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Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Page: 913


Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (09:34): I rise on behalf of Labor to oppose the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Amendment Bill 2017. This bill is a blatant attack on workers and unions in the building and construction industry, and, as we have seen, it is about trying to push this attack wider than the building and construction industry. It is using the most incompetent public servant that I have ever come across, Mr Nigel Hadgkiss, as the hatchet man for the coalition government to attack working people, attack their wages and attack their conditions.

There has been a whole army of coalition members getting up and attacking the CFMEU—attacking union officials doing their job. The overwhelming majority of workers in the building and construction industry would not recognise their industry as the industry that is purported to be the problem industry that comes out of the mouths of coalition MPs day in and day out. The overwhelming majority of building and construction workers go to work knowing that they have respect because they have a strong union. They go to work understanding that their boss cannot simply dismiss them as many white-collar middle management workers are dismissed and treated badly around the country. That cannot happen to building and construction workers because they have an effective union out there working day in, day out for them.

This building code is designed to restrict effective bargaining in the industry. It is designed to destroy effective trade unionism. It is targeted against the CFMEU in particular. Let me tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, when this happens building workers' wages and conditions will fall. The standard of living of building workers will fall. It has huge implications for building—

Senator Ian Macdonald: A complete lie!

Senator CAMERON: Senator Macdonald, you can call me a liar all you like, but what I am prepared to do is stand up for building workers, stand up for effective trade unionism and stand up—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Macdonald, a point of order?

Senator Ian Macdonald: Madam Deputy President, is it within standing orders for a senator making a speech to deliberately misrepresent something someone else might have said or otherwise?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I think we are getting into debating territory, Senator Macdonald.

Senator CAMERON: On the point of order, this disgraceful excuse for a senator has been interjecting on every point I have made.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, that is also a debating point.

Senator CAMERON: I withdraw.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you.

Senator CAMERON: Everyone knows what Senator Macdonald is about.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Cameron, resume your seat, please. Senator Macdonald?

Senator Ian Macdonald: A point of order, Madam Deputy President. If I said Senator Cameron was a liar, I withdraw that. But can I say that I did not. I said that what he was saying was a complete and abject lie and I stand by that.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Macdonald. You are either withdrawing something or you are not. Please continue, Senator Cameron.

Senator CAMERON: Thankfully there may be some decency somewhere in the body over there, but I am not sure it comes out too often.

This is about reducing the wages and conditions of building and construction workers around the country. We do not support illegal behaviour. We do not support bullying and intimidation. We do not support criminality. If there is any of that going on then it should be dealt with by the appropriate authorities; not by some incompetent public servant earning hundreds of thousands of dollars whose sole job is to diminish effective trade unionism in the building and construction industry.

The rhetoric we hear from the opposition is overstated, it is McCarthyism and it is demonisation. That is what they are all about. They have been doing this day in and day out. Living standards will be crushed if this bill is implemented. The Law Council, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights have all pointed to the diminution of working people's rights as a result of this bill. The Law Council has said that it will negatively impact numerous rights currently guaranteed by Australian law. We hear lots of talk about Australian law and no other law applying, but if you are in the building industry you do not even get access to Australian law. That is the bottom line here. Australian law is being diminished for workers because they work in a certain industry and, for some of them, because they belong to a certain union. This is what is happening. The Scrutiny of Bills Committee looked at this and identified a range of human rights and legal obligations that we have as a country that are being diminished.

This is an important issue. I have to say to you that this must be a new record for a bill in this place. The original bill was passed on 1 December 2016. We have had four sitting days since then and there was one sitting day before Senator Hinch's dirty deal with the government was announced in the press on 8 February. The bill effectively lasted one day. It is no wonder that people have got real problems with politicians. Senator Cash, the Minister for Employment, came out on 2 December, the day after the bill was passed—the bad bill that we do not support—and said:

A new era for Australia’s building and construction industry has started from today. An era in which law and order is restored and respected.

Thanks to this Government, we now have a genuine watchdog … to enforce tougher laws and a stronger Building Code.

She said:

New enterprise agreements made from today must comply with the new Code in order to be eligible to be awarded Commonwealth-funded work.

Building contractors covered by enterprise agreements made before today now have until 29 November 2018 to ensure their agreements are Code compliant. Enterprise agreements are made at the time that employees vote to approve the agreement.

I will repeat that: they have until 29 November 2018 to ensure that their agreements are code compliant. She said:

Enterprise agreements are made at the time that employees vote to approve the agreement.

The obligations in the former Building Code 2013 will continue to apply to Commonwealth-funded building work for which expressions of interest or tenders were issued prior to the commencement of the new code.

So here we have the minister saying what a great victory it was for the government and what a fantastic thing this bill was and yet the bill lasted one day. I bet that is a record.

I hope Senator Hinch does not do anything controversial in the next four years, because I tell you that if he does he is really going to be a worried man. Somebody came up to him in a post office and said: 'This is no good. We don't like what you have done,' and Senator Hinch, after criticising all of the other crossbenchers, decided he would change his mind and go to the Prime Minister and offer himself up to bring this bill back. What credibility is left for Senator Hinch? This is a guy who basically engineered his chief of staff to leave because he did not have the experience and did not have the courage to stand up in this place for some decency for workers. So, because of the controversy that surrounded this decision, his chief of staff ended up having to leave. He was a well-respected chief of staff, an experienced chief of staff, and Senator Hinch got rid of him. So if Senator Hinch has no credibility with his own staff, if he cannot treat his own staff properly, how can we expect Senator Hinch to treat workers in the building and construction industry properly. Senator Hinch will wear this for all of his time in the Senate. What he has done is create chaos in the industry, because he just does not understand how the industry works.

Then, on 30 November, we heard the Prime Minister praising the crossbench for backing the legislation—this is the legislation we are getting rid of now in order to change it—and said the government had 'delivered on an economy-boosting election commitment'. He said, 'We feel pretty good about it, I have to tell you. It has been a slog.' So everything was okay after the bill was passed: it was all hunky-dory; there were no problems. The Prime Minister said it was okay. Senator Hinch in the Sydney Morning Herald article said that he had been thrust into the spotlight over the negotiations. Well, he was a reluctant little cookie in the spotlight, wasn't he? He actually tried to gazump every other crossbencher in to grab the limelight. What is it he used to say on his program? Shame! Shame! Shame! Let us apply that to Senator Hinch. Senator Hinch: Shame! Shame! Shame! Because what you have demonstrated is that you are not prepared to stand up for working people in this country. You have absolutely no idea of the implications this has for stability in the industry. You have no idea about what it means for ordinary working people. The Housing Industry Association were at the hearing of the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee on Monday, telling us on the inquiry that there will not be a problem, that this will be fixed, because there are mechanisms in the act to make sure this can be done smoothly. Do you know what that mechanism is? It is that the employers can make an application to the industrial commission and can get the workers' wages reduced to the award wage to force them to accept the changes that the bosses will need in order to comply with this new act, if it is passed today.

So it is about coercion from the employers, not the union movement. It is about forcing workers onto the award wage, about building and construction workers all over the country having massive cuts to their take-home pay. Don't this mob here understand, don't the Housing Industry Association understand, don't the Master Builders Association understand? I hope maybe One Nation might understand that if workers have their wages cut in half then they are in real trouble. We heard Senator Hume talking about how difficult it was as a single mother to bring up her kids on a $200,000 basic wage. Go and try and bring your kids up on the wage of a building worker if it is cut in half. This is absolutely ridiculous. There are 3,300 agreements that have to be renegotiated because of this bill's going through. They are 3,300 agreements that were legal. We had the Department of Employment, with its lame excuses, at the Senate inquiry on Monday saying that it had from 2014 to deal with this. But since 2014 the bill had been rejected twice. But what the department now seems to think and what this government seems to think is that they can make a pronouncement about what might happen in the law and then try to enforce that on unions, on workers in the building and construction industry and on employers in the industry. It was rejected twice by the Parliament of Australia. It was rejected twice, but the department—in the worst submission I have ever seen from the department—comes and tries to justify that. The department had better understand that under a Labor government the laws will apply and the processes of parliament will apply and they will not be making submissions like that ever again. They cannot force employers and unions to bargain on the whim of a minister, and that is what has happened here. They cannot do that. It is unacceptable. It is not democracy, nor is it how it should work in this country.

We need to talk about the implications of this. The implications are that we have a code determined by a conservative minister that is imposed upon the bargaining processes between employers and unions in the building and construction industry and wider. I do not have time to go through every aspect of the code, but I was a union official for 27 years and I negotiated with employers year after year after year—probably more negotiations than anyone in the Senate.

What we are not allowed to do in the building and construction industry is to specify the number of apprentices that may be employed or engaged on a particular building site. We have done that for years. If it were not for the trade union movement negotiating with companies all over the country there would not have been a supply of skilled tradespeople around the country. They were in agreements everywhere—ratios of apprentices to tradespeople—to help young kids get a job. Yet One Nation are going to stop that happening. One Nation are going to stop the capacity for unions to negotiate with the employers on that.

We have always been able to ensure that workers on a building site are lawfully entitled to work in Australia and to negotiate that and put a clause in. That is not allowed. So all the rhetoric about Australian jobs from One Nation means absolutely nothing because what they are going to do today if they support this bill is stop workers in the building and construction industry ensuring that workers who come here are legally in the industry.

The other thing is if workers are made redundant—if there are redundancies in the building and construction industry—they are going to stop Australian workers keeping their job in a redundancy process, because what this allows is the employer to keep 457 foreign workers on the job in preference to Australian workers. One Nation is going to stop that. One Nation has to explain to Australian workers why, after all their rhetoric about Australian jobs, they are going to stop negotiations in an enterprise agreement that made Australian jobs for Australian workers. It is absolute hypocrisy from One Nation if they accept this. They will have an opportunity to deal with this during the course of this debate, but they will never be able to stand up with any credibility to talk about protecting Australian workers if they support this bill. Neither will Senator Hinch or Senator Xenophon. None of them will be able to stand up with any credibility.

Workers cannot negotiate about the footwear or safety wear to get Australian-made safety equipment, which creates jobs in Australia. One Nation will be stopping Australian workers getting Australian-made safety equipment and footwear if they support this bill. I just do not think they understand it.

They will be stopping workers being able to negotiate with their employer about getting training on asbestos awareness—a killer disease. These are the types of things that are in the code. They do not apply anywhere else in Australia, and they do not apply anywhere else in the world. As I understand it, there is nowhere in the world, where there is organised labour in first world countries, where workers are faced with bargaining restrictions like this.

The other issue is that this code would mean that building work on electricity and natural gas, water, waste water or telecommunications—essential services—will be affected by this code. South Australian unions, which have not had a dispute for 10 years, are having their agreement ripped up because of this. They will have to renegotiate their agreement. There could be, for the first time in 10 years, industrial disputation over this. There are 3,300 agreements to be renegotiated. There will be chaos in the industry. There is incompetence from the minister and from the department. There is an ideologically-driven ABCC. That is what we are faced with here. It is an absolute disgrace. (Time expired)