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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 7794

Mr ABBOTT (11:09 AM) —Let me begin my contribution to this debate by reminding members that workplace reform was one of the greatest achievements of the Howard government. Workplace relations reform in part contributed to the golden age of posterity which this country enjoyed from the middle 1990s until quite recently. In particular, workplace relations reform helped to achieve the marvellous outcomes of more than two million new jobs, a 20 per cent increase in real wages and—this is very important—a reduction in industrial disputation to the lowest level since records were first kept back in 1913.

Let me be very clear about this. Industrial disputation helps no-one. Industrial disputation has to be at the very least a last resort. Strikes cost jobs, strikes hurt workers, strikes mean that a whole lot of people are out of pocket and inconvenienced, and no-one ought to argue that strikes are anything other than a blight on our economy and on the prospects of the decent working people of this country.

Members opposite in the course of this debate have alluded to the former government’s Work Choices industrial legislation. Work Choices did not cost the former government the election; it was the temporary abolition of the no disadvantage test which, more than anything else, cost the former government the election—and Work Choices was far more than just that.

We are here today to talk about the government’s building and construction legislation in the form of the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2009. When I became the workplace relations minister back in 2001, it was hard not to notice that the majority of strikes took place in the commercial construction sector, particularly in two states, Victoria and Western Australia. In those two states the rule of law had become the law of the jungle.

In 2001 I established the Cole royal commission to inquire into the commercial construction industry, particularly in those two states. The finding of the Cole royal commission that this industry was marked by coercion, collusion and intimidation was substantially confirmed by the subsequent inquiry conducted by Justice Wilcox, commissioned by the current government. The result of the royal commission was the establishment of an interim task force to police and enforce the rule of law in the commercial construction sector and that eventually became the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner.

As Justice Wilcox found in his recent inquiry, there are still problems in the commercial construction sector but, thanks to the work of the royal commission, the interim task force and the ABCC, there has been an improvement bordering on a transformation. Labour productivity in the commercial construction sector is up by 20 per cent. The cost differential between commercial and housing construction has dropped from 15 per cent to an almost negligible two per cent. Industrial disputation in the commercial construction sector has dropped from the highest in the country to almost negligible levels. The difference between the industrial environments in which the EastLink project was constructed in Melbourne and in which the CityLink project was constructed just a little while earlier demonstrates the impact that the whole Cole royal commission process has had.

As a result of all this there has been a boost to national economic output estimated, given the size of the sector, at more than $5 billion a year. It is appropriate in the course of this debate to put on record my, and I hope the parliament’s, gratitude to some of the key figures in this whole process: not only Justice Terry Cole, who was subjected to large and violent demonstrations when he was conducting his hearings, but also Nigel Hadgkiss, the former senior policeman who was the head of interim task force, and later John Lloyd, a former distinguished public servant and then Australian Industrial Relations Commission deputy president who took on the job of heading up the ABCC. These are fine Australians and their work has done great things for a very important industry and for the decent, honest people trying to earn a living within it.

The essence of the success of the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner has been a significant staff of investigators, many of whom have experience of real policing, and, most importantly, the power to compel witnesses. This is particularly important for employers. Given the climate of intimidation which long existed in this sector, it was almost impossible under the previous arrangements to get hard evidence of breaches of the law. The people who knew about the breaches of the law simply would not appear. The workers were frightened of physical intimidation and the businesses were frightened of commercial retribution. This is why these coercive powers, the powers to compel witnesses, are so important. Once these powers were in place the companies—that had previously been terrified of commercial payback should they tell the law enforcement authorities of what they knew—could not ignore the laws that said that they had to give evidence.

The real problem with the government’s legislation is that it essentially makes these coercive powers impossible to exercise. This is the great payback to the union movement. The coercive powers that meant that the dark secrets in this sector had to come out are being essentially taken away, or at least made almost impossible to exercise, as a result of the legislation before the House. The Rudd government pre election promised a tough cop on the beat. It said that there would always be the rule of law in this sector but, as has so often happened, that pre-election promise has turned out to be just more spin from a Prime Minister who has proven himself to be an absolute master in the arts of political deception. What this bill shows is that the tough cop is on the high road to becoming a toothless tiger.

I know that there are many decent members sitting opposite us in this House. Minister Martin Ferguson, who is at the table, is of course a person of integrity, principle and long experience in the union movement. Decent members of the union movement know what was going on in this sector. They have no truck with the kind of people who enforce right of entry at the point of a crowbar, as we saw happen just a few years ago in Melbourne. Yet they have been dragged into this legislation by their leader’s need to appease a union movement which has been so important to his campaigning success. The problem with this bill is that it puts decent workers, decent unionists and decent businesses at more risk than they have been. It removes the protections that have been there for them at least since the establishment of the ABCC back in 2006.

My problem with this legislation is not that the government have capitulated to the shop assistants union or that they have capitulated to the Australian Workers Union. They have not even capitulated to the forestry division of the CFMEU. But they have capitulated to the construction division of the CFMEU, the most militant, the most lawless and the most violent union in this country. In essence, this is Kevin Reynolds’s bill. That is what this bill is. It is payback for Kevin Reynolds. It is payback for the support that the militant unions have given to the government. This is thoroughly bad legislation. It will be opposed by the coalition both here and in another place because it makes the decent workers and the honest businesses of the construction sector of this country much less safe than they deserve to be.