Speech on Building and Construction Industry, Parliament House

Mr PERRETT (MoretonOpposition Whip) (18:50): Can I give a big hello to the Bowen Hills branch of the Australian Labor Party, who are listening in tonight. I know the members of the branch, like many other people, saw just over five months ago Prime Minister Turnbull invoke that rarely used power contained in section 5 of the Constitution when he asked the government Governor-General to recall parliament for an extra three sitting weeks, an extraordinary request. Other than for a general election, section 5 has only been invoked on four occasions since 1961—two were so the Queen could open new sessions of parliament, one was on the death of Prime Minister of Harold Holt and the fourth was an unusual situation when Prime Minister John Gorton did not have this government's program fully prepared for their first sitting after the 1969 election.

The reason given by Prime Minister Turnbull in March to warrant such an unusual request was so that parliament be recalled to give consideration to two 'important parcels of industrial legislation'. Those pieces of legislation were the ABCC bill and the registered organisations bill. Parliament was recalled on Monday 18 April for a period of three weeks. The two bills were again put before the parliament and both were again rejected by the Senate. Prime Minister Turnbull then advised the Governor-General to exercise his power under section 67 of the Constitution to dissolve both houses of parliament simultaneously to enable an election of both houses—and didn't that work out well! Again, it is not a power often invoked. This was only the seventh time since Federation it has been used and, strangely, after such a dramatic preclude to the election being called, there was barely a discussion by the coalition about either the ABCC bill or the registered organisation bill during the election. Post-election, we had Prime Minister Turnbull with the scarce majority of one in the House of Reps, a reduced number in the Senate and an increased crossbench.

The ABCC bill will undoubtedly be again put before parliament, a bill originally introduced in 2005. Labor opposed its introduction then and opposed it again. The ABCC, implemented by the Howard government, said to be a response to recommendations of the $60 million Cole royal commission, the commission established by the Howard government to investigate the building and construction industry, supposedly a 'hotbed of intimidation', 'lawlessness', 'thuggery' and 'violence' at the time—they are quotes. Curiously, not one criminal prosecution, not even a finding of guilt resulted from that royal commission. As a point of difference, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, commenced under Prime Minister Gillard, has made over 1,700 referrals to authorities so far.

Let's revisit the period after the ABCC was introduced in 2005. Building industry fatalities jumped 95 per cent between 2006 and 2008, cases were brought against the CFMEU and other unions resulting in over $5 million in fines and millions more in court costs—that is good for lawyers but not for the building industry and those that protect the workers in that industry. The ABCC was condemned eight times by the International Labour Organization for bias and for breaching conventions that Australia has signed. It was found to have unlawfully interviewed 203 people. When the Gillard and Rudd governments removed the majority of the ABCC's powers and implemented the Fair Work Australia Act, we saw industrial disputes go down, we saw fatalities go down and we saw productivity increase.

Labor abhors corruption and criminal activity in any industry, including the building and construction industry—and I say that with three brothers who work in the construction industry. But 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. During the period that the ABCC was in place, there were 330 deaths on construction sites. The investigation set in motion by the ABCC into those deaths totalled zero. Not one investigation was thought warranted out of 330 deaths of ordinary Australians going about their jobs in the construction industry.

It was recently brought home to me how important it is for union representatives to have access to building sites. I am met with Andrew Ramsay, who a workplace health and safety coordinator with the CFMEU. He is also the chairman of the board of the Asbestos Disease Support Society. As the workplace health and safety coordinator for the CFMEU, Andrew, who is listening in, was at home one weekend when he received a phone call from a building site in Brisbane that will become the new executive building in William Street. The person on the other end of the phone said that they thought there was asbestos on the building site. Andrew said he was disbelieving, knowing that asbestos was banned in Australia and it was illegal to import it. He could not imagine how there would be asbestos on a Brisbane construction site.

Investigations were made and it was confirmed, sadly, that indeed there was material on the site that contained asbestos. The particular piece of material being used—and that had been used by workers—contained 60 per cent asbestos. To put that in context, the old fibro sheets that many of us had in houses and that we can all remember, contained about 10 to 15 per cent asbestos. The material had been imported from China, manufactured to specifications to fit a particular situation on the site. When it arrived, it did not fit. The builders being workers, innovative and agile, took to the material with an electric saw to make it fit. It was only then that one of the observant people on site became aware of the asbestos being present in the material. The site was immediately shut down.

Through his involvement with the Asbestos Disease Support Society, Andrew has seen firsthand the devastation that asbestos causes to the health of the person exposed to it. It is an insidious substance. It is impossible to know you are being exposed to it until it is too late. The asbestos fibres are so small that they appear like a pinprick on a magnified follicle of human hair. I would like to table a photograph that shows the relative sizes of the follicle of hair.

Leave granted.

Mr PERRETT: Thanks very much, member for Corangamite.

Exposure to asbestos can cause asbestosis and mesothelioma. Both are deadly diseases, often fatal. There is no cure for either disease. Sufferers of asbestosis can live for decades but their quality of life substantially deteriorates. Mesothelioma is a cancer; the prognosis for sufferers is dismal. They sometimes only live for a matter of months beyond their diagnosis. They suffer terribly as the disease progresses. It is our brothers and our sisters and our sons and daughters working on construction sites who are becoming the latest unwitting victims of both of these insidious diseases.

When we hear members complain about time being lost on building sites due to shutdowns, they do not actually understand that on their watch this illegal substance is somehow making its way past border control and into Australia. Shutting down these building sites when asbestos is suspected is imperative to protect the health of our workers. Surely that is a crucial thing. The diligence of our union delegates ensuring that asbestos, a banned substance, is not used in Australia's buildings is not only protecting the workers on the site but also the rest of us who may live or work in these buildings once they are complete. We know there are sites, like the children's hospital in Perth, that have this material.

There are 69 job sites across Australia that material containing asbestos has been delivered to. That is an appalling situation. We had the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, bizarrely, blaming the CFMEU for driving developers to use illegal and dangerous products on their building sites. I heard that quote and could not believe it. How absurd!

After speaking with Andrew Ramsay from the CFMEU I have reflected on why it is absolutely necessary that union delegates be allowed onto worksites. Can you imagine if a construction worker was not able to have a union delegate come onsite to check on materials that are suspected to be asbestos? If their only option is to go to a supervisor employed by the construction company, how much joy will they have? How likely would it be that the site is shut down to protect the health of the workers? Construction companies, even the most worker friendly of them—and there are many—are driven by profit obviously.

That is how this asbestos ridden material is finding its way onto building sites across Australia. Sadly, because it is cheaper. Using it will increase the profits for the company. I know that working in the construction industry can be dangerous. My brother had two work colleagues killed right alongside him many years ago. The workers have to trust that systems are set up in a safe way for them to do their jobs.

I have never worked in the building industry, as I said, but my three brothers still do. I also have a sister who is an electrician who occasionally works on construction sites as well. In fact one of my brothers worked on the construction of Parliament House. My younger brother, who also works in the building industry—as I said, when he was working at twin towns had two colleagues killed right alongside him. It also injured his back and psychologically impacted on him for many years. So, every day when he hears of a worker killed, to this day—in fact I have got a text from him today—it is always very traumatic for him. I cannot imagine what it is like to be inches away from being killed—how that would impact on you when you go back into these workplaces.

I know that the construction industry is tough on workers. It is physically demanding and can be extremely dangerous. The more that costs are cut to improve the bottom line, the more dangerous it becomes for workers, as safe practices are abandoned. Also, it sometimes can be the cowboy construction tenderers who get the projects. So we need to protect workers in the construction industry. It has been left to Labor and the great union movement to stand up for workers. The ABCC legislation will not protect workers; the Turnbull government will not protect workers—but Labor definitely will.

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