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Monday, 11 May 2015
Page: 2677

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (10:49): I would like to indicate my support for the measures in the Construction Industry Amendment (Protecting Witnesses) Bill 2015. I want to make it clear that I do not have a final position on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill and associated legislation; however, I do think it is useful to amend the sunset provision relating to the investigative powers of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate so the current conditions can continue while the ABCC bills are debated.

I am a strong supporter of unions, and I believe they form a vital part of Australia's workplace relations framework. It is incredibly important that workers have the power of union representation, and the long history of unions in fighting for better pay and conditions speaks for itself. However, I do believe there are some unscrupulous operators within some unions—as there are in any organisation—and, insofar as there may be systemic issues in respect of some unions or industries, they need to be dealt with in a way that is fair and comprehensive, and that is why this sunset clause needs to be extended.

All of the union officials I have spoken to are strongly against any kind of illegal or unconscionable activity and, indeed, have taken significant steps to investigate and address any such allegations. I have met and worked with Michael O'Connor, the head of the CFMEU nationally in this country, whom I have a lot of time for. We have worked together closely on issues such as dumping, which is costing Australians good jobs because products are being dumped in our market below cost in breach of WTO rules which I do not think are being enforced adequately in this country. I have worked with him on issues such as imported products which are of inferior quality, and we have seen in the building sector some cladding that is not fireproof, which is a real issue. That is an issue that transcends ideology or politics—that is an issue we need to look at very, very closely. So there are issues we work together on very closely, but fundamentally I do not support the CFMEU's position in terms of the sunset clause. I think it is essential we maintain it.

The willingness on the part of union leaders such as Michael O'Connor to address these issues does not mean that the powers currently held by the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate are redundant. I note that both the opposition and the Greens, in their separate dissenting reports to the committee inquiry into this bill, stated that, as these powers have not been used extensively, they should not be maintained. I disagree. I am glad there has not been an extensive need for the inspectorate to use these powers, but that does not mean they should not exist. We do not just wear seatbelts when we have a crash; we wear seatbelts in case we have a crash. In my view, these investigative powers are an important part of the inspectorate's toolkit. The fact that they have not been used excessively is actually a good sign; a sign that the inspectorate takes these powers seriously and uses them sparingly.

I acknowledge the concerns that have been raised in the context of the building and construction industry bills. I look forward to further debate on these matters. As I mentioned earlier, I have not yet reached a final position on the measures in those bills, although I can say that if you have people being paid well, people being treated fairly and increased levels of productivity then that must be a good thing in terms of the national interest. If our buildings are being built more productively and if people are being paid well that has to be good for our nation's wealth as a whole. In the context of this bill it is useful, it is necessary, in fact it is essential that the status quo continue until the vote on these bills is finalised. As such, I will be supporting this bill, and I look forward to debating the building and construction industry bills at a later date.

The final point I wish to make is this: when this debate came up under the former government, under the Gillard government, it was acknowledged that these powers should exist. These powers of compelling witnesses to give evidence are not unusual in other pieces of legislation. ASIC, our corporate regulator, has them and the ACCC, our consumer and competition watchdog, has those powers. I think it is appropriate that similar powers exist in this sector. So with those comments it seems to me to be illogical not to allow the sunset clause to be extended pending further consideration of other measures for the construction industry. I think that if this bill is defeated it will be an issue of real concern in terms of those minority elements in the sector that are not doing the right thing, and I include a number of rogue employers who are involved in agreements and conduct that would be improper. I think these powers need to be maintained. That is why I strongly support this bill.