I rise to oppose the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and cognate bill. Like many of my colleagues, I do so for the second time. In 2013, I spoke against this bill and I proudly do so again tonight.
Those opposite have claimed that this legislation is about eliminating union corruption. I want to make it clear from the very outset that Labor has zero tolerance for corruption. We have made that clear time and time and time again. Labor has always said that we will consider sensible reforms for unions and workers, but we will not support legislation that aims to destroy strong representation of working Australians. But this legislation really has nothing to do with corruption. This is about the reintroduction of the draconian ABCC, with its extreme, unnecessary, undemocratic powers that compromise civil liberties. This is about furthering the government's anti-worker and anti-union agenda.
In my first speech in this place, I said:
History shows us that if work is to be dignified workers need advocates, because workers rights did not fall from the sky. History shows that, without unions, workers were broken in what William Blake called dark satanic mills. He understood that change would not come without a fight, and the best weapon in the fight for workers rights is the trade union. This is why I am proud that the Labor Party was born in the fires of the union movement and fashioned on its anvils. It is something we should never seek to hide and something we should be proud of.
Since I left high school, unions have protected me at work. They have been part of my life. They have also protected friends of mine who have been exploited. They are crucial particularly when you are young, in your late teens and early 20s, and you are trying to work your way through the world and the workforce. I have had a number of friends who have been sacked from jobs without any reason and at very short notice. Then they have gone to speak to their union and they have been compensated appropriately for being sacked without any reason or notice. So I have had friends who have benefited from the hard work of unions, unions fighting for their rights at work, and they have protected me on many occasions.
Having been a union member since I left high school, I was also a union official, a workplace representative for the MEAA, which used to be the AJA. I have been a member of the MEAA since I started my career here in Canberra in 1990. I am a proud member of the MEAA and I was proud to be a workplace delegate. I was involved in the negotiation of the very first enterprise bargaining agreement of any government agency in the Public Service. That was way back in 1997, from memory, just after the Howard government got in. I was proud to work with my union to get the best result for the members of that union and the MEAA members at my workplace. At that stage, when we were defining the 'no disadvantage' rule, we were particularly at pains to ensure that no-one was going to be disadvantaged as a result of the changes that would come about through the EBA. As I said, since I left high school unions have protected me and friends of mine at work. They have protected friends of mine who were sacked for no reason at very short notice, and they have also been part of my life as a proud workplace delegate for the MEAA.
In my first speech I also made a promise: I said that I would never forget what the unions have done for this country and that, as long as I am here as the member for Canberra, I would staunchly defend their right to defend their members.
Many Australians will have enjoyed some well-deserved annual leave over December and January. Perhaps they had Christmas with their family, celebrated the new year with friends or took some much needed R&R in January. Let me tell you: that leave was not afforded to us by the good graces of our employers. No—it was fought for and won by unions, by thousands and thousands of workers over the years fighting for workers' rights. Annual leave did not fall from the sky. It was not gifted very gently one year by a very generous employer. It was a hardfought-for right that all Australians enjoy every year, thanks to unions.
It is not just annual leave that is the result of hard work by thousands of workers since the union movement was established here in the late 1800s; it is other workplace entitlements that many of us take for granted today. One of those is the eight-hour day. Many people do not actually work an eight-hour day—it has been reduced in some places—but, essentially, the whole principle of the eight-hour day was the result of a hard-won fight by unions. One of my favourite statues is the beautiful orb over the road from Trades Hall in Melbourne, that grim old Victorian bluestone building, sitting there as solid as a rock, next to the jail and just behind the oldest workers' college in the world, my former alma mater. I was union president of RMIT—it is the oldest workers' college in the world. There is that beautiful orb, sitting there very quietly near what used to be the Emily McPherson building and diagonally opposite Trades Hall. No-one really notices it anymore—the orb of the eight-hour day, celebrating that victory that took so long to achieve. It took unions and workers years and years to achieve it: eight hours work, eight hours sleep and eight hours rest. It was an amazing achievement, and it did not fall from the sky. It was not generously gifted by an employer. It was something that came about thanks to unions and thousands of workers who fought hard for it over the years.
As I said, so many of us take these entitlements and conditions—safe workplaces and so much else—for granted. But these conditions are the creation of unions, and I thank unions for that. However, we have to be forever vigilant, because these rights can be taken away from us very quickly. That is why those who would take any opportunity to wind back these hard-fought-for entitlements will be fought from this side of the chamber.
In the construction industry there is no entitlement more important than a worker's safety and the right of a worker to express concerns about their safety without fear of recrimination. We know that there are still too many deaths, injuries and near misses in the construction industry. Here in Canberra we have been reminded of that fact all too often in recent years, with the deaths of Wayne Vickery, Michael Booth and Ben Catanzariti. We need unions to ensure the safety of workers in the construction industry, but this proposed legislation seeks to limit the ability of unions to do just that.
In speaking about this legislation, my colleague the member for Wakefield told the story of Ark Tribe, who in 2008 was summoned by the former ABCC to determine the legality of his actions. What had he done?
What was the supposedly unauthorised action that the ABCC wanted to investigate? It was attending a work safety meeting. He had merely attended a work safety meeting. I have heard several speakers on the opposite side say that this legislation has nothing to do with safety in the construction industry, but Art's case proves them wrong. If a construction worker can be summoned for attending a meeting to express concerns about the safety of a work site and if they can be threatened with six months' imprisonment for not complying with this summons, then safety is going to be affected—there is no doubt about it. People will be simply too scared to attend such meetings to raise their safety concerns. And the price will be paid. The price will be paid in lives and in livelihoods lost.
This legislation will re-establish the ABCC and provide it with coercive powers that will compel ordinary workers to be subject to secret interviews, denied legal representation and threatened with imprisonment if the person subject to such coercive powers refuses to cooperate. For workers in one industry only, this legislation removes the right to silence, the right to legal representation, the right against self-incrimination and the right to tell someone you have been interrogated against your will.
These powers are excessive, they are undemocratic and they are unwarranted. As many of my colleagues have pointed out, they are Orwellian, and they are not what Australians expect of our government in a democratic, 21st-century Australia. But don't just take my word for it. Nicola McGarrity and Professor George Williams from the Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales say: 'The ABC Commissioner's investigatory powers have the potential to severely restrict basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, the privilege against self-incrimination and the right to silence.'
The bill we are debating today actually seeks to go one step further than the previous incarnation of the ABCC. This bill extends the reach of the ABCC into picketing, offshore construction and the transport and supply of goods to building sites. The bill will extend the ABCC's jurisdiction offshore to as far as Australia's exclusive economic zone or waters above the continental shelf. It will encompass the transport or supply of goods to building sites, including resource platforms.
On this issue, the contrasts between the two major parties could not be more clear. They are stark. While those opposite are seeking to strip the basic rights of workers, this week Labor announced that a Shorten Labor government will put in place a suite of reforms to protect rights at work by cracking down on unscrupulous employers who are willing to exploit workers, because we will stand up for middle- and working-class families. We have a proud tradition of standing up for working- and middle-class families, and we will continue to fight for their rights. Labor will put people first. We will strengthen and protect workers' rights at work, by: cracking down on the underpayment of workers, with significantly increased penalties for employers who deliberately and systematically avoid paying their employees properly; ramping up protections for workers from sham contracting; giving the Fair Work Ombudsman more power to pursue employers who liquidate their companies in order to avoid paying the money they owe their workers, which is just a completely appalling act; and introducing reforms to ensure that temporary overseas workers are not being exploited and underpaid and that there is a level playing field for all workers in Australia.
Labor also has a plan for better unions, and if the government were actually serious about wanting better union governance, stamping out corruption and protecting union members then they would support our sensible proposals. Labor's package of reforms will help ensure that criminal conduct is detected at the earliest opportunity and dealt with by the full force of the law. Central to our plan is making ASIC, with its coercive powers, the regulator of the most serious contraventions of the registered organisations act. The general manager of the Fair Work Commission will continue its role as a regulator, with its current powers to conduct investigations and inquiries and resolve minor compliance issues, and it will receive an additional $4.5 million for increased monitoring of registered organisations. We will also extend current electoral funding laws to donations and expenditure relating to all elections managed by the AEC, such as those for union elections. In line with our longstanding commitment to greater transparency, we will also reduce the disclosure threshold for political donations from $13,000 to $1,000. We will also protect and encourage whistleblowers by extending protections. We will double the maximum penalties for all criminal offences under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act, and also a court will be able to disqualify an official for serious contraventions. These are just some of the measures that we have announced over the last week or so to improve unions and to provide greater transparency.
The government's justification for singling out one industry, as it is doing with this proposed legislation, is flimsy at best. I am pleased to oppose this bill for the second time. This bill is not about eliminating corruption. It is not about improving productivity. It is not about creating safer workplaces. It is not about preventing illegal industrial action. It is about the coalition's anti-union agenda. It is about demonising the construction industry, demonising unions and demonising their members.