Senator FIFIELD (Victoria) (1.44 p.m.)-I also rise to speak in the matters of public interest debate. Can I say how lovely it is to see you in the chair, Mr Acting Deputy President Trood.
Senator FIFIELD-It is Mr Acting Deputy President Trood’s first day in the chair.
Senator Stephens-Oh, I see.
Senator FIFIELD-Mr Acting Deputy President, I am sure that you, like me, are very pleased that Australian workplaces are largely cooperative and characterised by harmony and productivity. Fortunately, when most Australians go to their workplaces, there are certain things that they take for granted. Indeed, Australians are entitled to expect certain elements in their work life. They expect not to be intimidated and coerced, they expect to enjoy the freedom to associate and they expect to be allowed to do the job that they were employed to do.
Until relatively recently, there was one industry in Australia that did not provide this environment for its workers. It was an industry rife with criminal activity, violence, intimidation, coercion and lawlessness. I speak, of course, about the commercial building and construction industry. This industry was rife with illegal activity, and these were the findings of the Cole royal commission, whose final report was presented in 2003 and which picked up where the New South Wales Giles royal commission left off in 1992. The Cole commission found and identified 392 separate instances of unlawful conduct during the course of its investigations. Of course it will come as no surprise that the main culprits behind the intimidation, the coercion and the blatant disregard for the rule of law were militant elements of the trade union movement, particularly the CFMEU and the ETU.
Senator Mason-That can’t be right!
Senator FIFIELD-I know it is hard to believe, Senator Mason. These are the unions that brought a procession of thugs, including Dean Mighell, Kevin Reynolds and Joe McDonald as well as convicted criminals such as Craig Johnston. The state of the commercial construction industry was bad not only for ordinary workers but for the economy. Union rorts and industrial strife meant that commercial construction suffered from poor productivity. For instance, it used to cost around 20 per cent more to perform tasks in the commercial building industry than in the domestic residential building sector.
But it was the coalition that undertook to fix these problems and that ordered the investigation of this industry with the establishment of the Cole royal commission. Better legislation was part of the solution, but only part. The law itself needed to actually be enforced, and the culture needed to be changed. So the coalition established the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a new watchdog to ensure compliance with the laws of the land by employers, employees and unions in the construction sector. This was the central recommendation of Commissioner Cole, who stated:
This body will remove any reason that any participant in the industry has to engage in unlawful or inappropriate conduct. It will also ensure that unlawful conduct comes to the attention of an entity established to ensure the law is adhered to.
The commission began its work on 1 October 2005 and has investigated and prosecuted dozens of cases of unlawful conduct. More importantly, the presence of an independent watchdog with strong enforcement powers has led to a much more lawful and harmonious industry. This, in turn, has created a more productive construction industry. An analysis by Econtech found that construction industry labour productivity was 10 per cent higher thanks to the work of the ABCC. It also found that the once troubled commercial construction industry had, since 2004, posted productivity gains of 7.3 per cent above those in residential construction. In 1996 the industry saw 335 working days lost per 1,000 employees. By 2007 that number had dropped to just seven working days. The same Econtech report also examined the economy-wide impact of the ABCC’s activities and made some telling findings. The report found that the productivity gains in construction produced improved outcomes across the economy, including a 1.2 per cent reduction in the CPI, a 1.5 per cent gain in GDP and an annual economic welfare gain of more than $5 billion.
These results would not have happened in the absence of the ABCC, and there is no doubt that the reforms to the construction industry recommended following the Cole commission and implemented by the coalition have been good for the economy. Even today, the ABCC is stamping out union thuggery and intimidation in construction workplaces. One need only look through a few of the current cases being brought by the ABCC to see why this important body must continue its work on a permanent basis.
The CFMEU has a long and colourful shame file. Take the case of CFMEU organisers Brendan Pitt and Robert Mates, who entered the Austin Hospital site in Heidelberg in Melbourne on 15 May 2007. There they threatened and intimidated a contractor when they approached him and asked if he was considering becoming a member of the CFMEU. Not unreasonably, he replied that he had thought about it but had decided-‘Thanks very much’-not to join the union. Mr Pitt and Mr Mates then allegedly told the individual that in order to keep working on the site he needed to pay up and join and that, if he did not, he had to stop work and leave the site immediately. This is the sort of attack on freedom of association that militant unions like the CFMEU support. All Australians deserve the right to choose for themselves, without threats or intimidation, whether or not to join a union. Unfortunately, all too often unions like the CFMEU show no respect for this right. The ABCC is there to protect workers from this intimidation.
Then there is our old friend Joe McDonald, with the typical born-to-rule attitude of many trade union officials who think it is their right to barge into a workplace anywhere and at any time and to behave like thugs. The ABCC is currently engaged in action to ensure that Mr McDonald is not issued a workplace right of entry for at least three years. It is also seeking to have the permits of three other CFMEU officials revoked or suspended. The reason-for consorting with Mr McDonald to unlawfully enter work sites to threaten, abuse and intimidate workers.
Here is another instance of CFMEU coercion. Two CFMEU standover men, Edmond Casper and Mick Lane, approached a number of plasterers working on a site and told them that they could not work on the site unless they were financial members of the union. Further, Mr Lane then told the site foreman for the company which had engaged the plastering subcontractors, ProFinish Interiors Pty Ltd, that unless the company entered into a certified agreement with the CFMEU on another work site then ProFinish would not be able to continue work on the site. Surprise, surprise! The plasterers were soon terminated, with the company indicating that they did so under pressure from Mr Lane because the plasterers were not union members. These officials were simply following the union code of conduct, which includes a section where delegates are asked to agree to:
… abide to the best of my capacity by the CFMEU Code of Conduct for union delegates as detailed below:
To ensure that all workers on site are financial members of the relevant union …
This is the section that gives the green light to thuggery. As a result of Mr Casper’s and Mr Lane’s actions, the plasterers had to leave the site and did not obtain alternative work for many weeks-honest workers yet again the innocent victims of union thuggery. However, after the ABCC brought this matter to court, the CFMEU was ordered to destroy its code of conduct for union delegates. It is a very sad irony that these unions who claim to be the great protectors of workers’ rights spend their time trampling all over them.
What is the Labor government’s response to this history of union abuse and intimidation in the building and construction industry? It is to abolish the ABCC by 2010, to abolish the very body which is providing protection for workers. But even this commitment by the Labor government is not good enough for the unions: they want the abolition date brought forward from 2010. The unions are now running an expensive advertising campaign to that end and threatening the preselection of Labor members who do not toe the line. So what does the government do in response to this campaign? Does it tell the unions to rack off? No; it invites the CFMEU, the CEPU, the AWU and the AMWU to address caucus. That is really telling the unions where to get off! But we should not be surprised: the unions bankrolled Labor’s campaign at the last election and he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Senator Cameron, former AMWU boss, told the Age last Friday that the ABCC’s operation contravenes the ILO’s conventions. There is no surprise there. The member for Lyons has also said of the ABCC’s powers:
I think we should be able to wind that back somewhat before 2010. It should be wound back-
In other words, abandon the election promise. But Senator Lundy was a little more diplomatic, a little trickier. She said that the government would keep its promise even though ‘a lot of us are uncomfortable about this policy’. She went on to say of the government’s apparent commitment to keep its promise:
I don’t think that impacts from the opportunity to explore what could be done in still respecting that promise.
So what Senator Lundy is saying is: ‘How can we sneakily water down the election commitment to support the ABCC and its powers until 2010 while keeping the appearance, rather than the substance, of the promise?’
There is certainly a good deal of support in caucus for the idea of breaking Labor’s commitment to keep the ABCC until 2010. I recently came across a copy of a very informative publication, the Jagajaga Autumn State Conference report, which is very enlightening. The delegates had a bit of a policy debate and one of the motions they passed says:
We also debated a resolution calling for the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission … This resolution was unanimously passed by the Conference.
Two of the authors of this report are interesting-Dean Rizzetti and Vicki Ward. Where do you think Dean and Vicki work? In the office of Jenny Macklin, the member for Jagajaga and a Labor cabinet minister.
But there is more. I was interested to find a Facebook site entitled ‘Get Rid of the Australian Building and Construction Commission Now!’ and the blurb says:
Our mission is to force the government to get rid of the ABCC completely right now!
This cause has some very interesting supporters. There is Dean Mighell-no surprise there-and a couple of Hong Lim and Janice Munt staffers from the Victorian state parliament. But there are also a few very naughty federal Labor staffers on that site-Braedan Hogan, from the member for Moreton’s office; Dean Rizzetti, whom I have already mentioned; Andrew Porter, from the member for Melbourne Ports’ office; and Ben Lyons, who obviously shares the views of his boss, Senator Lundy. There is also the Victorian state Labor member for Melton, Don Nardella, oblivious to the fact that the construction industry has suffered more in Victoria than in almost any other state, thanks to union militancy. The cost blow-out on the upgrade of the Spencer Street Station is just one example. But the most revealing member of this Facebook site is none other than Senator Mark Furner, the new Labor senator from Queensland. He has been here barely five minutes and he has broken a hamstring, so quick out of the blocks was he to break an election commitment. It is good to see Senator Furner wasting no time in this place.
At the same time that Labor is talking about a war on inflation, the government proposes to abolish the ABCC, a move that will see upward pressure on inflation, growth slow and unemployment rise. That is the Labor prescription. I will not read them all out, but there is a catalogue in the Financial Review of Labor members and senators who went to the caucus briefing by the unions on the plan to abolish the ABCC, so scared were they about their loss of preselection. But most disappointing of all is that Mr Tanner, the great economic rationalist, was there. This government has a plan to abolish the ABCC sooner rather than later. If we want to point to economic vandals, if we want to talk about economic vandalism, we only have to look at those who want to abolish the ABCC and see a return to union militancy and thuggery on Australian work sites and who want to reduce productivity, increase inflation and raise unemployment. They should be condemned.