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Thursday, 30 August 2001
Page: 30625

Mr ZAHRA (10:42 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Royal Commissions and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2001. The guts of this legislation is to expand the power of royal commissions to gain access to information from other agencies and to be able to cross-reference data that at the moment may not be available to them. In doing so, it will allow royal commissions to more fully investigate the matters that are the subject of their inquiries. It is on the public record that we support the principle of this legislation in trying to provide access to that information to assist the work of royal commissions.

Today I want to make some comments in relation to a shocking industrial dispute which has gone on for some time in my electoral district. I am talking about the G & K O'Connor meatworks dispute at Pakenham, in the western end of my electorate. This is no small dispute. It is a substantial industrial dispute which warrants proper investigation of the sort that royal commissions are supposed to do. That is the reason I mention it in the context of this debate. What has taken place at G & K O'Connor meatworks at Pakenham is one of the most appalling series of actions by an employer in the history of our country. We have seen a company engage in conspiracies, in illegal actions and in the sort of behaviour you would expect to see from a criminal agency, not from an employer and a company in this country. The company wanted to reduce the pay of their workers by an average of 17 per cent. In order to achieve that end, they involved themselves in a series of criminal activities, including the employment of what were essentially hired thugs to engage in a conspiracy to try and convince workers at the meatworks to engage in illegal and criminal activities themselves.

As honourable members would be aware, this matter was a feature of an inquiry which was organised by the Sunday program on Channel 9 some months ago. It was very interesting to see what people involved with the company had to say when confronted with these allegations. In particular, I remember the proprietor of G & K O'Connor being asked a series of questions in relation to his knowledge of some of the shady characters involved in the intimidation and the attempts to coerce workers into illegal activities. It became very apparent very quickly that the proprietor of G & K O'Connor meatworks was involved in this right up to his eyeballs. He was involved in this deliberate conspiracy and this deliberate act of criminality to try to undermine those workers in his employ.

That really is shameful conduct. It is not the sort of conduct which we would ever want to see encouraged, and it is not the sort of conduct which any government should go out of its way to promote. Yet the previous Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, the member for Flinders, said that he supports what G & K O'Connor meatworks has attempted to do. When it comes down to his political philosophy, with his hand on his heart he said that this was just an ordinary small business trying to get on with being a small business and doing well. If a minister of the Crown in this government thinks involving hired thugs to try to entrap workers and to convince workers to involve themselves in illegal activities—such as acts of theft from a company— in order to get them sacked is a fundamental tenet of small business and that is what typical small business people do, then he is sadly mistaken and completely out of touch with the realities of small business and the attitude of people in our community towards these types of actions.

G & K O'Connor meatworks have entered into shameful conduct—there are no two ways about it—and that is not just my view. This matter has been before the Federal Court on numerous occasions and, as has already been mentioned by the shadow minister for industrial relations and member for Brisbane, Arch Bevis, this lockout, this industrial situation engineered by the proprietors of G & K O'Connor, actually is the longest lockout in Australia since the Great Depression in the 1930s. That is amazing, given the enormous difference between the circumstances in the Great Depression and the circumstances which Australia finds itself in as a nation right now.

This lockout went on for nine months and it has been before the Federal Court, so what did the Federal Court say? Justice Spender of the Federal Court said that this lockout was a `baseball bat lockout', and he invoked the name of Pinkertons Inc. to describe the type of conduct which G & K O'Connor had involved themselves in. I think most people in this House would know a little about Pinkertons Inc., but I might say a few words about them for the benefit of those people listening to this broadcast.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! I indicate to the honourable member for McMillan that, if he is going to describe the relevance of Pinkertons to the legislation, it would be very helpful to the charitable decision of the chair if he remembered standing order 81 in his contribution. I would ask the honourable member to couch his debate and argument in terms of the motion before the chair and therefore the legislation before the chair.

Mr ZAHRA —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am always appreciative of your charity. The relevance of Pinkertons Inc. to the debate which we are having is that Pinkertons Inc. was a company which was involved in essentially union busting activity in the United States. That has some relevance to this debate we are involved in, because one of the royal commissions which we are giving consideration to is the royal commission into the construction industry, where allegations have been made of freedom of association rules and regulations being breached and where fundamental tenets of the right to organise or the right to freedom of association for employees choosing not to be in unions have been called to question. So that is the relevance and why I mentioned Pinkertons. I think it is especially significant in the context of the G & K O'Connor dispute, where a justice of the Federal Court has made reference in his remarks to the type of behaviour involved at G & K O'Connor meatworks being similar in conduct to that behaviour which—

Mr Abbott —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: I do not raise this point of order lightly because I appreciate that the member opposite feels very strongly about this. But I do think it would assist the House if he wants to make these sorts of statements that he do it in the adjournment or some other appropriate forum.

Mr Bevis —On the point of order: the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business may not have actually heard the minister who introduced the bill, the Minister for Defence. If he reads the second reading speech, he will see that the minister, in introducing the bill, spoke about both the HIH inquiry and the royal commission inquiry into the construction industry. It was indeed the minister in introducing the bill who made this germane to the bill, and the contribution of the member is totally in order.

Mr Abbott —Further to the point of order: if the member for McMillan wishes to talk about the royal commission into the construction industry, I accept that that would be perfectly in order. But he does not want to talk about that. He wants to talk about the G & K O'Connor dispute and he wants to go into a lot of detail on that point. I do not think it is appropriate to this particular debate.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Batman is not assisting the chair. I gave some guidance earlier to the honourable member for McMillan about his obligations under standing order 81. If he would couch his contribution in such a way as to be relevant to the question before us, it would be helpful to the smooth operation of this chamber.

Mr ZAHRA —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am always happy to take your advice; I am not at all happy to take any advice from the minister for workplace relations. It is relevant to talk about the G & K O'Connor dispute because it is a significant dispute and the sort of dispute which should be, in my view, subject to a royal commission. The types of activities which were engaged in by the company should be subject to the types of inquiry that the powers of a royal commission would provide. I do not intend to go into any more detail in relation to the G & K O'Connor dispute. Suffice to say there has been shameless conduct on behalf of the proprietor of that company, and that will all come out. The role of the minister for workplace relations at that time, the member for Flinders, will be revealed—there are no two ways about that—but right now I need to talk a little bit more about the construction industry, because the one of the royal commissions that we are talking about specifically relates to the construction industry.

I want to say at the outset that I know a little bit about the construction industry because my father was a building worker. He is retired now. For many years my father worked on building sites mostly around the Latrobe Valley, and as a young fellow I spent a bit of time with my dad. Having had that little bit of experience of the construction industry as a young boy, and subsequently as a member of parliament and during my life, I know that the construction industry is a tough industry. It is the sort of industry where you need good occupational health and safety and a good union to make sure that occupational health and safety regulations are enforced.

Things can get out of hand very quickly on construction sites. When things do get out of hand very quickly, it is not a case of giving yourself a paper cut or having to sit down and rest your legs a little while. If things get out of hand on a building site, workers' lives are lost or permanent injuries are sustained. That is the reason why we have strong unions in the construction industry: because historically too many lives were lost in that industry. Members opposite might have a hard time understanding that, but those people who risk their lives regularly on building sites understand full well why it is so important that we have strong occupational health and safety regimes and strong unions on building sites to make sure that people are not put at risk, lives are not lost and permanent injuries are not incurred by workers on those building sites.

When we are talking about these things, we are not talking about statistics. We are not talking about the number of hours lost in terms of down time on building sites; we are talking about people. We are talking about workers who have wives and children. We have to take into consideration the human effect that occupational health and safety can have on families and on the lives of those people who make up the work force on construction sites. It might be that people on the other side find it very hard to understand what we are talking about when we speak about these things, but those of us who have had some exposure to the industry—and in particular in my electoral district we have long had a large number of construction workers resident in the Latrobe Valley— understand why we have these types of occupational health and safety and strong union regimes in place on construction industry sites.

These things did not develop by accident; these things did not develop for no reason. The gains that have been made in occupational health and safety in the construction industry have all been made not because of some broad concept of progress but because of workers' hard work, dedication, commitment and being prepared to take action, and because of the courage which has been shown by trade union leaders in getting better conditions and safer workplaces for their members. So the construction industry is not to be treated lightly, and people in this place need to understand that we have strong unions and occupational health and safety regimes in the industry because we need to have those to keep those workplaces safe, to keep the workers who are employed there safe and to make sure that their families do not get a telephone call from the work site telling them that their old man or husband has died. That is the one thing that has been lacking in all of this debate on a royal commission into the construction industry.

In my view this has been little more than a political exercise put in place by the minister to try to gain some sort of political advantage from embarrassing some people involved in the construction industry over the nature of their relationships. I would say to the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, who is at the table, that there are probably better things that he could be involved in. There are probably more important pieces of legislation which he could be bringing into this House to try to make sure that the lives of the workers of this country are improved and that we see some gain, some benefit, from the legislative activities of this parliament, rather than just seeing this parliament used as some sort of political instrument for one side of politics to gain an advantage over the other.

A royal commission of this type into the construction industry is no new thing, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins. I know that you have been around for many years and would be very familiar with the history of royal commissions into certain industries which often have a completely unintended impact on the people who start these inquiries. The minister at the table would be well advised to consider the recent experience of governments which initiate royal commissions with a view to getting some sort of political advantage out of them and then end up suffering political damage themself as a result of the findings of the royal commissions. I instance in particular the royal commission into the painters and dockers union, which exposed the shameful bottom of the harbour tax rorts which were put into place or arranged by the big end of town and had nothing to do with the painters and dockers union or their operation. That was the outcome, and the minister at the table would be well advised to get out the history books, have a bit of a look into it and make sure he understands exactly what he is getting himself into.

The Labor Party have said that we will be having an inquiry into what went on at G & K O'Connor meatworks. We will be having an inquiry into what has taken place there because we are concerned about the families, the 300-odd people at G & K O'Connor meatworks who were locked out of their workplace and had to endure no wages, no salaries, no support, for nine months. We are concerned about what has happened to them. All sorts of tragic circumstances have come out of that shocking industrial dispute. We have seen people lose their houses; we have seen people lose their cars; we have seen people's marriages disintegrate. We have seen enormous strife in people's families, created directly as a result of the actions taken by G & K O'Connor meatworks. And that action taken by the meatworks was taken with the support and encouragement of the then minister for workplace relations and employment, the member for Flinders, which I think is really shameful conduct on his part as well.

I noted the other day that the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, the member for O'Connor, had said that he would be looking at ways in which the terms of reference of the royal commission into the construction industry could be extended to include the forestry industry. It struck me as a bizarre thing and then I realised that what was going to happen here was that we were going to see a steady progression in terms of the industries to be investigated by the royal commission established by this government, based on whether they are constituent units of the CFMEU. The government started off with a royal commission into the construction industry—that is the `C' in the CFMEU—and now Wilson Tuckey, the member for O'Connor, is talking about extending the royal commission into forestry—so that is the `F' in the CFMEU. Probably next week they will announce that they are going to have a royal commission into the mining industry as well—so that is the `M'. Then they will finally get around to the energy industry and that will complete what has been, I think, a fairly shameful exercise entered into by this government. There is no doubt that the royal commission into the construction industry is just a political exercise put into place by this minister. He sees himself as Brother Torquemada of the industry. He sees himself as a royal commissioner and, whilst I would accept that there are quite a few similarities between the minister and Brother Torquemada—(Time expired)