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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1301

Senator MADIGAN (Victoria) (12:32): I rise today to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013. I will attempt in a short time to outline my thoughts and concerns on this bill. I oppose this bill today because I believe in equality before the law. I do not believe one industry should be singled out simply because of the actions of some of its members, nor do I believe that employer groups should be all put in one basket together. I believe the majority of unionists and employers in this country are reputable, that the reputable employers and reputable unionists should hold the disreputable ones to account.

Undoubtedly, there is corruption in the construction industry, as there is corruption in many other walks of life. There is corruption within the unions but not all of the unions. There is corruption in some employer bodies and businesses. We all too well know that there is corruption in government. What this bill does is single out one industry and say, 'We are going to target you.' I believe this approach is unjust and undemocratic.

But, let us be crystal clear, I am not blind to the problems in the building industry. I support measures which seek to deal with corruption wherever it may be. But I will not support any government when it takes such a biased and short-sighted approach. I refuse to target one group—in this case, unions—when others seem to escape this place's attention. For example, we have seen just how corrupt some politicians can be with the recent ICAC hearings, but we are not calling for a new watchdog for politicians. The form of ICAC, for me, raises many concerns. For instance, if any one of us here in the chamber today were to be called before ICAC and a member of the media is outside the court, immediately it is trial by innuendo. Because you have been called before ICAC, you are guilty until proven innocent. Yet there is no clarification of what happened in ICAC, what you were questioned about and what the outcome was. As we know, there are people on both sides of this chamber who have been subject to this, and in some cases, their political lives have been put into turmoil.

Another example of an area of industry that needs to be looked at is the financial planning industry, and we have had some look at that. There have been inquiries into it, and this has affected people—individuals and families—devastatingly with what has happened to their finances, and that, equally, is corruption and should be looked at seriously. In December last year in a speech to the National Press Club, ASIC Chairman Greg Medcraft said that he was absolutely appalled by the state of the financial planning industry in this country. He said:

… it's absolutely broken my heart to watch what I see financial advisers have done to people—and what they often continue to do to people.

But it is not the finance industry which the government is pursuing religiously, it is the building industry. I want a body which deals with corruption, but not one which discriminates and only targets workers in one industry. Singling out the construction industry in this case reeks of political opportunism and does not address the issues we are facing more broadly.

This bill would treat one group of workers and a union involved in the construction industry more harshly than their peers in other industries. This is an affront to the idea that all individuals should be treated equally before the law. It is absurd that two individuals should face different sanctions for committing the same infringement just because one works in the construction industry and one does not. But this is exactly what I believe will happen if the government gets its way. This is because there is a large difference between the fines outlined in clauses 49 and 81 of the bill and their equivalents in the Fair Work (Building Industry) Act 2012.

If the measures introduced in this bill are necessary then they should be introduced across the board. Not just unions, but all corporations, government bodies and individuals should face the same level of scrutiny as this bill would place on the construction industry. I would support that 100 per cent. The truth is that that will not happen because the government knows that the measures proposed in this bill are draconian and would not be accepted if applied universally. Taking away the right to silence, coercing testimony and reversing the burden of proof are all measures that have no place in a democratic society. I have confidence in the fair work act—mostly. Does it need some tweaking? I believe it does.

Whilst I am not blind to the problems which do exist in the building industry, I believe these reforms go too far and, some would say, tip the scales too much in favour of some employers. Even if I accepted the argument that this bill would improve productivity—which, by the way I do not think it would—I would still oppose the bill on this principle. There is a disturbing trend emerging from this government, where it seems they are prepared to prioritise doing what is 'productive' over what is in the best interests of the Australian people. I hate to tell the government, but the two are not always synonymous. I refuse to sacrifice the rights of one group of people over another. I ask the government, respectfully, to consider this: when you erode the rights of one you erode the rights of all. We need to think about what we are doing here, because the pendulum may swing such that it may come back and bite us.