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Monday, 11 May 2015
Page: 2685

Senator MUIR (Victoria) (11:29): I rise to speak on the Construction Industry Amendment (Protecting Witnesses) Bill 2015. The Fair Work (Building Industry) Act 2012 was passed by the Labor Party when it was last in government. It contains coercive powers which make it a criminal offence not to cooperate and also provides for a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment if somebody is found guilty of failing to cooperate. These powers are subject to a sunset clause which takes effect on 31 May 2015.

The purpose of this bill is to extend that sunset clause for a further two years. This means that the Director of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate can apply to a nominated Administrative Appeals Tribunal presidential member for an examination notice until 1 June 2017.

The debate surrounding the coercive powers has a long and complicated history and it is not going to be resolved during the debate on this bill. In its submission to the Education and Employment Legislation Committee, the Combined Construction Unions said that they have:

… consistently opposed the introduction and use of these powers in industrial matters since their inception. The power, and the criminal sanction which attaches to it, are excessive, unnecessary and inconsistent with internationally recognised labour standards and the industrial norms of a modern democracy.

The Department of Employment, in its submission to the same committee, stated:

The ability to compel a person to provide information is vital to protecting workers and witnesses who stand up to unlawfulness and intimidation and assist the regulator in its investigations. The powers also ensure the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate is able to carry out its investigations effectively and break down the 'culture of silence' and retribution that exists in the industry.

I want to make it clear that, as a person with a strong working-class background, these powers do not sit comfortably with me; however, the debate over whether these powers should continue to exist is far from over.

I would also like to take this opportunity to raise some of the issues I have observed during the debate over whether the ABCC should be reinstated and replace the current body, Fair Work Building and Construction. In my opinion, the government have muddied the waters of this debate by throwing around allegations of corruption, bikie gangs and criminal behaviour within the construction industry in order to justify the return of the ABCC. There may be instances of corruption and bikie gangs in the construction industry—there are a lot of colourful characters, I am sure—but the ABCC is not the body that is responsible for investigating and prosecuting these types of offences.

I agree with Mr Dave Noonan, the National Secretary of the Construction General Division, when he said that CFMEU members work in an industry full of risk—both physical and financial—on a daily basis. It is the union that chases companies for lost wages and entitlements; it is the union which tries to instil safety measures and regulations on sites; and it is the union which has to deal with unscrupulous employers who take shortcuts to increase their bottom line.

My vote today does not represent supporting the government on changes to workplace relations laws; it represents the continuing support of a law introduced by the Labor Party in 2012. I call on the government to conduct an independent review into the continued use of these powers within the next 12 months. FWBC has rarely used its coercive powers; however, that is beginning to change. If the government and Mr Hadgkiss claim that these powers are necessary, then I look forward to seeing the evidence.

I want to finish by making it clear that my support for this bill does not mean that I will support the reintroduction of the ABCC, and I look forward to contributing to that debate.