Mr PERRETT (Moreton—Opposition Whip) (18:16): I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Amendment Bill 2017—so-called 'improving productivity'. This legislation is anti-union, antidemocratic and anti-market. It is bad legislation for many reasons, and I will point that out through the prism of a couple of things.
Firstly, the construction industry is a dangerous industry. Many people die or are injured in that industry, unlike many other jobs. Secondly, as the member for Parramatta mentioned in her speech, around 25 per cent of companies involved in the construction industry, particularly smaller ones, end up going insolvent and that means workers miss out on being paid and that small businesses miss out on getting paid and go to the wall. They end up owing millions and millions of dollars in wages and superannuation.
My third point is that despite all said by those opposite this legislation is talking about a civil enforcement regime not a criminal enforcement regime. They are dressing it up as if it were a criminal process but that is not the case. That was never the intent of this legislation. So I point that out.
It is, however, remarkable that we are debating this amendment bill in the second sitting week of 2017. The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 only passed the parliament in the final sitting week of 2016. The ink is barely dry on that piece of legislation, but already this hopeless Turnbull government is trying to patch up problems with their own legislation—the legislation that, in fact, they took almost three years to get passed through this parliament. You would think that when it was finally passed that it would have been a well-considered and fit-for-its-purpose bill. But now we have the Turnbull government trying to trash its own laws just weeks after enacting them.
So what is this all about? Well, it is all about existing negotiated and agreed legal enterprise-bargaining agreements that are not compliant with the new code. Companies with these settled, noncompliant agreements are not able to submit expressions of interest and tenders for Commonwealth work, and they are significant companies—big players in the Australian construction industry. The legislation that passed last year allowed for companies whose current agreements are not code compliant to still be able to submit expressions of interest and tenders up until November 2018. This bill attempts to wind back that exemption to September this year, just seven months away. So this will put these hardworking companies and their hardworking employees in the difficult position of either not tendering for Commonwealth building work and missing out on work at a time when construction is a little flat, or having to renegotiate their complicated agreements very quickly.
This is a complete botch up by the Turnbull government. They do not even know how many of these agreements will be affected, and it has been reported that there may be up to 3,000 of these agreements—3,000 agreements that were negotiated in good faith. The code has been rejected time and time again by parliament, and was not law at the time these legal agreements were made—negotiated in the marketplace. I remember when the Liberal Party used to believe in markets. So this retrospective legislation, you could say, is more Turnbull government chaos in the extreme.
When the ABCC bill passed last year, although Labor did not support the bill—and still does not agree with the legislation or the need for it—we believed, as did the industry, including employers, that once passed, the building industry could go about its business at least knowing what the law was. When you are talking about big projects you need certainty. So, welcome to the Turnbull government, where the goalposts shift as the polls sink!
To put this all in perspective, we need to cast our minds back to early last year when the Prime Minister's popularity was well and truly beginning to slide. The honeymoon was well and truly over, and he thought it was a good idea to call a double dissolution election. We then had the extraordinary act of the proroguing of parliament—do you remember that, Deputy Speaker? Prime Minister Turnbull advised the Governor-General to call a double dissolution election, saying that the ABCC bill was—and I quote from his letter to the Governor-General:
… important elements of the Government's economic plan for jobs and growth, …
There is that term: jobs and growth. You have not heard that for a while, Deputy Speaker! 'Jobs and growth,' it went missing after July 2nd!
But during the eight long weeks of the election campaign there was hardly a murmur about this so-called important piece of legislation that the Prime Minister told us was one of the two main reasons he called a double dissolution election. And hasn't that worked out well, that double dissolution election!
It is great to have One Nation and the Liberal Party getting into bed together in Western Australia and four One Nation senators—or 3½ or whatever it is when Western Australia sorts out its mess. We have four One Nation senators—the party that John Howard rejected is now getting into bed with the Liberal Party, and we have had a Liberal Prime Minister not able to say to boo about it. It is disgraceful!
Anyway, this legislation was introduced to the House by the government in order to thrust back on Australians the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission. The legislation finally passed, albeit heavily amended and compromised, in the last sitting week of 2016. The ABCC was back in business. The ABCC was originally introduced in 2005. Labor opposed its introduction then and opposed it again last year. Originally implemented by the Howard government, the ABCC was said to be a response to the recommendations of the $60 million Cole royal commission. The Cole commission was established by the Howard government to investigate the building and construction industry, supposedly a 'hotbed of intimidation, lawlessness, thuggery and violence' at the time. Curiously, not one criminal prosecution, not even a finding of guilt, resulted from that entire royal commission. As a point of difference, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has made almost 1,900 referrals to authorities so far. That is a fair dinkum royal commission.
Let us revisit the period after the ABCC was introduced in 2005. Building industry fatalities jumped 95 per cent between 2006 and 2008. In 2007, 51 workers were killed on construction sites, the highest number in 10 years. During the time the ABCC was in operation, cases were brought against the CFMEU and other unions, resulting in over $5 million in fines and millions more in court costs. That may be good for lawyers but not the building industry. The ABCC was condemned eight times by the International Labour Organization for bias and for breaching conventions that Australia had signed. It was found to have unlawfully interviewed 203 people. When a Labor government removed the majority of the ABCC's powers and implemented the Fair Work Australia model, we saw industrial disputes go down and fatalities go down. Most importantly for the economists out there, productivity increased. The government's argument that the ABCC will increase productivity is not borne out by their own data, their own facts. According to the ABS, construction industry productivity increased more in the seven years before the introduction of the ABCC than it did in the seven years the ABCC existed. And productivity has been higher every year since the abolition of the ABCC in 2012.
Labor will always abhor corruption and criminal activity in any industry, including the building and construction industry, and we will always fight for doing the right thing with union members' money, not just when it is politically expedient to do so. I particularly hate union officials who misuse union membership fees—I think they are grubs—and I will always fight hard against that. However, the ABCC is not designed to deal with breaches of the criminal law or corruption of any kind. It was set up by the Howard government to enforce civil laws and industrial relations legislation. It is not a 'tough cop on the beat', as those opposite keep saying. Despite LNP protestations, it is actually, as I said at the start of my contribution, a civil jurisdiction.
During the period the ABCC was in place, there were 330 deaths on construction sites. The number of investigations set in motion by the ABCC into those deaths? The answer is not hard: zero. Not one investigation was thought warranted after 330 deaths of ordinary Australians going about their jobs in the construction industry. These were hardworking Australians who went to their jobs and never came home.
The ABCC was reinstated by the Turnbull government late last year, and already this hapless government is scrambling to make changes to the legislation that it trumpeted. There has been zero consultation with anybody about these amendments: not the employers, the hardworking construction companies; not the unions; not the hardworking employees; not anyone. The government has no way of knowing how the industry will be impacted by these changes. This is not good government; this is chaos.
What do we know? We know that some clauses in current enterprise agreements cannot be continued under the code, such as support places for apprentices on building sites, which are mandated by a ratio of apprentices to tradespeople—investing in the future. Other clauses to go? How about mandatory consultation before temporary overseas workers are used? How about the provision of nationally accredited asbestos awareness training for workers? How about the requirement that employers buy Australian made protective clothing for their workers instead of inferior imported clothing—a little bit of economic nationalism? How about local workers having priority over temporary foreign workers when redundancies are contemplated—again a little bit of economic nationalism? How about employees being provided with both awareness training to recognise potentially suicidal behaviour and basic skills to help keep employees safe? I note that last clause in particular because apprentices in the construction industry are 2½ times more likely to suicide than other young people their age. These clauses currently exist in some enterprise agreements but will not be allowed under the code. These are clauses that protect Australian workers and Australian businesses.
I have never worked in the building industry, but my three brothers do. In fact, one of my brothers worked on the construction of Parliament House when the flagpole fell over. He worked for a crane company that had to come and try to fix it. My younger brother also works in the building industry. He was working on a Twin Towns building site when a crane collapsed and landed right beside him. His back was injured significantly, and the two workers standing alongside him at the cement pour were killed. The kibble nearly hit my brother; it just missed him. The pond weights actually did hit him and did significant damage to his back. Obviously, having been inches away from being killed, he will forever carry that trauma with him.
Seeing the building and construction industry through the prism of my three brothers has given me some insight into how tough this business is. They have told me many stories about workers and the danger of businesses going belly up. It is an industry that is tough on workers: physically demanding and obviously not necessarily a job that you can do until you are 70. It can be dangerous, and the more that costs are cut to improve the bottom line, the more dangerous it becomes for workers. Whenever safe practices are abandoned we end up losing lives on worksites. These are the very workers whom the government should be working to protect. Sadly, I do not think the Turnbull government cares about hardworking Australian construction workers. It has been left to Labor and the union movement to stand up for these workers.
With all the ideological union bashing coming from the opposite side of the House, it is easy to forget the great work that unions do for their workers—and employers, for that matter. There is no better evidence than when it comes to talking about asbestos. It has been a banned substance since 2003, but building materials containing asbestos are being illegally imported into Australia from other parts of the world, especially from China.
I recently spoke about asbestos with Andrew Ramsay, a very experienced and well respected workplace health and safety coordinator for the CFMEU. He told me about getting a phone call on the weekend, when they were working at 1 William Street, the new Queensland government building, where they thought there might be asbestos. They then did some investigations, and the piece of material that they had been cutting with saws to make fit, because they are innovative and industrious, was found to contain 60 per cent asbestos. The old fibro sheets that you might know contain about 10 to 15 per cent asbestos. This was a piece in 2016 that contained 60 per cent asbestos—and, remember, one asbestos fibre is basically enough to kill you. It had been imported to Australia. But for the CFMEU and the training that the workplace official had, who knows who could have been affected by that asbestos? We need asbestos awareness training for workers. It is sensible.
There are at least 69 job sites, from Perth to Brisbane and everywhere in between, that have had asbestos delivered to them. Sadly, what was Minister Dutton's response? He actually blamed the CFMEU for driving developers to use illegal and dangerous products on their building sites. That is what the minister for safer borders said in response to this bizarre situation. That is just one example being told by Andrew Ramsay of what can happen if you do not have regulated and appropriately credentialed union officials being able to access building sites.
This is just one of the many reasons why Labor opposes the reintroduction of the draconian ABCC legislation, and why it opposes this retrospective amendment that will only cause chaos in the construction industry. Labor will always protect hardworking Australians. Labor stands up for ordinary families working hard to make ends meet. This bill is just more evidence of a desperate Prime Minister protecting his own job at the expense of Australian workers. These are ordinary, hardworking Australians doing their job in a dangerous industry. They have the right to be protected at their workplace, to be safe and to go home at the end of the day.