Tuesday, 22 November 2016
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (12:52): I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. Today is another day under the Turnbull government and another day of brutal attacks on working people. Yesterday we saw in this parliament a debate on the registered organisations bill—a bill to damage unions, to tie them up in red tape, to make it difficult for them to do their work representing working people and for working people to collectively organise.
What we are seeing today is a targeted attack on one particular group of workers: construction workers. The workers who don those fluoro jackets that are so popular with the likes of Mr Turnbull and many of his ministers. They use those fluoros when it is convenient. But, when it comes to ensuring that the workers who are building our hospitals, our homes, our schools and the infrastructure we need to drive this country are still alive at the end of the day and can come home, they are not interested. What they are interested in in driving forward with the ABCC legislation is, again, delivering for their corporate mates, for the people who have put them into office, for those who have given them millions and millions of dollars in donations. What is going on here is a very ugly story. If it were happening in another country, it would be called out and out corruption where a government comes into office and delivers for those who have, over the years, put millions of dollars into getting them elected, by weakening the laws to benefit the profit line of those companies.
This issue about the rights of construction workers is very important. I will come to it in more detail in a moment, but right now I want to deal with this issue of safety. We know that in the period the ABCC was operating—under the legislation that was in force previously—more people died, particularly young male workers whose families thought they would see them again, but they did not come home. It is absolutely sickening, really deeply sickening. The figures bear this out. In 2005, just before the ABCC came in, the number of fatalities on building sites had actually been dropping: it was around 3.51 per 100,000. By 2007 it had risen to 4.7 per 100,000. It has been well documented that the ABCC puts lives at risk. It puts lives at risk because it is harder for construction workers to organise and harder for the CFMEU to be active on building sites. We have heard the minister proudly denounce CFMEU officials for trying to get onto building sites. They are trying to get onto those building sites to ensure the sites are safe. That is why more people died when the ABCC was in operation. I congratulate the CFMEU for its activities in working to improve the working conditions and pay of construction workers and for the work that it does to ensure that the people who build our homes, our schools and our hospitals come home at the end of the day. We all go home, and they should have the right to. So what we need—
Senator Williams interjecting—
Senator RHIANNON: I am happy to take the interjection always, Senator Williams. Why is the government—you would know this from your background, Senator Williams—obsessed with bringing in this legislation? Why does it want to deliver for the companies that give them so much backing? This is not coming just from a position of an obsession with marketplace Thatcherite ideology.
There is a real aspect of self-interest for the Turnbull government. The self-interest I am referring to is in the political donations that it picks up. The Greens' Democracy For Sale project has just been expanded. It has identified that since 1998, which is when political donations started to be recorded. to 2015 the property development industry has donated $64 million. It comes from a range of companies, from property developers, construction companies and related companies. The bulk of that $64 million goes to the Liberal and National parties, so it is not surprising that Senator Williams interjects. These issues are getting a bit close to the bone when we start making the links between the money coming in and how the government delivers. How does it deliver? It is delivering right now with this ABCC legislation. It has delivered in other ways. We have seen it in state parliaments, where the coalition weaken planning laws.
In New South Wales we had a fine piece of legislation that was introduced off the back of the very impressive green ban movements and resident action groups that were all over Sydney and other urban areas in the 1970s. They had such a strong voice that when the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act was introduced into New South Wales in 1979 the Premier of New South Wales actually paid tribute to the green ban movement and the resident action groups and said a foundation of planning has to be consultation with the community. But what did we see? When the next Labor government, the Carr Labor government, came in, hand in hand with the Liberals and Nationals in New South Wales, every year there would be amendments to weaken that legislation. Who benefited? The developers. At the very same time we were seeing a weakening of the planning laws.
I do not know what deals went on with donors behind closed doors with regard to the last election, when the Turnbull government barely scraped in. From what I understand, the examples that Senator Cameron and I have spoken about with regard to the Newcastle incident, where paper bags of money from developers were handed over to some Liberal politicians, are not actually such a common way of buying favours these days. I refer senators to the High Court case I have spoken about before. But the trend now is that the culture of the major political parties is: how do we deliver for our donors? Rather than governing for the common good—the public good—they think, 'Well, what will make our donors happy?' All the people sitting on the government side know that, with the ABCC legislation, they will be getting slaps on the back. They will be favoured at all their cocktail parties. They will be the centre of attention if this legislation goes through, and in no way should it go through. It is damaging legislation not just for construction workers who might be injured or might die and whose families would grieve; it is damaging to the fabric of Australia.
Why go after the CFMEU? Why have the ABCC legislation come in? Yes, the CFMEU is a radical and militant union, it is well organised and it is out there winning good conditions and pay for its members. If you weaken that union, you start to weaken the union movement across the board. Again, it is another way for this government to deliver for its constituency, the big companies that it works with so closely.
So this is a piece of legislation that we have great concern about. Is it a coincidence that the for-profit sector that gave the most money to the coalition will benefit the most from the ABCC? We need to start asking that question. I will keep raising it, because we need to focus on what is actually going on here. The government's stubborn attempts to revive this legislation mean the attacks from the ABCC on construction workers are well documented, and they are worth reiterating.
First, I would just like to go through some of the myths that the government has peddled. The government claims that the ABCC will improve productivity. That is always a favourite, but it is false. Even the sham Heydon royal commission noted that studies did not provide credible evidence that the previous ABCC regimes increased productivity.
The government claims the ABCC is about criminality and corruption. Being in this place with the likes of Senator McKenzie, Senator Cash and Senator Abetz when he had the job, I say: seriously! So many of those examples that I gave were, I would say, trumped up. So many of them involved CFMEU delegates and officials doing their job. Again I will say that I am not excusing criminality. I am not letting them off the hook. We know that the laws are in place to deal with that. Yes, it is a rough and tumble industry and, yes, people swear on building sites, but what those representatives of the government have been going on about is so often people, including construction workers, out there to save lives and get some decent pay for these construction workers when they go home. They are actually doing their job.
The argument about criminality and corruption is another one that is not true. The ABCC has no power to investigate corruption or allegations of a criminal nature. You would think again, from listening to the representatives from the government, that the ship would turn around and now we would have this wonderful body that can get out there and investigate these shocking crimes like construction workers having stickers on their hats and maybe swearing on a picket line. But no. That is not what it is up to.
The government claims the ABCC will not breach civil liberties. Again, this is wrong. Workers will be forced to be silent about questioning. For those senators who are still thinking about what their position should be, I would really ask them to consider this aspect of the legislation we are debating here. Workers will be forced to be silent about questioning. That means they cannot talk to anybody. This is Australia in 2016, and we are debating a law in the federal parliament that might do that to workers in this country. To do it to anybody is wrong. Workers will no longer have the right to silence or protection from self-incrimination. People have fought for those legal rights, and our forebears in our parliaments have passed legislation to ensure that was the case, but we are on the cusp of unwinding that. And why? Because this government works so closely with construction companies and developers that it has moved totally away from what the public good means and what one should be doing when one comes into government.
The ABCC also reverses the onus of proof, forcing workers to prove that they are acting within the law—again, a huge change to how our legal system works, something that we all should be questioning and not accepting. The government claims that the ABCC will improve safety. I have shared with you some of the figures on that—figures showing something deeply alarming: that many people who go off and don their fluoro for real reasons do not come home, because it is a very, very dangerous industry. This is probably the worst of the lies, because we are dealing with people's lives—their families, their friends, the wellbeing of so many people—because when one person dies on a construction site, so many people suffer.
During the last version of the ABCC—and I want to go through this again, just to really emphasise these figures—deaths on construction sites increased, reaching a peak of 45 lives lost in 2007—one industry, 45 lives lost. Why were they lost? Often these are very young workers. They go on the job and the boss tells them to go and do things and they do not know what their rights are. They do not really want to challenge it when they are not too sure. They want to keep their jobs. And what ends up happening? As Senator Cameron described, a concrete slab falls on them. He told us about the tragedy in Perth, and I relayed a similar incident that happened in Queensland. It sounds like they actually saw the concrete slab coming towards them—just horrendous. Surely there is some humanity here on the government benches to consider this.
In 2013, after the ABCC was replaced, the number of deaths in one year dropped to 17. Still, that is 17 tragedies—many more, because all those people would have had loved ones who would still be grieving for them. But it was a vast improvement. The weeks since the Prime Minister's attempted power play, setting up the special sitting of parliament, have exposed that this government's supposed concern over corruption and wrongdoing within the construction industry really is farcical. It is a cover. As I said in the debate on registered organisations, the government cannot come in here and be honest about why it is introducing this. If it were honest, it would say, 'We've got to deliver for our constituency.' It cannot say that, so it comes up with deception after deception.
So, what do they do? They attack their political enemies—the enemies of their political donors, the union movement. I think many people are aware of the truth. I think when people hear what is actually going on they want people to be safe at work, and they are concerned about how this is playing out. It has been made even clearer by the government's refusing to support the Greens's call for a royal commission into the big banks and the financial sector—a sector in which we have heard time and time again of alleged misconduct. This white-collar crime has affected the lives of tens of thousands of victims. This is where we have this huge inconsistency in how this government operates. And I believe many people can join the dots, that they can see that inconsistency, that the government is harassing one section of the community for its own political self-interest and, where it should be putting its efforts, sidestepping its responsibility.
If the government were serious about tackling corruption and criminality it would get behind the Greens's call to set up a royal commission into the financial sector. It would get behind the Greens's call to get big money out of politics, and it would get behind the vast majority of Australians who are echoing the Greens's call for a national corruption watchdog. We need that so urgently to hold politicians and public servants to account. But time and time again it was resisted. We saw it voted down again last night. Again, disappointingly, Labor was there with the Liberals and the Nationals. It is time to sort this one out. It really has to happen. It becomes quite farcical that of all the jurisdictions in Australia we are the only ones that have not had a national ICAC. The fact that it is not even on the agenda with the Liberals and Nationals really does further expose their double standards when they bring forward legislation like the registered organisations legislation and this ABCC bill.
This bill to bring back the ABCC is a linchpin in the government's ongoing attack on unions. Why? Because unions look after workers. Trade unions were founded for that very purpose, for protecting the rights and interests of working people. When you start undermining unions it means that you are undermining the collective ability of workers to organise and to be able to improve wages and conditions. So, what is going on here is very fundamental. But it is not something new with conservative governments. Again, I outlined it in the speech last night on registered organisations. When we have a conservative government, one of the first things they do, from the penal powers of the Menzies era through to the Howard, Abbott and Turnbull governments—their core business—is get out there with their anti-union legislation and push it through by demonising unions, demonising workers and lying time and time again.
This bill would give workers in the construction industry fewer rights at work just because of the industry they work in. It would give them fewer rights at work than accused criminals and even accused terrorists. It is seriously extraordinary that it has got to that point. With this bill the government wants to set up a new secret police in the construction industry. Unfortunately I am running out of time, but the idea that Nigel Hadgkiss may rise again and be the head of this star chamber is deeply disturbing—a man so committed to delivering some of the most ugly outcomes for working people. Where this government has ended up is deeply troubling.
The government wants to go out at the end of this year and obviously head off to the next election with claims of Australia's improving productivity and cracking down on the wrongdoing of unions. You can see the headlines in The Australian and The Telegraph now. You can hear the speeches coming out of Minister Cash and Prime Minister Turnbull. The lines would already be written up—their great victory, standing up for ordinary people, for mums and dads, for productivity. But it is all built on a lie: not only will it damage working people themselves, but many will not come home. We know that the number of injuries and deaths will increase, which also damages the fabric of our life, or our society. This bill should be defeated.