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Thursday, 5 March 2015
Page: 1331

Building and Construction Industry


Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (14:37): My question is to the Minister for Employment, Senator Abetz. Will the minister inform the Senate whether compulsory powers that apply to the former Australian Building and Construction Commission, and which currently apply to Labor's own Fair Work Building and Construction commission, which will expire in two months, are necessary and unique.


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment) (14:38): I can inform Senator Ruston and the Senate that Medicare, Centrelink, welfare recipients, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission, bankers and company directors, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, all—

Senator Moore: I rise on a point of order. I am just checking whether this question and the answer is actually relevant to a bill that is currently on the Notice Paper.

The PRESIDENT: I was just conferring with the Clerk on exactly the same matter. It is on the Notice Paper. Thank you, Senator Moore, for raising that. It is important that we clarify these matters. The rule is that the minister can address that matter providing he does not anticipate debate in relation to the bill that is on the Notice Paper. I will be listening to the minister's answer. At this stage he has not gone long enough for me to make that determination.

Senator Moore: It terms of anticipating what could be in the debate, is it content or argument? I am not sure how that operates. You are saying that it cannot cover things that are part of the debate; I just want to see what can be discussed in this particular answer.

The PRESIDENT: I will seek some further advice from the Clerk in a moment but if 'anticipating debate' related to the general content there would be no discussion. I will just confer with the Clerk. Just one moment, Senator Moore.

'Anticipating the debate' is about all clauses of the bill, but the issues surrounding the bill can be discussed and canvassed—the actual issues of the clauses. I will be listening. I think the minister has enough experience to be able to weave his way through this.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you for your vote of confidence, Mr President. I was going through the examples. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission also have those compulsory powers. And their powers include less protection for witnesses than is proposed by the coalition for a re-established ABCC. Any assertion that is made that only—

Senator Wong: I rise on a point of order with respect to anticipating debate. That is a direct reference to a clause in the bill. Exactly what he is referring to is a clause in the bill.

The PRESIDENT: That is a direct reference to a clause in the bill. I invite the minister to continue his remarks, and be cautious of the provisions of the standing orders.

Senator ABETZ: There has been general, broad community debate about these matters, and the assertion that only construction workers are subject to these powers in relation to the former commission and the existing Fair Work Building and Construction is false, because they apply to all managers, contractors and workers alike. The ACCC chair has said that it was only by using compulsory powers that it was able to continue its case against the CFMEU, and that was in enforcing consumer and competition laws.

Even Labor's own review of the previous ABCC concluded that it would 'not be a responsible course to recommend removing compulsory powers'. In short, these powers are essential to confronting the blatant contempt for the rule of law displayed on construction sites. It is interesting to observe that the Labor Party believes that there should be harsher investigative powers for a potential welfare cheat under Centrelink legislation than those that would engage in corruption on construction sites.










Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (14:43): I have a supplementary question. Will the minister explain to the Senate the need for compulsory powers to obtain evidence and information in a construction industry infected by a culture of fear and silence?

Senator Moore: I rise on a point of order.

The PRESIDENT: I probably do not need a point of order on this, Senator Moore. The question is now referring to provisions of the bill.

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! We are in very difficult territory, because the standing orders do provide that debate cannot be anticipated. I interpreted from the question that that would infringe the standing orders. I invite the questioner, Senator Ruston, to ask the question again—probably in broader terms.





Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (14:43): Could the minister please advise the Senate of any evidence that building and construction unions are failing to respect the rule of law on work sites.


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment) (14:43): I thank Senator Ruston for the question. There is overwhelming evidence that the CFMEU does not respect the rule of law. The CFMEU's Shaun Riordan has been seen filming workers who chose to return to work during a union strike—the same man who allegedly threatened to stab a security guard in the neck during an industrial dispute. Why are these threats and records necessary—to enhance work place safety or to intimidate those who might speak out against their thuggish agenda?

Fair Work Building and Construction Director Nigel Hadgkiss told the Senate estimates just last week that the only way his organisation can get intimidated victims of unlawful conduct to tell their story is through the use of compulsory powers. Australia has a choice as to whether or not it seeks to condone this sort of behaviour or to stand against it. (Time expired)


Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (14:44): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Will the minister advise the Senate how hard it is to obtain evidence and information in the construction industry affected by a culture of fear and silence?


Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Government in the Senate, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service and Minister for Employment) (14:45): I can inform the Senate that, as we speak, no fewer than 72—that is six dozen—CFMEU officials are currently before the courts, including the national secretary, the Victorian secretary, the Victorian president and the Victorian vice president. I simply pose this question: what would Labor and the Australian Greens say if there were 72 company directors or 72 bankers currently before the law for breach of their statutory duties and requirements? What would Labor say? They would say there is a crisis. They would say that this behaviour is endemic. They would say special laws were needed. And I would agree with them. That is why I invite them to seriously consider the matters that are, in fact, before the Senate. (Time expired)