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Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Page: 933

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (11:00): If we ever needed any evidence of this government's chaotic state of affairs, if we needed any evidence of a government that seems to be lurching from one half-baked proposal to another then I think the evidence is before us with this particular bill, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Amendment Bill 2017. It is less than three months ago that this chamber had the opportunity to consider the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Amendment Bill 2016. The Prime Minister came away from that crowing about the passage of the legislation restoring the ABCC. He said this was a vital economic reform. Of course, now this government wants to scrap its own reform.

The Labor Party said that the ABCC bill was wrong in principle. We said that it was going to lead to a reduction in productivity and to work sites in this country becoming much more dangerous places. The law passed with the support of many of the crossbenchers, including senators Hinch, Hanson and Xenophon. In fact, they were so proud of the amended bill they helped the government push it through the parliament but it seems that they have had a change of heart as well. Indeed, the specific provisions that are amended by the present bill were proposed for the earlier bill by Senator Hinch and accepted by the government. It is reported that Senator Hinch—and I think he confirmed it here today—had a lunch with the Prime Minister during his summer break. It is quite clear that the Australian working people have been left to pick up the tab for that lunch. We know that this is a continuation on the war against building workers which has been initiated and prosecuted by this government for many years.

We know that one of the great fundamental divides in politics around the question of who gets what, when and why is in the issue of industrial relations. The fundamental question arises because working people want to regulate their working environment so as to improve their capacity to enhance their living standards and their conditions at work, and of course conservatives have argued for the deregulation of the working environment to allow employers the maximum flexibility and maximum capacity to improve their profit position. This fundamental divide has been the issue that has characterised Australian politics for pretty much the last 120 years. The great moments in history have often been around this question of the capacity of unions and working people to defend themselves. The great strikes of the 1890s were such a catalyst for the formation of the Labor Party because of the perception that developed widely in this country that, industrially, workers could secure only so much because they could always rely upon conservative forces using the state to try to bash them into submission.

The capacity of the state to undertake anti-union or union-busting activity has been a hallmark of conservative politics throughout this period. We have seen that through various stages. I will not go through each and every one of them, but the principle remains the same today. The fundamental principle of the Liberal Party is its commitment to union-busting activity. It is not just the smashing of organised labour; it is the smashing of workers' capacity to defend themselves. Why is it that the union most directly in line now is the CFMEU? It is because it is one of the strongest and most effective unions in Australia today. It is not just the smashing of the CFMEU that is at stake here; the issue affects all workers and their capacity to organise. Breaking the CFMEU is fundamental to breaking all unions in this country.

I am particularly concerned by Senator Hinch's role in this. Senator Hinch at the last election made commitments about industrial relations. He made commitments to the Victorian branch of the Labor Party, upon which he received a preference arrangement from us. Senator Hinch, I defy you to deny that. Those commitments have now been broken. You have categorically broken your word on the approach that you would take on industrial relations, a matter of such importance to us that we made it a condition of providing support in preferences at the last election. I put it to you, Senator Hinch, I hope this is your last term, because we will not be doing it again—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): Address your comments to the chair.

Senator KIM CARR: because of the fundamental breach of faith that you have undertaken by this action and the actions that you have taken—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Carr, address your comments to the chair.

Senator KIM CARR: to aid and abet conservative forces to break the union movement in this country. Senator Hinch, you enter into a political dialogue on the basis of integrity—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Carr, please resume your seat. The reason we ask senators to address their remarks to the Chair is so that the debating points are not personalised. If you want to complain about Senator Hinch's actions you can do so to me.

Senator KIM CARR: I have. I have complained bitterly to you about the fact that Senator Hinch has broken commitments he has made in industrial relations questions, particularly in regard to the ABCC bill—commitments that were undertaken and accepted in good faith, which now are clearly not being honoured.

The consequence for workers directly in regard to this matter is that we see now simple matters like the purchase of Australian work clothing not being allowed; provisions to protect Australian workers in terms of redundancy are not allowed; and, arrangements to actually ensure the employment of apprentices are not allowed. We have not heard any response to these charges. The Code for the Tendering and Performance of Building Work 2016 prohibits the inclusion in agreements for construction work on Commonwealth projects of requirements such as the ratio of apprentices to trades people; mandated consultation on the hiring of overseas workers; mandated the use of Australian-made clothing; and the mandating of asbestos training. Is that a fact, or not? No-one has been able to deny that that in fact is the position.

Under the act that was passed last year, against the Labor Party's advice, companies with non-compliant enterprise agreements could still be awarded contracts until November 2018. This bill seeks to amend those arrangements. So, to accommodate the changes that result from this particular measure, 3,300 companies will have to renegotiate their enterprise agreements. As a consequence of those changes, companies with agreements that have been approved by Fair Work Australia but are not code-compliant will be forced to make grossly unfair commercial choices. Either they will have to decide not to tender for Commonwealth building work or they will have to renegotiate their agreements by August. They may well face a situation where they have the best value for money for any contract arrangement but will be excluded from tendering for any Commonwealth work. This is draconian. It is grossly unfair. It demonstrates the hypocrisy of the arrangements. This government says it wants to deregulate and it wants people to have freedom of choice. If they choose the union, if they choose to organise together, they will be regulated in such a way that they cannot organise their own protection.

It would seem to me that this is not just something that applies to the building industry. What is happening here—and we have seen it emerging already in the power industry, with the ETU in South Australia, and in a number of other areas—is that this is a process that will go through all of industry. This is the approach this government takes. If they can get away with slashing the CFMEU's capacity to organise, it will flow through to other areas. We are seeing this in the change in industrial relations practices that are taking place not just on building sites. This is the establishment of an aggressive, damaging industrial environment that this government is keen to foster, and it will undermine not just blue-collar workers. And this is not just conversations that occur in lifts or in post offices.

Take for instance the approach in science and research. One in five science jobs in public agencies have been lost since this government came to power. It is not just a question of reducing resources at these agencies. It is about changing the industrial environment. Education department data shows that as many as 90 per cent of research academics across our university system are on limited-term all casual agreements. In The Australian today, there is a report that the employer body, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, in the name of simplicity is seeking to strip back enterprise agreements. The same rhetoric is being used, although they have not yet come to the point where they are trying to accuse academics of various heinous breaches of the law. No doubt, if necessary, claims of that type will be made.

Under the so-called cover of efficiency, scholarly values that have been in practice for centuries are at risk. These practices have underwritten public confidence in academic expertise and scientific integrity. Take a very specific example. It is accepted in industrial relations practices in this country that an expiring enterprise bargaining agreement should continue until a new one is in place. In December last year, Murdoch University in Western Australia repudiated that convention. While I do not normally discuss the individual industrial relations of specific universities, Murdoch University, which had been negotiating the terms of a new agreement with the National Tertiary Education Union, applied to Fair Work Australia to terminate the existing agreement. The university is also taking legal action against the union and two of its officials in Western Australia for alleged misrepresentation—misrepresentation for arguing their case! In any workplace, such tactics would be regarded as hostile and aggressive. In the higher education sector they are unprecedented. There is very broad support in this country for the public university system. People are proud of our universities. They are institutions that foster a civilised discourse, diversity of opinion and open inquiry. They recognise that it is a good thing that such institutions are publicly funded. But I am sure there would be much less support for the notion that universities should behave as Murdoch University has done in this particular dispute.

Australians do not expect universities to act like ruthless private corporations or building developers, which is what is now happening. I do not believe it is chiefly because of a particular set of university administrators who have suddenly become more belligerent. What is happening at Murdoch has to be understood in the context of what is occurring in Australian industrial relations and, in particular, in the higher education debate. Australian budget proposals to deregulate university fees and increase the proportion of students contributing were essentially a shift towards the privatisation of the university system—a shift towards a system in which short-term commercial gain would increasingly determine a university's priorities. This is a shift which, I might add, has been stalled in this Senate—we have twice rejected the government's proposals regarding this. We will wait and see how people stand up to any pressure in that regard. The plan remains on the table, with the Abbott-Turnbull version of an Americanised, privatised and corporatised university system remaining government policy.

Something that is happening at Murdoch University really disturbs me, and that is the standard of the enterprise bargaining process. Although the government has had no part in the negotiations, the government must bear some responsibility—I would say considerable responsibility—for shaping the industrial relations environment. Terminating the enterprise agreement would mean reverting to basic award coverage. We see that in the building industry, where basic award coverage would see substantial reductions for building workers. In this case, the university would be able to decide which, if any, of the existing above-award conditions and entitlements of employment are maintained, as they would in the building industry. That would be of concern not only because of the reduced material entitlements under award conditions, the consequences of which would be bad enough—pay cuts for academic staff of between 25 and 40 per cent; for professional staff, pay would be cut by 39 per cent; employer-provided parental leave would be eliminated; and misconduct and unsatisfactory performance processes would be removed—but, even worse, we would see profound consequences for the nature of academic work and for the standing of the university: the protection of academic freedom would be eliminated and provision for the regulation of academic workload would be eliminated. Murdoch University's Strategic Plan 2012-17 sets out a list of values that it says are:

… an intrinsic part of the University culture. These values give a sense of identity and a continuing context for all its activities.

The values that they talk about are 'scholarly integrity', 'equity and social justice', 'sustainability' and 'global responsibility'. But what is occurring at the university are actions that are fundamentally undermining those assumptions; it is a course of action that imperils the university's own declared values. Abandoning formal protection for academic freedom is incompatible with a commitment to scholarly integrity. A university, by definition, is an institution that facilitates the free exchange of arguments and ideas among scholars, and between scholars and the wider community. Some might say surely Murdoch University would not risk its reputation by obstructing the free exchange of ideas. But, sadly, the university administration have already shown they are willing to countenance restrictions on freedoms. In negotiations, a definition of misconduct has been proposed that would include any breach of policy or regulation. Any action by an employee deemed to pose an imminent risk to the reputation, viability or profitability of the university—I emphasise 'profitability' of the university—would be classed as serious misconduct, punishable by dismissal.

It takes no particular special insight to understand the existential threats that this would pose to all academic freedom in this country, should such a process be established. We can see parallels between what is happening with enterprise bargaining at a university and with what is happening in the building industry. It is indicative of a government that is hostile to the interests of working Australians across the entire economy. If the government does not abandon its goal of trying to privatise our public institutions by stealth, then we will see this whole process being extended throughout other government agencies.

If the government does not abandon its attack on unions and workers—which we see in the construction industry—working people across all industries will have cause for real concern about the consequences for them, particularly if the government is successful in smashing the CFMEU and smashing the capacity of building workers to defend themselves against the actions of employers who have shown, time and time again, their capacity for mendacity, their capacity to exploit workers, their capacity to treat workers in a manner which is just downright dangerous, their capacity to do anything to secure a contract and to secure their profits. These are the questions at stake here, not whether or not someone stops you in a lift and says, 'Sorry, I think you've done the wrong thing, Senator'—a someone who was already hostile to the capacity of working people to defend themselves, a someone who has an interest in undermining the fundamental principles of industrial relations in this country. The government is attempting to criminalise normal industrial actions that are undertaken in the pursuit of increasing people's living standards and defending their rights at work.