Tuesday, 29 November
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:55): The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 is ruthless, not just to building workers but to all working people in Australia and all Australians. While in the first instance it is directed at building workers, the intent is to weaken industrial relations across the board, and if that occurs the flow-on impact for all Australians is huge. Organised working people established so many of the conditions that we all enjoy in this country, not just conditions of work but so much to do with our health conditions and our education conditions. Right now we have to deal with the ABCC legislation. We are in committee and we are about to get our teeth into the amendments. But we also need to acknowledge the context. There is now a real desperation around the Turnbull government. The clock is ticking down on the last few days of parliament. They have left it to the last hour and this legislation has to be passed. It is not legislation that will bring benefits to the country but legislation that delivers for the constituency of the Turnbull government.
The Turnbull government have some big friends in corporate Australia. They donate millions of dollars to the government and they expect something in return. While they are friends, the Turnbull government are probably looking forward to a few Christmas parties and sharing a few cocktails and a few drinks with their corporate colleagues, their corporate mates, who have helped deliver them into power. But they would know that those apparent corporate friends can turn on them if they do not deliver, and right now at the top of the agenda they have to deliver. The registered organisations bill went through, but the ABCC legislation is what they want in their pocket and they want it before Christmas. Corporate Australia is sweating on it and, as I said, they can change overnight for the Turnbull government.
This is shocking legislation because what it would do to a section of the workforce is treat them as second-class citizens. They would have reduced legal rights and reduced rights at work—something that we have not seen in Australia for a while. You would probably have to go back to how we treated Indigenous people before the 1960s, before the 1967 amendment, when you had second-class laws for a group of people who were working for greater productivity in Australia and working to assist all of us with the benefits that come when you have new hospitals, new schools and homes are built—all those sorts of things.
It is important, as we go into the committee stage and start considering the amendments, to remember why the government is doing this. This is where the big lie comes in. It is very relevant to our debate now. The government has a constituency, corporate Australia, that wants the industrial relations laws of this country weakened. That is in fact what all conservative governments have done. You can go back to the Menzies government. Penal powers were part of the arbitration act then. Ordinary Australians opposed that very strongly. Going through the Fraser government and the Howard government, they have all had their signature legislation to do something similar, but you would probably have to come to this legislation to see something as atrocious as what the Turnbull and Abbott governments have come up with.
Why do they want it? Why do they want the industrial relations laws that affect working conditions and affect how union officials operate in the workplace? Why is this legislation being brought forward? If you weaken working conditions, if you weaken how unions can operate and if you weaken how working people can come together and collectively organise, you are actually assisting the corporations to increase their profits, because the fewer conditions and the fewer regulations they have to cope with the more they can get away with doing a whole lot of things. That is why you have heard so many of the speakers in the second reading debate detail the tragic deaths that are occurring on our building sites. That is a result of poor occupational health and safety standards, and we will see that occur more.
But also, if unions are weakened, working people cannot come together so readily and collectively organise, and it is harder to get pay rises. This is the reason the government is doing it: corporate Australia wants it. Corporate Australia is on the earth—its job, its legal requirement, is—to do the best for its shareholders. What do its shareholders want? Its shareholders want more profits. They want more money in their pockets. That is its job.
And that is where the job of governments should be to get that balance right, to ensure that we have fair industrial relations so unions can organise and workers can come together collectively and so the young apprentice who turns up on the job, has only been there for a few days, is ordered to go on to the roof and do some repairs and ends up falling off might have a bit of back-up to say: 'Hey, don't do that, mate. That's actually unsafe. We need to ensure that you've got a harness on.' They are the sorts of practical things that we are dealing with here.
We know the speeches from the government benches were really disgraceful. You really would not have thought people mattered from the way they delivered their speeches. That is why the coalition are desperate to get this legislation through. They want to be able to go to their Christmas parties and enjoy it there with the developers, with the property investors, who are hanging out and who have been lobbying hard for these changes.
The other part of this story is that the government, Senator Cash as the responsible minister and Prime Minister Turnbull, the leader of the government, cannot go out and say: 'We really have to get this legislation through. Our corporate backers, who give us all these donations, really want us to do it.' They cannot say that. Obviously, that is not going to wash with the public. It would really give you an insight into how government works. So they come up with their reasons, and the reasons they have come out with are quite unbelievable. I will just give you a couple of them.
Prime Minister Turnbull linked the whole issue of union activity with the housing crisis. I suppose he, or maybe somebody's office, thought: 'Let's solve two problems in one. We'll blame the housing crisis not on the way we run government, with our negative gearing and our capital gains tax discounts; we'll blame it on the unions.' This is from the Prime Minister. He expressed sympathy for 'young Australian couples that can't afford to buy a house because their costs are being pushed up by union thuggery'. According to the government, that is one of the reasons why we need these rules.
I have to say that the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, really took the cake when he came up with his excuses. This is a quote from Peter Dutton:
When young Australians go to an open house this weekend, to a unit that they may not be able to afford or that they have been saving up for, they know that that unit is more expensive because they have seen building costs increase as a result of the involvement of the unions and bikies.
Now they have even pulled the bikies into it as causing the housing crisis.
There they are blaming the unions for the housing crisis. That one blows up in their face, because, if you look at all the causes of the housing crisis, there is no link here. It is worth going through this, because these are the lies the government has been relying on to try and justify the legislation that we now have before us. We are now about to start debating the amendments, so it is very relevant when senators come to consider the amendments.
These arguments from the likes of Prime Minister Turnbull and Minister Dutton rely on various hypotheses. I will just go through them. They include that union activity has expanded in construction, that construction wages and labour costs have accelerated as a result, that total construction costs have also accelerated correspondingly and that housing prices rise in tandem with escalating construction costs.
Let us look at the reality here. This falls over monumentally. How Prime Minister Turnbull allowed himself to go out with that one, I do not know. Maybe he did not have enough sleep that night. At any rate, I will just go through how they all fall over. Average earnings in the construction industry have grown more slowly than the Australian average over the last five years. Real wage increases in construction have been slower than real productivity growth, with the effect that real unit labour costs in construction have declined.
Then we have construction labour. Construction labour accounts for only 17 to 22 per cent of the total costs of new building. Construction costs in turn account for less than half the market value of residential property. And then there is the main issue—if you want to go back to where they probably started their thesis—that in the housing industry there is very low union activity. Not many construction workers in the housing industry are members of a union.
I thank the Centre for Future Work and the Australia Institute for that analysis, because it is very useful. Here we have a Prime Minister trying to justify why we need to rein in unions, rein in those bad construction workers and bring in the Australian Building and Construction Commission. He says it is because we have a housing crisis and young people particularly cannot afford to buy a house. They heap it all onto the union movement. It all falls over entirely. If we had some honesty from the government, they are the sorts of things that they would bring into this debate that we are considering right now.
The Greens have voted against the legislation in the second reading. We will vote against it in the third reading. But we will move amendments, because at times it is necessary to do that. With appalling legislation that looks as though it could be about to become law, we will do what we can to improve it. Still, our clear position is that it should not pass.
Some of our amendments will be around the issue of procurement. Surely, when we come to talking about the building industry—particularly when you are hearing from the people on the government benches about how we are going to bring in the ABCC and productivity will increase, the economy will bloom and all the rest of the Christmas fairytales that they come out with—if you are sincere about that, what you should be committed to is a building code that includes a requirement for procuring local materials. The steel industry should figure strongly in that, and it would bring such benefit to the country, as the steel industry in this country is on the edge of collapse. Again, it is extraordinary that the government is not giving this more attention. How can you have a country the size of Australia without a steel industry? We have an opportunity to address that in this legislation.
Then there is the issue of local jobs. The Greens will move amendments to require that, where the code applies, jobs have to be advertised locally and the employer must demonstrate there is no suitable local applicant before guest workers can be used. There are a number of people on the cross-bench who regularly talk about the need for local jobs. Here is their opportunity to stand up for local jobs, which are very relevant to this legislation. There are many unemployed construction workers in this country, who often become fly-in fly-out workers, which really disrupts communities. Why is that? It is because they cannot find local work. All senators have an opportunity here to support some very responsible amendments that would help boost productivity in this country and ensure there is jobs growth, particularly in regional areas and in states where there is growing unemployment.
Those are some of the issues that we are looking forward to getting our teeth into, because right now the question is: Minister, can you explain how the housing crisis is in any way associated with the so-called union thuggery that you have been talking about for so long, considering that there is minimal union activity in the housing industry. I ran through the various parameters. None of them stack up to show that there is any link between increased union activity and the housing crisis. I do think that would be a wise starting point for you, to inject some honesty into this debate.