe that their safety is at risk; it is not on the employer to prove that it is not.

The bill proposes the setting up of the new Federal Safety Commissioner. This will be yet another mechanism by which the government will be able to coercively control the building and construction industry, by ensuring that only organisations that are accredited by it for occupational health and safety purposes will be able to obtain federal construction contracts. This issue will remove workers’ involvement in the safety of their workplaces. Those in the best place to spot safety problems, those most directly affected by the consequences of unsafe practices, will no longer have a voice in the process.

Another issue of concern to the nation and one that is particularly close to my heart is green bans. Green bans have been extremely important in the past in helping the nation to protect its heritage, and they have saved hundreds of important sites. If it were not for green bans by New South Wales unions we would have lost Kelly’s bush, the Rocks district and Centennial Park. Green bans have also played a crucial role in making companies accountable for the environmental and public health consequences of their actions—like the recent bans on James Hardie products in relation to mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Green bans are extremely important to my constituents in the west, who are concerned about regional bushland, coastal development and resorts proposed for environmentally sensitive areas. Now green bans could be outlawed, in a move that breaches Australia’s commitment to workers’ rights enshrined in International Labour Organisation conventions to which Australia is a signatory. Workers will no longer be able to take industrial action in support of environmental, social or safety concerns.

Why is the government singling out and demonising one particular group of workers? Why is one set of citizens having its rights removed? We all know the government’s agenda—it is embarking on a concerted attack on unions. It has begun this attack by singling out one of the strongest unions. In this case, it is attacking a union that has a history of showing solidarity with other workers and ensuring that support for safety and collective bargaining in their workplace is strong. It is designed to slow down, frustrate and disempower a group of workers that it knows will oppose its wider antiworker agenda.

Just like the government’s previous attack on the waterfront workers, this action is designed to break the back of a strong and vocal union. It is part of a strategy to divide and conquer, dismantle the unions one by one and take away the rights of working families piece by piece. The Cole royal commission has been used as a justification for this draconian legislation. Millions of dollars were spent on it. Yet none of the allegations of standover tactics, corruption and violence have been upheld in a court of law. In fact, I would assert that the reason that none of these allegations have been prosecuted, despite the government’s clear desire to undermine construction workers, is that the government are well aware that they would lose because they have no hard evidence to back these assertions.

The Greens believe that workplace laws should be fair, protect all workers from unjust treatment, promote industrial harmony and enable us to organise collectively to negotiate fair pay and conditions. This bill will increase the coercive powers of the government’s industrial police force, the ABCC—a task force that will ruthlessly pursue the government’s agenda of destroying building unions across the country. To add insult to injury, this legislation does not come into force at the time that this bill is passed. The government has made the legislation retrospective from 9 March this year. This is another attack on fundamental civil rights and an attempt to intimidate unions across the country.

This bill is an attack on the basic civil rights of building workers in this country. It is part of the government’s campaign to undermine the wages and conditions of ordinary workers, destroy trade unionism and stop them from having a say in their future and the future of this nation. The measures proposed in this bill have no proper place in a fair and equitable system of industrial relations or in a civilised democracy and they should not be allowed. The proposed bill and the wider industrial relations ‘deform’ agenda, as I call it, are not in the interest of working Australians, families or small businesses.