Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment Bill

15 February, 2012

I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill 2011.

In spite of its title, this bill is not aimed at achieving sound reform, jobs growth or productivity improvements in an industry that is extremely important not only in my electorate of Forrest but right around the nation.

The coalition are proud to support Australians who have a go, who take a risk, who invest and who employ people in small, medium and larger businesses.

We believe that every Australian, whether an employer or an employee, deserves to be able go to their workplace and operate in a safe and lawful environment.

However, in direct contrast, the Labor government, as indicated by this bill, does not believe that Australian business owners should have the right to run their own businesses.

I suppose that is not really surprising. One only has to examine the power structure of the Labor Party to see who pulls the strings. When the current Prime Minister arbitrarily axed the previous Prime Minister, current union leaders boasted about their role in that axing.

This is a very long way, unfortunately, from the historical union representation that has a long and originally proud history in this country of raising the standards for Australian workers.

But this proud history has been corrupted by the politics of union leaders and Labor Party ambition. What started as a great push for workers’ rights two centuries ago has become a fight for left-wing factional power and a platform for political rather than social ambition.

That is the sad inheritance of the modern Labor Party and one of the main reasons that the union membership has plummeted in recent times.

According to figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of employees who were trade union members in their main job decreased from 20 per cent in August 2009 to 18 per cent in August 2010. This represents a fall of 47,300.

For the majority of the 20th century, however, at least 40 per cent of workers were covered by unions and some 20 years ago the figure was one in every two workers. However, instead of looking after the interests of those workers, a number of unions have been looking after an elitist left-wing level of union leaders and their political ambitions.

Of course, not all unions have gone down this path and a number remain that genuinely have the interests of their members at heart. An example is the police union in my home state of Western Australia, which has a long history of member advocacy as its primary goal. Sadly, for some unions, this is no longer the case. As we look into history, the building industry specifically deserves very careful attention. I refer to the BLF, the Builders Labourers Federation.

It took a royal commission to expose what this front-line union had become. The Winneke royal commission identified major problems with the actions of the BLF and as a result it was deregistered by the Hawke Labor government in 1986-this was a Labor government and a Labor leader deregistering the BLF.

Members might think that, following the Winneke royal commission and the deregistration of the BLF in 1986, the construction sector unions would have altered their practices and the union would return to the role of looking after building workers in an open, honest and accountable manner. But how wrong those members would be.

The 2003 building industry royal commission, conducted by the Hon. THR Cole, found that despite a corrupt history no lessons had been learned and no change was in evidence. The Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, 2001-03, was established by the Australian government to inquire into and report upon alleged misconduct in the building and construction industry in Australia.

The commission articulated a case that the industry was characterised by lawlessness in the conduct of industrial relations. Our Parliamentary Library report on the Cole commission stated that:

The industry was described by the Royal Commission as being characterised by widespread disregard for the rule of law. It found widespread use of inappropriate industrial pressure, disregard for enterprise bargaining and the freedom of association laws leading to unlawful strikes, as well as widespread use of ‘inappropriate’ payments. Thus:

31 individuals were referred for possible criminal prosecution

392 instances of unlawful conduct committed by individuals, unions and employers, which include 30 findings of unlawful conduct by employers mainly for strike pay breaches and freedom of association breaches, (i.e. that the employer agreed to a ‘no ticket no start’ policy operating at a site), and

25 different types of unlawful conduct and 90 types of inappropriate conduct.

The construction industry in Western Australia specifically was described by the royal commission as being ‘marred by unlawful and inappropriate conduct’ with ‘a culture of fear, intimidation, coercion and industrial unrest’.

The royal commission made 230 findings of unlawful conduct in WA, the majority of which were against CFMEU officials and organisers for intimidation and threats of violence, breaches of FOA, secondary boycott and right-of-entry provisions, trespass and interference. CFMEU officials Kevin Reynolds and Joe McDonald are cited as repeat offenders.

Sadly the BLF is not the only example of union focus shifting from looking after employees to seeking political power. However, it is probably only the most obvious.

Here we are again debating industrial relations in the building industry. The bill before us is cloaked in Labor spin as one that targets the protection of workers. But we know the reality-that this bill is about union power over business owners and managers.

We know that the Labor government does not believe that Australian business owners should have the right or freedom to run their own businesses. This is the real reason we are here and the real reason that Labor members are vocal in their support-not because they are looking after the interests of workers but because they are looking after, or appear to be looking after, the political interests of union leaders.

After all, preselections are on the line. BLF secretary David Hanna was quoted in the Australian on 16 December 2011:

Workers will continue to take whatever action, be it legal or illegal, to get their message across.

No wonder members of the building and construction industry are concerned about the consequences of what is contained in this bill and what effect this will have on their ability to run their businesses and do the jobs they are there to do.

This industry is important right across Australia. It employs one million Australians and contributes 10 per cent to our GDP. So any impacts will be felt right across our economy. What we saw in that statement may well be what is ahead, as a result of measures contained in this bill.

As I said when I started this speech, every Australian, whether they are an employer or an employee, deserves to be able to go to their workplace and operate in a safe and lawful environment. I fear that members opposite do not support this.

The Labor government is repeatedly punishing the people who have a go, who invest their own money, who borrow against their homes and who employ millions of Australians and are helping others to get ahead. There is now a widespread belief that this Labor government is anti-business.

I am concerned that they will sacrifice hardworking business owners through policies like the ones in this bill, for the express purpose of enhancing the power of union leaders and definitely not with the aim of achieving sound reform, jobs growth, productivity improvements and economic growth.