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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 4298

Senator ARBIB (Minister for Employment Participation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery) (12:02 PM) —I thank senators for their contributions. I do not think it is surprising—it certainly does not surprise me—that Senator Fisher and other coalition senators would be maintaining their hardline, ideologically driven approach to industrial relations. The Work Choices legislation may be dead and buried, but the same ideology is still alive in the Liberal Party and on show again today.

I say through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, to coalition senators: there is not too much to worry about here. Coalition senators have obviously not read the directive notices. If they had, they would have realised that the Deputy Prime Minister is not attempting to weaken the ABCC with these directions or to water down the coercive powers. Also, we are not breaching an election commitment, as Senator Fisher has claimed. In no way does this breach our election commitments. Any informed and unbiased reading of the directions would show that the Deputy Prime Minister is simply reinforcing measures and guidelines already in place and seeking to ensure consultation by the ABCC when using its coercive powers.

The Rudd government will never tolerate unlawful action, intimidation or thuggery in the workplace and is 100 per cent supportive of keeping a tough cop on the beat in the construction sector. These directions will improve the operation of the ABCC and help allay fears concerning procedural fairness and treatment under the law. In the end, despite all the bluff and bluster that we have heard from Senator Fisher today, all these directions are really about is ensuring that existing rules, guidelines and standards are followed by all parties fairly and without bias or prejudice.

It is worth noting how we got here. Prior to the 2007 election the Labor Party promised it would retain the Office of the ABCC until 31 January 2010, when it would be replaced by a specialist fair work inspectorate. Labor is committed to implementing a strong set of compliance arrangements for the building industry, and the Rudd government has consistently stated that anyone who breaks the law will feel the full force of the law.

Labor also committed to consult extensively with industry stakeholders to ensure the transition to the new arrangements would be (1) orderly and (2) effective. On that basis, in June 2008 the Deputy Prime Minister asked the Hon. Justice Murray Wilcox QC, a retired Federal Court judge, to consult and report on matters relating to the creation of the specialist inspectorate. Mr Wilcox provided his report in March this year, having consulted with industry participants. His report has been described as ‘thoughtful and balanced’ and I entirely agree with the assessment. It is important to note that, in discussing the need for coercive powers, Mr Wilcox observed:

… the point does not go to the question of principle some people have argued, but rather the protections that may be necessary to avoid inappropriate use, or misuse, of the interrogation power.

Mr Wilcox had concerns and found problems in relation to these powers and noted that things could be done better and that some of the current practices were not best practice.

The ministerial directives take this into account. All agencies of the Australian government must conduct their affairs in accordance with best practice. The Deputy Prime Minister’s direction emphasises the need for the ABC Commissioner to comply with existing safeguards and requires the commissioner to comply with two new safeguards. As Senator Fisher has tried to point out, direction is a power that the minister has. The minister may make directions under the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act 2005, so it is entirely within the minister’s remit.

The minister’s directions relate solely to the exercise of the coercive powers. They do not in any way affect the ABCC’s general investigative, compliance and prosecution powers. The minister’s directions include five detailed directions to the ABC Commissioner, listed (a) to (e). The first three of those just formalise the ABCC’s existing practices. The two new measures are in relation to consultation with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. This is about consultation, process and procedural fairness. In no way is it trying to water down the ABCC.

In conclusion, we have tried to strike a balance: a tough cop on the beat in the construction sector but, at the same time, procedural fairness and the application of the law in relation to workers’ rights. That is what these directions are about. I therefore ask senators to not support the procedural motion.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Bernardi)—The question now is that the motion moved by Senator Fisher at the request of Senator Abetz be agreed to.