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Minister discusses draft legislation for construction industry.

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Thursday 18 September 2003

Minister discusses draft legislation for construction industry


MARK COLVIN: Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott denies that he's targeting unions. He says the new Australian Building and Construction Commission would target company law breakers just as vigorously as union law breakers. 


He's hoping to have the legislation in the Parliament by November and passed by Christmas, but this legislation could just as easily end up as another double dissolution trigger. 


A short time ago, Mr Abbott spoke to Catherine McGrath, about his proposed changes. 


TONY ABBOTT: The industry has been an industrial jungle for years, it's marked by a near total absence of respect for the rule of law, and it's important that we tighten up certain aspects of the law, but most of all, that we have a well resourced and effective industry watchdog to try to ensure that the law is enforced and honest workers and businesses get the clean industry they deserve.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Can I stop there, you said, it's a jungle, there's near no respect for law; doesn't that indicate from the beginning that you're coming from the perspective of attacking the unions, as opposed to the other side of it? I mean, do you recognise another side of business, illegal business activities… 


TONY ABBOTT: That question, Catherine, is premised on the assumption that the unions are the lawbreakers. Well, I'm against law breakers.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: So who else is breaking the law? 


TONY ABBOTT: I'm against law breakers. And if they're union law breakers I oppose that, if they're company law breakers I oppose that.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Well, can we look at how you're going to deal with law breakers in the business world on worksites? 


TONY ABBOTT: Well, they'll be prosecuted.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Under what law?  


TONY ABBOTT: Under the laws which the Government has and under the laws which the Government seeks to introduce.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: But how… one of the things you're doing for example, is giving the ACCC the power to look at businesses, as I understand it, who are involved in wrongful behaviour? 


TONY ABBOTT: That's correct. The ACCC has been asked to be vigilant of breaches of the Trade Practices Act in this industry, and the proposed Australian Building and Construction Commission obviously will be a new statutory watchdog to look at breaches of the workplace law in this industry.  


But the ABCC will build on the work that's already being done by the Interim Taskforce, and I should point out, Catherine, that the Interim Taskforce has currently got seven prosecutions before the courts involving five unions and three employers. So I think you'd have to say there's a degree of even-handedness there. 


CATHERINE MCGRATH: So let's look at the new watchdog. I mean, why for example, would that just look at the workplace breaches of the law? Why look at that and not the other side as well?  


TONY ABBOTT: Well, if the watchdog comes across breaches of other laws, or suspected breaches of other laws it will refer those breaches to the relevant authorities.  


So if it comes across breaches of the tax law that'll go to the ATO, if it comes across breaches of the criminal law that will go to the relevant police force or DPP, if it comes across breaches of the company law that'll go to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: Now, you heard what Craig Emerson, the Shadow Minister had to say today. He said that you're attacking the building industry. He said if you look at the labour productivity of the building industry, and he quoted figures from the Productivity Commission, he said that building is ranked the fourth most efficient out of 12.  


TONY ABBOTT: I think those figures are somewhat misleading because lumped under building is commercial construction, which is comparatively inefficient, and housing construction, which is very efficient. And what I'd like to do is get the same levels of labour productivity in the commercial construction industry that currently exists in the housing industry.  


CATHERINE MCGRATH: So if you manage to bring this legislation in, first of all you've got to get through the Senate, that looks like a tough ask, but secondly it has to be implemented; how easy would that be? 


TONY ABBOTT: Well, I think once the law is in place the vast majority of decent, honest people in the industry will decide that the game is up and they've got to play by new rules.  


But that's why it's so important that this legislation get passed, because the honest and the decent people in the industry are currently living under a reign of fear which is placed upon them by the union enforcers, by the union heavies. Now, I think it's time that those people deserve the ordinary freedom which Australians have.  


MARK COLVIN: Tony Abbott, the Workplace Relations Minister, speaking to Catherine McGrath.