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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20435

Dr EMERSON (9:18 AM) —The political enemies of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations within the government have done him over on his big day out: they have leaked details of the sealed volume of the Cole royal commission—information that he had at his disposal but chose not to share with the Australian public. Commissioner Cole says in the sealed volume that the way the government set up the inquiry required him to make findings about conduct or practices that `might' have broken the law—those were his words. He says:

Most of the matters investigated by the commission `might' have constituted a breach of civil or criminal law. If I did not make any findings in relation to such matters, then the number of findings that would have been open to the commission would have been very small. That would not have been satisfactory, because it would have unduly limited the evidential material to which I could make references in explaining the need for reforms that I have recommended.

In other words, the commissioner is saying—if these reports are correct—that, in order to make recommendations that were consistent with preconceived conclusions from the minister and from the government, he had to follow a particular course of action. The minister did not want that particular volume and those paragraphs to see the light of day. He knew what was in them, just as—relevantly—his colleagues in the cabinet knew what was in them. Certainly, the unions did not know what was in the sealed volume and the opposition did not know what was in the sealed volume. So it is clear that the minister's enemies, on his big day out, have leaked these damning conclusions of the Cole royal commission in the sealed volume.

It is in these damning words that Commissioner Cole has formally let the cat out of the bag—and what an expensive animal it is: $60 million for a political stunt. If the government had a spare $60 million, it could have used that money to help this industry. As a political stunt designed purely to stitch up the building unions, it is a lost opportunity for this industry and for the three-quarters of a million Australians who work in it. The draft legislation is disappointing but unsurprising. It is unsurprising because it comes from this particular minister. Its origins lie in the standard operating procedure of the Howard government—that is, when it is in deep political strife, it creates a diversion. Just ask the asylum seekers whom the government falsely and maliciously claimed had thrown their children overboard.

If we wind the clock back to early 2001, petrol prices had gone through the roof, the Treasurer's `streamlined new tax system for a new century' was proving to be anything but streamlined, Liberal Party President Shane Stone had described the government as `mean and tricky' and `out of touch', Peter Reith was going down the gurgler because of his uniquely Liberal approach to the use of telecards, Labor had won the Western Australian and Queensland elections, and Labor's Leonie Short had captured the Liberal jewel in the Queensland crown—the blue-ribbon seat of Ryan. Already, the minister had been frothing at the mouth in the parliament, spraying Labor MPs with vitriol about our links with the trade union movement.

And so he returned to the old conservative formula of union bashing as the government's desperately needed diversion. He established a royal commission into the construction unions, disguised as a royal commission into the construction industry. It was a royal commission that had skewed terms of reference and skewed inquiry processes. But I recall the last time a federal Tory government tried to smear the labour movement through a royal commission—it was through the Costigan royal commission into the painters and dockers union. That royal commission blew up in the then government's face, exposing rampant tax evasion through the notorious bottom-of-the-harbour schemes—schemes in which prominent Liberals were involved up to their snorkels.

Now, as Prime Minister, John Howard has learned from the royal commission that blew up in the government's face 25 years ago when Treasury was producing telephone books of advice trying to close down these bottom-of-the-harbour schemes. He did not want a royal commission delving into tax scams in the building industry. Who knows which donors to the Liberal Party might get implicated in that process? This royal commission needed to focus squarely on the activities of building unions, brushing lightly over tax evasion and the avoidance of employee obligations through phoenix companies. The government did not want to alarm employers, so the minister wrote a letter of comfort to them, providing an assurance that the commission was `not inquiring into any particular company' and that the focus of the inquiry would be on the unions. This same minister authorised a payment to the Office of the Employment Advocate on behalf of two people who gave evidence against the CFMEU in Federal Court proceedings and whose conduct the court described as reprehensible and deceitful.

Is it any wonder that the commission did not find one instance of tax evasion in this industry? Is it any wonder that, in an industry that averages one workplace fatality a week, the Cole royal commission found only two breaches of occupational health and safety by employers Australia wide? In its warm embrace of crony capitalism, the Howard government does not want to shine a light on the tax evasion and shonky practices of phoenix companies—and this is despite having spent $60 million of taxpayers' money on a politically motivated royal commission, which, I point out, is three times the amount the government spent on the collapse of insurance giant HIH.

Minister, a cooperative reform package would have a much greater chance of success than your conflict-ridden approach. But this minister does not want a successful outcome for the industry. To prove himself to his boss as a right-wing ideologue and a viable candidate for the Liberal leadership from Sydney, the minister's political aspirations are best served by a waterfront style dispute with the building unions. He is trying to emulate the efforts of his predecessor, Peter Reith. But never mind the cost to the construction industry.

Why spend $60 million targeting this industry? Is this an industry which is struggling, faltering economically or not performing compared with other industries? No, it is not. On a range of economic indicators, this industry is doing well. The minister cites Econtech and the observation that it costs more to put a wall of plaster in a high-rise building than it does in a house. So it should; high-rise buildings are dangerous. You need to have some recognition of the danger of falling off these buildings. You do need to recognise that occupational health and safety is very important in this industry. We do need to minimise fatalities in this industry instead of saying, `We really need to equalise the cost of putting up plasterboard in a house compared with that in a high-rise building.' That just underlines the approach of this minister.

But I go back to this industry. Is it failing? No, it is not. In May 1997, there were 575,000 people working in the building industry; in May 2003, there were 737,000. That is an extra 160,000 jobs in this industry. What about labour productivity, to which the minister refers? Of the 12 industry groupings for which the Productivity Commission provides productivity estimates, where is the construction industry on this list? If you believed the minister, you would think it was last. It is not last; it is not even in the bottom half. It is the fourth most labour efficient industry in Australia, according to the Productivity Commission. These figures do not justify the minister's response in setting up this royal commission or the exposure draft he is tabling today. This economic performance is not just a result of what the Treasury this week called the housing `bubble'. Statistics specific to non-residential building are also very healthy. For example, the value of non-residential building approvals has been trending upwards, with a further 2.3 per cent rise in July 2003.

These statistics are also backed up by the fantastic success of the construction of the Sydney Olympics facilities—a project of huge expense and complexity, which was constructed on time and within budget. There was one fatality, although that is one too many. The minister would have to be the only person in Australia who is disappointed with the effort of the construction unions and the New South Wales government in producing these magnificent facilities on time and within budget and with fatalities having been limited to one, but that is still one too many. I now draw the attention of the minister to what is going on in Athens. The Olympic facilities in Athens are being built with non-union labour—that is the minister's dream come true. They are behind time, over budget and have suffered 20 fatalities already, compared with the one fatality in Sydney. That is the minister's model: non-union labour. Twenty fatalities are completely unacceptable. It is behind time and over budget. Is that the model that you want for the Australian construction industry?

The minister's motivation is very simple. The unions in the construction industry are strong, and the idea of strong unions is complete anathema to this government. It cannot stand the idea of strong unions; if it sees a strong union, it wants to bust it. But having strong unions does not mean that anything goes. Like unions, Labor will not tolerate corruption, extortion or criminal behaviour in the building industry; but neither will we allow Tony Abbott to assault the legitimate rights of building unions to protect and advance the wages, conditions and safety of their members.

There are areas of legitimate concern in this industry, most of which—sadly but predictably—were glossed over or ignored completely by the Cole royal commission. Not surprisingly, yet again it appears that the minister will not tackle some of the most serious issues in this industry: non-payment of workers compensation premiums; non-payment of superannuation; non-payment of employee entitlements; the use of phoenix companies to avoid these obligations; the use of phoenix companies to avoid or evade obligations to pay tax; and occupational health and safety in this industry where, on average, one fatality occurs per week. In Chatswood, near the minister's own electorate, a construction project is under way. Subcontractors are being done out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the minister were fair dinkum, he would get involved in that and find out what is going wrong and why subcontractors are being denied their legitimate entitlements. I urge him to have a look at that particular example.

The minister said in his statement just a while ago that he will do these things later. But we know that that is not going to happen. The minister's philosophy is: why put off till tomorrow what you can put off forever. That is what he has done. For example, two years ago the government said it would change the order of priority of creditors; it would put employees ahead of secured creditors to improve the prospects of employees getting their due entitlements. That commitment was given two years ago—but no, nothing has happened.

The minister claims he needs IR reforms in a hurry because there is no mechanism to enforce the Workplace Relations Act. That is not true. There are people specifically appointed to enforce the act—they are called `inspectors' under part 5 of the act—and they are employed by the minister's own department. Instead, this draft bill repeats much of what the government has put forward before in Peter Reith's second wave bill in 1999. Compulsory secret ballot provisions have already been rejected by the Senate. Confining such amendments to one industry does not change the fact that they are unacceptable. Secret ballots can already be ordered by the Industrial Relations Commission when and where they are appropriate or necessary. But making them compulsory every time is both unwieldy and unreasonable. And what if a union wants to end a strike earlier than was originally planned? Its members would have to get back together and have another secret ballot. All that can do is prolong disputes rather than reduce their duration. Is that what the minister really wants?

The draft bill would impose a maximum of two weeks on any strikes. But building industry disputes and stoppages tend to go for a day or two and not two weeks, so that is just a bit of propaganda. It is the three-, four- and five-month lockouts by employers in other industries that need a time limit, but the minister is not lifting a finger on the lockouts that are going on in Australia. Instead of giving the Industrial Relations Commission the power to resolve these long and difficult disputes, this legislation suggests that what workplaces need is more involvement by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Australia has a unique custom-built institution designed specifically to deal with industrial relations issues—that is, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of this tribunal, it is sad but predictable that the Howard government has come up with yet another way of undermining it—by proposing that the ACCC, instead of the AIRC, should deal with difficult industrial relations issues in the building industry. Labor are not just concerned about the impact of this legislation on the building industry; we know that it is a stalking horse and just the start of yet another attack on the rights of working Australians to bargain collectively.

We know the Howard government would love to see this legislation apply across the board to all workplaces; we know it because they have already tried to do it through the Senate. Australians have every reason to fear that the Howard government has in mind not a watchdog but an attack dog—a coercive scheme of regulations and regulators, programmed with the government's ideological values, intruding to inflame disputes. Australians want the government to provide the means to settle industrial disputes, not to inflame them, so that work can continue.

The minister talks about consultation. He says this is not antiunion legislation, but he has not said that he will consult with the unions—with workers but not with the unions. Labor will not allow the minister and the Prime Minister to use this construction industry legislation as a stalking horse to strip away the remaining protections for working Australians and their rights to bargain collectively.

Debate (on motion by Mr Abbott) adjourned.