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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31733

Mr ANDREWS (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:14 AM) —I move:

That the amendments be agreed to.

Earlier this morning, the Australian government, with the cooperation of the Australian Democrats, passed legislation through the Senate aimed at ensuring that the rule of law prevails within the building and construction industry. This legislative package is one of the most significant industrial reforms in Australia since the Workplace Relations Act. On 25 March this year, I made a ministerial statement which highlighted the continuing lawlessness which pervades the building and construction industry and reaffirmed the Australian government's commitment to establishing the rule of law in this industry. This legislation is a key plank in the most significant reform of the building and construction industry ever attempted. It responds to the compelling and unassailable case for reform which was presented by the Cole royal commission. Both the Cole royal commission and the building industry task force, particularly in this report, regard these powers as essential to ensuring that the rule of law is upheld in this industry.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003 means that the building industry task force will now have the essential powers to achieve real reform of the commercial building and construction industry in Australia. These new powers allow the task force to force people to provide information, to produce documents and to attend and answer questions if the task force believes that they have information relevant to an investigation. Individuals who do not cooperate face up to six months in jail or financial penalties. At last the building industry task force has the powers to tackle head-on the illegal activity, thuggery and intimidation which was clearly identified by Mr Justice Cole in his royal commission and which he found was rife in this industry. As I said, this means that those who do not obey the law in this industry, like people in every other industry in Australia are expected to, can expect to be properly dealt with.

The powers are similar to those which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission have at the present time. Indeed, after agreement with the Democrats last night, we will model the guidelines on the ACCC guidelines that apply to the exercise of powers under section 155 of the Trade Practices Act. These guidelines will not contain additional constraints on the exercise of the coercive powers beyond those which are provided in this bill, and the government will consult with the Democrats in the formation of these guidelines.

Most people are reluctant to provide information about illegal activity in the $46 billion building and construction industry for fear of retribution. From 1 October 2002 to 31 December 2003, the task force had to drop more than one-third of its investigations because complainants were unwilling to provide information and make statements. The task force's powers were clearly inadequate. Now the task force will have the powers it needs to ensure that the rule of law is upheld in this industry, as it is expected to be upheld in every other industry in Australia. The new powers will be conferred on the Secretary of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations and then delegated to the director of the building industry task force.

In addition to these matters, there are a number of other important measures in this bill before the House today. Firstly, the penalties under the Workplace Relations Act are increased to $33,000 for a body corporate and $6,600 for individuals. Secondly, officials are disqualified from holding office in a registered organisation if they are convicted of a criminal offence and receive a suspended sentence. There was the case of Mr Craig Johnston in Victoria recently, who received a conviction and a suspended sentence. But for this legislation he would still be able to be an official of a union. Thirdly, there is whistleblower protection for employees of registered organisations.

Ultimately, reform of this industry will benefit all Australians. Research has shown that it will benefit and boost the Australian economy by some $2.3 billion a year. This is reform well worth pursuing. I thank in particular Senators Murray and Bartlett from the Australian Democrats for their constructive discussions over the last two months and particularly last night. I also thank the officials of my department who were involved in those discussions. I commend the amendments to House.