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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 65

Senator MURRAY (1:29 PM) —The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (OHS) Bill 2007 is to amend the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005. It will change the process of appointing federal safety officers. It will extend the application of the Australian Government Building and Construction Occupational Health and Safety Accreditation Scheme to cover situations where building work is funded by the Commonwealth or a Commonwealth authority. It will ensure that persons are accredited under the scheme at the time of entering into a contract for building work and also take the necessary steps to see that such persons are accredited while the work is being carried out. It will extend the accreditation requirement to funding arrangements beyond those currently contemplated by the legislation. It will clarify that section 35(4) of the act only overrides Commonwealth provisions to the extent of any inconsistency and it allows the federal safety commissioner and persons working in that office to disclose protected information on the scheme to the minister.

Considering these provisions focus on improving occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry, the Democrats will be supporting the bill. Few would deny worrying safety problems in this industry. Overall, though, we must keep in mind that the unions mostly address workplace health and safety measures on a practical and necessary basis. We must also remember that problems in building and other industries are best addressed by the enforcement of existing law through a well-resourced and independent regulator.

On this point, I would like to take this opportunity to again emphasise that the Democrats’ industrial relations platform supports a single, national, strong independent regulator, which we do not have. We have a multiplicity of regulators in this country, and that is not to the advantage of the efficient, effective and safe operation of workplace law. The Democrats do not support industry specific regulators such as the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The single, national regulator the Democrats envisage is one that would absorb the regulatory functions of the state departmental inspectorates as well as the regulatory functions of the new Workplace Authority and the Building and Construction Commission. Importantly, the creation of a well-resourced, independent, single national workplace relations regulator would put an end to a federal minister’s discretion and interventionism.

Australia also needs a well-resourced, national, independent workplace relations regulator to properly regulate and oversee a single, national unitary system. Other sectors of the economy have regulators—like ASIC, APRA and the ACCC—and so should work arrangements. The existing regulators include federal and state departmental inspectorates and task forces. These diverse regulators are diffused, dispersed, underresourced and, importantly, insufficiently independent. One properly resourced national regulator to enforce national workplace law would be a significant improvement on the existing situation and a significant advance for the Australian economy and society.

I want to take the opportunity in debating this bill, which covers workplace law, to comment briefly on the coalition’s current and constant attack on the union dominance of the Labor Party and specifically of CFMEU influence on Labor. All that the coalition attack has shown is the cowardice, opportunism and lack of principle of the Liberal Party. Why do I say that? I say it because the Liberals tomorrow could introduce a one vote, one value requirement to electoral law. At a stroke, that would give power in the Labor Party back to their financial members and end it for union members who are not party members. The ALP has internal voting systems that result in exaggerated factional voting and the block power of union officials, who are allowed to use the large numbers of union members—the great majority of whom are not party members—to achieve and exercise power within the political party.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters took the first step with its recommendation to introduce one vote, one value in political parties in its report on the integrity of the roll. Some ALP reformers aim to make the process of trade union affiliation to political parties more transparent and democratic, so it does have support within the movement as a whole. Unions affiliate on the basis of how many of their union members, the great majority of whom are not party members, their committee of management chooses to affiliate for. The more members a union affiliates for, the greater the number of delegates that union is entitled to send to an ALP state conference. Individual members of that union have no say as to whether they wish to be included in their union’s affiliation numbers or not. Affiliation fees paid to the ALP by the union are derived from the union’s consolidated revenue.

I have outlined detailed amendments to address these issues in my Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters 2004 election minority report, which repeats remarks I have made over the last decade. But, as I say, because the coalition think union influence in Labor is good for the Liberals politically, they continue to attack a situation that is in their power to correct. The Liberals are unwilling to change electoral law and take Labor on, the journalists are unwilling to ask the hard questions of the Liberals as to why they will not do so and, in my view, the Liberals lack the ethics, integrity and principle required to introduce good political governance into the party system. I am of the belief that outsiders should not have the ability to influence political parties and the way in which they operate, and that is why I oppose the way in which the unions are able to exercise undue influence, over and above that of financial members of the Labor Party.

This is not news for anyone who has followed what I have said in this chamber over the last decade, and people know my advocacy in it, but I am extremely irritated by the constant reiteration by the Liberals of their views about union bosses when in fact it is their very own policy which allows the situation to continue. I think that is contrary to good policy and I wish they would stop it. Until they decide to change it and until the Labor Party decides to face up to that issue, the influence of unions will continue in the Labor Party in its current construction. One vote, one value, which gives power back to financial members of a political party—any political party—would end this.

The other reason I want to remark on this bill is with respect to Work Choices. This chamber knows that I and my party are opposed to the Work Choices legislation. We wish it had not passed and we wish to get rid of it. Because we have that view, I have been paying great attention to the various policies that have been put out with respect to the federal election that is forthcoming. I have had a look at the policies of the coalition, Labor, Democrats, Greens and so on across a range of issues, and a very interesting thing emerges, in my view. What emerges is that the result of Labor’s movement across to the centre in industrial relations matters is that they, the coalition and the Democrats all are pretty well talking on the same page.

That may seem surprising to those who have seen the ACCI’s remark that there are 30 major differences between the coalition and Labor. So what do I mean? I mean that, broadly speaking, in the areas of safety nets, awards, agreement-making, industrial relations machinery and so on, the parties have similar concepts and language but differ in application and proposal. I will not minimise the effects of that, because the effects are significant, but we are, broadly speaking, on the same page.

That leads to an ability to compromise and negotiate. For instance, the Labor Party had never signed up to a unitary system but now do, as have the Democrats. We have long promoted this. In fact, we promoted it ahead of the coalition. The coalition is obviously on that page.

With respect to the right to strike, the coalition, the Democrats and Labor are on the same page, in that it should be restricted to protected action. With respect to union rights of entry, we are all on the same page in terms of restrictions to the time and place, and on issues such as notice periods. For instance, the Labor Party’s policy with respect to right of entry refers to 24 hours notice, the place of meeting determined by the employer, the retention of the fit and proper test, and so on. With respect to secondary boycott laws, the parties—the coalition, Labor and the Democrats—want to retain them.

Why do I draw attention to this? I draw attention to this because of an irony that has emerged. I am very glad that Senator Siewert is here to respond to my remarks because she may be able to spell it out a little more clearly. There is one party that is not on the same page—the Greens. The Greens oppose Work Choices. They support a state system, not a unitary system. They support an open-ended right to strike; we, Labor and the Liberals do not. The Greens support free right of entry and open-ended awards. I am content, as always, for them to have their own point of view, because that contributes very well to the debate, but the point that I am making is that a vote for the Greens is a vote to keep Work Choices.

If you hold a position which is so far distant from Labor’s, and you also have a history of not negotiating or compromising in this place, how on earth are you ever going to come together in the Senate to agree on a package which will pass? If that is so, Work Choices will stay. The Greens cannot negotiate or compromise because they are not on the same page as the rest of us. It amuses me vastly, and I think it is a great irony, that the left-wing unions have arrived at a position to support a party—because that party strongly opposes Work Choices and a return to an old federal system, an open-ended right to strike and an open-ended right of entry—which will not be able to agree with Labor’s new position, and therefore Work Choices will stay. That is why we have the odd circumstance where a vote for the Greens will end up keeping Work Choices. You can correct me if you like, but I cannot see the Greens and Labor coming together, given how far apart their policies are.

Senator Mason —It is very cunning.

Senator MURRAY —It is amazing, and it is an irony. I thought I would take a non-controversial moment in our legislative program to put what I would suggest is quite a controversial situation. By the way, I have mentioned this to others and people seem remarkably unwilling to come close to this extraordinary conundrum. How can the Greens and Labor ever get together in the Senate after 1 July 2008 to get rid of Work Choices when they are so far apart and when they are not on the same page?

I ask the question of you, Senator Siewert. I hope that you can indicate that you are able to move toward a unitary system, that you will restrict the right to strike and that you will restrict the right of entry. I hope that you will address these issues which make the Greens so far apart from Labor that we will not be able to get rid of Work Choices. I say that as a person who has advocated very strongly and very vigorously for Work Choices to go.