House of Representatives Speech-Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013

What we are seeing here today is that the party of Work Choices is back in government. They cannot wait to reintroduce the harsh regime of Work Choices, and this is the first taste we are seeing of it. They have put before the parliament a bill which brings back the Australian Building and Construction Commission which, in government, Labor abolished, keeping a commitment to the Australian people from the 2007 election. The history of the building industry since the Australian Building and Construction Commission was abolished has been an increase in productivity and a reduction in days lost in the building industry. That is the important thing to notice.

What we are seeing here today is that the party of Work Choices is back in government. They cannot wait to reintroduce the harsh regime of Work Choices, and this is the first taste we are seeing of it. They have put before the parliament a bill which brings back the Australian Building and Construction Commission which, in government, Labor abolished, keeping a commitment to the Australian people from the 2007 election. The history of the building industry since the Australian Building and Construction Commission was abolished has been an increase in productivity and a reduction in days lost in the building industry. That is the important thing to notice.

No evidence has been put before the parliament by this government that in any way supports the return that they are proposing with this bill to a harsh and oppressive regime. It would impose an almost police-state form of regulation on the building industry. It is very similar to the bill that was before the House yesterday, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill. With that bill, similarly, the government is seeking to introduce anti-union measures which are harsh and repressive, and which are in no way justified by evidence by anything that is actually happening in the real world of building sites.

A number of previous speakers in this debate have noted the Australian Bureau of Statistics data but it is worth repeating. That data shows that the rate of industrial disputation in the building and construction industry is now, on average, less than one-fifth of the rate seen under the previous coalition government. It shows that labour productivity has increased over the last 10 quarters and that in the building industry it is, on average, almost three times higher under the fair work legislation than it was under Work Choices.

But of course one will read nothing of that kind of statistic in the minister's second reading speech, and one will hear nothing of the news from the real world in any of the ideologically driven speeches from those opposite. Instead, in pursuit of their anti-union agenda, they are producing a form of regulation which is excessive, undemocratic, unwarranted and extraordinarily harsh in comparison to regulation under the previous form of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

Let's recall that, the last time the party of Work Choices was in government, the present Prime Minister as minister instituted the Cole royal commission, in 2001. That was a royal commission into supposed criminality. It was said to be investigating fraud and corruption within the building and construction industry. That is what it was supposed to be investigating, despite the fact that the then Australian Building and Construction Commission had no role in investigating crime—let alone organised crime, which is, obviously, a matter for police. After 18 months and $66 million of taxpayers' money—that is what that expensive political stunt, that witch-hunt that the present Prime Minister put in place when he was minister, cost—the Cole royal commission failed to produce a single criminal conviction.

Now, in the 44th Parliament, Mr Abbott is continuing his expensive attacks, including this particular attack on workers' rights and entitlements. It is a bitter irony that, on the day after the Australian Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, gave a new reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission—a reference to identify provisions in Commonwealth legislation that, to quote from the senator's press release, 'unreasonably encroach upon traditional rights, freedoms and privileges'—we have this bill before the parliament. It is hard to imagine a greater encroachment on, to use the Attorney-General's words, 'traditional rights, freedoms and privileges'. In the terms of reference that the Attorney-General has given to the Australian Law Reform Commission, he directs the Law Reform Commission to inquire into laws that:

reverse or shift the burden of proof;

deny procedural fairness to persons affected by the exercise of public power;

exclude the right to claim the privilege of self-incrimination;

abrogate legal professional privilege;

…   …   …

interfere with freedom of speech;

…   …   …

interfere with freedom of association …

And so on. The bill before the House does all of these things. It is an abrogation of traditional rights, freedoms and privileges.

I hope that the Attorney-General is participating in some kind of cabinet process, because it appears that, he has turned a blind eye—despite his purported concern, with this reference to the Australian Law Reform Commission—to protecting 'traditional rights, freedoms and privileges'. In fact, this Attorney-General could not care less when it comes to this legislation that is proposed for the building industry. In this bill we have unfettered coercive powers, secret interviews, and imprisonment for people who do not cooperate with the secret interviews and the investigations to be conducted in secret by this proposed Australian building commission. People interviewed, under this bill, will have no right to silence. People interviewed will have no right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice.

Let's bear in mind the words of the now Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, before the election. He often used to refer to his workplace policies as 'returning the industrial relations pendulum back to the sensible centre'. Is it the 'sensible centre' to deny the right to silence? Is it the 'sensible centre' to deny people the right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice? Is it the 'sensible centre' to give unfettered coercive powers to a Commonwealth instrumentality, to give them the power to conduct secret interviews and to prosecute and imprison people who refuse to cooperate with this Australian building commission?

Mr Abbott promised to revive the Australian Building and Construction Commission, but he has broken his pledge, because this legislation goes far further than the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was replaced by Fair Work Building and Construction with a far more balanced regime by the former, Labor government. This Prime Minister has broken his promise, because this legislation extends the reach of the Australian Building and Construction Commission that is proposed here into picketing, offshore construction, and the transport and supply of goods to building sites. That is not a revival. It is, in fact, a re-establishment of a new body with very significantly broader powers than its 2005 incarnation. We are not getting, here—again to use the Prime Minister's words—a 'tough cop on the beat'. We are getting an unnecessary workplace bully.

In the second reading speech that the minister offered to this House there was an attempt to justify the return of the Australian Building and Construction Commission by referring to a recent report compiled by the consulting firm Independent Economics—or Econtec, as it was formerly known. You would have to say of this firm that it has a very long history of turning out reports that attack workers. It has a very long history of turning out reports that attack unions, all the time pretending to demonstrate some kind of path to improved productivity.

The member for Sturt failed to disclose, in his second reading speech, that this same consulting firm once had the rare distinction of producing modelling that was so inaccurate that former Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox described the work as deeply flawed and recommended that it ought to be totally disregarded. When former Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox was making those comments he was making them about a report by Econtec that was in the very same area as the material on which the minister is now purporting to rely. The member for Sturt has a blind eye not only to the flaws in this report but to all of the evidence about current conditions in the building industry and the fact that the current building industry regulatory arrangements are working well.

As with the legislation that was brought before the parliament yesterday—the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2013—this second reading speech and all of the government's material purporting to support the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission completely ignores the present regime. What ought to be clear to anybody—to any properly informed observer of the Australian building and construction industry—is that the Fair Work Building and Construction Division established by Labor already has sufficient powers to deal with any unlawful behaviour in the industry. The Fair Work Building and Construction Division has, in its history, outperformed—and it will continue to outperform—its predecessor, the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Fair Work Australia Building and Construction Division already has a full suite of appropriate investigative and prosecution powers to deal with any unlawful behaviour in the building and construction industry, whether that behaviour is by employers or employees, by unions or contractors. We have, in Fair Work Australia, a well-established, well-resourced, well-staffed body, which is already undertaking more investigations, concluding investigations, getting matters to court faster and recovering more money for workers in the industry.

The Fair Work Australia Building and Construction Division has secured over $2 million in unpaid wages and entitlements for more than 1,500 workers. Those are breaches that the Australian Building and Construction Commission never focused on. I come back to conditions, because this is what we should be hearing about from the government. We should be focused on evidence about conditions in the industry. The evidence from the industry—I will repeat it because it bears repeating—is that industrial disputation in the building and construction industry is on average less than one fifth of the rates seen under the previous coalition government. Labor productivity has increased over the last 10 quarters and, on average, is almost three times higher under Fair Work Building and Construction than under Work Choices.

Under Fair Work Australia, the rates of industrial disputes are on average about one-third of the rate we saw under the previous coalition government and in the building and construction industry they are around one-fifth of the rate we saw under the previous coalition government. This is at a time when more Australians than ever before are covered by enterprise agreements, which shows that the vast majority of the agreements are made without any industrial action at all. What we see in this bill is the determination of the Abbott government to take Australia back to the failed Australian Building and Construction Commission. That shows that the return to Work Choices is just below the surface of this government. And a very poor disguise this bill is, indeed.