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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2226


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (11:34): Thuggery, lawlessness and illegal behaviour are all being legislatively embraced in this Greens-ALP alliance bill euphemistically called the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2012. The spin machine of the Greens-ALP alliance call this bill 'an improvement'. For whom is it an improvement? It is only an improvement for those who want to engage in lawlessness, thuggery and illegalities. It is a sorry state of affairs, but regrettably typical of this Greens-ALP alliance, when government succumbs to promoting legislation which encourages lawlessness and allows and indeed actively promotes and encourages pay-offs and dirty deals for people to avoid prosecution.

In the past we have had royal commissions into people buying their way out of prosecutions—in fact called 'corruption'. This legislation, championed as it is by the Greens-ALP alliance, will actually make legal that which we in our society once labelled 'corruption'. That is why the coalition opposes the bill, but let us recount some history. Because of the culture of unlawfulness within the Australian building and construction sector, a number of us, including me, called for a royal commission to ascertain how widespread it was and the what types of unlawfulness were being engaged in. As a result, the Cole royal commission was established. In its 23-volume report, the Cole royal commission meticulously painted the 'horror-scope' that represented the culture on our construction sites. It was an ugly picture—big business and big unions using individual workers, contractors, developers and the public purse as their own personal playthings at the expense of the national interest. The Cole royal commission recommended the establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, which the Howard government put into place despite the objection of the ALP and the Greens—who, incidentally, are substantial beneficiaries of largesse from the CFMEU for their election coffers. Just in the past few years, they and related organisations have received well over $1 million. In short, the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner was established and commenced the difficult, dangerous and deliberate task of cleaning up the sector. The commission has made huge and genuine improvements and inroads into the culture of intimidation and lawlessness that was the construction sector.

Despite the good work, pockets of lawlessness remain. There is an ongoing role—indeed, need—for a tough cop on the beat. So important is the need for a tough cop on the beat that even Labor promised to maintain an authority with sufficient powers to stamp out lawlessness. Labor's own hand-picked reviewer of the commission, Mr Wilcox—who established his credentials for the review, by the way, by being an outspoken critic of the Howard government—came to the conclusion that there was a need to keep a tough cop on the beat.

Today, parking inspectors and traffic police will be clothed with greater powers than what will become, under this bill, the pathetic but aptly named building inspectorate. Inspecting will be their forte. They will not be able to do anything about what they find, but they will be inspecting. I am sure they will be very good at inspecting. I am sure they will become proficient at inspecting. But mere inspecting will not deal with the issues and stamp out lawlessness. An authority with genuine grunt is what is needed.

So important was this need to have an authority with genuine grunt that none other than Ms Gillard, the then workplace relations spokesman for the ALP, promised:

We want to make sure that no one is engaged in improper conduct in the building industry, whether employer, union or employee.

Ms Gillard went on to say:

Anybody who breaches the law should feel the full force of the law.

She said:

… there should be absolutely vigorous, hard-edged compliance and no tolerance … for unlawfulness.

Again, she said:

Each and every breach of the law is wrong and each and every breach of the law should be acted upon.

They are all great words, a great set of principles, but all just as worthless as Ms Gillard's promise that there will be no carbon tax. They are simply empty, hollow words to get herself and the ALP through an election and then, afterwards, those promises are not matched with the reality of Labor in power.

The Australian people have now come to realise that, as it is with the carbon tax, with private health insurance and with the definition of marriage, just to mention three, so it is with the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner. Rather than having a tough cop on the beat, we will have not even a toothless tiger but a toothless mouse. As three state attorneys-general and the Law Council of Australia have observed, this legislation is so bad that it will actually undermine longstanding principles enshrined in our legal system. The Law Council of Australia, in an unprecedentedly strong statement, has condemned this legislation.

Might I add that part of this legislation was rushed into the House of Representatives during the House of Representatives debate as an amendment. After the Senate committee had finished its investigations into the bill, the Greens-Labor alliance sneakily put through this far-reaching amendment, of which the Law Council have said this. I quote from their media release of 8 March:

The Law Council of Australia has raised serious concerns …

They said it will:

… significantly impact the ability of the independent regulator to enforce compliance with the relevant legislation in the building and construction industry.

They said:

… the … Commissioner will be unable to either institute or continue civil penalty litigation for breaches under Commonwealth law because there has been a commercial settlement between the contravenor and persons affected by the offending conduct …

They condemned it because it 'will give precedence to the interests of private litigants over the application and enforcement of Australian law'. They said it will 'significantly erode the regulator's independent regulatory role'. They went on to say:

There is potential for significant waste of tax-payers money if the regulator is forced to discontinue litigation or an investigation …

They also said:

… undue pressure is placed on parties to settle out of court to preclude the regulator from pursuing … penalties …

The Law Council urges reconsideration of this legislation …

On the back of this very strongly worded media release, the coalition sought to refer that aspect of the bill that had never been before a Senate committee before to a Senate committee. Those great champions of the parliamentary process, those great champions of transparency, the Greens-ALP majority in this place, voted down further scrutiny, despite what the Law Council of Australia said in its unprecedentedly strong statement. They also voted down this potential inquiry despite the fact that three state attorneys-general came out backing the view of the Law Council of Australia.

What necessitated this last-minute amendment to the legislation? We will never know, because this bill has been guillotined, debate on this has been gagged and the Greens-ALP majority alliance in this place has deliberately ensured that we cannot investigate further.

In case people do not necessarily comprehend what this last-minute amendment will do, allow me to give a very brief analogy. If somebody drives through a red light and collides with another motor vehicle, causing damage and injury, under normal circumstances, the person driving through the red light would have to settle with the person whose property they had damaged and would have to compensate them for any private injury. Irrespective of that payment and private settlement, one would expect the police to bring a charge for driving through the red light. That is the normal way our legal system operates. It is a proper way for our legal system to operate. It has always been thus; it should always be thus.

But today, courtesy of the Greens-ALP majority in this place ruthlessly abusing their numbers, they will force through, onto the statute books of our country, the capacity for those with the money to buy themselves out of trouble. In the analogy I have just provided, if the person who ran the red light had sufficient money to pay off the person whose vehicle they had damaged and to compensate that person for any injury—sufficient for that person to say, 'I am now happy because he slung me an extra few thousand dollars'—the police would be denied the capacity to bring a charge for running a red light. The same could apply in the case of a drink-driving offence. Under this legislation, the Labor Party and the Australian Greens are saying that it is good social policy to allow private interests to subvert the national interest and society's interests.

This is a shameful amendment. No wonder it was snuck in very late in the debate in the House of Representatives. No wonder the Greens-ALP majority alliance in this place did not want it scrutinised by a Senate committee. This legislates—puts on the statute books—the capacity for those with the money to buy themselves out of prosecution, something which royal commissions in this country over the years have condemned. Who are the people who are going to have the money to buy themselves out of a prosecution? It is pretty simple: it will be big business and the unions. The individual worker, the small contractor, will not have the money; they will not have the capacity.

But why is this so necessary? Let us have a look at a certain construction site in the state of Victoria where the CFMEU were engaged in illegal conduct. They finally came to a private settlement with John Holland. We do not know the full extent of it, but the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, the ABCC, nevertheless brought proceedings for that illegal behaviour. Interestingly enough, the CFMEU in effect pleaded guilty to the charge and consented to a fine of $1.35 million. Under the brave new world of the Greens-ALP majority in this place, the CFMEU will have the capacity to escape such fines in the future—because there has been a private settlement, the building inspector will not be allowed to bring the prosecution. This is wrong in principle. It should never find its way onto the statute books. But the ALP and the Greens are willing to use their majority to ensure that this subversion of the rule of law finds its way onto the statute books.

That is not the only thing wrong with this piece of legislation; it also has a provision which is called 'switch-off powers', a provision which allows for coercive powers to be switched off. Why would you want to do that? Justice Wilcox, in his inquiry, did not make that recommendation. Did the unions make such a recommendation? Surprise, surprise—they did not. Did the employers make such a recommendation? No, they did not. We heard from the department at the Senate committee hearing—and what we heard shows us why Senate committee hearings are so vitally important. Labor and the Greens seek to escape them and do so by ruthlessly using their majority in this place on a daily basis. The Senate committee hearing into this aspect of the bill exposed—the departmental officials acknowledged—that no-one in the consultations surrounding this legislation recommended the switch-off powers. We know the unions did not want them, we know the employers did not want them and we know that no-one in the consultations wanted them. So where did this provision come from? We are still awaiting that answer because that question was taken on notice. No doubt it was dreamt up in the minister's office. But what is the justification for it? We still do not know and we will never know—similar to that outrageous part of the legislation making the inspectorate a toothless mouse.

In the time left, it would be very worthwhile for the Senate to consider what has occurred with the ABCC over the past few years. Because of its existence, we have seen a seismic shift in culture on Australian construction and building sites. The consumer price index is 1.2 per cent lower than it otherwise would have been. There is a good reason for getting rid of the ABCC, surely! If that does not satisfy you, the Greens-ALP alliance have other reasons: GDP is 1.5 per cent higher than it otherwise would have been; the price of housing fell by 2.2 per cent; and consumers are better off by $5.9 billion on an annual basis. These are all good things the ABCC has been able to deliver across the board for the Australian people, for the Australian economy, for our common wellbeing. That is the reason the Australian Labor Party, with their Greens alliance partners, want to abolish the Australian building and construction commission.

What else will this legislation do? Employers, especially in the resources sector, have said key decision makers, as part of their due diligence, will consider what the likely industrial relations environment will be for their project and, in the absence of strong laws, it is likely that the concern about industrial environment matters will increase and impact upon investment decisions. The Labor Party are trying to kill the resource sector, which is the goose that is laying the golden egg for Australia, on a daily basis. They tried with a carbon tax but just in case the carbon tax did not do the job they had a mining tax as a double whammy and in case those two things did not do it together, they would have the triple whammy of abolishing the Australian building and construction commission just to make sure the resource sector is killed stone cold motherless dead.

What is it that motivates this government? Last night they were celebrating the introduction of a new tax as some great achievement. Tonight, using the ruthlessness of the guillotine, they will be celebrating the abolition of the Australian building and construction commission. This is bad legislation. It will give statutory legitimacy to blackmail, payoffs and sweetheart deals. It is the first time private interests will legislatively override the national interest. On re-election, we will restore the commission. (Time expired)