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Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Page: 2230

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (11:49): I am delighted to contribute, as a former union official, to the debate on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2012. Fairness in industrial relations is a matter close to my heart—and 'fairness' is a word Senator Abetz failed to mention during his speech on the bill. That is where the Labor Party and those opposite are divided. The Australian Labor Party believes in fairness and in ensuring everyone has the same rights and opportunities no matter their background. We believe that workers deserve to be treated with respect, have access to their entitlements and have access to fair representation in their work place. This bill will ensure that these principles are returned to the construction industry

This bill seeks to abolish the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, which was established under the Howard government following Work Choices. Through this legislation, the government will replace the ABCC with a new body to provide a balanced framework for cooperative and productive workplace relations in the building and construction industry. We believe the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate would be a more appropriate regulatory body as it would be part of the Fair Work system. It will provide information, advice and assistance to all building industry participants regarding their rights and obligations under the law, as well as seek to improve the standard of occupational health and safety in the building and construction industry.

The ABCC has met with criticism from the community, especially with respect to its powers to interrogate people. Section 2.49 of the report of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee states:

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005 (BCII Act) provides the ABC Commissioner with the power to compel a person to provide information or produce documents if the ABC Commissioner believes on reasonable grounds that the person has information or documents relevant to an investigation and is capable of giving evidence.

On 3 February 2012, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union Construction and General Division National Secretary Dave Noonan told the committee that coerced interrogation was unfair. He stated:

I would just say at this point that a person accused of murder under the criminal law of this country has a right to silence. A person accused of a serious violent crime such as assault in this country has a right to silence under the law. A person accused of theft, corruption or a range of criminal offences has a right to silence under this law. Those who do not have a right to silence under this law are construction workers, who can be interrogated about their workplace and union activities.

Nicola McGarrity and Professor George Williams from the Gilbert+Tobin Centre of Public Law stated in their submission:

The breadth of these requirements means that any person, including a child or a mere bystander, may be required to give information (including personal information, such as their political views) if it is relevant to an investigation of minor breaches of industrial law and industrial instruments.

The government will not be removing the coercive interrogation powers under this bill; however, instead, we will be introducing safeguards to allow proper representation and monitoring of interviews. These safeguards are reported in the committee report as follows:

Each use of the powers is dependent upon a presidential member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) being satisfied a case has been made for their use;

The person being examined will be entitled to be represented at the examination by a lawyer of the person's choice and their rights to refuse to disclose information on the grounds of legal professional privilege and public interest immunity will be recognised;

People required to attend an interview will be reimbursed for their reasonable expenses such as travel and accommodation as well as legal expenses;

All examinations will be videotaped and undertaken by the director or an officer from the senior executive service;

The Commonwealth Ombudsman will monitor and review all examinations and provide reports to the Parliament on the exercise of this power; and

The powers are subject to a three year sunset clause and it is intended that before the end of that period, the government would undertake a review to determine whether these powers continue to be required.

This will be reviewed in three years time. The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2012 will also remove higher existing penalties for building industry participants for breaches of industrial law. At the moment the maximum penalty for unions is $110,000. This will be lowered to $33,000. The penalty for individuals will be reduced from $22,000 to $6,000.

The news of the abolition of the ABCC has been met with praise from the building industry, including the Builders Labourers Federation Queensland. In a recent message to members, secretary David Hanna said:

The ABCC days are numbered! The bill to rid them from our industry goes before Federal Parliament in February and it’s a long time over due. We’ve been working under these draconian laws for 6 years - 2 of those under Howard Gillard has made some changes to the Code that allowed us to have stronger union EBAs.We are working hard to secure more changes to the Code and are very confident that we will succeed.

He further said:

Once again the union lives on while the dogs come and go. It is going to take time to repair the damage that they leave behind. The upside is many workers no longer take for granted what the union has delivered over the years and the members know that they are worth fighting for.

CFMEU's Dave Noonan has also welcomed the abolition of the ABCC. He said:

The ABCC was set up by the Howard Government as part of an ideological attack on unions. It has been a $135 million waste of money, serving only to try and intimidate union members who stand up for decent wages and safety.

The amendment also provides a provision to establish an independent assessor. The committee report states, 'The independent assessor would be appointed by the Governor-General, provided the minister is satisfied the person has suitable qualifications and is of good character.'

The government have consulted widely with the industry on this piece of legislation and the report Transition to Fair Work Australia for the Building and Construction Industry by the Hon. Murray Wilcox QC covered extensive consultation with stakeholders. The coalition have tried to claim that the abolition of the ABCC is only beneficial to the ALP and the Australian Greens. In their dissenting report, coalition senators stated, 'There are genuine concerns that this bill is simply an effort to appease the union bosses and guarantee electoral funding.'

With claims by the BLF that more than 150 people have been interrogated and that these people have fewer rights than someone who has committed a crime, it is time to make changes and allow workers the proper representation that they deserve. This is not about appeasing union bosses; this is about having a fair and effective regulator—something the ABCC is not. The ALP is a supporter of workers' rights; the coalition are not.

The labour movement has fought hard for annual leave entitlements, reasonable work hours, sick days, paid public holidays, fairer pay and well deserved pay increases. With just two words, the coalition stripped away workers' rights, put people on individual contracts, took away leave loading, took away overtime and took away basic entitlements—and they say this amendment is just about appeasing the unions. This is where the divide is between those opposite and us. We have made a correction here today. It is a historical correction and is a correction of industrial relations. It is always the case that when Labor governments follow coalition governments, we need to correct the record and correct legislation on industrial relations. Today is that opportunity to fix the industrial relations mess that coalition governments create throughout this country when they are in parliament.

In closing, I commend the bill to the Senate and look forward to its passage through this chamber.