Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 17 August 2015
Page: 5367

Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (10:43): Thank you very much for another very well informed and considered contribution to these matters, Senator Day. Those senators on the other side of the chamber would be well served if they paid more attention to contributions like Senator Day's. I commend him for that very powerful presentation.

It is also my pleasure to make a contribution this morning in support of the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and related bill, which should be fairly uncontroversial in the sense that all the bill is doing is making sure workers in the construction sector go about their jobs each day without the fear of being harassed, intimidated or otherwise put upon by thugs within the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

But before I proceed I just want to comment briefly on a contribution I heard from Senator Singh. If I heard her correctly she seems to take exception to the reverse onus of proof which is contained in this bill. I would just like to point out to Senator Singh and to other Labor and Greens senators who might make a contribution to this that such a provision is taken, pretty much cut and pasted I dare say, from the Fair Work Act that was passed by the former Labor government—cut and pasted from the Fair Work Act passed by the former Labor government! So, I think it is beholden on each and every speaker following on from me on the Labor side and on the Greens side to first and foremost answer these questions. What is their position? Is it consistent with the previous position? Has it changed from the previous position? And why might that be the case? So, that is a challenge for subsequent speakers.

Of course, the Labor Party cannot survive without the rivers of cash that flow to it from the union movement in this country. This point was demonstrated ably by Senator Day. And so it is that in the course of the debate on this legislation both here and in the other place, we have had the sorry sight of Labor members and senators getting to their feet and making excuses for bullying, intimidation and violent behaviour on construction and worksites across our country—indeed, even in my own state. I will come to that briefly.

It is really quite sad to see the once-great Labor Party reduced to such a state, but there we have it. I will come to some specific examples of the sort of conduct that Labor seeks to excuse in a brief moment. This legislation, however, goes to the heart of dealing with something that the Intergenerational report released earlier this year makes clear we must deal with, and that is improving productivity. We have heard, and we will no doubt continue to hear, histrionics from Labor senators about the provisions in this legislation. But desperately as they might wish otherwise, this is not a part of some grand conspiracy. This legislation is doing no more than what the coalition said we would do in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election.

This bill will finally re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a genuinely strong and independent watchdog that will maintain the rule of law to protect workers and constructors and to improve productivity on building sites and construction projects whether onshore or offshore. This legislation will at long last reverse some of Labor's changes to the workplace relations laws which underpinned the Australian Building and Construction Commission before it was abolished by the Gillard government in 2012.

The bill prohibits unlawful industrial action, unlawful picketing and coercion and discrimination. It will put in place penalties that are high enough to provide an effective deterrent to breaches of these provisions. A number of effective remedies, including injunctions, will also be available to the ABCC and to persons affected by unlawful behaviour.

In passing this legislation the coalition government will finally be able to return some of the certainty and stability to the construction sector which went missing when Labor abolished the ABCC three years ago. Once again, we can banish some of the worst aspects of thuggery and lawlessness from construction sites across the nation and, most particularly, sites in Victoria and in my own state of Western Australia, where the corrosive culture within elements of the union movement have acted as a handbrake on economic activity for far too long.

Just to remind ourselves of the history of this issue: it was well known to insiders and to outsiders alike over many years that Australia's construction sector was home to the nation's most terrible examples of industrial thuggery and lawlessness. That was why in 2001 the Howard government's then workplace relations minister and now Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, established the Cole royal commission. It found that the standards of commercial industrial conduct exhibited in the building and construction industry varied significantly from those in the rest of the Australian economy—and not in a positive way.

Witness after witness testified to criminal conduct and unlawful and inappropriate conduct, including breaches of the relevant workplace relations and work health and safety legislation, and a blatant disregard for the law. When it came to my own state of Western Australia, the Cole royal commission found that:

… the rule of law has little or no currency in the building and construction industry in Western Australia.

'The rule of law has little or no currency.' Again, I quote:

The building and construction industry in Western Australia is marred by unlawful and inappropriate conduct. Fear, intimidation and coercion are commonplace.

Thus, in line with the recommendations that flowed from the Cole royal commission, the then Howard government moved in 2005 to set up the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a strong watchdog that would tackle lawlessness front-on. It was a strong, specialist regulator that enforced the rule of law applying to the building and construction sector.

Naturally then, as now, the move was opposed by the Australian Labor Party, which, at the end of the day, cares more about receiving its donations from the CFMEU than it does about the rule of law on Australia's construction sites. And over the three years between 2005 and 2012 when the Gillard government abolished the ABCC, what was the contribution of this body, which was detested, maligned and finally abolished by the Labor Party? According to independent research undertaken by Independent Economics in 2013, building and construction industry productivity grew by more than nine per cent, consumers were better off by around $7.5 billion annually and fewer working days were lost through industrial action.

A rational and responsible political party would look at those things and think they were positives. They would speak from the evidence. Alas, though, we are talking about the Australian Labor Party, aided and supported by the Australian Greens, led at the time by Julia Gillard and staunchly supported by her at the time loyal minister for industrial relations, Mr Bill Shorten. Instead of exhibiting a bit of leadership, standing up to union leaders and telling them that, actually, the way that they had been behaving was not on and the ABCC was needed to keep the militants and lawbreakers within their ranks in check, what did Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten decide to do? They rolled over and did exactly what the CFMEU and other unions were demanding, and abolished the ABCC.

Of course, no-one would have been more delighted by this complete capitulation to union thuggery than the likes of Joe McDonald, the secretary of the CFMEU's WA branch. Without the ABCC in place, he has been free to resume his traditional disgraceful behaviour. Earlier this year Mr McDonald, who has a long history of bullying, intimidation and thuggery on Western Australian building sites, was fined $30,000 and banned from a Perth construction site for three years—once again for bullying. He was found to have threatened to have workers 'thrown off every building site in Perth' if they did not support strike action the CFMEU was encouraging. This is not an isolated case. Joe McDonald has repeated form in this area. Not long ago he and the CFMEU were fined almost $200,000 for their role in unlawful industrial action at the Citic Pacific Sino iron ore site in the Pilbara, in the far north of my home state. The federal court judgement in that case found:

Mr McDonald’s conduct involves a calculated and careless attitude to the law governing the employment of persons by employers. It was calculated to cause disruption to employers carrying out building and construction work on the site and it was careless in that McDonald was aware of the legal consequences of his actions and pursued them nonetheless.

Indeed, Mr McDonald was proud of his flagrant disregard for the law. On that occasion, when his right to be on site was challenged because he did not possess a right-of-entry permit, he blithely said:

I haven’t had one for seven years and that hasn’t—


stopped me.

All told, Mr McDonald and the CFMEU have, between them, been penalised to the tune of more than $1 million over the past decade for illegal industrial actions. Joe McDonald's history of criminal thuggery is well known to Western Australians. Indeed, it became well-known nationally in 2007—so well known that the then Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, ordered his expulsion from the Australian Labor Party. Julia Gillard was right on board at the time, saying:

Kevin [Rudd] and I have made it clear that under our leadership of the Labor Party there will be zero tolerance for unlawful conduct, for thuggery, in Australian workplaces.

Yet she seemed to have had a change of heart because less than six years later Mr McDonald was readmitted to the ranks of the Australian Labor Party where, so far as I am aware, he remains as a member to this day. True or false: does Joe McDonald remain a member of the Australian Labor Party to this day? Perhaps future speakers from the Labor Party might like to clarify that point for me.

That is not to say that the CFMEU's mischief is limited to the confines of my home state of Western Australia. Indeed, in Victoria the problems have been even worse. Almost the moment that the former Labor government abolished the ABCC in 2012, we saw a significant upswing in disgraceful conduct from the CFMEU in Victoria. In September that year, the CFMEU sanctions brought Melbourne's CBD to a virtual standstill. If you wanted an insight into the mindset of the CFMEU's leadership, there could scarcely be a more powerful one than the sight of its leaders telling a crowd of its members:

There’s 11,000 coppers in the country or in Victoria and there’s 30,000 members of the CFMEU and greater among the other unions when we call on their support, so we’re up around the 50,000 mark, so bring it on, we’re ready to rumble.

That is what we are dealing with: basically, a union leader saying, 'Don't worry, comrades, we can take on the cops.' That might appeal to those who exist in a fantasyland where every day is a goodie versus baddie Hollywood style script—a battle between the poor downtrodden worker and moustache-twirling capitalists—but it simply does not reflect modern reality.

More than that, such behaviour does absolutely nothing to promote the certainty and stability that the construction sector requires. In case it needed pointing out, the companies that the CFMEU demonises are the ones that actually create jobs for its members and, importantly, for its members' families. The union itself does not create jobs; it seems to create only trouble. No stronger proof of the complete disconnect between the CFMEU and the interests of ordinary workers is needed than the fact that in 2012 workers on building sites published an open letter in the Herald Sun newspaper, not to the government but to the leadership of the union that supposedly represents their interests, begging them to stop the blockades and the violence and to allow workers on site so they could go to their jobs. It really is utterly perverse: workers having to beg their own union to let them do their job.

One wonders how it is that the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, continues to tolerate this situation given the clearly criminal conduct undertaken by members of that union, including its senior figures like Mr McDonald, in Western Australia. Perhaps he values union donations more than the rule of law. Does Mr Shorten, the opposition leader, value union donations more than the rule of law? Perhaps future Labor senators speaking on this bill can clarify that point: does Mr Shorten, the opposition leader, value union donations more than the rule of law? Then again, perhaps we should not be surprised by his attitude, given the Leader of the Opposition's seeming attraction to militant union activity. That is no exaggeration. In 2013, in his capacity as Minister for Workplace Relations, Mr Shorten flew to Perth to address the conference of the Maritime Union of Australia. Standing in front of a banner boasting 150 years of militant struggle, Mr Shorten cheerfully told delegates: 'There's no place I'd rather be in Australia.' 'There's no place I'd rather be in Australia' than in front of a sign that talks about 140 years of militant struggle?

Of course, earlier this year we saw the MUA's ugly underbelly once again when, at its 2015 conference, a journalist from The Australian, Mr Andrew Burrell, was assaulted by an MUA member for the crime of attending the conference, which the MUA itself had invited him to attend. The MUA's WA secretary, Christy Cain, tried to distance his union from the attack. However, Mr Cain also sought to excuse the aggressor, subsequently identified as Mr Campbell Walton, on the ground he was suffering stress due to unemployment, except we later learned that was not true. Mr Walton is employed. He works as a stevedore in Perth and also owns his own earthworks business. Once again, we see a culture of thuggery, intimidation and violence from the union movement in Western Australia. Once again we have deafening silence on these issues from the union movement's backers here in the Senate. It is interesting to note, Senator Day, that during my contribution so far, not one Labor senator has come into this chamber, and the two Labor senators sitting in the chamber have not challenged what I have said—

Senator Bilyk: I have.

Senator SMITH: I have not heard a word, Senator Bilyk.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): Order! Ignore the interjection, Senator Smith, and I would encourage you not to invite the interjections.

Senator SMITH: When are the Labor Party going to say enough is enough and exile these rogue unions from its ranks? When are the Labor Party going to say enough is enough? Only when they are challenged by a coalition senator. What makes all this especially disappointing is that there are good unionists out there.

Senator Bilyk interjecting

Senator SMITH: This is a most important part of my contribution, Senator Bilyk. What makes all this especially disappointing is that there are good unionists in our country. There are those who genuinely try to provide a service to their members. I do not doubt that for a second, but their efforts are constantly overwhelmed by behaviour from their colleagues that is either aggressive or criminal or just downright stupid.

You do not have to take my word for it, and indeed I am sure you will not take my word for it. Not long ago, Mr Mark Olson, the WA state secretary of the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation, penned an opinion piece in which he called for unions to focus on their core business, which he believes might actually stop haemorrhaging membership numbers. He condemned the recent 'paltry gathering of a few hundred at the steps of Western Australia's Parliament House', which was supposed to represent a mass worker uprising but instead made him:

… wonder why this event was even happening, other than to try and help Labor … and perhaps boost the profiles of some union heavies in an election year.

He went on to say:

Workers are sick of self-serving union officials, helping out their buddies in the movement and in Labor, and not focusing on what's best for their members.

Indeed, Mr Olson is quite right, which is why workers are voting with their feet and why self-serving union figures like Mr Joe McDonald and Mr Christy Cain are resorting to increasingly desperate tactics to try and maintain their own relevance. This government is not about to let them do that, and it is certainly not going to do so at the expense of the national productivity growth.

Under the provisions of this legislation, the Australian Building and Construction Commission will be led by its commissioner, who will have the critical task of monitoring, promoting and enforcing appropriate standards of conduct by building industry participants and referring matters to other relevant agencies and bodies as required. The commissioner will also be responsible for investigating suspected contraventions of the law by building industry participants. They will also institute or intervene in proceedings in accordance with those laws and provide assistance and advice to building industry participants on their rights and obligations under designated building laws.

This government will make certain that the ABCC once re-established will be properly funded to ensure it can do its work and restore some certainty to the nation's construction sector, on which so much direct and indirect employment depends. This legislation enables the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner to compel witnesses to attend an examination, or to produce documents, in circumstances where he or she reasonably believes that the person has information or documents relevant to an investigation into a suspected contravention of workplace relations laws. This is critical in making certain the re-established ABCC is able to carry out its investigations effectively. I have much more to say, but time is definitely against me.