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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7773

Mr SULLIVAN (9:35 AM) —Clearly, I rise in support of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2009—and can I say that I am less than overwhelmed by the contribution of the opposition spokesman, the member for Stirling. In fact, the member for Stirling should perhaps look at what was going on in this country about a century ago, when a chap by the name of Henry Lawson was writing a poem called Second Class Wait Here. The member for Stirling clearly supports a system where workers in the building and construction industry are second class, treated differently to all other workers in Australia. That is what the member for Stirling is on about. He recites a couple of examples from the Cole commission and he raises the spectre of Joe McDonald, a Western Australian union official, whom his party vilified in the course of the election campaign. The man swore on a construction site—gee whiz! If he is the only person in this country who has sworn on a construction site I would be very surprised.

Let’s talk about Joe McDonald, because the member for Stirling, who has now left the chamber, raised the issue of the chap. Let us talk about him and that particular construction site and the reason that he was on that site on that day. It was the Q-Con construction site in Perth. What was he there trying to do? He was there trying to ensure that the workers in his union were given the opportunity to work in safe conditions. He was videotaped verbally abusing an official from the company, a fellow who was obviously a much more worthy person than Joe McDonald, because he was dressed in a suit and tie. What happened on the building site? Let us just read from the West from 5 July 2007:

Falling concrete has prompted workers to walk off the job at a Perth building site where union hard man Joe McDonald was caught on video abusing a construction manager over safety.

Abusing a construction manager over safety on a building site that was unsafe—my goodness, what a dreadful man this Mr McDonald must be. Big chunks of:

Concrete fell 16 floors at the Q-Con construction site on St Georges Terrace … sparking safety concerns.

I beg your pardon? Joe McDonald was on the site sparking safety concerns and Joe McDonald was right. It is a fortunate thing that workers were not killed on that site. As has been noted on a number of occasions, not least by the former member for Corangamite, Mr Stewart McArthur, in a speech in this chamber about two years ago on 16 August 2007. I will read the full sentence because he was coming at it from a slightly different angle to me:

There is no room for bullying or unsafe practices on a construction site and the high-fatality statistics in the industry are chilling proof of this.

That speech was made in support of a system that we are told is the one that is going to improve construction safety. The Australian Safety and Compensation Council produces notified fatalities statistical reports. I have two here with me today: July 2007 to June 2008 and July 2008 to December 2008. It is interesting to look at construction industry fatalities statistics in those two reports. In the year from July 2007 to June 2008, 36 construction workers lost their lives on building sites. Nobody should have to go to work knowing that there is that level of fatality in the industry. I note that far too many people do die.

In the second half of last year there were 18 fatalities on construction sites, and 16 of them were workers on construction sites. But it is also illustrative to see how construction site fatalities have trended since the introduction of the ABCC, which members opposite tell us is going to solve all the problems. In 2004-05 there were 18 fatalities on construction sites; in 2005-06 there were 25. The ABCC came into effect in October 2005 and certainly did not reduce fatalities that year. In 2006-07 there were 28, in 2007-08, as I have said, there were 36. Fatalities have risen under the regime of the ABCC, which those opposite would have us believe was there to prevent just that happening.

Members opposite are more than willing to vilify and call criminals those members of unions and their executive who seek to protect lives. A submission to a Senate select committee quite recently from the building industry superannuation fund has an interesting little couple of paragraphs within it:

In September 2002 the Fund supplied the ATO—

Australian tax office—

with approximately 70 employers who had failed to pay contributions—

That is, superannuation contributions—

for the 2001/2002 year.

In a follow up conversation with the ATO—

The writer was advised—

that half had gone bankrupt … 10 had no record of existence at the ATO and the remainder would be followed up with desk audits over the next few months.

No doubt by the time that desk audit was over some of those too would have gone out of business. If you are going to go chasing the criminals in the building industry, you had better have a look at some of the building industry companies, not just the unions. The ABCC has concentrated its entire effort on building industry unionists or innocent bystanders. Look at the university academic that they were trying to haul in in Melbourne. This is not the way our country needs to be run.

I should make mention of a certain case just so that people understand the situation in which construction industry unions find themselves in their work. Several years ago I met a guy by the name of Gary McCarthy. Gary McCarthy was a member of and, I think, a site organiser with the CFMEU. A very close friend of his, a young man by the name of Mark Allen, died in September 1996. He was killed on a demolition site in Perth—this centre, the member for Stirling would have us believe, of unlawful activity by the building industries. He was killed on a site while trying to get workers down from an unsafe area on a demolition site. He was killed, he was opposed and Premier Court at the time thought the situation was wonderful.

I will now return to the provisions of the bill that is before us. This bill is informed by a number of things. One of the things it is informed by is the Wilcox review commissioned by our government, not the Cole inquiry commissioned by the former government.

Mr Briggs —Is Cole good or bad?

Mr SULLIVAN —I am more than interested to listen to what the architect of Work Choices has to say. If you want to take us on over industrial relations in the community, feel free.

Mr Briggs —Tell us how much you got from the CFMEU.

Mr SULLIVAN —I am going to answer that question because the member deserves an answer. The CFMEU did not contribute to my campaign. The CFMEU is a union from the other side of the party that I belong to. It did not contribute to my campaign. But I tell you what: I have more respect for any unionist in any union in this country than I have for any of the people who sit over there, who will oppose the legislation before the House.

Murray Wilcox reported on the activities in the industry and made eight key recommendations, and this government is proceeding down that path. The big point of contention is the retention of the coercive powers. Talking about spin, the spin that these powers need to be retained comes from the newspapers, members opposite and companies in the building industry, who, we note, because of their financial behaviour, are not blameless. I am not so sure that this widespread unlawfulness exists, but I am prepared for the level of coercive powers to be retained under the conditions that have been set out, because they are reasonable conditions—for example, the five-year grandfather clause. I would be very surprised if we cannot wipe out any actual or alleged unlawfulness within the building industry in five years.

These powers are obnoxious. If they were not obnoxious they would exist in every enforcement regime in the country, and they do not. They are obnoxious powers and they are targeting a particular group of Australian citizens—and quite unfairly, I believe. I think that over the course of the next five years the limited number of occasions on which these powers will be used will prove me right. Each use of these powers will require approval by a presidential member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That means that, for the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate to actually use these powers, it will have to show cause to someone who has some understanding of what all of this means.

Unlike the current situation, a person summonsed to appear under these powers will be able to have the assistance of the representation of a lawyer. Good grief! The former government set up a situation where people were denied representation in quite legalistic processes. You would not do it anywhere else. Why would you deny a person appearing before any court of this country the opportunity to be legally represented? People will be provided or reimbursed reasonable expenses, which I think is fine. All examinations will be undertaken by the director of the inspectorate or somebody who has been deputised by him or her to do that. Finally, all examinations will be videotaped and reviewed by the Commonwealth Ombudsman to make sure that the powers are not being abused.

It is also important to note that a person who is interviewed under these provisions will not be prevented from telling his wife or anybody else about what is going on. The idea that you can be interviewed and not discuss it is quite ludicrous. I think it is also appropriate to make the point clearly that within this legislation the penalties and offences are exactly the same as the penalties and offences within every other industry in the country. There will be no more special penalties or special offences for the building and construction industry. The Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate has not been included in the office of the Fair Work Ombudsman as had been planned, and I actually support that exclusion. It is a departure from what Wilcox suggested, but I would be very disappointed if coercive powers were part of our mainstream industrial legislation. Whilst they exist I am happy for them to exist to the side.

The switch-off power of the coercive powers is interesting in the context that construction projects that do commence post 1 February 2010 are able to operate in an environment where these powers are not hanging over the heads of workers like the sword of Damocles. I wonder why people would think that that is not appropriate. The member for Stirling indicated that he believes that the hotbeds of unlawfulness in the construction unions are in Victoria and Western Australia. That may or may not be the case. I certainly do not see enough evidence to suggest that there are hotbeds of unlawfulness. But that leaves a number of other states—Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory, the ACT and South Australia—as not hotbeds of unlawful behaviour. Quite frankly, the existence of these powers is always going to create a tension between employer and employee. If those powers can be switched off in the context of a project, I suspect that will be something to assist in creating a good working relationship between employer and employee and I would not be surprised to see applications coming from the companies undertaking projects as often as they come from the unions or third parties.

The interesting thing of course is that the unions would prefer there to actually be a switch-on power rather than a switch-off power. I think they are actually both. The need to have approval of the presidential member of the AAT before the powers can be used is, in effect, a switch-on power. It is a safeguard against ideologues such as those who operate in the ABCC currently, people who are true believers of a nature other than the true believers on my side of the chamber, who are out to do a job. Quite frankly, I think everybody in the country recognises that the job they were set to do and the job that they have relished is a union-busting job. They have been unsuccessful and the government has been elected making quite clear statements in relation to the building industry through the Forward with Fairness documents in April and August of 2007. The people knew what they were getting from this government. The election was about industrial relations. If you people opposite wish to take on this government over industrial relations, then there will be fewer of you after the next election.