BILLS: Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2], second reading
The construction industry is one of great importance to the Australian economy. Construction projects across the country provide thousands of Australians with jobs, with homes and with businesses, and with hope. These are an important contributor to national gross domestic product and economic growth.
With more Australians choosing to build their own homes and with business construction increasing with the coalition government's proud record of $50 billion—a record—infrastructure investment and the private investment sector right across this wide brown land, the need for a reliable and professional construction industry has never been stronger. The coalition understands fully the importance of a strong construction industry. It is vital that we have the homes, businesses, roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and other projects which communities need. But it is just as vital that those people who build the projects do so in a professional, reliable and, most importantly, a safe manner and safe environment.
This is not the first time that I have spoken in parliament about these facts. It is not the first time I have praised family owned building companies and the importance of a strong construction industry, particularly as we think about building better and more resilient regional communities and economies—and I am most interested in those regional communities. Nor is this the first time that I have called on the Senate and colleagues here in this House to accept that the Australian Building and Construction Commission actually worked. It is as simple as that. Yet, here we are, more than two years later, and there are findings of a new royal commission which demonstrate the extent to which union lawlessness has eroded productivity gains and the advancement of regional development right across the country.
We are a government, of course, who respect the rights of workers to the rule of law, to a safe and secure workplace and to choose to join or to not join the unions based on their own preferences. We are a government who know that high-rises over cities and witches' hats on rural roads mean jobs for people and multiplier effects for local communities, including those in my electorate of the Riverina. This bill, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2], is about ensuring exactly that—the building industry doing what it does best. Ours is not a plan to unfairly target a scrupulous industry, nor to place in jeopardy the construction projects the economy needs. It is simply a plan to reinstate the ABCC—a successful agency of the Howard government—to ensure that our construction industry can do what it does best. Australia is a country with an international reputation of building things, of getting on with the job, of getting stuck in and of having a go—a fair go.
Certainly, this government is very serious about building the roads, bridges, inland rail and other infrastructure programs that our country so desperately needs. The Deputy Prime Minister—the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, Warren Truss—is getting on with that job. This is a vision replicated throughout the private sector as well. All this bill does is complement that intent. It is the reintroduction of a genuine, independent and strong watchdog to uphold the rule of law and to protect workers and constructors. In doing that, this bill will improve productivity on building sites right across the nation, whether the project is onshore or, indeed, offshore. In a nutshell, increased productivity and less red tape will mean more jobs for Australians in the construction industry.
The rule of law, however simple, is the solid foundation for everything for which we stand in this parliament and this country. It is hardly a controversial idea. All this bill is suggesting is the reintroduction of a strong watchdog which favours the rule of law. But there are operators within some unions who are determined to stymie this development and have workers used simply as political pawns rather than as a part of a construction project. It is important to reflect on the fact that the ABCC was introduced by the Howard government in response to the Cole royal commission into the incidence of union thuggery and the compelling evidence of the need for reform within the industry—and that was in 2001.
The ABCC came into effect in 2005, and the industrial performance of the building and construction industry improved significantly. The statistics back this up. Productivity in the building and construction industry grew by more than nine per cent. Consumers were better off by around an annual figure of $7½ billion. Importantly, fewer working days were lost to industrial action. This was the finding of an independent economics report on the sector during the time the ABCC was in effect that was published in 2013. Those statistics are staggering. More than anything, those statistics demonstrate that things were working effectively under the ABCC. Consumers were able to get the construction jobs they had commissioned finished within a reliable period. The country's GDP benefited from strong growth within the community, meaning there would be more jobs and opportunities for workers, and those workers spent more days in paid employment and lost fewer in industrial action.
The ABCC was established because there was a problem, and this was a watchdog with the imprimatur to fix it. However, the Gillard Labor government came under sustained pressure from their mates in the union movement to undo all the good of the strong and effective watchdog—and what a shame that is. Labor, knowing it owes its dues in many senses to those mates in the unions, procrastinated for years. The former government ordered a review into the watchdog's effectiveness and the building code. The then minister responsible—now opposition leader—the member for Maribyrnong, caved in to union demands and watered down a previously effective watchdog, more's the pity. The opposition leader cut the watchdog's funding and replaced it with a powerless observer to the scenes of militant unionism we saw on display in this nation thereafter.
We all remember the scenes in Melbourne merely weeks after the ABCC's abolition of violence on the streets of the Victorian capital. There was violence, union protesters intimidating many people within the community on the picket lines and attacks on police horses. It was the bad old days of the militant unions at their very worst. We all heard the stories of those workers within the construction sector who were berated for not joining the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, such that posters were even made to advocate running those non-union members out of the industry. Shame! We all know these are disturbing stories. It not only makes a mockery of the Fair Work Act and Supreme Court orders to end the process or to respect the right of people to not join the union should they so choose, it also had an impact in an immeasurable way on the investment in and the confidence of the industry itself.
The member for Hinkler said in his contribution this is not a union witch-hunt. He is right. On this side of the House we do understand that there is a role for unions to operate—constructively—within the Australian economy. I was a union member for 21 years, but I also support and understand the right of people to not join a union if they do not wish to do so. People should have that right in Australia, and it should be respected. This was not something afforded to those workers who were labelled 'scabs' and worse, those who simply wanted to turn up to work on a major construction job somewhere and get the job done.
The member for Hinkler was also correct when he spoke about the other side of the resources boom within rural and regional areas, particularly in the parts of Queensland he represents, where there was a construction boom. This was a great injection into many communities, and it simply worked better when there was a strong regulator in place. In cities such as Gladstone—in the member for Flynn's electorate—Townsville and other parts of central Queensland, there were massive projects which provided many jobs and opportunities to local people, and the multiplier effect of that is critical. In regions such as those, it is important local workforces are also engaged to ensure our regions can get the most out of the local multiplier effect and to build stronger and more resilient communities.
The member for Lyne made an important point in his speech in this debate about the justification this government has for the reintroduction of the ABCC. We have campaigned on it, and the member knows that. He is someone who was a candidate for Lyne at both the 2010 and 2013 elections and he knows well that the Liberal and National parties have been serious about this change for some time. We have taken it to the people twice. We have introduced it to this House before and we are serious about ensuring Australia's construction industry has a strong and independent watchdog.
In my own electorate there is strong support for these measures too. The Riverina's construction industry is not heavily unionised. However, local contractors and sub-contractors should and do apply to work on major projects around the region. Ryan Knight, the owner and operator of Viewco Glass, a very successful company in Wagga Wagga, praised this legislation and the importance of a strong and independent regulator. He told me, 'As Viewco Glass is an employer of 30 local people, we support an independent watchdog for disputes that arise in any future dealings with small and large construction projects.' Mr Knight served as president of the Housing Industry Association throughout my electorate for three years and only recently retired because he was at his term limit. Mr Knight understands, as do many in the Riverina's construction industry, that we should have a strong watchdog in place to ensure, alongside good employers and a constructive union, that workers' rights are respected and upheld, that the rule of law is upheld and that the consumer can get what they want out of the construction industry.
This is an important bill. It is an important debate. It is far from a union witch-hunt, and it is something that our colleagues in the other place must consider properly. Simply, the ABCC worked effectively and well when it was in place under the Howard government. Unfortunately, it was abolished because the Labor Party owed its dues to its Labor mates in the unions who do not share our view of a strong and reliable construction industry and would rather use the rights of their workers as some sort of, it is sad to say, political pawn.
We have to put a strong regulator in place. We have to respect the rule of law. The workers' rights should be respected, including the right to not join the union if they so choose. The statistics demonstrate that this is an undeniable fact: the ABCC worked. This bill is simply cleaning up the mess of its watered-down replacement. I certainly commend it to the House.
Terence Cole's royal commission under the Howard government led the way for the establishment of the ABCC. I want to read what he said in a letter to the editor of The Australian that appeared yesterday, and it is very pertinent to this debate. His letter, headed 'Opponents of the ABCC should explain why they back unlawful conduct', read:
The main recommendation of the 2001 royal commission into the building and construction industry was the introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Its purpose was to reintroduce the rule of law in the industry. That was necessary because of widespread unlawful conduct. The commission established that such conduct was detrimental to the economy, and thus to the Australian people, as the increased costs of such conduct were passed on to the community.
In 2007, after the introduction of the ABCC, savings due to the reduction in unlawful action were assessed at $3.1 billion per annum. In 2012, savings due to reduction in unlawful action was assessed by the Master Builders Association at $6.3 billion per annum. On any view, benefits to the economy due to the effectiveness of the ABCC in diminishing unlawful conduct, were very great.
In 2012, the then government, whilst recognising the need for strong measures to maintain the reduced level of unlawfulness in the industry, altered the arrangements and abolished the ABCC.
In 2015, the Heydon royal commission report established that unlawful conduct was again prevalent in the industry. Such conduct carries deleterious costs to Australians.
Surely it is incumbent upon those who oppose the reintroduction of the ABCC to explain how it is to the advantage of the economy, and to the Australian people who bear the great costs of unlawful action, to have an increased level of unlawfulness in the building and construction industry which the ABCC has demonstrated it can suppress, but which existing arrangements do not.
I could not have put it better myself. There we have it from Terence Cole, whose royal commission led to the foundation of the ABCC. He has put it so well, and it is so pertinent to this debate.
There are so many examples of unlawful conduct in the building and construction industry. On 19 June 2015 the Federal Court fined the CFMEU and five of its officials more than half a million dollars for unlawful conduct at the $40 million Australian government funded Common Ground housing project for long-term homeless people. In its penalty judgement the Federal Court said the conduct 'was a deliberate stratagem on the part of the CFMEU'. The court went on to say that:
An industrial organisation, be it an employer organisation or an employee organisation, which persistently abuses the privilege by engaging in unlawful conduct cannot expect to remain registered.
There are many, many more examples. In Grocon & Ors v the CFMEU & Ors in 2013, the Victorian Supreme Court found the CFMEU guilty on all five charges of contempt of court orders following the proceedings initiated by Grocon. In 2014 the CFMEU was penalised $1.25 million for its contempt and was ordered to pay costs, and Justice Cavanough said:
The court must visit the defiance of the CFMEU with a penalty which will not only adequately respond to the scale of the defiance but also act as a general and specific deterrent. No fines of the level previously imposed could do that.
It is right through it. The ABCC needs to be reintroduced. This bill does just that, and I commend it to the House.