Building commissioner needed for a healthy construction industry

The construction industry provides many jobs for workers in small businesses and in large enterprises, and for contractors. In my electorate of Forrest, the 2011 census recorded that 8,770 people were employed in the construction industry, more than in any other industry in the region—and that number has no doubt risen since.

This industry is critical to growth and development in the south-west of Western Australia, and across the entire nation. It is also the industry that has seen the worst of union behaviour across the nation. We have seen that what was often illegal behaviour was an absolute blight on this nation, and it was a blight on those very good, hard-working people that just wanted to go to work and be able to do their jobs—all they wanted was to be able to get on with the job.

It was this behaviour that resulted in the establishment of the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry in 2001. The final report of that royal commission provided compelling evidence of the need to reform the industry. It found consistent evidence that building sites and construction projects in Australia were—as we saw—hotbeds of intimidation, lawlessness, thuggery and violence. Projects were delayed, costs blew out and investment in our economy and infrastructure was being jeopardised.

The report identified 392 separate instances of unlawful conduct, 25 different types of unlawfulness and 90 different types of inappropriate behaviour. There were unlawful strikes, unlawful payments, abuse of union rights of entry, fabrication of safety issues, compulsory unionism, coercion to pay wages and meet conditions demanded by unions, disregard of contracts and agreements, and disregard of court and tribunal orders.

We saw reports of workplace rorts, threats, intimidation, and a range of other behaviours. Based on those findings, the commission made 212 recommendations for substantial regulatory reform, both structural and cultural. The report referred to 31 individuals who had possibly breached criminal laws.

Twelve of those 31 individuals came from Western Australia, in an identified 230 separate incidents of unlawful conduct. This is a very bad example for Western Australia. It included breaches of the enterprise-bargaining, freedom-of-association, right-of-entry, and strike-pay provisions of the Workplace Relations Act; a range of departures from proper standards of occupational health and safety; and threatening and intimidatory conduct.

In fact, the Royal Commissioner indicated that, in his opinion, the rule of law had little or no currency within the Western Australian building and construction industry at that time. He found that it was an industry marred by unlawful and inappropriate conduct including the use of fear and intimidation.

That was certainly something that I heard about when I was doing a lot of doorknocking in 2007. The commissioner also found that it was common for occupational health and safety issues to be used as an industrial tool. Members of this House would well know the names of Kevin Reynolds and Joe McDonald, key players in the infamy that was the building industry in Western Australia.

The royal commission found that Joe McDonald had been involved in 104 incidents of unlawful conduct—57 in one year alone. That is more than one a week. The royal commission was also concerned by the funding of the Construction Skills Training Centre, a training company of which Kevin Reynolds was the chairman.

The company was assisted by a capital grant of approximately $1 million provided through the Australian National Training Authority in 1998. The grant was for training levies paid to the unions as required by the union-endorsed EBA, and then by the Builders Labourers, Painters and Plasterers Union, as the income of the Construction Skills Training Centre Inc. However, it was obvious that the money was not for that purpose.

Sadly for us in Western Australia, this was for so many years what our building industry was infamous for—union corruption and thuggery. That is why the bill before the House today is so important. This bill re-establishes the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a genuinely strong watchdog that will maintain the rule of law—to protect workers and the construction sector, and to improve productivity on building sites and construction projects, whether onshore or offshore.

This bill will reverse Labor’s changes to the laws which underpinned the Australian Building and Construction Commission before Labor abolished it in 2012. The bill will once again prohibit unlawful industrial action, unlawful picketing, and coercion and discrimination. Penalties that are high enough to provide an effective deterrent will apply to breaches of these provisions, and a wide range of effective remedies, such as injunctions, will also be available to the ABCC and to persons affected by unlawful behaviour.

The establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2005 provided what was a genuinely strong and effective watchdog which dissolved the 1970s-style practices that plagued the industry. It was a strong, specialist regulator that enforced the rule of law applying to the building and construction sector.

The economic and industrial performance—despite what we have just heard—of the building and construction industry significantly improved when the ABCC existed. For example, a 2013 Independent Economics report on the state of the sector during this period found that building and construction industry productivity grew by more than nine per cent, that consumers were better off by around $7.5 billion annually, and that fewer working days were lost through industrial action.

Naturally, as soon as Labor came to government in 2007 there was an immediate and sustained pressure from building and construction unions to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

In 2012, the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Bill Shorten, gave in to union demands and abolished the organisation, and replaced it with a regulator with significantly reduced funding and powers. And—with the minister probably under control—we saw a further return to some of the practices that the ABCC had denied the unions for seven years.

We have seen the violence on the streets in the City of Melbourne, with militant union protestors intimidating the community and their supporters even attacking police horses. We have also seen the unprecedented action of workers—and this is a very telling point—on the site purchasing an advertisement in the Herald Sun with an open letter to their own union bosses asking for the blockades to stop. That is an unprecedented action by the workers on the site.

They wanted to get to work, to do the work they were employed to do. What did the then Labor government do? I suspect in an attempt to buy some time it contacted Justice Murray Wilcox to review the industry, but Justice Wilcox recognised the need for, and the benefit provided by, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, stating in his report that ‘the ABCC’s work is not yet done’ and that ‘it would be unfortunate’ if the ABCC’s replacement body ‘led to a reversal of the progress that has been made’.

But that is exactly what we saw happen. The Labor government set up a severely-curtailed version of the ABCC called the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate.

The coalition is committed to the re-establishment of the ABCC and we said so during and before the election campaign. It is one more promise that we are fulfilling, because we meant what we said.

And this is more evidence of our doing so. In our policy to improve the fair work laws, the coalition government committed to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission to once again ensure the rule of law and productivity on commercial building sites and construction projects, whether on-shore or off-shore.

We do not want to see further instances where workers are forced to take out advertisements like the open letter in the Herald Sun to their own union bosses asking for the blockades to stop. That is not what we want to see. We want the workers to be able to go to work. We have been committed to that and we want to see a return to the rule of law and to productivity on construction sites.

We took that commitment to the 2010 and 2013 federal elections as a key policy. The Australian people knew this; we said very directly that it was what we would do, and that is exactly what we are doing. We are committed to ensuring that the rule of law is maintained and that workers in the building and construction sector can go to work free of intimidation and harassment.

We also promised that a re-established Australian Building and Construction Commission would administer a code to govern industrial relations arrangements for government-funded projects. The bill contains provisions to ensure that unlawful action, including unlawful industrial action and unlawful pickets, are dealt with appropriately. I suggest that that is what the workers who advertised in the Herald Sun were asking for, and that is what we are providing them with.

The bill also includes the ability for the courts to impose significant penalties for individuals and organisations that participate in unlawful actions, again underpinning what those workers were wanting when they took out that advertisement.

The Australian Building and Construction Commissioner will also be able to exercise their power to obtain information quickly—that is critical—and effectively without being hindered by unnecessary bureaucratic red tape around the issue of examination notices. However, to ensure accountability and transparency, the use of these powers will continue to be reviewed and reported on by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Importantly, the bill encourages productivity and the pursuit of high levels of employment in the building and construction industry.

It will create jobs and investment by ensuring employers and workers—the same workers who took out the ad in the Herald Sun wanting to go to work—that they can go to work and can get on with the job without fear of intimidation. In the future under this legislation the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner will be able to compel witnesses to attend an examination or to produce documents where he or she reasonably believes that the person has information or documents relevant to an investigation into a suspected contravention of workplace relations laws.

These powers are needed to ensure the Australian Building and Construction Commission is able to carry out its investigations effectively and is a key tool for breaking down what is often seen as a culture of silence. There are appropriate and effective safeguards in this bill, however, to ensure due process and transparency in the use of these powers. As the first step in the government’s restoration, I support very strongly the Australian Building and Construction Commission—I see one of the members in the House who also supports this very strongly—but I certainly do not support the amendments moved by the previous speaker.