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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 4296

Senator SIEWERT (11:50 AM) —The Australian Greens have been consistent in our opposition to the ABCC. We have always argued it is unacceptable to have workplace relations laws that take away the right to silence; deny people their choice of a lawyer; provide powers to compel evidence, with the possibility of jail for noncompliance; and impose severe restrictions on the rights of workers to organise and bargain collectively. The direction from the minister in relation to coercive powers, the subject of this disallowance motion, restores basic procedural fairness and democratic rights to workers subject to the extraordinary powers given to the ABCC. It is a direction that, in the Greens’ view, is too little too late. In our opinion, the minister should have given this direction 18 months ago. For us, it is outrageous that the ALP government has left in place for so long these undemocratic practices of the ABCC. We will not be supporting this disallowance motion. Our position has always been and continues to be that the ABCC should be abolished immediately. In fact, I introduced a bill to that effect last year.

What the minister’s direction does is, firstly, to allow persons to have legal representation of their choice and for their lawyers to engage in the basic practice of representing their clients. Jeez! That’s a breakthrough, isn’t it! For example, they can sit next to their clients, consult with them and speak on their behalf. The extraordinary restrictions on legal representation under the current practices of the ABCC are contrary to our basic democratic practices. Building workers should not be treated as members of organised crime syndicates. The coercive powers of the ABCC can be and have been used in situations where workers have taken industrial action for whatever reason, including occupational health and safety concerns. These circumstances are in no way comparable to the types of crimes that usually attract and can justify such powers and restrictions on legal representation.

We labelled the ABCC a Star Chamber from the beginning, and in our opinion the restoration of the basic rights of legal representation is long overdue. Paragraph (b) of the directive requires an agency established under Commonwealth law to comply with the Commonwealth’s obligation to act as a model litigant. We would say this is hardly controversial. Paragraph (c) provides that a person can raise objections to a particular exercise of section 52 power and for that objection to be tested in a court or tribunal. Again, the Australian Greens agree with this direction. We must bear in mind that the extraordinary coercive and investigative powers in section 52 include the powers to compel information, documents or the giving of evidence. Further, there is little investigatory threshold, and the extreme consequence of not complying with a notice from the ABCC is imprisonment. Given that ordinary building workers can face jail merely for not attending an interview in relation to a union meeting—indeed, in South Australia there is a worker currently facing a jail term—this discretion is an important safeguard in the exercise of these powers to make sure they are used appropriately. We are not talking about serious crimes against persons or the community. Rather, we are talking about instances where workers are exercising their democratic rights to take industrial action. Again, we would say this is hardly controversial. Paragraphs (d) and (e) similarly insert entirely appropriate safeguards in the use of these very extraordinary powers. The Greens note that these two paragraphs do not prevent the ABC Commissioner from using his powers but merely put in place additional steps with the intention of ensuring that the use of these powers is appropriate and necessary.

We think these changes are long overdue. These are about restoring basic democratic rights to a group of workers in this country who have been unfairly picked on by this draconian legislation that puts in place the ABCC. We strongly support these moves. We do not think they go far enough. As I said, the government should have done it 18 months ago. We will not be supporting this disallowance motion.