The new coercive ABCC should trigger alarm bells throughout the community

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (20:51): I am a union member. I am also a father. I have been a lawyer, a community worker, a bar attendant, a building worker and a teacher. I have done many, many jobs in my life before coming to this parliament, and I apologise for absolutely none of them.

The bill before the House, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, is everything about the union-bashing agenda of the Abbott government and those who follow in its train. Those opposite are absolutely obsessed with demonising unions, their leaders and the important work that they do on a daily basis in protecting ordinary working women and men.

I am an unapologetic defender of the special role that unions play in our society. There is no other organisation that has the reach, the resources, the capacity and the inclination to challenge tyranny in the way that Australian unions can and do—irrespective of who is in government. Unions are not without fault, but we are a more civilised country in Australia today because they exist.

If you want to talk about tyranny, with this legislation before the House today we can see that tyranny is being turned on its head. It is the tyranny of the government against the organisation of ordinary working Australian men and women that we should be fearful of. This legislation is despicable because it is entirely politically motivated. It is legislation based on ideology with no public policy credentials. Sadly, I fear that it will not be the last of this sort that we see before this House.

Can I address the spurious productivity arguments that have been dressed up and brought before the House today. Once again, legislation brought before the House is based on a fiction; it is based on misrepresentation and a distortion of the facts. Those opposite claim that this bill is about productivity, when there is simply absolutely no basis for this claim whatsoever.

During the federal election campaign, for example, the Prime Minister claimed that the existence of the ABCC had led to $6 billion a year of productivity savings and cost reductions. That is absolute bunkum. The claim was investigated by a reputed independent fact checker during the campaign. It is, I add, a fact checker that did not give a tick to everything that Labor said during that campaign. This is what it had to say about this ridiculous proposition by the Prime Minister: it found the claims to be 'mostly false'.

In his second reading speech, Minister Pyne relied heavily on a report by Independent Economics, formerly known as Econtech, a report commissioned by the Master Builders Association, to justify his spurious productivity claims. I have had a look at the report. It is interesting. You should have a look at it, Deputy Speaker. It says the following:

… it is considered that separate attribution of labour productivity improvements to the ABCC and industrial relations reforms is not possible, because they both need to operate together to be effective.

If you want an independent analysis, go no further than the very well regarded Justice Wilcox, who studied and reported on these laws for the government. He said, not surprisingly, that he found the Econtech study to be deeply flawed.

I will talk about the coercive powers, because the government would like to slide this stuff under the cushion and have not very much said about it at all. The bill authorises the ABCC to exert coercive powers. It will enable the ABCC to require any person to provide information or documents in relation to an investigation of a suspected contravention of the bill. The legislation will also enable the ABCC to compulsorily interrogate any person who may have such information or documents, or they risk six months imprisonment.

You could be forgiven for thinking that you had woken up in Soviet Russia when you look at this legislation before the House. This is a democracy. It is not the sort of country where we want to see innocent people or potentially innocent people subjected to a denial of the legal rights that we provide to criminals or suspected criminals in this country. The introduction of these kinds of coercive powers should send alarm bells throughout the community. It is akin to treating building workers as terrorists.

Mrs Prentice: Mr Deputy Speaker, would the member for Throsby take an intervention?

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Vasta ): Does it—

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Deputy Speaker, we have had many interventions throughout the course of this debate, and those opposite have had plenty of time to put their case. I would like to enjoy the few minutes that I have left before the adjournment to put my case as to why this legislation should be rejected.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Throsby has the call.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Thank you, Deputy Speaker—a just ruling. The introduction of these kinds of coercive powers should send alarm bells through all right-thinking members of the community. It is akin to treating building workers as terrorists. The legislation destroys the principles of freedom of association. We have heard lots from those on that side of the chamber about the importance of freedom of association. I have heard many fine speeches in the first speeches of those opposite about the importance of liberal principles and the principles of freedom of association. I am not surprised that many of them would not repeat those principles when they spoke on this legislation.

The legislation contains maximum penalties for unlawful industrial action, unlawful picketing and coercive offences—penalties far outweighing those that exist within the Fair Work Act. The rationale for singling out one industry with special laws is flimsy at best. Australia's industrial laws should be enforced in the building and construction industry in the same way as in any other industry.

Fair Work Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman already have capacity to deploy specialist investigators to deal with these issues in this sector. If those opposite have complaints about the way that Fair Work Australia are fulfilling their legislative requirements, perhaps they might bring a bill before this House to increase the resources available to Fair Work Australia.

In a review of the earlier incarnation of these laws conducted by Justice Wilcox in 2009, the Hon. Justice Wilcox could find no rationale to apply the tougher penalties to building workers. In his report, he said this:

There is no justification for selecting a different maximum penalty, for the same contravention, simply because the offender is in a particular industry.

Pick a bloke in a blue singlet, and he is a potential terrorist. That is what these laws are saying, because he is being treated in exactly the same way when it comes to the denial of basic civil rights.

Those opposite claim that the building industry is rife with industrial relations lawlessness. In fact, the ABS figures show that the rate of industrial disputation in the building industry is at a historic low. I would like to see those opposite intervene on that point. They want to bury those statistics because they know that they do not support their argument.

From time to time, industrial disputes do occur—some of those angry and fraught scenes we feel uneasy about. In the heat of the moment, when the stakes are high, errors of judgement can occur. Unlawfulness and criminal activities should always be condemned and dealt with under the laws that apply to everyone else and apply equally. There should be no singling out of any particular group for coercive treatment. Recently in this place, I paid tribute to the work of the local CFMEU—

Debate interrupted.

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