I rise today not only to speak as the member for Lalor, but also to speak as a mother, a former teacher and a concerned citizen—to add my voice to those on this side of the House who are critically concerned about this bill and its implementation. I do this because the legislation currently before the House is of great concern to anyone who cares about justice and fairness. It is a great concern to those of us who have family working in the building industry. It is of great concern to those who care about our young apprentices and trades assistants and their safety at work. And it is of great concern to those who value our democracy and the civil liberties that come from living in this great nation.
While the government is attempting to frame the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission as a so-called 'sensible centre', it is anything but. This bill is not just a threat to workers or to unions, it is a threat to every Australian. In its previous incarnation, back in 2005, the Liberal Party then led by John Howard, attempted to frame the introduction of the ABCC in the same way—as a sensible solution. They argued that it was about curbing illegal activity and that it was, somehow, paradoxically, a win for workers. They argued it would reduce industrial disputes and increase labour productivity growth. Of course, Deputy Speaker, we know what it was really about. It was, and is, an attempt to demonise the union movement, as we have just heard, and impinge upon the rights of workers: rights fought for and enshrined in our industrial relations history; rights recognised by the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Act proudly passed by the previous Labor government in 2011 to abolish the ABCC and establish the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate—the real, sensible centre of industrial relations.
I am particularly troubled about what the proposed legislation could mean for those who work within the building and construction industry. I am the mother of a concreter, and I am concerned about his safety and the safety of those he works with. As a former teacher, I am concerned about our young apprentices and trades assistants; those who do not know that they can, and should, raise safety concerns; those who, like my own three sons, who are too willing to please; and those who are willing put themselves at risk to get the job done. Those opposite would not be proposing legislation that puts our young people's safety at risk if they too had sat in the principal's chair in a school in Lalor. You may groan, but I am a teacher and therefore a storyteller. They would not be taking action to hamstring a union defending work safety if they had seen what I have seen.
Let me share with you, Deputy Speaker, a particularly awful example of a student, a 15-year-old boy, who left our school to take up an apprenticeship in the building industry, building houses in Lalor. I watched him excitedly get his T-shirt signed by his classmates on his last day of school. This was supposed to be the next phase of his life, his next big adventure. In spite of this, I gave him the normal spiel and reassured him that, should it not work out, he would always be welcomed back. It was only three months until he returned—not because he had decided it was not for him and not because he had reconsidered that maybe school was not so bad after all, but, devastatingly, because he was in a non-unionised workplace and had been intimidated, bullied and physically assaulted by his employer. Unfortunately, I have many more stories like that I could share. That is not to say that all employers are doing the wrong thing. Most are responsible and genuinely care about the their workers. They believe in occupational health and safety, as we all do. They understand its importance and they are willing to do what it takes to make their workplaces safe.
But the building and construction industry is a dangerous one. To date, this year there have been 18 construction workers who have lost their lives at work, and that is 18 too many. Every worker has the right to come home safely. Under this proposed re-introduction of the ABCC, I fear the Liberal government would make it harder for construction workers and union officials to stand up for safety on site. Not only is this an attack upon unions and workers, but it also a draconian attack on the most basic of civil liberties. And let's just be clear about what the passing of this legislation could mean. Under the Howard government's ABCC, the commission had the power to secretly interrogate a witness and then prevent them from telling anyone that they have even been interviewed. We have heard this several times today from this side of the House. Obviously it is ringing bells on this side of the House, as, I believe, it will with the Australian people. Under the former ABCC, there was no right to silence, there was no right to legal representation and—because of the risk of being called to stand before the commission—there was a very real threat to freedom of association. These draconian measures did not just apply to those from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union nor just to employees, employers or contractors in the building and construction industry, but to anyone and everyone.
In fact, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 December 2007, and as said again here today, a bystander—an academic from a Melbourne university—was called before the commission. His crime? He had simply walked past a building site at the wrong time. His punishment? He was to be called before the commission and interrogated for hours. It sounds like something that would happen under a dictatorship, not here in our enlightened democracy. But that was what did happen under the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the very same ABCC that the United Nations International Labour Organization found to have contravened conventions that Australia was signatory to—the right of workers to organise, the right to petition and the right to freedom of association. The commission's powers were so extreme that even the conservative stronghold of the Institute of Public Affairs said it went too far. And yet, for all its unprecedented power, plus $66 million in funding, the ABCC led to not even one criminal conviction—not one.
How then are the government justifying this return of the Australian Building and Construction Commission? The same way they justified its introduction. The government throw around terms like 'productivity' and 'growth', without connecting them to anything real or tangible. They talk in figures that mean little and prove even less. They ignore that under the current Fair Work system, labour productivity has continued to increase over the last 10 quarters. They ignore that on average this growth is close to three times higher than under Work Choices. And they ignore that the rate of industrial disputes in the building and construction industry is on average less than one-fifth of the rate seen under the previous Liberal government. They do this because the facts are not on their side.
In fact the report that the government, and many of its speakers here today, are using as some sort of legitimisation was dismissed by a Federal Court judge as deeply flawed. He even recommended the figures from the self-purported Independent Economics group be disregarded due to their lack of rigour or integrity. So how then did this group arrive at the figure that the Australian Building and Construction Commission provided over $7 billion annually in benefits to the economy, and how did they reach the subsequent figure that its abolition has cost consumers around 75 per cent? They guessed. They plucked a number from thin air. It is, after all, very easy to get the figures you want if you are willing to just make them up.
So if this is clearly not to do with improving the industry and not to do with tackling crime, one must ask: what is this really all about? This is yet another attack by Tony Abbott and the Liberal government on industrial relations and our unions. And it really is a poorly made Trojan horse—a Trojan horse to disguise the beginning of the return to Work Choices and an attack upon fair industrial relations in this country. Because, while they may not take their promises seriously, they do take their ideology seriously. They say that they hate red tape and that they hate the nanny state. But what they really hate is the CFMEU. They can dress it up in any way they like—that is what this is really all about. Even more concerning for every worker is that the bill extends the commission beyond the building industry into the maritime industry and the transport and supply sector. It also extends the ABCC's jurisdiction offshore. If this legislation is passed, this is just the beginning.