Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.
Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.
Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (11:14): As we can see from the preamble, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill purports to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission in order to return to stronger regulation of unlawful conduct in respect of the rule of law within the framework of the construction industry. People here will not be surprised that I oppose the reintroduction of the ABCC. Like many on my side of the House, I have had a connection with the trade union movement. But it is not because of that that I take a strong view on this issue. I have two sons who work in the construction industry, and I will return later to some of their experiences which, quite frankly, indicate that we do need strong representation in industries like the construction industry—strong representation so people can stand up against injustices. Moreover, we need another set of eyes determined to look at safety issues in that industry.
I oppose this bill. The re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is an oppressive move. Its powers are extreme and the legislation is heavy-handed. There is the ability to conduct secret interviews and it provides for the imprisonment of people for up to six months for failing to cooperate. The commission has coercive powers. Bear in mind that the Building and Construction Commission is a civil regulator. We all talk about due process, and that is right. I participated in the debates about the Australian Crime Commission, and I know many here opposed the coercive powers given to the commission. But we supported that. We supported coercive powers going to a body designed to fight serious and organised crime. That body has extensive coercive powers—it can direct cooperation, it can direct the production of material, and failure to comply can render someone liable to imprisonment. We take criminal justice seriously, and that is why we supported those propositions.
Back in 2009, in government, we supported extending the powers of the ACC so it had the ability to target serious criminals in respect of unexplained wealth. Those sitting opposite, and indeed the current Attorney-General, opposed the application of those powers—they watered them down so much that the power of the Australian Federal Police to prosecute serious and organised crime was rendered impotent. They did that because they did not want to impinge upon the rule of law. That shows you their view of the application of criminal justice and fighting serious and organised crime, but when it comes to fighting workers in the construction industry they say, 'We have a civil jurisdiction and we will vest them with these coercive powers—the power to command and direct attendance, to produce material and the ability to conduct secret interviews—but we will do it for one class of worker in one industry.'
As I said at the outset, I am a former trade union official. I certainly will not support people who are doing the wrong thing in any way. We do not support criminality, and none of us should. Whether it is unions or industry or a conglomerate of people acting inappropriately, we do not support injustice. The trade union movement exists because there is a need. It exists to protect people. Returning to my sons, both Nicholas and Jonathan work in the construction industry—a pretty torrid industry in some cases; there is no doubt about that. My son Nicholas was working with a fly-in fly-out operation in Western Australia. I remember getting the call the night that a person he was working with got crushed to death. Cutting corners has consequences. The idea of having a strong and committed set of eyes looking at workplace safety is not an industrial thing—that should be something that we all subscribe to. That is the experience of my own family. I have met with many workers and their families who have told me about similar aspects of their work. In many instances they are not who you would see as red-hot trade unionists—they are people who subscribe to the union so it can play a safety role and monitor and improve workers' conditions.
This legislation has been introduced by the same conservative government that brought in Work Choices not all that long ago. Many of us were around at that stage; many of us went to work sites. When I was the member for Werriwa I remember visiting a site and being told that workers were being paid less than the award rates of pay. Those sitting opposite, under John Howard at the time, made it legal for the first time in this country to attack workers generally and to pay them less than the award rate of pay. I remember talking about this to a director of this company, who occupied a very senior international sporting position as well. I got along with him very well, and I asked why he was doing this. In fairness to him, he said he did not have an answer but he would get back to me. He went to his next board meeting and then he rang me up and said, 'Chris, you are not going to like the answer—the answer is that we are doing it because the laws permit us to do it.' He said that, simply put, they were going to look after the people who own the company—the shareholders—and if they could use legislation to their advantage then they believed they had an obligation to do it. They got workers on minimum award rates to sign away benefits under individual contracts—it was either sign a contract or no job. They were being paid less than the award. All this hoo-ha that the government is not after unions or trying to suppress workers is fanciful.
It was not all that long ago that we heard people over there talking about a need for greater flexibility in the workplace—'We need to do away with weekend penalty rates.' I do not know about the people opposite, but I suspect that they have people in their electorates, like in mine, who are working class people. These are people who are working to provide a home, to send their kids to school and to have a life for the family, and who are dependent on their total wage take, which includes penalty rates. People over there think that is very trite. They say, 'Saturday and Sunday are no different than any other day of the week these days. Workers in hospitality should just suck it up. Retail workers—well, anyone can go shopping at any time.' Where does this stop? What about our police, who I spent a lot of time representing before I came into politics in 2005? What does it do to the ambulance officers who my little brother now looks after in the HSU? What about all these other groups out there that have a role providing services to our community at unsavoury times—weekends, Christmas Day and outside normal working hours? They are all impacted. We see this as more than just an issue of another piece of draconian legislation coming from this government. This is now, as I say, a very specific attack on a class of people and on a particular industry.
I certainly rail against singling a group out like this. I read about and was concerned about, like everyone else, what flowed out of the royal commission into trade unions. I was also concerned by the way it was all started— that it was set up as a body to attack the Leader of the Opposition. With some of the things that emerged there, you would have to say, 'They were wrong,' but let us look at someone those opposite actually took credit for —Kathy Jackson. I remember Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and others waxing lyrical that this woman was a heroine and a standout in the trade union movement. She was a woman who had dedicated herself to ridding the organisation of corruption. What happened to their champion—the one they held up? She was the very person who made the approach to the Abbott government about setting up a royal commission. She has been referred by the commission to prosecutors for possible charges. She seems to have committed a litany of indiscretions which pale into insignificance when you see what this legislation is trying to address. By the way, the commission did not catch her. If it were not for Brad Norington and The Australian, she would have just flitted along. Bear in mind, she did say that the solicitors in the royal commission helped to draft her deposition, so she must have been regarded as being a pretty high quality, positive witness for them at one point in time, before The Australian newspaper outed her. What about Michael Williamson from the HSU? He certainly was not caught by that royal commission either. As I recall, it was Operation Pendennis, with the New South Wales police using existing powers to find and prosecute criminality.
This piece of legislation is to make good on the government's secret promises to employers: 'If you elect us, while we have already given a public undertaking that we're not going to touch workplace relations, we will do this. We'll re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. We'll show you that we're going to be hard on workers.' This is their first big entry back into Work Choices. This will give coercive powers to a civil jurisdiction—not a criminal jurisdiction, a civil jurisdiction. It will give the workplace regulator powers which are almost unparalleled throughout the rest of our democracy.
If we are going to vest this organisation with such extreme powers, why is it that those opposite cannot commit to the retention of the Safe Rates tribunal, which was set up to ensure that our heavy-haulage road users are not subject to adverse price pressures from Coles, Woolworths and other major retail providers that put downward pressure on transport rates, impacting on the lives of everyone who uses the road? They are deathly silent about that. They are not going to talk about those issues. It is not that that is only in the interests of members of the Transport Workers Union; it is in the interest of every road user to ensure that people are not cutting corners, adopting unsafe work practices or tampering with the odometers on their trucks to circumvent regulation to drive additional miles at lower rates of pay simply to make a living. The government will not commit to that. As I said, they made it very clear that penalty rates should be on the agenda. They said, 'For retail workers and for hospitality workers, it's fair enough that you lose your penalty rates, but believe us—trust us—we don't mean it's going to happen to police officers, ambulance officers, nurses or anybody else who works unfriendly hours.'
I know those opposite. I was about to say that they probably do not believe this, but they probably still do— once you start this, the thin edge of the wedge is going to proliferate through it. This is the beginning of Work Choices. They are being true to what they promised before the election. They said, 'Whilst we're not going to touch workplace relations legislation, we will demonstrate to employers out there that we're going to be tough on workers.' If you are going to be tough on workers, I think you should be tough on workplace compliance to health and safety regulation. You should be tough on compliance when it comes to overseas workers and the way they have been engaged and exploited in the Australian workplace. You should be tough on employers who have used, as 7-Eleven did, a contrivance to pay people half the award rate of pay. By the way, I do not recall anyone sitting on that side of the parliament getting up and commenting about any of those issues—any of them.
I oppose this legislation. It is only making good on election promises made by the conservatives. This is the start of Work Choices all over again.