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Monday, 17 August 2015
Page: 5361

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (10:18): I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 in the hope that it does not pass this Senate and also to make it clear why Labor opposes this legislation, which of course forces a return to the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission. This bill is seeking to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was created in 2005 theoretically to investigate breaches of federal industrial law in the building and construction industry. In reality, it was then something far more pernicious and its re-establishment threatens no less than that.

The ABCC's proposed powers are extreme, to say the least, and undermine this country's very civil liberties. But before I continue, I must bring to the Senate's attention the consistent ideological attack of the Abbott government upon the working people of Australia, which really goes to the foundation of this bill. The attack by the conservative Abbott government on working people, who organise together to protect their rights, is explicit both in this bill and in the establishment of the biased, prejudicial and political witch-hunt this government calls a royal commission.

I will not reflect upon the character of anyone involved in the royal commission, although whether the commissioner can continue in his role due to the clear present bias and the political nature of his appointment is an issue worth debating. Instead, I want to draw to the Senate's attention the foundational common law case Crown and Sussex Justices, ex parte McCarthy from1924 in which it was found:

… that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.

And that:

Nothing is to be done which creates even a suspicion that there has been an improper interference with the course of justice.

The simple facts of this case are that Justice Dyson Heydon, whilst royal commissioner of an $80 million quasi-judicial inquiry into unions and Labor prime ministers, accepted an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser. He has created at least the appearance of bias and, even to the most unreasonable person on the street, he has raised a suspicion that his professional judgement might be unduly influenced.

The Prime Minister has described Justice Heydon as the most distinguished person in the legal profession. If that is so, I then have no doubt that a man of Justice Heydon's distinguished legal experience and expertise knows that he has no other option but to recuse himself from the commission. I think that the commissioner really needs to consider whether his ongoing role in the royal commission is tenable.

Justice, however, will not be accorded to workers who are brought before the reconstituted ABCC when it uses its reconstituted powers under this bill to compel workers to suffer secret interviews without legal representation and under the threat of imprisonment if they resists coercion. These powers are excessive, undemocratic and unwarranted. It sounds like something directly out of the Stasi handbook of the 1950s. This bill extends the reach of the ABCC into picketing, offshore construction and the transport and supply of goods on building sites. The new powers are aimed squarely at stopping pickets and include a reverse onus that will require individuals to prove they were not motivated by industrial objectives to escape the mere $34,000 penalty that will be put upon them if they were.

The case for the reintroduction of the ABCC has not been made. We know that Labor's Fair Work Building and Construction agency already has sufficient powers to deal with any unlawful behaviour in the industry. The ABCC is based on flawed modelling and its proposed powers, as I said, are extreme and unnecessary and compromise our civil liberties.

Further, I find that this particular legislation is demonising and discriminating against workers in the construction industry—against a particular group of workers. It is subjecting them to harsher laws than any other workers in this country. No other workers are being subjected to this level of demonising and discriminatory law changes. The Abbott government's determination to take Australia back to the ABCC shows a return to something very similar, in my belief, to Work Choices, which, as we know, lurks just below the surface of this government.

As I said, the Fair Work Building and Construction agency established by Labor already has sufficient powers to deal with any unlawful behaviour in the industry. It has a full suite of appropriate investigation and prosecution powers to deal with any unlawful behaviour, whether by employers, employees, unions or contractors. Fair Work Building and Construction is undertaking more investigations, concluding more investigations, getting more matters to court faster and recovering more money for workers in the industry. Indeed, Fair Work Building and Construction has already recovered more than $2 million in unpaid wages and entitlements for more than 1,500 workers. Those were the sorts of breaches that the ABCC never focused upon. It was quite happy for workers to miss out on their fair share of wages and conditions. Those are the sorts of breaches which need to be readily investigated for a fair and transparent industry.

ABS data shows industrial disputation in the building and construction industry is, on average, less than one fifth the rate seen under the previous coalition government. Labour productivity has increased over the last 10 quarters and is almost three times higher, on average, under Fair Work than under Work Choices. Under Fair Work, the rates of industrial disputes are around one-third the rate we saw under the previous coalition government, yet the conservative Abbott government does not want to listen to any of that good news for workers and for employers. The government is not interested in giving workers a fair go. The government is only interested in systematically pursuing Australian workers through draconian laws like this.

Labor's dissenting report to this bill made very clear that there are very serious concerns of the human rights impact of this legislation. In fact, Labor believes that this bill represents a direct attack on the common law rights and privileges which form the cornerstone of our democratic and legal systems. This legislation seeks to demonise an industry, treat its workers as criminals and remove their rights in law. Not only will Labor oppose this bill but we will fight the Abbott government's ideological war on working Australians every single step of the way, including in the building and construction industry. We will continue to fight so that all working Australians will receive the fair living wage they deserve for the hard work they do in all industries and we will also ensure that the rights of all Australians are given equal respect under the law. It is for these reasons that Labor opposes this draconian legislation which tries to return the ABCC into law. It is my hope that it does not pass the Senate. It is my hope, very much, that those in the Senate, particularly those on the crossbenches, see sense to the threat of this law to our civil liberties, to the human rights of workers and to the demonising of a particular set of workers in this country and uphold the Australian ethos of the fair go for all.