Joanne Ryan MP
Federal Member for Lalor
Joanne Ryan MP

Building & Construction Industry Bill

I rise today to join the debate on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], as I did on 2 December 2013 in this place. I rise today for the same reasons I spoke about then. I am critically concerned about the draconian measures in this bill and the impact they will have on civil liberties in this country. I am also critically concerned about the impact it will have on safety, on justice and on fairness because this bill includes measures that remove a person's right to silence in an interview with this commission. It also impacts on right of entry for unions. It has extraordinary impact and is designed specifically to limit a union's capacity to work with their workers and ensure safety and ensure that workers in the building and construction industry are not exploited or put at risk.

As I said, I rose on 2 December to talk about this bill. I have gone back and had a look at my speech from that day. One of the things that I mentioned then, as I am sure others have mentioned today, was how dangerous this industry is for workers. I mentioned then that, as a mother, I was critically concerned, as I am today. I would like to follow up on the previous speaker's notions in his wide-ranging speech that went to a lot of areas—many of them not specific to this bill, I might add. One of the things he talked about was unionised sites versus non-unionised sites. I would much prefer that my child was going to a unionised site. I say that as a parent who has had young sons in the building and construction industries who have come home from non-unionised sites with some very hairy stories about their safety being put at risk.

Of course, young people are sometimes brave. Young people with a strong work ethic are sometimes prepared to take risks that they should not take to get the job done. We have laws in this country around OH&S to protect those young people, sometimes from themselves, but certainly to protect them from an exploitative boss or business that wants the job done in a manner it cannot be done under our laws. I want to make that point.

I also want to make the point that I was shocked this morning to see the number of Australian workers who were killed at work in 2015. The number from 2015 shocked me. The number that shocked me most was that, as at 19 January 2016—that is, three weeks into the new year—eight Australian workers lost their lives at work. When I looked at the total number of deaths at work in 2015, the number was a staggering 186. In construction, the deaths in 2015 totalled 25. I say in all sincerity: after listening to speakers talk about the costs in the building industry, what price those 25 lives? People want to come home from a day at work.

That is at the core of this bill. This bill is about reintroducing something that did not do what those opposite claimed it did when they put it in place. What it did do is breach what most Australians consider to be fairness. That goes to the notion of the right to silence. We all know the stories well. In the Sydney Morning Herald, on 15 December 2007, a person reported that he was walking past a building site—he was not even employed on the building site—and was pulled in to the commission to answer questions without the right to silence, without the right to tell anybody that it had occurred to him. This is draconian. There is no-one on the other side of the House who could say that it is not. That is a breach of what we in this country consider to be fair.

I stand at citizenship ceremonies across the year and I am always struck by the notion of our strong democracy and by the faces of those who are taking their pledge to respect the rule of law and to respect the civil liberties in this country, and then I come to this place to find a piece of legislation that trashes those civil liberties and person after person tries to justify that in this place. What we hear in the threads is that, on the one hand, we have salacious smearing of the industry and of the union; on the other hand, we have an argument about productivity that does not bear in mind the safety of workers; it does not bear in mind the 25 lives lost last year. The right to silence is really important in this.

We have had a wide-ranging debate today, but the debate actually started this morning out the front with the press. The member for Braddon fronted the press this morning at the doors and made a huge declaration: he suggested that no-one from the Labor Party wanted to come and talk about the ABCC this morning. He went on to use quotes that have been used in here about smears and uncontested testimony and went on to quote from the royal commission. Then, when asked by a journalist about what he thought it meant for the right to silence and how that stacked up against Liberal principles, he did not answer the question. He went back to talking about the royal commission and not the legislation. The journalist pulled him up again and his response was, 'I haven't really paid a lot of attention to that.' I would argue that that goes to the very point: 'I have not paid a lot of attention to that.' To what? To the measures in the bill? No. The conversation at the doors was all about the royal commission. It was all about the smear. He could not go to a critical element of the bill because of the obsession, the ideology that is happening, rather than the common sense approach that should be taken. Labor has already made announcements about making sure those things happen. The challenge of no Labor MP wanting to come out and talk about the ABCC this morning fascinated me. It is because we are in here talking about it, member for Braddon, like we were in 2013. In fact, in 2013, 50 per cent of Labor members stood up and talked about this piece of legislation while only 38 per cent of members opposite stood up and talked about this legislation or argued for this legislation. I note for the record that neither the member for Lyons, the member for Bass nor the member for Braddon were amongst those speakers opposite. They were not interested in the legislation then and they are not interested in the legislation now; they are very interested in salacious smears by quoting the royal commission. To me, that is what this seems to be about. It goes to the heart.

On this side of the chamber we want to have a serious conversation about the future of work in this country. We want to have a serious conversation about the provisions that need to be put in place to protect workers. We want to have a serious conversation about things that were thrown up by the royal commission. On this side of the chamber we want to see corruption, wherever it appears, dealt with. On this side of the chamber we want to see all of the findings from the royal commission and have people referred for criminal charges where there has been criminal activity, and then let's talk about this sometime down the track. Of course, we all know that the previous royal commission threw up all sorts of smears that resulted in not one criminal conviction. If I were a betting man and not a non-betting woman, I might have rung someone and placed some money on what we are going to get at the end of this long, slow train.

Mr Buchholz: I'll take that bet.

Ms RYAN: Good. I would ask this question in this chamber. We have had line after line after line of smear. We have had two former Prime Ministers dragged in front of the royal commission so that we could have some guff to say at the door—some salacious smearing to use in this argument, because you cannot do it with logic. You will not convince the Australian public that we need to take away workers' rights to be safe. You will not convince the Australian public of that, and you will not convince them by quoting your report, which you want to quote, about how good the ABCC was for productivity, because it has been smashed. It was completely discredited years ago, yet you continue to walk through the doors and quote it in here.

This is the heart of our democracy. This debate is about the future Australia that we want to see. This debate is about how we are going to treat our fellow citizens in the workplace into the future. This government is proposing to segregate one sector of the workforce and create different laws for them. It wants different laws for those who work in construction—in this country, in our country, a country where, at every citizenship ceremony, we talk about the strength of our democracy. If it were not so serious it would be laughable.

The case for this has been built on the most recent royal commission and the Cole commission. Nobody from the other side is coming in here to argue that we should reduce a union's ability to ensure that OH&S happens in every workplace in this country. No-one from the other side is coming to argue how we should ensure that every worker is paid a fair day's pay. What we are hearing is a lot of rhetoric about how we need to be able to build things cheaper. I ask again: what price those 25 lives? These rights have been built up through a strong history of workers working together in a collaborative, collective way to mount a case to make our workplaces safer and to ensure that our workers are paid a fair wage. That is what this argument is about. So when I hear 'productivity', like a lot of Australians what I am actually hearing is, 'We want cheap labour.'

Unlike those opposite, we on this side of the House have put together a package of reforms that will ensure that criminal conduct is detected at the earliest opportunity and dealt with by the full force of the law. That is not what is in this bill today. Core to our plan is making the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, with its coercive powers, the regulator of the most serious contraventions of the registered organisations act. On this side we have people prepared to get the work done. On that side we have an ideological war being driven by a need and a want to revert to a Howard-era piece of legislation. Labor has put together a package that will ensure that the future will be different for Australian workers and that, where practices are in breach of the law, they will be rubbed out. The General Manager of the Fair Work Commission will continue its role as the regulator with its current powers to conduct investigations and inquiries and resolve minor compliance issues. It will receive an additional $4.5 million for increased monitoring of registered organisations.

Now we get down to the nitty-gritty. Let us fund the monitor to ensure that the right things happen. We will extend current electoral funding laws to donations and expenditure relating to all elections managed by the Australian Electoral Commission, such as union elections. That is real action to ensure that workers who are members of a union are members of a union that is doing the right thing. In line with our longstanding commitment to greater transparency, Labor will also reduce the disclosure threshold for political donations from $13,000 to $1,000. Labor will also protect and encourage whistleblowers by extending the protections that exist in the public sector to the private sector, registered organisations and the not-for-profit sector. That is real action, real ideas on this side, about ensuring that if there is illegal activity going on it gets cleaned up. A Shorten Labor government will double the maximum penalties for all criminal offences under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act.

There is no doubt in my mind that this legislation is about demonising the union movement and the government's political opponents. We on this side of the House will oppose it.

 


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