Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment Bill 2011
I am always bemused when the member for Farrer speaks. I am usually on after her and it is always an apocalyptic vision of what is going to happen as a result of legislation that is introduced by the government. The last time I followed her in a speech I think she was suggesting that public servants were going to be scuba diving in Lake Burley Griffin during their lunch breaks. I find that quite extraordinary, given that the winters in Canberra are not terribly conducive to scuba diving for about seven months of the year. Now I would just like to calm things down a bit and suggest to those here tonight that the world is not going to end and that the apocalypse is not coming.
I rise this evening to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011. This is the second time this legislation has been presented to the House, being first presented in 2009 but lapsing upon the prorogation of parliament before the last election. It is a bill that brings to completion the commitment of the Gillard Labor government to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission and to restore fairness to Australia's industrial relations system. Industrial relations and how it is legislated have been some of the greatest ongoing political and philosophical debates in Australian history. These debates stretch all the way back to Federation and beyond. These debates sit at the very core of the Labor Party. Some of the first legislation in Australia's parliament was on this very issue. I am thinking here mainly about the Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, which to me underscores that industrial relations underpins Australia as a nation and underpins Australia's history as a nation.
The Labor Party was born out of the labour movement in the late 19th century and its fight to ensure that all workers are given rights. The origins of our party lie in our belief that there is a clear distinction between worthwhile employment and the indentured servitude and poor working conditions that were the norm in the 19th century—conditions that, sadly, for too many around the world continue to this day. Indeed, there can be no greater distinction between us on this side of the House and those opposite than the difference on the issue of industrial relations, because we believe that workers should be treated with dignity and given every opportunity to thrive on the fruits of their labour and those opposite believe that workers are not to be trusted—they will go scuba diving in their lunchbreak —and that employers should be given free rein to treat them as they will, stripping entitlements and employment protections. We believe that employers and workers can reach mutually beneficial agreements and harmonious working conditions given the right framework. Those opposite believe that workers and their unions are fundamentally corrupt—and we heard those views from the member for Farrer tonight—and are merely out to drive the economy into ruin, so they attempt to drive them out rather than work with them toward mutual goals.
There can be no greater evidence of these distinctions than the actions taken by those opposite when in government. The Howard government consistently, year after year, opposed submissions that would see increases to the minimum wages and conditions of Australia's most vulnerable workers. The Howard government tried for decades to remove protections from unfair dismissal and finally succeeded with that goal with the implementation of that purely ideological piece of legislation Work Choices—and some of its chief architects still sit opposite today. That legislation stripped not only unfair dismissal protections but penalty rates and many of the rights that working Australians had struggled for, had fought for, for decades. Those opposite were apparently surprised when it left working Australians vulnerable and worse off. This was either a stunning admission of the naivety of the Howard government or just a plain misleading statement about what they knew was going to happen.
The Howard government's ideological obsession with industrial relations culminated not only in Work Choices but also in the creation of the ABCC. I understand that there were significant problems specific to the building industry. The government has always maintained that there are unique challenges for both employers and employees in that industry. This is why we support a construction industry regulator to ensure compliance with the law from all parties in the construction industry. However, the difference between us and those opposite is that we want to ensure that there is a strong regulator to resolve these issues and that the rights of people in the construction industry are not needlessly or capriciously eroded. We believe in getting the balance right. In contrast, those opposite could not help themselves when they heard of problems in the construction industry. It was like a red rag to a bull. They rushed in and used it as an excuse to impose an ideologically driven agenda to remove the rights of workers. This was the difference of approach taken to the 2007 election, and it is clear which approach was endorsed by the community.
The new regulator, which this legislation establishes, will operate in accordance with community expectations for a fair and just workplace relations system—the message on those expectations was very clearly sent in the 2007 election. The regulator will operate within the current fair work system. Specifically, this bill abolishes the Office of the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner and creates the new agency of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate. This legislation will also remove the building industry specific laws that implement harsher penalties for breaches of law by those in the construction industry and remove the broader circumstances under which industrial action would attract penalties. It will also include the capacity for the director of the building inspectorate to obtain a notice authorising the use of powers to compulsorily obtain information and for the examination of witnesses. I understand that this power was one of the most controversial aspects of ABCC. However, I understand and accept the view of Justice Wilcox when he reviewed the ABCC and concluded that there is still a role for these powers, although from my reading he was not convinced that these powers would need to be permanent.
I note that he also recommended that there be strong safeguards on the use of such powers, which he noted were not included in the original legislation. Specifically, this legislation places a number of new safeguards on the use of this power. This legislation states that the power can only be used upon a presidential member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal being satisfied that a case has been made for its use. It will allow people summonsed to be represented by a lawyer and recognise their right to not disclose information on the grounds of legal privilege or public interest immunity. These people will also be reimbursed for reasonable expenses and legal costs incurred by their summons. All examinations will be videotaped and the Commonwealth Ombudsman will monitor and review all examinations and provide a report to parliament on the exercise of this power.
Finally, this legislation places a three-year sunset clause on this power and necessitates that before it can be continued there must be a review of its use and further need. As Minister Crean pointed out in his own speech on this legislation, there has been a decline in the use of this power as a result of better process from the ABCC. This reduction has, in the opinion of the ABCC, not reduced the effectiveness of its investigations. To me, all of this points towards the eventual removal of this power on the basis that it is no longer necessary.
This legislation restores balance, it restores fairness and it restores natural justice to those engaged in the construction industry. It will ensure that the construction industry continues to play its important role on the national economy and that all stakeholders operate within the law for the mutual benefit of workers, employers and all Australians. I support this legislation and commend it to the House.