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Monday, 11 May 2015
Page: 2681


Senator LINES (Western Australia) (11:09): Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, thank you for taking my chair's duty. I rise this morning to oppose the Construction Industry Amendment (Protecting Witnesses) Bill 2015, and I think we just need some background on this bill. What we have seen from the Abbott government is that it attacks all sections of the Australian community. If it is not pensioners it is attacking, it is families; if it is not families it is attacking, it is young people; if it is not young people it is attacking, it is the unemployed; if the unemployed are not under attack, it is the homeless; and if the homeless are not under attack then it is refugees, workers and unions, particularly the CFMEU. They are all under attack from this government. It is indeed a partisan government, a government that governs only for the big end of town, and any group or any individual who threatens to disrupt that partisan relationship comes under attack from the Abbott government. This bill does just that—seeks to protect the interests of only one group.

The Construction Industry Amendment (Protecting Witnesses) Bill 2015 is another example of the Abbott government's ideology and its Tea Party agenda—its agenda to simply agree with its mates at the big end of town. This bill, regardless of what you will hear from the government, seeks to extend the coercive powers which Justice Wilcox said required not just a sunset clause but a review, a proper review that took into account all points of view—not just a chat with the Abbott government's mates at the big end of town but a proper review—with terms of reference and an independent chair. But, of course, we have never seen any independence from the Abbott government—never. It takes a partisan view on every single thing it does.

Let's have a look at what is at stake here. We have heard from the other side today all sorts of innuendo, exaggeration and untruths about a whole range of matters. But the simple facts are that there are currently laws in place which deal with corruption wherever it occurs, and Labor are on the record, as are the unions, as saying that we do not support corruption. Labor are on the record as saying that we do not support illegal behaviour. Indeed, there are powers within the current Fair Work regime and the Fair Work (Building Industry) Act to deal with the whole manner of complaints where people assert there has been some kind of illegal behaviour, whether that is employer behaviour, union behaviour or worker behaviour. The laws are there. But, of course, we never hear that from the Abbott government. You certainly never hear about the bad behaviour of employers, where lockouts occur, people have their rosters illegally changed and they get underpaid. None of that ever comes within the remit of the Abbott government, because they like to demonise unions and particularly the CFMEU.

The Labor government did act when we were in power, but certainly what we did was fair and just. We abolished the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission that was established by the former Liberal government, and we established the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate. In establishing the new body, we acted on our election commitment at the time to consult widely on its operations and its functions. To that end, as many in here have mentioned, we asked the respected former Justice Wilcox to undertake consultation and prepare a report on matters related to the creation of a specialist division of the inspectorate of Fair Work Australia. Mr Wilcox provided a report to government in 2009, and the bill which gave effect to Mr Wilcox's principal recommendations was legislated in 2012. That sunset clause was put into the legislation, and it required—and it should require—any government to justify, with evidence, the need to extend that clause.

We heard this morning that there has been consultation. Well, there simply has not been consultation. There have been chats with the big end of town. There has been no formal consultation with the ACTU. There has been no formal consultation with any of the construction unions, because the government do not believe in formal independent processes; they just believe in innuendo and exaggeration. That is what they have done; they have simply exaggerated and continued to tell the stories they like to tell in here, which are half-truths and exaggerations, and say that somehow there has been some kind of consultation.

There has been no formal independent review of the very serious issues that Justice Wilcox entertained, and there has been no serious proper independent review of the legislation that Labor put in place. All we have heard from the Abbott government is hearsay, exaggeration, innuendo and untruths. Until the government provide evidence as to the merits or otherwise of extending the sunset clause, Labor will not be in a position to have an informed view on this matter. Of course, the government would rather keep making it up, keep the exaggeration and innuendo going, because that suits their political agenda. So Labor calls on the government to conduct the review, rather than using the sunset provisions as a political stunt in their never-ending crusade against the union movement.

Additionally, the government's bill, which they try to say is some kind of replication of what is already in place, seeks to reinstate the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission. It removes the important safeguard, which Mr Wilcox identified and Labor enacted, that the ABC Commissioner needs to apply to a president member of the AAT for an examination note. The government also seek to remove the privilege against self-incrimination. So what we have here is the government saying that they merely want to extend the operation of the powers—and we have heard that this morning from government senators—but that is patently untrue. In reality, what the Abbott government really want to do—and it is clearly evident in their bill to reinstate the ABCC—is to impose more coercive powers with fewer protections and safeguards on their use.

It is important to note that, even if this bill is not successful, the Fair Work Ombudsman and those within the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate who are appointed as Fair Work inspectors currently have the power to compel the production of records or documents to assist in investigating industrial contraventions. We never hear about that; we hear stories, but we never hear where matters have been referred. Of course, there is also the Australian Crime Commission, which has significant coercive powers available to investigate allegations of criminality. It is also worth noting that Fair Work Building and Construction's annual report details that coercive powers were used only four times in 2013-14. So all the stories that we have heard in here this morning, of course, did not require the use of those coercive powers. All of those stories did not require workers to be pursued in the way that the government wants to pursue them with this bill. Of course, we know, from Senate inquiries and other areas, that the failure of the government to review is typical of the partisan manner in which the FWBII has operated since the election of the Abbott government.

We have heard in this place the demonisation of unions—particularly the CFMEU—go on and on this morning under the guise of parliamentary privilege. Labor has said over and over again, 'If matters are serious, they should be investigated.' If the Abbott government have evidence or information about serious matters that they have not made available to the proper authorities, they ought to do so as a matter of urgency. The only time the Abbott government attack the CFMEU, or indeed officials of the CFMEU, is under the guise of parliamentary privilege. That tells you, in and of itself, that they have nothing to justify these continued attacks. If they did, their obligation would be to report; their obligation would be to have the proper independent authorities investigate these matters. But that does not suit their political agenda. Their political agenda is about demonising particular parts of our community. In this case, it is the unions.

This particular bill has been shrouded in secrecy. It was introduced into the parliament in March, but there has been no public hearing on this bill. Not only have we not had the proper independent review that should have been conducted, we also have not had an open public inquiry into this bill, despite having had the time to do so. The bill was introduced in March, and the reporting date to the Senate from the committee was May. And, yes, we have had inquiries into other aspects of the building and construction industry, but this bill should have had a public review in and of itself where we could have had witnesses talk further to their submissions and where we could have had additional information brought to the committee. Of course, that did not suit the government. It did not suit the Abbott government to have that public inquiry, because their attacks under parliamentary privilege might well have been challenged in that Senate inquiry. But we will never know that, because we never had the opportunity of a public open inquiry process, despite there being ample time.

When I looked at the submissions from the employers, it was almost as if the government, the employers, the big end of town, ACCI, Master Builders and so on were speaking with one voice. So all I saw in the submissions from the employers and employer associations was further innuendo, further exaggeration and further hearsay about this general nature of industrial unrest in the construction industry. And nothing could be further from the truth: there has been a decline in days lost to industrial action, but you do not hear that from the Abbott government. There has been a decline in the number of days lost to industrial action—industrial action properly constituted as a bargaining process—but you will not hear from that from the Abbott government either.

Of course the serious issue of the increasing number of deaths in the construction industry is not something you will ever hear the Abbott government speak about. Last year there were 28 tragic deaths in the building industry. What did the Abbott government have to say about that? Not one word—there was not one single word from the Abbott government about those deaths. Shamefully, the number of deaths is up—11 more deaths than in the previous calendar year. In the previous calendar year there were 17; last year there were 28. Do we have legislation before us to urgently address those deaths in the construction industry? No, of course we don't—because it does not suit the government's political agenda. Their political agenda is about demonising unions, not protecting workers. If they were genuine about protecting workers, they would do something immediately about those 28 deaths in the construction industry. Indeed, in all industries the number of deaths is much higher than that. No Australian worker should lose their life earning their livelihood, and yet this issue goes completely unnoticed by the Abbott government.

When I asked the Department of Employment what they were doing about this increase in deaths in the workplace, they told me they were continuing to apply their 10-year plan. When I suggested to the department that because of this tragic and unnecessary increase in deaths perhaps their plan needed to be reviewed, they did not think that was the case. That was because the government is not leading on this issue; the government is not leading on workplace deaths. I cannot imagine the effect on families, on friends and on workplaces of a death that occurs in the workplace. We are better than this. Australian workplaces should be death free, but that is not the agenda of this Abbott government. There has been complete silence—not even condolences to those families or a plan saying, 'This is a national tragedy, and we are going to act on it.' No, the demonisation of the unions continues. The unions are trying to do something about deaths in the construction industry, and yet when they use their right of entry to investigate a health and safety matter the Abbott government accuses them of not pursuing health and safety. The record speaks for itself. You cannot have 28 deaths in an industry and suggest that that industry is a safe place to work. Clearly it is not. Union officials have a right to go in, but going in after a death is too late. We need to stop the deaths occurring right now. I want to see action from the Abbott government on that. I suspect there will continue to be silence.

The coercive powers have been used just four times. Of late, we have also seen workers in this country being ripped off, being underpaid and treated appallingly. The emphasis still remains on the construction industry, where we have seen less industrial action—proper legal industrial action as per Fair Work rights in relation to enterprise bargaining—and less lost time. That is not something you will hear about from the Abbott government. They will not admit that. It is time they started to admit that the construction industry in Australia is a dangerous place to work. We should be reviewing all our workplace health and safety and acting immediately to stop any more deaths in this industry. But, no, the demonisation will continue. I stand proudly, as many Labor senators do, in support of unions and workers. I want to see action on health and safety issues, and of course where allegations are made that individuals have broken the law then there are proper procedures in place to deal with that—but we not do not hear about that either from those opposite, because they would rather, under the guise of parliamentary privilege, continue telling untruths, exaggerations and hearsay. If they have evidence it is not appropriate to be raising it in this place and not raising it with the appropriate agencies that are there to deal with these issues. Their Tea Party ideology fools nobody anymore. If there is a state election coming up, you can bet your bottom dollar that unions will be demonised in this place. Their agenda is so transparent that they do not fool anyone with their right-wing Tea Party ideology of demonising unions. They do not fool workers and they do not fool the Australian voters.

The government should look at some of the programs the CFMEU has in place. FIFO suicides are a big problem in Western Australia, but they are not even regarded as deaths in the workplace. The CFMEU have done some fabulous work on putting mentors in place to ask their workmates if they are okay—good programs. They have good programs in place concerning domestic violence, but you will not hear about that from the Abbott government. They have good programs on health and safety, but the Abbott government would rather say they are abusing their powers when they enter the workplace to talk about health and safety. So let us hear about some of the good things that are going on. If the law is being broken, yes, let us pursue that, but let us stop demonising and pretending.