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Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Page: 536


Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (19:11): This is ugly legislation. Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Australians on Monday that he was building good government. But good for whom? This bill answers that question. It is good for the Prime Minister's mates, for the constituency of the Liberal and National parties, for the big end of town. This bill is a reminder that nothing has changed under the Abbott government, nor would it change under a Turnbull government. Attacking the union movement to drive down wages and conditions, as set out in this bill, is integral to how the Liberals and Nationals operate. This is demand No. 1 from their constituency.

Senator Abetz, an expert in misleading statements, makes out that this bill puts corporations and unions on an even footing. This is so wide of the truth. Unions are required, under the Fair Work Act and other legislation, to be democratic organisations, which is as it should be. But corporations are not required to be democratic. Unions are required to publish their accounts and financial returns online every year, but proprietary limited companies are not. This bill is one of many shots that the Minister for Employment, Eric Abetz, has lined up against workers and their unions.

Senator Eric Abetz has likened the conservatives' quest on the industrial relations front to the Thirty Years War that plagued central Europe in the 1600s. While much of this analogy appears to be an in-joke with his colleague, Gerard Henderson, this comparison does provide an insight into the take-no-prisoners approach of Senator Abetz. Here he is, the general of all he surveys. As 'General Abetz' looks out over the industrial relations battleground, while his gaze could not avoid the smouldering remains of WorkChoices, he would be pleased that the big guns, the three Cs—the Royal Commission, the Productivity Commission and the Fair Work Commission—have taken up their positions beside him. He has locked in terms of reference for these commissions to direct their work so it favours the business constituency of the Liberal and National parties. But 'the General' has more battalions—or probably a better comparison would be shock troops—lining up to fire away. These are the true directors of this operation, who Senator Abetz serves loyally—big business, their peak bodies and various hangers-on.

Senator Abetz obviously presents his role quite differently. In his address to the Sydney Institute he explained that he sees himself as 'the Minister for Jobs' and is 'equally mindful of the legitimate aspirations of employers and employees'. The minister might get away with this deception in the Gerard Henderson bunker, but his mission to strip unions of their ability to work for and protect workers' rights is exposed when it comes to responding to serious workplace incidents.

Less than two months after Senator Abetz gave his 'After the Thirty Years War' speech to the Sydney Institute, a fire and crane collapse at the massive Barangaroo development brought Sydney to a standstill, causing traffic chaos and requiring the evacuation of thousands of people in the central CBD. This was the third major safety scare on a Sydney building site in 18 months. In November 2012 a crane caught fire at Broadway, shutting down the building site for a fortnight. In early 2014 three people were injured and a building site was evacuated when scaffolding collapsed near Sydney Airport. Lend Lease, the company responsible for the Barangaroo project, has donated more than $420,000 to the Liberal and National parties. All incidents caused massive traffic congestion, clearly impacting on productivity way beyond the construction industry. What did we hear from Minister Abetz? Not a word, even though many businesses suffered because of the poor standards at these construction sites.

The minister does not take job safety seriously. One of the big battles in the current IR war that the Liberal-National government is waging is to remove workers' rights to have a union health and safety representative on major construction sites and for unions to fight to protect job safety standards. Why is this? It is directly linked to businesses' push to boost their profits. The intent of the Liberals and Nationals when they take power is to weaken the power of unions, undermine collective bargaining, make it harder to strike—all with the intent of limiting wage rises, changing the law so that it is easier for employers to reduce wages and ignore longstanding job rights, including workplace safety. This is how Senator Abetz delivers on extensive workplace deregulation to help boost company profits.

Minister Abetz will fire back that his job is to clean up workplace crime, corruption and intimidation—he loves the word 'intimidation', linking it with alleged union activities at every opportunity. Yes, criminal behaviour should not occur in any workplaces. But we do not need a royal commission, a Productivity Commission and a Fair Work Commission to sort this out.

The front page of the Australian Financial Reviewon 12-13 October 2013 stated that industry groups in Australia are 'stepping up pressure on the government to accelerate workplace deregulation to lower the cost of doing business.' 'Lower the cost of doing business' means more profits. That is what it is about—boosting profits, lowering the cost of doing business, and that is where the link comes in with safety. This report was based on a call from the tourism and restaurant sectors for weekend and public holiday penalty rates to be cut. While Fair Work Australia rejected the claim, this industry sector had achieved their purpose— firing another round to hot up their 30-year war.

While employers are targeting conditions and penalty rates through the Fair Work Commission, the Abbott government is giving backup, using the Productivity Commission, with the same target in its sights. The Abbott government's terms of reference for the Productivity Commission inquiry into the Fair Work Act again deliver for the big end of town. The incredibly broad scope of this inquiry puts up in lights the real intent here. While the inquiry includes in its terms of reference language of apparent concern for working people—'fair and equitable pay and conditions for employees, including the maintenance of a relevant safety net', the overall thrust suggests this is laying the basis for Work Choices mark 2.

The third battalion the conservative government has lined up is the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Set up by the Abbott government, this body has been given terms of reference that will deliver months of public attacks on unions and those who stand up for workers' rights. It has been awarded a 12-month extension, which aligns it neatly with the coming federal election. At a time when money is supposed to be short, $53 million has already been allocated. Surely this is an abuse of public money to deliver a pre-determined outcome.

General Abetz's military style operation, with attacks on three fronts with these three commissions, would be welcome news for the coalition's constituency—the big end of town. The loss of Work Choices and the weakening of the ABCC—

Debate interrupted.