Tuesday, 29 November
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:27): I did not jump in order to seek a clarification, because I was interested in the question of my colleague and was waiting for the minister to jump. If I have jumped in front of her I would obviously let her go first.
The CHAIR: I called you, Senator Rhiannon. The minister did not give any indication that she was going to stand.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Chair. I was interested to read the amendment and to see some of the comments by the senator who has moved it, who often talks about his interest in a libertarian approach to his work in this place and in reducing the laws that he often argues encumber how Australians go about their life and their work. I have therefore been surprised at his willingness to support this legislation. I was interested in this amendment, in the context that it would appear that it runs cover, I suppose one could say. It appears to be doing something to the legislation but at the end of the day the legislation is still the same. I am constantly receiving new information about this legislation and what it will do. I think there is a disjunct here between the amendment we are considering and what is suggested its intent is and then the overall legislation, which will not be fundamentally altered in any way.
One aspect that has come up a lot is the issue of people's safety. That really is integral to what is going on here. We know that under this legislation it will be harder for unions to ensure that there is safety on the job. Again, that is where the end product here is very damaging to the Australian way of life. You would think a starting point for everybody here would be public safety. I thought it would be useful to share some information about the John Holland Group companies. It is a huge player in the construction industry, and it is very significant. I might come back to this later because I think it would be relevant to some of the other issues that we will be considering. It has contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, many of them awarded, in fact, by the federal government. What I have found out—I did not actually know this even though I have worked on some aspects of some of the problems with this company—is that, when it comes to the workplace, it actually has a very privileged position with regard to workers' compensation arrangements. Since 2007, it has held a self-insurance licence under the Comcare scheme. This allows it to manage all its own workers' compensation claims. That is pretty extraordinary. You have to be really trusted to do that. This means that the John Holland Group companies accept the liability to make compensation payments in cases of work related injury or death. It is one of only very few private sector businesses that have been granted that privilege. It is an extraordinary privilege and something that is significant in the whole gamut of the legislation we are considering.
But, when you look into it, the number of accidents on John Holland worksites is truly alarming. Then there is the compensation in how it plays out. Again, I would argue that it is very important that we consider this. Considering that in many of the speeches here we have discussed some of the tragic accidents that have occurred, it is relevant to share some of those with senators who are here now. In 2008, Mark McCallum, at Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal in Queensland, had his legs caught. The whole machinery ran over him and he died. John Holland was fined $180,000. In case after case you start to realise what a life is valued at under this scheme, and it makes very unpleasant reading.
Comcare v John Holland Pty Ltd in 2009 was about another fatality. Wayne Moore, at Mount Whaleback mine in Western Australia, was standing on some unsecured grid mesh. He fell into a pit and was killed. There had been two previous incidents, but John Holland had not done anything about it. In that case, the court decided to impose the maximum penalty under the act of $242,000. John Holland had given an undertaking to ensure they would 'use their best endeavours to observe and implement industry best practice in relation to work, health and safety'.
Then there was another fatality in 2011. Anthony Phelan was sinking railway tracks and could not hear the train coming because of all the noise. He had earplugs in because of the job he was doing. The hose he was using was very noisy. The train came, and he was run over—another fatality. In that case the company was fined $180,00. Also in 2011, Sam Beveridge was struck by a falling beam. The fine was $170,000 in his case.
Now let's get into the very serious injuries. In 2007, tragically, a young man suffered second-degree burns to 20 per cent of his body. They estimate it would have been much more extensive and much more serious if another employee had not intervened. The fine was $124,960. This is the other trend: serious injuries, as well as tragic fatalities.
John Holland give undertakings about what they will do, but you see time and time again the failure to comply. That is under the present system. Under the new system that we are debating here now, the regulations for these companies are virtually gone. The examples we have given of the tragic accidents, fatalities and injuries for Australian workers, backpackers visiting us and overseas workers are going to increase. We saw it when we had the ABCC last time, and that is where we are heading again this time. It is worth reminding ourselves—because I do believe that everybody must be concerned about this incredibly important issue of safety—that this industry we are talking about here, the construction industry, is one of the most dangerous in the country. It is incredibly dangerous. Although the construction industry employs about nine per cent of the nation's workforce, it accounts for 15 per cent of workplace fatalities. If people are wondering why so many of us have addressed this point and why I am addressing it now, it is because of how serious it is.
What we know is that the ABCC will be another federal government body with coercive powers to force ordinary citizens to attend and answer questions. It will be, as some people call it, the 'cop' of the construction industry, the new police force, or whatever you want to call it. But it is not just about the coercive powers. It is about the intimidation and how the culture will change. It will make it so much harder for workers to work together collectively and to organise collectively so that these tragedies that we hear of stop occurring and so we do have safe workplaces.
When I spoke in the second reading debate, I identified that there is a big lie going on here from the government quarters with regard to the reason they are bringing this in. They cannot own up that they are doing it for their corporate mates—the people they will be sharing some pretty high-powered Christmas drinks with and having a good time with. They cannot say that that is why they are doing it—to deliver for the corporations who fund them. But here we have a very clear example: John Holland. Since 1998, John Holland has been a very generous donor to the parties that make up government in this country: Liberal, National and Labor. Over $300,000 has been given. That is money that these parties use to run their election campaigns and to pay for all those glossy television ads making all the promises and making out that they will do the right thing by people, particularly working Australians, when they get into office. We are dealing here with legislation that would turn back the clock in Australia.
The construction union, the CFMEU, has a fine history—150 years—of organising workers, defending working conditions, working for improvements—improvements that affect the whole country, because they flow on. Holiday pay, lunch breaks, sick leave, and occupational health and safety did not come about because some of our forebears arrived here one day and had a good idea. They came about because people on the job organised and went on strike. Their families were often on the picket line, doing it really tough. Those conditions came out of collective action. What we are dealing with here tonight is really ugly, really ruthless. It is about winding that back. It is very relevant when we hear what Senator Leyonhjelm wants to do, whatever you think of the amendment—I am not arguing the point on that. Here we have somebody who says he stands up for a libertarian approach to how we develop our laws or unwind these laws. Let us look at what the outcome of that means, if that is what he wants to do with the ABCC, because it is a very irresponsible approach.
As my colleague Senator Richard Di Natale has identified, doing deals about the ABC and the SBS is just criminal. It is unwinding and undermining some incredibly important public institutions—institutions that I really think help bring Australians together in an incredibly important way. Having a widespread national broadcaster is absolutely integral to our work. So I am deeply disturbed with what I am seeing playing out here with amendments that are attempting to justify why this legislation should be supported. It should not be supported on any basis. If you were committed to the public good, if you were committed to ensuring that we are improving safety on the job and if you were to recognise that people have a right to come together to organise collectively for improved wages and conditions, then you would be ensuring that we do not adopt this legislation.
When you look at the Building Code that is part of the legislation—and I am sure we will come to that in detail in debates on further amendments—you see that it is effectively Work Choices by stealth. That is what is going on there. That aspect would allow the stripping of so many of the important aspects of awards—again, conditions that have been won, that make a real difference to people's lives, that mean they can spend more time with their family, that mean they might have a greater chance of getting a decent wage so that they do not have to work two and three jobs to make ends meet. That is the reality for so many people in this country today.
I have spoken at other times and I will continue to participate in this debate, because what is going on here right now is really very serious. It is so serious for people's lives, for the type of country we are and for how we will be seen. So much of this is not just damaging to people's lives; from what I have been hearing today with some of the lobbying going on, for a number of companies it will not work. They already have arrangements with their workforce—they already have their agreements in place—and it will throw all of that into disarray. There are so many reasons why we should not be agreeing with this legislation. I look forward to the rest of the debate.