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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 61

Senator SANTORO (2:04 PM) —My question is to Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Is the minister aware of the findings of the Cole royal commission which exposed widespread union thuggery, intimidation, violence and corruption in the building and construction industry? Will the minister update the Senate on what actions the government is taking to reform this industry? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Santoro for his question and for his ongoing interest in the area of workplace relations. I note in passing that he was a most distinguished Minister for Industrial Relations and Training in Queensland, with a special emphasis on apprenticeships. Senator Santoro is absolutely right: Justice Cole did find that the building and construction industry in Australia was riddled with intimidation, thuggery and unlawful behaviour. The findings of the royal commission present a most compelling case for the reform of the building and construction industry.

Unlike the smorgasbord of former shop stewards opposite, the government have heard the pleas, especially from small and individual contractors. That is why we will be doing something about this situation to rectify the concerns—by introducing a bill that will do two things. Firstly, it will increase the penalty provisions in the Workplace Relations Act and, secondly, it will finally give the building industry task force the powers it needs to effectively prosecute illegal activity. There should be no doubt in the minds of employers and unions that the government are serious about taking action in the building and construction industry. There is an old African saying: when two elephants mate, the grass gets trampled. When big business and big unions get together, the small and independent contractors, the workers and the apprentices are the ones who get trampled. We as a government are willing to ensure that that no longer occurs.

If those in industry on either side, be it in big business or in big unions, think that somehow we are not serious about this, I indicate to the Senate that the proposed increased penalties are up to a maximum of $110,000 for a body corporate and $22,000 in other cases. No Australian ought to be above the law and no Australian union ought to be above the law either. Unlike those opposite, we will not turn a blind eye to the scandalous situation that was exposed so cogently by the Cole royal commission.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator ABETZ —Those opposite are still interjecting. They are still in denial about this, as they are on Medicare Gold and their forest policy. If they want to become a relevant party for the Australia of 2005 and beyond, they will have to make some changes to their industrial relations policy, which includes telling all their parliamentarians to vote against the bill that we are about to introduce. Their policy was formulated at their last ALP conference, where over 50 per cent of the delegates were trade union officials or former trade union officials, so of course they were told how to vote on this important piece of legislation. The simple fact is that Labor, if they want to, can now send a clear signal to the Australian people that they are relevant and are going to cut themselves free from the Norm Gallaghers, Craig Johnstons and Doug Camerons of this world, but they do not want to do that. They somehow suffer from the Stockholm syndrome. We could call it the ‘craven captives of the construction commissars condition’. That is what they on that side suffer from. We as a government will overcome the situation and, as a result, the building and construction industry will be a lot better off.