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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 4148


Senator FISHER (2:13 PM) —My question is to Senator Arbib, the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Why is the Rudd Labor government neutering the Australian Building and Construction Commission?


Senator ARBIB (Minister for Employment Participation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery) —I have to say that I have been waiting for this question for the past week, wondering when Senator Fisher would actually raise it, because we did make the announcement well over a week ago. So I am very pleased to have the opportunity to present our policy. First of all—and I am sure Senator Fisher is aware of this—we are honouring an election commitment, an election commitment that was made when we were in opposition. We are getting the balance right: keeping a tough cop on the beat while at the same time protecting the legal rights of workers.

Can I say from the outset that the vast majority of building workers are hardworking and decent people. There are a small microcosm at work which are undertaking unlawful activities. The government finds these activities unacceptable. That is why we will maintain the tough cop on the beat. There has been a long process in coming to this point. It started with the policy but then we initiated the Wilcox report, which looked at the ABCC in detail and looked at its powers. It came back with a number of recommendations and the government is adopting the recommendations, abolishing the ABCC but replacing it with the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate.

One of our commitments was to put in place a switch-off power that actually rewards good behaviour in the industry. While I am sure the next question from Senator Fisher will say that it is a watering down, there will be an independent assessor who can switch the power on and switch it off. (Time expired)


Senator FISHER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Of course I have a supplementary, and the minister will not presume. Can the minister guarantee—

Government senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Fisher, ignore the interjections and address the chair.


Senator FISHER —Thank you, Mr President.

Government senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —On my right, interjections are disorderly. Senator Fisher is entitled to be heard in silence.


Senator FISHER —As is the industry. Can the minister guarantee the Senate that lawlessness and thuggery will not increase across the nation’s building sites as a result of the—

Government senators interjecting—


The PRESIDENT —On my right, Senator Fisher is entitled to be heard in silence.


Senator FISHER —Can the minister guarantee that thuggery and lawlessness will not increase across the nation’s building sites as a result of the ministerial direction issued today by the Deputy Prime Minister to crimp the coercive powers of the ABCC in some five weeks time?


Senator ARBIB (Minister for Employment Participation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery) —It is no surprise that those on the opposite side of the chamber want at any opportunity to hark back to the past. They want to persecute workers, persecute union members. We have had the scare campaigns, and the Australian electorate voted. They did not believe the scare campaigns, but you can always leave it to the Liberal Party to come back to their true state of Work Choices. In relation to Senator Fisher’s question, I can guarantee that there will be a tough cop on the beat in the construction industry, and I can guarantee that the coercive powers will still be in place. But, at the same time as that, there must be procedural fairness. At the same time as that we can also guarantee some procedural fairness for workers, something that the Liberal Party do not understand and really have never cared about. (Time expired)


Senator FISHER —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. Why has the government broken the Prime Minister’s unequivocal election promise that:

The current Australian Building and Construction Commission arrangements will remain in place until the 31st of January 2010. Specifically the ABCC will retain all its current powers.


Senator ARBIB (Minister for Employment Participation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery) —As I started to say, we have kept our commitment to the Australian people to abolish the ABCC and replace it with a new inspectorate. At the same time as that we have kept our commitment to put in place procedural fairness. Why should a worker who is compelled to attend a hearing not be able to take a lawyer with them to the hearing? Why should a worker not have legal rights? Why should a worker not be able to tell their family, their friends and their union about the interview? Some of the provisions were completely over the top. What we are doing is putting balance back into the system while at the same time ensuring that there is a tough cop on the beat. Activity that is unlawful on those work sites is unacceptable; we stand by that. (Time expired)