I rise today to speak against the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. This government tells us that the establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is critical because there is widespread corruption within the union movement, we have a productivity problem within the construction sector and, to use the government's words, we need a 'tough cop on the beat' to deal with those issues.
But, unfortunately, much like a lot of the government's current agenda, these assertions are very heavy on rhetoric and very light on when it comes to facts.
Let us look at what this bill does and also at the history of the ABCC. There is no better way to examine whether an institution like this will be effective than to go back to the record and look at what the ABCC did when it was established under the previous conservative government. Firstly, the bill strips away some very basic rights that are afforded to people right across the community. It says, 'Because you work in the construction industry, you deserve fewer rights than people who work in other industries.' In fact, some of the most basic rights that are afforded to common criminals are stripped away through this proposed legislation. It treats construction workers worse than common criminals; it removes the presumption of innocence; it effectively sets up a Star Chamber; it creates incredible coercive powers that would mean that construction workers could be subject to secret interrogations and forced to answer questions under oath; and it effectively creates a form of industrial apartheid.
The question arises: what led to the initial establishment of the ABCC and what was the performance of the ABCC once it was established? We know that, under the Howard government, there was a royal commission into the construction industry. We saw allegations of criminal wrongdoing and yet not one successful prosecution as a result of that royal commission. Despite that, we saw the establishment of the ABCC, which, we were told, was going to eliminate corruption and improve productivity within the sector. What we saw, in fact, was that, when the ABCC was established, productivity in the construction sector actually decreased. We know that productivity has improved since the abolition of the ABCC, making a mockery of the notion that, somehow, establishing the ABCC will do something to transform our economy and get Australia moving in the right direction. We know what economic levers are important to start tackling some of the challenges that we face, and yet we have a government, resorting to a tired, old ideological position, prosecuting an agenda for the re-establishment of the ABCC, which we now know, based on the commission's performance when it was established, does nothing for productivity.
We also know that one of the great dangers of working in the construction industry is that people often do not return home. It is a very dangerous industry. We know that there are a number of breaches of occupational health and safety laws. We also know that the ABCC did not take action against any employer over breaches of occupational health and safety laws, despite the track record of significant harms and, indeed, deaths within that industry. In fact, it presided over an increase in the number of deaths in the industry. So we know that this commission is completely unrelated to productivity. We know that, if anything, occupational health and safety deteriorated under the commission, we know that the bill strips away some basic rights from innocent people and we know that, when it comes to the coercive powers, we are effectively creating a separate class of laws for people simply because of the industry in which they work. Yes, of course there are significant issues within the construction industry, and they include the fact that many of those people who go to work do not come back home at night. We know that there are problems with labour from overseas, with people being exploited on $10 or $12 an hour through sham contracting, and yet we have heard not a word on this from the current government.
So what is going on here? Let's not forget that the parliament has been prorogued—this is a question of such important national interest and urgency that we have taken the extraordinary step of proroguing the parliament. The answer is very simple. As I said earlier, during the address-in-reply to the Governor-General, the coalition are a divided party. They are a shambolic party. They are, at the moment, riven with differences over social and economic policy, so they are bereft of an agenda. They are bereft of an economic agenda—we kept hearing about the GST and about some of those important economic reforms that we would see around income tax cuts and so on, and yet there is no agreement because they are a party that are divided. They are divided on social policy. We have the Prime Minister, who says he is a strong supporter of marriage equality, yet we have those homophobes and bigots within the coalition who, on the back of the Safe Schools Coalition, took extraordinary action to engage in a review of a sensible program designed to try to stop bullying in schools.
What was the response from the coalition? It was: what will bring the coalition together more than a bit of good, old-fashioned union bashing? That is why we are here. We are not here because of concerns about corruption. We are not here because of concerns around productivity. If there were genuine concern around the notion of corruption, we would be looking at the misconduct of those financial institutions and, indeed, into those sectors, economy wide, that we know are engaged in illegal and corrupt activity.
That is why the Greens have long campaigned for the establishment of a royal commission. Indeed, Senator Peter Whish-Wilson led the charge for a royal commission into the banking and financial sector, where we know that there is a litany of misconduct and corrupt behaviour that is adversely impacting on millions of ordinary Australians. And the list is indeed long. We have the allegations where the Commonwealth Bank gave customers—over 1,000 of them—bad advice, compensated to the tune of $52 million. Another 8,000 further applications were made for review, with more compensation—millions—to follow. We had a similar example with the National Australia Bank—$16 million in compensation. There was Macquarie Bank, with another $14 million in compensation. We had the farce where the ANZ charged people for services that they did not receive—another $30 million in compensation. We have some of our big banks—the ANZ and Westpac—being charged with rigging interest rates; currently, the matter is being investigated. We had that remarkable situation with the Commonwealth Bank with Comminsure, where people's claims were ignored. In fact we saw the definition of common medical conditions like a heart attack being changed so that those insurers could avoid paying their legislated responsibility. Remarkable stuff—absolutely remarkable!
So, if we are talking about corruption, if we are talking about wrongdoing, let us support a royal commission into the finance and banking sector. I am reminded of Senator Brandis's comment that there is no difference between a dodgy boss and a dodgy union official. If that is the case, and you are prepared to support a royal commission into unions, then you should support the Greens' call for a royal commission into the banking and finance sector.
If the government were serious about tackling corruption and wrongdoing, it would also get behind the Greens' call to establish a national anticorruption watchdog. We have had that policy costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, and—wouldn't you know it—the cost of a national anticorruption watchdog is very similar to the amount that was spent on the trade union royal commission. So, in having a politically motivated royal commission into a group of political enemies for the sake trying to keep one side of politics united, we have now spent what we could have spent on establishing a permanent, ongoing institution to stamp out corruption, in all of its forms.
Instead of supporting the creation of a national anticorruption watchdog or a royal commission into banking and finance, the government has brought us all back here—nominally for three weeks—so we can fight the same old battles of last century and try and ensure that we have a united coalition party room and a divided nation. Whenever a government acts is in its own narrow self-interest rather than the national interest, it is doomed to fail. And that is what we are witnessing with the Turnbull government right now.
The Greens have long supported the role of the union movement within society. We know that trade unions were founded with the purpose of protecting the rights of ordinary working people and they have much to be proud of. We know that, when things go wrong in workplaces, it is unions that step up and represent the interests of ordinary working people. We know that the union movement—not just right across Australia but right across the developing world—is playing an important role in protecting the rights of ordinary citizens, some of whom have very few rights afforded under the regimes that they are governed by.
So we stand here and oppose the implementation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. We are guided by the evidence on this. We know that, when the commission was previously installed, it did nothing to improve productivity or health and safety. We understand this is an ideological position not supported by evidence and really established with the intent of keeping a divided party room on the same page. We will oppose vigorously any moves to have this body which treats ordinary people within the construction industry worse than common criminals.
The fact that we are here in parliament today debating these bills, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2], just goes to show the desperation of this government. Mr Turnbull took the extraordinary step of proroguing parliament just so he could have these bills considered in time to call a double dissolution election.
When I say that proroguing parliament is an extraordinary step, it should be noted that this mechanism has only been used four times in the recent past. The parliament was prorogued following the death of Harold Holt in 1968, and in 1970 parliament was prorogued because Prime Minister John Gorton did not have his government's program fully prepared for the first sitting after the 1969 election. Parliament was also prorogued in 1974 and 1977 to allow Queen Elizabeth to open the new sessions. But what makes this move particularly extraordinary is that the parliament has been prorogued for political advantage, because proroguing parliament and recalling parliament is the only mechanism through which Mr Turnbull can set up a double dissolution election while also delivering a budget.
Now that the Greens have helped the government pass voting reforms to give them a political advantage, Mr Turnbull wants to pull the trigger on an election before his popularity plunges to even greater depths. I doubt he had that discussion with the Greens when he was negotiating with them. And he realises that going to an election without a budget would expose this government's complete lack of an economic plan. They are hoping that their incompetence, lack of vision, policy confusion and broken promises will be hidden by the lights and noise of an early election.
They have not just taken their bat and ball and gone home. They have not just cancelled the season. They have also tried to get rid of a few teams along the way. They see an early election as the only way to contain the damage that has been done to them. By calling a double dissolution immediately after the budget, the government's budget will escape the scrutiny of budget estimates; their ministers will not have to front Senate committees and confess their embarrassing lack of policy or plans for Australia's future.
But the Australian people, I have no doubt, will see through these tactics. They know the government's move to recall parliament is an absolute farce. The ABCC bills are not urgent. If the bills were urgent, why didn't the government vote to bring them forward when they had the chance in the last session of parliament? There was even a motion before the Senate to add them to the bills to be debated before the Senate rose, yet the government voted against debating the bills then. The bills are simply a cover for the government's dirty tactics. They are not a priority for the government, nor are they a priority for the Australian people.
In fact, do you know how many constituent queries I have had to my office calling for the reintroduction of the ABCC? I have had plenty of people contacting me about restoring funding to the ABC, the broadcaster. I have had dozens of emails calling for the reversal of the government's cruel cuts to bulk-billing incentives for pathology and diagnostic imaging and I have had hundreds of people coming to my office to sign a petition to maintain Medicare and Centrelink services in Kingston, where my office is, in Tasmania. I have had many people telling me they have trouble connecting to the National Broadband Network or are concerned about their private health insurance premium increases or are livid about the dirty deal between the government and the Greens to increase their numbers in the Senate. So many people have talked to me, phoned me or emailed me about those issues, but how many of my Tasmanian constituents have contacted me about the urgency to bring back the ABCC? Let me tell you. In over 2½ years of those opposite being in government, I have had just one. So, obviously, this is not a priority of the people. It is only a priority of the government because they want another double dissolution trigger, because trying to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is a terrible double dissolution trigger. The government are absolutely desperate to talk up a double dissolution. They are desperate to talk about reinstating the ABCC and they are desperate to talk about anything that will distract from the fact that they have no plans for Australia's future.
The Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, has clocked up more than six months in the job and what does he have to show for it? Absolutely nothing—zilch; nothing. The closest thing we have had to substantive policy was a thought bubble on the states levying income tax, and that bubble burst about as quickly as it was created. Then Mr Morrison admitted it was all bluff anyway to shift the blame to the states for the $80 billion cuts to health and education that has occurred under this government. There was all the talk about being an agile government, an innovative government. Well, they do a lot of back flipping—I will give them that—but Mr Turnbull has nothing to show for it. There are no plans for tax reform, no plans to tackle the deficit, no plans to create jobs and no plans to grow the economy.
The greatest disappointment from Mr Turnbull is that he has turned his back on all things that he so passionately believed in: emissions trading, marriage equality and the republic. He has absolutely turned his back on all those things. Mr Turnbull dumped Mr Abbott as Prime Minister because the government was directionless and Australians were understandably angry about Mr Abbott's cruel cuts and broken promises, yet he has kept Mr Abbott's policies and progressed nothing. He has not progressed anything—zilch; absolutely nothing. He is leading a very divided and a very dysfunctional government and they are at war amongst themselves. He is beholden to the right wing of the Liberal Party who want to cut penalty rates and dismantle Medicare but do not have the patience to wait until after the election to do it. The Australian people are still waiting for the good government that Mr Abbott talked about all those months ago.
Senators on that side of the chamber and their government colleagues in the other place must be shaking their heads in wonder, thinking, 'What was it all about? Why did we dump Mr Abbott for Mr Turnbull?' With six months to make some decisions about the future of this country, Mr Turnbull's first major decision as Prime Minister was to take the extraordinary measure of proroguing parliament so we could debate a bill that they could have brought on five weeks ago, so I am not quite sure about the urgency issue. It appears that his second decision will be to call a double dissolution election so he can put up Mr Abbott's policies to the Australian people as if they were his own. No wonder Mr Abbott said in an interview on Sky News that it would be easy for him to campaign for the Turnbull government because the Turnbull government is running on the record of the Abbott government. This is the best they can come up with: the reintroduction of the ABCC, a dictatorial yet highly ineffective organisation.
The Australian public should not be fooled into thinking that these bills represent any kind of substantive policy agenda from the government. In fact, this is just a cynical attempt by the government to paint Labor as being unwilling to do what is necessary to tackle corruption in the building industry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Labor abhors corruption wherever it occurs and we have a strong track record on tackling it. When Labor was in government, we passed legislation to increase the accountability and transparency of registered organisations, including unions, and tripled penalties for those breaching the law. In fact, if anyone can be accused of walking away from tackling corruption it is the current government. After Labor introduced legislation to put a stop to corrupt practices in the financial services industry, those opposite tried to water it down and, despite the thousands of cases brought to court by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, hundreds of which resulted in prosecution, we do not hear a peep from those on the other side about corporate corruption, yet they continue to have an obsession about unions. So, when those opposite try to preach to us about corruption, just remember: they speak with forked tongue.
Recently, we had revelations that hundreds of Australia's largest companies pay no tax, the Panama Papers were released, exposing some of the dodgy practices of those companies, and we had revelations about the practices of CommInsure, trying to deny medical insurance claims. But what did the government do? The government decided to waste $80 million on a witch-hunt—an inquiry into their political opponents. A great example of how transparent the government's motives are is the fact that they have not sought to amend the registered organisations bill nor the ABCC bills based on the recommendations of their $80 million royal commission. So it just goes to show that the trade union royal commission was a monumental waste of taxpayers' money and was established for purely political purposes.
When it comes to the ABCC bills there are a few uncomfortable truths for this government—uncomfortable truths which provide plenty of good reasons for us to oppose these bills. We know that those opposite do not want to hear these truths because they shut down debate in the House on the bills. But they do not have the numbers in their own right to shut down debate in the Senate, nor can they shut down debate in the media, so they will often just try to yell over the debate, or, in some cases, just screech.
When the ABCC was in operation under the Howard government it was a draconian agency. It was draconian then and, as it is proposed in these bills, it is draconian now. With the reintroduction of the ABCC the government proposes to bring back powers that are extreme, unjust and compromise civil liberties. These include unfettered coercive powers—and Senator Cameron mentioned those earlier as well—including secretive interviews and imprisonment for those who do not cooperate. People who are interviewed would have no right to silence and would be denied the right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice.
In March 2010 the International Labour Organization's Committee of Experts released a report that said that the ABCC was likely to breach a number of labour standards, including freedom of association, the right to organise and collective bargaining. Ah, that's right! That is what those on the other side do not like. They do not like freedom of association; they do not like the right to organise—and they certainly do not like collective bargaining. There is no justification for having such extraordinary powers apply to a particular industry. It undermines the principle that all workers should be equal before the law.
The 2009 Wilcox inquiry found that there is no need for different substantive industrial relations laws to apply to the building and construction industry—and, despite its politically motivated bias, even the recent trade union royal commission came to that same conclusion. That's right. The trade union royal commission came to that same conclusion. You do not hear those on the other side quoting that! Curtailing the ability of union officials to stand up for their members on building worksites has an impact on safety in the workplace, and there are figures to back this up.
A Safe Work Australia report released in June 2015 showed that under the ABCC there was a significant rise in workplace deaths. The former ABCC came into operation on 1 October 2005. In 2006 there was a 37 percent increase in fatalities in the industry—not just injuries, but fatalities. In 2007 there were 53 deaths. After the ABCC was abolished in May 2012, the numbers dropped significantly, with only 21 deaths—which is still 21 too many, I admit—in 2013.
Safety is of particular importance to workers in the building and construction industry—which is pretty obvious—because it is one of the most dangerous industries to work in. Despite there being plenty of evidence of corruption and malfeasance on the part of employers in the building industry, the former ABCC overwhelmingly focussed on pursuing the investigation and prosecution of guess who? Workers and trade unions. It failed to adequately address the widespread problems of underpayment and nonpayment of workers' entitlements, workplace safety or sham contracting. This was despite sham contracting in the industry costing Australian taxpayers almost $2½ billion per annum.
Those opposite may try to argue that the extreme powers of the ABCC are necessary, that extreme measures are needed to tackle an extreme problem, that the ends justify the means. Well, we could have a debate about that if, in fact, the ends were justified. But, as well as being draconian, the ABCC is also ineffective. So what is the point of suffering the side effects, if you cannot even treat the disease?
As I said earlier, Labor abhors corruption, and we are serious about tackling it. In government we introduced the Fair Work Building and Construction agency as a watchdog for the building and construction industry. While those opposite continue to argue the need to reintroduce the ABCC, the Fair Work Building and Construction agency is actually outperforming the former ABCC. It has undertaken more investigations, concluded more investigations and has brought matters to court faster. Just to give you a quick example: from their own figures in the 2012-13 financial year, Fair Work Building and Construction recovered $1.6 million in wages and entitlements for over 1,300 workers and closed 63 sham-contracting investigations. The outcomes of these cases included three with court penalties imposed, 15 settlements, one written undertaking and five letters of caution.
If anyone following this debate wanted to see evidence that the reintroduction of the ABCC is about going after unions and workers, they need look no further than the advance release of the proposed Building Code. As highlighted by the Australian Council of Trade Unions in their submission to the Senate inquiry into these bills, the code contains a number of restrictions on legitimate workplace relations practices.
These restrictions include: individual employment contracts can be made, but collective employment contracts cannot; enterprise agreements with building companies cannot prescribe safe staffing levels; enterprise agreements with building companies cannot contain terms to ensure that labour hire workers are not discriminated against in their rates of pay for doing the same work; enterprise agreements with builders cannot insist on only skilled, trained tradespeople doing dangerous work; building company managers and union representatives are not allowed to agree to meet at building sites; and the Fair Work Commission is not allowed to resolve disputes freely—for example, if workers complain about unfair rostering or unfair treatment of their leave requests, the Fair Work Commission cannot remedy the unfairness because it is not allowed to limit the employer's right to determine who does what work when.
The ACTU submission also reveals the farcical requirement that enterprise agreements must be compliant with the code from the 24 April 2014. That's right—2014. In other words, a number of businesses would be noncompliant once this legislation is passed. The only way they could become compliant is by seeking to vary or terminate their existing enterprise agreements, which could lead to legitimate disputes.
I hear those opposite continue to argue that we need a strong watchdog to clean up criminal behaviour in the building industry. This argument is a complete furphy. Why? Because neither the ABCC nor Fair Work Building and Construction has been charged with investigating breaches of criminal laws; they cannot do it; they deal with contraventions of industrial law, which has always been civil matters not criminal matters. Even in the bill's explanatory memorandum, and in speeches from government members and senators both here and in the other place, we hear this argument advanced—that somehow the ABCC will crack down on violence and thuggery. But those opposite know very well that it cannot, and will not, do any such thing. If senators opposite truly believe that the current laws are not adequate to tackle corruption, violence and thuggery in the building industry, then why not introduce legislation that is actually directed at those things? The completely false assertion that this debate has anything to do with thuggery and violence is a ploy to paint Labor as not being serious about addressing it. The government is trying to scare people. The reality is that it is the government who cannot be taken seriously—because they do not even understand the provisions of their own legislation.
Back in February, when Senator Ruston reintroduced these bills to the Senate, she quoted the thoroughly discredited Econtech report in support of the government's case. The government would have more chance of digging up and reviving a corpse than restoring the credibility of that report. I do not know how many times we have to say it before it sinks in, but this report is clearly not worth the paper it is written on. It was written by a firm that has a history of churning out reports that launch ideological attacks on workers and unions. This firm has a reputation for producing modelling so inaccurate that even former federal justice Murray Wilcox said their work was 'deeply flawed and ought to be totally disregarded'. For all it's worth, the paper the Econtech report is written on may well have been used to wrap our fish and chips in. The government relies on this report for its argument because it cannot quote any credible modelling. The government seems to have an almost obsessive focus on union corruption, when the evidence is that corruption is far more widespread in other sectors, particularly in corporate Australia. The truth is that it is not union corruption that the government is so obsessive about going after, it is the unions themselves.
I rise to speak on the legislation to bring forward the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The Australian Greens stand strongly against the reintroduction of the ABCC. The ABCC is an attack on the rights of workers—their civil rights and their right to have a safe workplace. In standing up to oppose this legislation today, I am standing up for the rights of more than a million Australians at work. What we are presented with here in this legislation by the Liberal government is a choice that goes to the very heart of our what our vision is for Australian workplaces. It is a choice that fits very clearly with this government's agenda of being on the side of big money and big business and working against the interests of ordinary hardworking Australians. It is a return to an agenda that unites the Liberal Party, where they cannot be united on other things; it unites them in an agenda of union bashing and attacking the rights of ordinary workers in their workplaces.
In particular, this legislation presents us with a choice: to give people a balance between their work and the rest of their lives or to take that balance away. It presents us with a choice for people to be able to take off important public holidays such as Christmas or Easter or to remove those protections as this government seems intent to do. It presents us with a choice between giving young people a start as apprentices or reducing these opportunities. It presents as with a choice between making sure older Australians are not discriminated against in their workplace or not. And it presents us with a choice between making sure Australians feel safe and are safe at work or not.
These things are under attack in this legislation—including in the Building Code, which is part of this legislation. For example, what is at risk in the current Electrical Trades Union construction agreement? Seventy six clauses of that agreement could be prohibited—and this is just one example of the targeted industries. We have a choice in this place, but if the government gets its way on these provisions in the Building Code, Australians who rely on these safeguards for their pay and conditions will not have a choice.
The government is very open about this being an attack on the CFMEU but coy about the broader intentions of what they are trying to achieve by reintroducing the Australian Building and Construction Commission—a broader anti-union attack, a broader attack on the unions. The Building Code provision will enable the federal government to prevent local agreements having clauses for a range of matters, including guarantees on the number of apprentices. The government wants to wage war on all unions—the organisations that protect people's rights at work.
The Building Code will apply not just to employers tendering for government construction projects; it will apply to all employees working for private sector entities tendering for government work; it will apply to all entities that provide transport or prefabrication manufacturing to government jobs; and it will apply to other entities, including contracting or transport suppliers. When things go wrong in these workplaces, it is the unions that are stepping up and looking after the affected workers and their families. This bill will give people in the construction industry fewer rights—just because of the industry that they work in. It will give them fewer rights at work than accused criminals and even accused terrorists—in the form of new secret police who will have the right to take workers off the site and pull them in for questioning. The workers will not have the right to silence; they will not be able to talk to others about the fact that they are being investigated.
We may have changed Prime Minister's last year, but the government has not changed its spots. This bill is taking us back to the worst of the Abbott years. You can just imagine some in the coalition party room lighting up their cigars and concocting some good old-fashioned union bashing. This is the Prime Minister's attempt to trigger class warfare. The government is still seeking to divide rather than to unite. It is still governing for the big end of town—still governing for big money and for big business—while targeting those who can afford it least. Rather than governing for all Australians, it is still playing these political games, including bringing us all back here for three weeks at the cost of millions of dollars—millions of our precious taxpayers' dollars—to try and force the same old attacks on unions through the parliament. And you wonder why people are sick of politicians. Let us be clear: this is purely a political attack by this government.
If the government was serious about weeding out corruption, it would introduce a federal independent commission against corruption. We will be moving an amendment to this legislation for that to occur. Our second reading amendment will be that the bill be withdrawn and redrafted to provide for the establishment of a broad-based, anti-corruption watchdog—because, in its current form, the bill is an attack on workers and their unions and is not about addressing corruption at all. We have seen the consequences of such a body in the New South Wales parliament, where giving ICAC teeth came back to bite the Liberal Party. But at this time, amid a huge tax avoidance scandal and after helicopter trips and dodgy donations, the coalition lacks the courage to introduce an anti-corruption body at the federal level. This lack of courage has been made even clearer by the government refusing to support the Greens' call for a royal commission into the big banks and the financial sector—a sector where we have heard, time and again, of alleged misconduct; white-collar crime which has affected the lives of tens of thousands of victims. If the government was serious about tackling corruption and wrongdoing it would get behind the Greens' call to set up a royal commission.
The Greens are similarly committed to our vision for a national integrity commission. This would have three arms. We would have a national integrity commissioner who would be responsible for the investigation and prevention of misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments and agencies, and among federal parliamentarians and their staff. Secondly, it would have a watchdog to ensure that law enforcement has some independent oversight—so it would be responsible for the investigation and prevention of corruption in the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission. Finally, it would have an independent parliamentary adviser who would provide independent advice to ministers and parliamentarians on conduct, on ethical matters, and on the appropriate use of their parliamentary entitlements.
These are the sorts of broad-based, fundamental measures that we need to see in place to be tackling issues of corruption across Australian society. But, instead of such a broad-based body, the ABCC is aimed squarely at the Liberal Party's political rivals and, like any politically motivated attempt to attack your enemies, the public sees through the facade—just like they saw through the farcical and secretive royal commission into trade unions. And it is destined to fail. Indeed, it has failed before—the Liberals' first go at the ABCC failed. It failed to be an independent regulator committed to the best interests of the industry, the conditions of people at work and the needs of legitimate employers. The first go at the ABCC was unwilling or unable to address industry employers engaging in illegal activities, including the widespread use of misleading contracts. Construction companies signing up workers as independent contractors instead of hiring them as employees remains a serious issue that reduces industry standards. For employees, it means they lose out on basic work and safety rights.
The construction industry is one of this country's top four most dangerous industries, yet the old ABCC never took an employer to court over breaches of occupational health and safety laws, and the number of deaths in the construction industry increased during the period that the ABCC was in operation. In 2004, the number of deaths was 3.14 per 100,000 workers. In 2007, it stood at 4.8, and in 2008 it was 4.27 per 100,000 workers. Deaths in the construction industry are an appalling thing for us to have to be living with here in our Australian workplaces. We need to have measures in place that truly address the issue of improving safety at work. The ABCC in its previous incarnation was reducing safety at work. Every death on a construction site—any death at work—is something to be fought hard against. By reintroducing the ABCC, it is certain that safety levels would decline, and it is certain that deaths would increase. And yet, as part of this, the coercive powers of the ABCC would subject construction industry workers to secret interrogations and force them to answer questions under oath, resulting in construction workers having fewer rights than other workers, and lessening their ability to stand up for their rights at work and to stand up for the right to a safe workplace.
The attempt to go back to the future with another ABCC is indicative of the failure of Prime Minister Turnbull to turn the government around after the regressive leadership of Tony Abbott. We were promised that the rise of Mr Turnbull to the position of Prime Minister heralded a new era, and that we would no longer have Tony Abbott's three-word slogans. But just now we have heard the government's agenda, spouting the lines of the Treasurer about jobs and growth. But what is the value of jobs if people do not feel safe in their workplace? What cost is the government willing to pay for growth, if mums and dads do not have the time to spend Christmas with their children? Or worse, what if they are not around to see their children grow up, because of workplace accidents? The Greens believe a person should not have fewer rights than an accused criminal simply because they work in the building industry. People should not fear being hauled into secret interrogations and inquisitions, and being forced to name names under threat of imprisonment. We do not want or need McCarthyism in the building industry.
The Greens and the Australian people see this for what it really is: an attack on people's rights at work and a distraction from dealing with the very real issues of corruption and wrongdoing that span every industry. We will always stand up for people's rights at work, and we urge all senators to reject this legislation and not support this bill. In doing so, I will also move the second reading amendment standing in my name.
I rise to speak against the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] and Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2]. These bills seek to take us back to the dark old days of the Work Choices era in an attempt to bring the Australian Building and Construction Commission, ABCC, back from the dead. Put simply, this is a plan to restore a failed body that was built on flawed premises in order to demonise construction industry workers and those who represent them.
Under this legislation the ABCC will have extreme and unnecessary powers, powers that would fundamentally compromise basic civil liberties. ABCC mark 2 could compel ordinary workers to attend secret meetings. Not only that, they could be threatened with imprisonment in order to get information. They would have no access to legal representation and no right to remain silent. These are people who have not committed a crime, but they could be treated like criminals. Let us be clear: there is no other worker in the federal system who has this sort of draconian regime imposed upon them, and it is fundamentally undemocratic to impose this on workers within the building and construction industry.
The real irony of the bill before us, today, is that the government does not want it to pass. Despite all the huffing and puffing, despite all the hyperventilating about corruption—which, incidentally, this bill is not designed to address—despite the campaign of misinformation being waged by those opposite, this bill is merely a strategic means of ending this 44th Parliament in a double dissolution. Whilst these bills fit neatly with the Liberals' ongoing attacks on workers and the organisations that represent them, what those opposite truly want is to justify a mad dash to a double dissolution that would silence dissent by clearing out the crossbench.
If those opposite truly cared about getting the ABCC passed they could have brought it back for a vote at any time in the past eight months, without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars—perhaps even millions—to recall parliament. But this has not happened. In fact, since the bill was last defeated in this place the government has not sought to negotiate at all with the opposition or the crossbench about potential amendments. Of course, there is no other reason than that those opposite want to cut and run to a double dissolution. That is because it is becoming patently clear to the Australian people that they have been sold a dud.
The exuberance and relief that Australians felt when Mr Abbott was removed from the top job is rapidly being displaced by disappointment, verging on despair, by the man who took over. In Mr Turnbull, Australians thought they were getting a Prime Minister who would turn his back on the toxic, vicious policies of his predecessor and truly govern in the interests of all Australians. Instead, they got Mr Abbott in a top hat. Australians thought they were getting a Prime Minister who understood the importance of developing an innovative country that could take a leading role in the global digital economy. Instead, they got a man who continued to back-in last century's broadband network and maintain millions of dollars in cuts to vital research.
They thought they were getting a man who believed in better wages for low- and middle-income Australians. Instead, they got a man who continued the savage Abbott era attacks on workers and the organisations that help them get a better deal. They also thought they were getting a man who understood the importance of fairness, a man who recognised that growing inequality is not just a problem for those who are losing out but one for the entire nation. Instead, they got a man who continued to go after low- and middle-income Australians while backing-in 'one per centers' who laid claim to an ever-increasing portion of the national wealth.
What we have in Mr Turnbull is a man who refuses to do anything meaningful about massive tax avoidance by extremely wealthy companies and individuals—but he tried to hike the regressive GST, which would hit low-income Australians the hardest.
Of course this growing realisation in the electorate is starting to show up in the polls as the Prime Minister's carefully constructed but totally fictitious mask of a moderate man is falling off, policy by policy. The Liberals know that they have a limited window of time before the game is well and truly up, so they want to get an election as soon as they can.
This ABCC double-D scramble also serves another purpose: as a smokescreen to distract voters from the Liberals' shameful performance in government and their complete and utter lack of policy direction. The reality is that most Australians neither know nor care about the ABCC. In the past 2½ years I have received tens of thousand of pieces of correspondence calling for a change on many hundreds of federal issues, but in all this time I have not received a single one from a constituent calling for the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. Not one. I expect that the vast majority of senators and members in this place would have a very similar experience. It makes the Prime Minister's decision to cut and run to an extraordinary double dissolution election, on the basis of this legislation alone, as transparent as it is self interested. By hyperventilating about unions and going after construction workers they are hoping to avoid tricky national conversations about those issues that affect the majority of Australians.
This extraordinary farce of proroguing the parliament demonstrates further how unwilling the Prime Minister is to fight an election on the things that really matter to Australians. He does not want to talk about the Liberals' wish to slash penalty rates and conditions for Australian workers, or their myriad attempts to hand over Australian jobs to foreign workers. He does not want Aussies reminded that he is doing nothing to reduce the $10 billion hit the budget takes each year from tax breaks for capital gains and negative gearing—more than we spend on child care or higher education. He does not want the conversation to turn to the Liberals' complete lack of action on billions of dollars' worth of superannuation tax breaks that are largely used by the wealthy to reduce their tax bill. He does not want to talk about the $80 billion cuts he is levying on schools and hospitals or the Liberals' attacks on pensions, family support, TAFE, university fees and universal health care. He does not want us to think any further about the fact that only a few weeks ago he wanted to dump funding for public schools entirely. He does not want Australians to be reminded of the fact that the Liberals are cutting $650 million from pathology and diagnostic imaging—the very services that saves lives by identifying serious health problems so that they can be addressed and treated early. He does not want the national conversation to turn to the fact that those opposite have no plans, no policies and no vision for the economic future of the country, especially when contrasted with Labor, which has already released more than 70 fully funded policies which will deliver $70 billion in savings. He does not want to talk about marriage equality or climate action, having already made a deal with the Liberal hard right that nothing of substance will change. He would rather not get into tricky conversations about why he is marching forward with Mr Tony Abbott's plebiscite on marriage equality, which has been estimated to cost the country around half a billion dollars, rather than making the parliament do its job. He does not want to stand on his record of trashing Labor's first-class, fibre-to-the-premises NBN, which Australia will need to compete for business and investment in the global digital economy. He also does not want to admit that the Liberals have no plan for the economy after doubling the deficit, blowing out the budget and hiking taxes.
Just for the record, these are not just Labor lines—they are an undeniable reality. Figures from the Australian Office of Financial Management reveal that the two greatest annual increases in debt from the past 10 years have been under this Liberal government. In fact they added a whopping $111.36 billion in just two years. Things have been even worse for the deficit, which has doubled under the Abbott-Turnbull government. Let us not forget that this so-called party of lower taxes has actually hiked taxes to levels not seen since the tax-happy Howard government. In fact, the national tax take has been up every year under this government, and total tax as a proportion of the economy is higher than it ever was under the former Labor government.
Six months ago Mr Turnbull promised economic leadership and a mature debate on reform. Since then we have seen dysfunction, division and baseless scare campaigns, but no plan for economic reform. It seems that Mr Turnbull, lacking courage to make hard decisions, now has only one thing on his once overflowing table: tax cuts for the rich, despite the revelation that one in three of Australia's largest private companies did not pay tax last financial year. Wealthy Australians earning more than $180,000 a year look set to get an extra two per cent tax cut that will see the very Prime Minister here take home an extra $6,500 a year. Meanwhile, a couple with two kids on a single income of $65,000 will be $2,141 worse off. How does that add up to fairness?
In recent weeks we have seen breathtaking revelations of the global structures that are set up to allow very rich individuals and companies to hide their wealth and avoid paying tax. While ordinary Australians are required to pay their fair share of taxes, this government refuses to address the scandalous opt-out options that are available to the extremely wealthy. While it is difficult to get an estimate of how much tax avoidance is costing the country, there is little doubt that it stretches out to many billions of dollars each year. If even 10 per cent of corporate income tax were being lost to aggressive minimisation structures, Australia could be losing as much as $26 billion over four years. The fact that around a third of the largest companies operating in Australia actually pay no tax—none at all—suggests that the foregone revenue could be much, much higher.
When companies fail to pay their fair share of tax, revenue must be found elsewhere from other businesses or everyday Australian workers. But the Liberals have not just failed to act on this colossal issue; they have actually contributed to the problem. In fact this government has gutted the Australian Taxation Office by sacking more than 4,000 ATO workers—the very people that we need to investigate tax avoidance and return that money to the budget. Not only that—those opposite also fought tooth and nail to tear down Labor's reforms that would allow Australians to learn how much more tax our wealthiest private companies are paying.
But it is not only tax avoidance that this government is backing in over the national interest. It has also refused to do anything about the ongoing and systematic bad behaviour of our banks. In fact, the Prime Minister himself even admitted very recently that there is a serious issue. But do you know what he did then? Nothing. The fact is that the confidence and trust in the financial services industry has taken a huge hit over recent years. We have seen older Australians have their retirement savings gutted. We have seen families rorted out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have seen life insurance policy holders denied justice. We have seen very serious suggestions of rate fixing, a culture agreed, abrogation of responsibility and predatory behaviour. There are literally tens of thousands of victims—quite possibly many more. Australians and investors need to have confidence in their banks and financial institutions if they are to continue to prosper. But if we are to achieve this, we need to uncover and deal with unethical behaviour that compromises this confidence.
Australia has one of the strongest banking systems in the world, and Labor wants to make it even stronger. This is why Labor has promised that a Shorten Labor government would hold a royal commission into the decisions and behaviours of the banks and other financial institutions. Since this important move was announced, we have seen those opposite tie themselves in knots trying to justify their inaction and do everything they can to hold off scrutiny into the banks. They have even tried to argue that by making the banks more accountable and more ethical we are somehow compromising their business model. Not only are they trying to block legitimate investigation but the Abbott-Turnbull government actually cut $120 million from the corporate regulator, ASIC, all but ensuring that it would not have the resources to do its job.
Australians are not stupid. They can see what is going on. They are thoroughly sick of the Liberals putting vested interests ahead of what is good for the country. Of course, the relentless attack on unions, like the bill before us today, is yet further evidence of the Liberals kowtowing to their big business masters. Mr Turnbull and his friends in the government know very well that if they can weaken unions then they can keep the money flowing to the top end of town. When we have a diminished union movement, this is exactly what has happened. Let us be clear: this is not just speculation on my behalf. No—it is backed up by research at the International Monetary Fund, which found a strong link between declining union membership, ballooning CEO wages and increasing inequality. Not only that but the same research shows that income concentration at the top can, 'Reduce a population’s welfare if it allows top earners to manipulate the economic and political system in their favour.' The IMF is not a body known for its left-wing tendencies. This is not about ideology; this is about the facts.
I would now like to return to the specifics of the bill, but would I like to start by addressing a few myths that those opposite have been shopping around to anyone who will listen. Firstly, the bill is not about clearing up corruption, despite what the Prime Minister wants us to believe. In his letter to the Governor-General advising him to prorogue the parliament, Mr Turnbull stated:
The Government regards this legislation as of great importance for … taking strong measures to deal with widespread and systematic criminality in the building and construction industry.
But this lie has been revealed for what it is—ironically by the Chief Executive Officer of Master Builders Australia, Wilhelm Harnisch. When asked about this in a recent radio interview, Mr Harnisch directly contradicted the Prime Minister when he said:
So those people who are saying that this about dealing with criminality and corruption are missing the point.
He went on to say:
… I mean the matter of criminality and fraud are totally separate from the ABCC and there are agencies that deal with criminality.
Mr Harnisch is absolutely correct. The ABCC has no power to investigate breaches of criminal law or corruption. The Fair Work Building & Construction agency already has significant powers to respond appropriately to any unlawful behaviour in the industry—a fact that this bill wilfully ignores. There is no systematic gap within the current system that a resurrected ABCC would fill. In fact, the Fair Work Building & Construction agency is working more effectively than the ABCC ever did in its day.
The second piece of misinformation being peddled by those opposite about this bill is that restoring the draconian ABCC would improve productivity in the construction industry. Many of those opposite have tried to claim that this previous incarnation of the ABCC did exactly this. Again, this is totally untrue and completely at odds with the official data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The data tell us that there has been a continuous improvement in productivity in the industry since records began in the late 1980s. In fact, the rate of improvement in the seven years before the ABCC was introduced was better than in the seven years that the ABCC was in place, and it has continued to improve since the ABCC was abolished.
Another blatant misrepresentation those opposite have been trying about this bill is that it is somehow a recommendation of the tainted royal commission into trade unions. the ABCC bill and the registered organisations bill precede the findings of the politically partisan royal commission. In fact, both bills were introduced before the royal commission began and were defeated before its conclusion. The government has taken no steps to implement the recommendations of its $80 million taxpayer-funded royal commission. In contrast, Labor has announced a package of governance changes aimed at deterring and detecting corruption in unions, including doubling the maximum penalties for all criminal offences under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act. Labor will not shy away from cracking down on criminal behaviour, whether by employers, employees or union representatives. But, similarly, we will not stand idly by while millions of dollars are being sucked out of vital services and nothing is being done to address the massive tax breaks that are being given to the wealthiest companies and individuals.
The difference between Labor and Liberal at the upcoming election could not clearer. While the Liberals continue to back the big end of town and to attack the organisations that fight to secure a better deal for workers, Labor has a plan to govern for all Australians. We will not be cowed into not addressing the issues that really matter to those people in our community who are doing it tough at the moment—and who will continue to do it tough if this government continues to be the government.
I rise to make known my views and my vote on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] and the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 [No. 2]—or, as most Australians have come to know these bills, the ABCC legislation. It will not come as a shock to the Senate when I say that I will not support this legislation and that, as I have done in the past, I will be voting against it when the second reading vote is called. In the course of this speech, I will detail the reasons why I have decided to oppose this legislation.
Despite voting against this legislation in the past, in an expression of goodwill when Mr Turnbull first became Prime Minister, I wrote to him and met with him. I suggested that I could vote for the legislation if he was prepared to agree to a couple of small concessions—deregistration of the CFMEU and the establishment of a federal ICAC—which he dismissed. However, as the community debate about these bills continued, and I received more detailed briefings from different stakeholders—especially valuable were the submissions from the Law Council of Australia—it became obvious that this legislation has more holes in it than a target at a shooting range. I will turn to the information that I received from the Law Council of Australia shortly. However, it is important at the beginning of my contribution to this debate to note that the great majority of Australians, including Tasmanians, are confused or unsure about the ABCC legislation.
Most understand that this legislation is likely to be historic. There is a high probability that it will be defeated in this chamber and that this will lead to a double dissolution election on 2 July. I am not scared by the thought of a double-D election—my vote will never be influenced by threats of a double-D election from this Prime Minister. I will vote according to the merits or otherwise of this legislation in the best interests of Tasmanians. It is clear that the best interests of Tasmanians are served by strongly opposing this legislation. Indeed, the average Tasmanian has little concern for the ABCC bills. Average Tasmanians are trying to provide for their families; they are losing their jobs, or they are trying to find jobs for their children. They are trying to access affordable and timely health care in a state public health system that is broken and badly politically managed, and to keep warm over the winter while the threat of power cuts looms after the Liberals have yet again mismanaged another essential basic service in Tasmania. They are trying to save their trucking businesses after a bunch of out-of-touch government officials made a ruling that took away 90 per cent of their businesses in a matter of hours. This is what matters to Tasmanians right now. They do not have the time or energy to invest too much energy worrying about the Liberals' ABCC legislation and the PM's tricky political tactics. Indeed, most Tasmanians would be stunned to learn that this building legislation will not help them if a dodgy builder rips them off while building a house or renovating the family home, because this legislation deals with the commercial building sector, not the residential sector.
There are big problems within Australia's residential building industry. Dodgy builders, often those who have gone bankrupt many times, are allowed by state government building watchdogs to reinvent themselves, and to continue to trade and rip off mum-and-dad investors in our property markets. Of course, I am not forgetting the subbies and the tradesmen who are also taken down when a builder declares himself bankrupt one day, and then opens for business under another name, perhaps in a different state, a few weeks later. Those important issues are not dealt with in this legislation. We could be talking about the introduction of a national building licensing register to replace state-based arrangements and a limit of one licence per builder, with lifetime industry-wide bans imposed on those found guilty of construction-related fraud and tax evasion. Instead, we have this legislation which the Law Council of Australia—representing about 60,000 lawyers—has laughed at. This legislation has no justification. It is simply designed to bash the unions, to take away basic civil rights from ordinary citizens and blue-collar workers, and to give the Liberal Party of Australia a political advantage over everyone else, as they call an early double dissolution federal election.
I now turn to some of the details of this legislation. When considering the structure of the bill, Parliamentary Library research states that the bill contains nine chapters: chapter 1 contains preliminary material, including definitions which extend the scope of building and construction regulation, and chapter 2 establishes the ABCC and the position of the ABCC Commissioner—the Commissioner. Chapter 3 provides the minister with the power to issue a Building Code; chapter 4 establishes the Federal Safety Commissioner; chapter 5 deals with unlawful action, including a new offence of unlawful picketing; chapter 6 deals with coercion, discrimination and unenforceable agreements; and chapter 7 deals with the powers of the Commissioner and other authorised officers to obtain information. Chapter 8 deals with enforcement, and chapter 9 contains miscellaneous provisions, including provisions to do with handling of information, powers of the Commissioner, and the courts.
I had not realised just how badly written this legislation was until I met with the Law Council of Australia and had a number of consultations and briefings with them. For those who do not know about the profile, independence, credibility and purpose of the Law Council of Australia, it may be worthwhile to remind the Senate of a few important facts. The Law Council was established in 1933 and represents 16 Australian state and territory law societies, bar associations and Law Firms Australia, which are known collectively as Constituent Bodies. The Constituent Bodies are made up of all of the Australian states' law societies and most Australian bar associations, including the Law Society of Tasmania and The Tasmanian Bar. Their profile says that the Law Council effectively acts on behalf of more than 60,000 lawyers right across Australia. They exist to represent the legal profession at a national level, to speak on behalf of its Constituent Bodies on national issues, and to promote the administration of justice, access to justice and general improvement of the law. After consulting with the Law Council, it is clear to me that the ABCC will not lead to an improvement to Australian law. In fact, the opposite will happen. Should this legislation pass the Senate, the general rule of law will be weakened—and 60,000 lawyers agree with that statement.
There are a number of key difficulties that the Law Council has found with this legislation. Other bodies such as the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights have identified the same key concerns, which are: (1) the provisions of this bill only deal with corruption in the building and construction sectors and not more broadly across various industries; (2) it applies a different set of industrial relations rules that apply only to persons associated with the building and construction industry; (3) they provide new coercive powers with retrospective operation; (4) there is exclusion of judicial review of certain decisions without adequate justification and contrary to a recommendation by the former Administrative Review Council; (5) there are inappropriate delegations of legislative power; (6) there are insufficiently defined and overly broad discretionary powers; (7) it inappropriately reverses the onus of proof in certain circumstances; (8) it inappropriately permits entry onto premises without consent or warrant; (9) there is a lack of oversight in the process of authorising the use of extraordinary coercive information-gathering powers; (10) the prohibition on picketing and further restrictions on industrial actions has been found by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights to be incompatible with the right to freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions; (11) the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner may exclude a particular legal practitioner from an examination if the commissioner concludes, on reasonable grounds and in good faith, that the representative either will or may prejudice the investigation.
In summary this legislation allows for: new coercive powers with retrospective operation, exclusion of judicial review without proper justification, inappropriate delegations of legislative power, insufficiently defined and overly broad discretionary powers, inappropriate reversal of the onus of proof in certain circumstances, a lack of oversight in the process of authorising the use of extraordinary coercive information-gathering powers, incompatibility with the right to freedom of association and the right to form and join trade unions, and exclusion of a particular legal practitioner from an examination. These are the reasons why the Law Council of Australia, an independent, credible expert legislative body representing 60,000 Australian lawyers, effectively says that this is bad, poorly written legislation. These are the reasons why this legislation should not be passed.
During the last sitting of this parliament I had a meeting lasting about 45 minutes with Minister Cash and her legal adviser and raised these Law Council concerns. We also talked about section 62, which takes away the right to silence for an Australian citizen who appears before the commission. Section 62 allows the government to charge an Australian citizen and have that citizen imprisoned for 6 months should that citizen choose to say nothing and exercise a right to silence during an official interview. It is found on page 49 of the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill and reads:
62 Offence for failing to comply with examination notice
A person commits an offence if:
(a) the person has been given an examination notice; and
(b) the person fails:
(i) to give information or produce a document in accordance with the notice; or
(ii) to attend to answer questions in accordance with the notice; or
(iii) to take an oath or make an affirmation, when required to do so under subsection 61(5); or
(iv) to answer questions relevant to the investigation while attending as required by the examination notice.
Penalty: Imprisonment for 6 months.
A couple of things came out of our discussion with the minister with reference to section 62. Firstly, as it stands written, we are not sure if the imprisonment for six months for exercising a right to silence is a mandatory, minimum or maximum period of time. It is bad enough that this extreme legislation is being entrusted to public servants with doubts over their qualifications, but to have a question mark over whether is it a minimum, maximum or mandatory sentence is careless and an example of very poor legislative drafting.
The minister tried to calm my office's fears about removing a basic civil liberty from Australian citizens—that is, their right to silence—by informing me that the government had arranged for an indemnity from prosecution for any crime should someone be forced to incriminate themselves during those extreme interrogations. When asked about the sorts of crimes that this indemnity covered, the minister was forced to admit that even if someone had committed a murder and confessed to that crime during an ABCC official interview they would receive an indemnity—as long as the murder was related to the building industry, because if you have committed a murder that is not related to the building industry and confess during an interview covered by the provision of the ABCC legislation then you do not qualify for an indemnity.
This response raised eyebrows with the Law Council. Firstly, it is ridiculous that this parliament is being asked to legislate to give you an indemnity to murder should you confess during an interview. That gem came from the minister's own mouth in my office. Secondly, it is completely bizarre that the minister and her legal adviser can suggest that one type of murder qualifies for an indemnity while another murder simply does not. According to the minister, if you bury the body under cement and say the murder was related to the building industry, then you have indemnity. But if you buried the body in the woods and the murder was carried out because of a non-building related activity, you do not get an indemnity from prosecution. That was the point where it became clear that this legislation was, quite simply, drafted by a roomful of monkeys and a typewriter.
It is very bad and poorly drafted and has scant regard for the rule of law and basic democratic rights in this country. The Law Council of Australia confirmed my opinion after a subsequent meeting to discuss the minister's briefing. I admit that there was a period when, in good faith, I would have passed this legislation had the government met certain conditions: the deregistration of the CFMEU, a viewing of the royal commission secret reports and the establishment of a federal ICAC.
As my research and consultation on the ABCC progressed over the months, my trust in Commissioner Heydon was shattered when it became blindingly obvious that he had lied to the people of Australia about the so-called grave threats he had discovered to the power and authority of the Australian state. I am in a unique position to pass judgement on Commissioner Heydon's secret reports and findings. Unlike most Australians and politicians, I have read Commissioner Heydon's secret reports. It is fiction and it is a lie. There are no grave threats to the Australian state. If there were, ASIO would have been all over the Heydon royal commission like a bloody rash. They would have been over it and they would have known about it. When I questioned ASIO at estimates about Heydon's secret reports, no copy had been referred to them nor had ASIO even thought of asking for a copy of the secret reports. A royal commissioner who agreed to participate in a Liberal Party fundraiser lied to the parliament and the Australian people about the seriousness of the threat to the Australian state through his investigations into union and other corruption. This is the debate in which the question 'Why?' must be asked.
According to Parliamentary Library research I recently commissioned, over a five-year period from 2010-11 to the present day the four big banks—the Commonwealth, NAB, Westpac and ANZ—have donated $2.56 million to the Liberal and National parties. That is why you will not see a banker lose their right to silence or prove their innocence if they are accused of an offence or crime in the finance industry. But if this legislation passes you will see blue-collar workers lose their right to silence and the right to a presumption of innocence while bankers are treated separately. Indeed this law is so bad that citizens accused of murder and rape will have more rights than a construction worker if summoned under the ABCC legislation.
On 26 August 1789 the representatives of the French people organised as a national assembly—believing that the ignorance, neglect or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments. They set forth a solemn declaration detailing the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man. This declaration has had a profound effect on the formation of modern Western democracies and their rule of law. Article 6 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen states in part with relation to the law:
It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10 December 1948, states in article 7:
All are equal before the law and are entitled … to equal protection of the law.
If this ABCC legislation passes, bankers have more legal rights than blue-collar construction workers. This principle of equality before the law is one of the main foundations Australia was built on. It is one of the reasons we fought wars against dictatorships and totalitarian countries. Liberals love quoting a glib and misleading catch phrase when trying to sell this legislation: 'Oh, we need a tough cop on the beat.' Well that cop had better treat blue-collar workers the same as bankers—that is why we need to tackle corruption with a federal ICAC.
I strongly oppose the ABCC legislation and in Tasmania's best interests will vote against it at this second reading stage.
I rise to speak on the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 (No. 2) and the associated transitional bill. First, I want to take this opportunity to raise some issues that I think have been lost amongst the ideological battle of words across the chamber and in the media. In 2012, the Labor Party had the numbers to completely abolish the ABCC and send a message to the Australian people that the government does not single out construction workers. But they did not. Instead, the Office of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate, also known as FWBC, was created. This office, which singles out the construction industry, was established by an act of parliament and it was passed by the Australian Labor Party.
The Education and Employment Legislation Committee of the previous parliament—the 43rd Parliament, that is; not the first session of the 44th—stated at page 8 of its report:
While the bill would abolish the ABCC, it would maintain separate legislative arrangements for governing the building and construction industry.
The previous government significantly changed the laws by introducing additional safeguards for compulsory examinations and removing the higher penalties that applied to the construction industry. However, despite calls from the union movement, they did not abolish the ABCC. This was mainly because of the findings of the review conducted in 2009 by Mr Murray Wilcox QC, which were debated at length during the 43rd Parliament.
I think the government has muddied the waters of this debate by throwing around allegations of corruption, connections to certain motorcycle clubs and criminal behaviour within the construction industry in order to justify the return of the ABCC. There may be instances of corruption and third-party standover tactics in the construction industry—there are a lot of colourful characters, I am sure—but this bill does not address these issues. I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard that the ABCC legislation should be extended to other industries or that with the flick of a pen this legislation could be turned into a national ICAC. These statements reflect a poor understanding not only of the policy issues behind the legislation but also of the legislation itself, and they also reflect the way the government has presented the legislation. I have publicly stated that the ABCC is not an anticorruption body but a body that enforces Australian industrial relations in the building and construction industry. It has nothing to do with tackling criminality and corruption but it seems this point has fallen on many deaf ears.
I want to make it clear that I am a proud supporter of unions and the union movement. As almost everyone is aware, I was a shop steward for the forestry division of the CFMEU in Victoria. Unions have played a critical role in ensuring that workers' rights are protected and that workplaces are safe, and they will continue to do so in the future. However, I cannot ignore the overwhelming number of court cases where the CFMEU has been found to have broken the law, or where they have admitted that they have broken the law. Since 2005 around $6 million in penalties have been issued against the CFMEU in cases initiated by the Building Industry Taskforce, the ABCC and FWBC.
I want to speak about the two concessions I wanted the government to make in order for me to support the legislation. During negotiations with the minister, I advised that I wanted the ABCC to investigate and prosecute complaints about wages and entitlements and sham contracting. Under the leadership of Mr Leigh Johns, the ABCC and the current regulator, FWBC, used to handle wages and entitlement matters relating to the building and construction industry. It did a great job, recovering over $2 million for over 1,500 workers. When the current director, Mr Nigel Hadgkiss, took over, he cited a need to return FWBC to what was called 'core business'. This includes coercion, unlawful industrial action and right of entry issues. In the agency's 2013-14 annual report, Mr Hadgkiss stated that, when he took over, more than 40 per cent of investigations related to wages and entitlements. To me, this seems like there was a problem with complaints about underpayments in the building and construction industry and that there was a regulator doing a pretty good job at rectifying that problem. For the period from 2013 to 2015, over $577,000 in penalties were imposed on companies for wages and entitlements and sham contracting contraventions as a result of FWBC litigation. Throw this on top of the couple of million bucks it recovered for construction workers and it is looking pretty good.
I have heard the argument that the Fair Work Ombudsman is the expert and is the appropriate agency to deal with these matters. The Fair Work Ombudsman does some fantastic work recovering wages from exploited workers in retail, hospitality and other industries, but I believe the ABCC would be best placed to pursue these matters in the construction sector. An industry update from FWBC in 2012 highlights why I think the ABCC should return to being a full service regulator. The following quote is from the November 2012 edition of the industry update, which is currently available on the FWBC's website. It quoted the chief executive, Mr Leigh Johns:
"FWBC's efforts in relation to underpaid building and construction workers have been more successful than when the FWO—
the Fair Work Ombudsman—
did this work for building and construction workers.
"Building and construction workers know now where to go to get assistance," he said.
Mr Johns stated that FWO did a "great job" but FWBC has had such great success because it deals specifically and exclusively with the construction industry.
The decision to take on investigations into the recovery of wages and entitlements was consistent with the recommendation of Royal Commissioner Cole, that the industry specialist regulator should
How could the ABCC return to investigating and prosecuting matters relating to wages and entitlements and sham contracting? Under clause 17 of the bill, the minister may, by legislative instrument, give written directions to the ABC commissioner specifying the manner in which the ABC commissioner must exercise the powers or perform the functions of the ABC commissioner under this act.
There has been a lot of criticism that the ABCC will only focus on unions and will ignore the conduct of employers who are engaging in unlawful practices. I tried to seek an agreement with the minister that, if the ABCC is established, she will direct the commissioner to investigate and prosecute matters relating to wages and entitlements and sham contracting under the Fair Work Act 2009. In my opinion, a properly resourced unit within the FWBC which can investigate employers who underpay workers as well as investigate possible sham contracting arrangements will ensure that there is a more even-handed approach to tackling the problems of unlawful conduct in the building and construction industry. I believe the ABCC could be suitably resourced to undertake this additional work so that complex underpayment and sham contracting investigations would not diminish the capacity of the ABCC to investigate or prosecute the specific offences in the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013. I have it on good authority that there are some good people at the FWBC, and I am sure they can continue the great work in recovering underpayments for workers in the building and construction industry and protecting workers from exploitation. The ABCC is all about enforcing the rule of law on Australian building and construction sites, but the rule of law does not just apply to unions. There are some unscrupulous employers operating in the building and construction industry, and a well-resourced, 'tough cop on the beat' will be best placed to tackle them as well as the unscrupulous union officials who continue to ignore the law.
Unfortunately, I was not successful in reaching an agreement on this matter. There is no political will to do this and the excuse that it will distract from the ABCC's core business is a poor excuse and reflects the ideological battleground that this policy has been fought on. If the government were serious about improving productivity in the building and construction sector, it would see the merits of the ABCC being a full service regulator. Being a full service regulator is not an indulgence; it works—it takes a lot of effort, but it works. Perhaps the government prefers policing to regulating because it tends to involve less accountability to the public.
We know the building and construction industry is unique. This is why there needs to be an industry-specific regulator to enforce the rule of law, but it seems this government is only serious about enforcing the rule of law on construction sites when it comes to unions and does not really care about the workers who are being exploited. The Fair Work Ombudsman can do that, the government would say. They are the experts, the government says. How hard could it be to set up a specialised unit within the ABCC that focuses on wages and entitlements and sham contracting? The ABCC and Fair Work Ombudsman should not be siloed on this issue. The ABCC will be on the ground and, to use the government's own words, 'a tough cop on the beat'. I have strong doubts that the restoration of the ABCC would solve the problems facing the construction industry. If you added up the millions of dollars spent on the building task force, the ABCC, the FWBC and royal commissions and compared it to the fines secured against the CFMEU, you would have to conclude it has been a very poor return on investment. Of course, if, in addition to these fines, those millions of dollars had resulted in a change in the CFMEU's behaviour, then the public value could be established—but that has not happened.
As a public policy measure, the so-called 'cop on the beat' has been a failure for the past 15 years. Only the head contractors and employers can change the industry. They need to change their business model and government needs to empower them to do so. The only measure that has worked in the past 15 years was the Howard government version of the building code. It made it economically unviable for employers to do deals because to do so locked them out of work. They could say to the CFMEU, 'If we do that deal, we will be prohibited from tendering, we won't get the job and you won't have members on the job.' The CFMEU got the message. The use of procurement policy had a more effective impact on employer—and, consequently, CFMEU—behaviour than the ABCC-FWBC regulatory model ever has. The current 2013 version of the code is weak, so perhaps the only thing that is needed is a revised building code. I understand that there are some issues and concerns with the proposed building code, but, if the government is serious about changing the culture of the building and construction industry, it should make that its focus.
I also wanted to reach an agreement with the government on some amendments to the ABCC's coercive powers. The agency that currently exists, the FWBC, was established by the Labor Party in 2012, and it has coercive powers. The legislation setting up the FWBC contains provisions that make it a criminal offence not to cooperate and also provides for a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment if somebody is found guilty of failing to cooperate. The opposition leader, Mr Bill Shorten, at a media conference on 15 April 2016 said that this legislation takes away rights from construction workers, giving them fewer rights than ice dealers and terrorists. I should not need to remind the opposition leader of this fact, but he was the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations when FWBC was established. On 16 February 2012, the then Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Shorten, said the following:
The bill retains coercive powers, as indeed Murray Wilcox QC recommended. I acknowledge that many in this place have put strong personal views about this element of the bill. I want to stress to those who are concerned about coercive powers that this bill also includes important safeguards recommended by Justice Wilcox for those who seek to use the powers and those who may be subject to them. The bill also contains a sunset on the use of these powers after three years, but only after a review. Together, these elements are measured and appropriate.
Yes, there were safeguards, but the substance of the coercive powers has not changed. Construction workers could be forced to answer questions—with the threat of imprisonment if they did not—under a Labor government, and the same can be said for a coalition government. For Mr Shorten to claim that somehow these coercive powers are a creation of the coalition government and to attach outrageous claims to it reflects exactly what is wrong with public policy debate in this country.
Currently, FWBC has compulsory examination powers, but examination notices are issued by a nominated member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, the AAT. I think this is an important safeguard, and one that was recommended by Murray Wilcox QC.
I am of the view that the current legislation should be amended so that examination powers of the ABCC reflect what they currently are under the Fair Work (Building Industry) Act 2012. At a minimum, section 47, which relates to the AAT issuing examination notices, should be adopted into the current legislation. I also think that it is important that a review into the use of these powers be undertaken within 12 months of the ABCC being re-established.
There is also one other minor issue that I want to address, which relates to outrageous claims being made that distract from having a factual, evidence-based debate on policy. This issue relates to claims that, when construction workers are forced to give evidence, they will not have the right to legal representation. I have heard this on more than one occasion. A quick glance at the bill shows it clearly states the opposite. Clause 61(4) of the bill states:
A person attending before the ABC Commissioner, or before an assistant, as mentioned in paragraph (2)(c) may be represented by a lawyer if the person chooses.
This may be a minor point, but if the senators in this chamber and the Australian public are not getting the correct information from senators debating it, how are they meant to?
I know I have previously stated that I would support the second reading. However, I have not been able to reach an agreement with the minister on these two concessions, so I do not see much point in continuing this debate. If the government will not even consider what I believe to be reasonable amendments—at least worthy of debate in this chamber—then let us get this bill, as it is presented, to a vote. Then the government can proceed with what it wants—an early election.
The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 [No. 2] reveals the level of deceit this government will go to; it is based on so many lies. It is not about addressing criminal activity in the building industry committed by workers or by the union. It is not about corruption by those people. It is about weakening and destroying the union movement. It also runs cover, actually, for many of the big players in the construction industry—the developers of this nation. Those people, those company directors and those companies, are some of the biggest donors to the Liberal Party—many of them also to Labor, but particularly to the Liberal Party.
We need to bring the threads together here of what is really going on, because there are serious problems in the building industry—problems that have been exposed and need to be addressed. But it is not about how unions are operating; it is about how the big companies, particularly in our big cities, are treating the subcontractors, and how that whole chain of operations plays out. Tragically, so often how it plays out is that, because of corners being cut so that profits can be made, people die. And that is what should be at the heart of this debate if you want to be serious about looking at the construction industry and how it should be improved.
If we were serious about cleaning up the construction industry, the government would be tackling the culture where company directors show contempt for the law. That is being set out very clearly, particularly in the Senate inquiry into insolvency. But we see it all the time—there are so many rules that are broken and laws that are not abided by, and company directors get away with it. That is why that culture has developed.
We know that it is a serious problem because, even with the old ABCC, no company director was taken to court. How can you be serious about addressing problems in this industry if not one employer is taken to court?
Then there is the issue of political donations. I will come to that in more detail in a moment.
But first off, let us look at issues going on in the construction industry itself, where we have serious imbalances of power in contractual relationships. Market power is concentrated at the top of the contracting chain, and we are seeing a shift in how that plays out. We are seeing a shift in where risk lies. The shift is from the large principal contracting companies to those who are least able to bear it—that is, to the subcontractors, the small suppliers and the employees. This is what I mean when I say that these are the issues that need to be addressed if you are serious about really getting the construction industry onto a firm footing so that it actually meets the needs of our economy and abides by the law.
A large number of smaller-scale subcontractors that carry the burden of risk, and a concentration of market power in the hands of a few major corporate head contractors, means that those head contractors often have little regard for the competitive pressures placed on subcontractors. The situation for subcontractors is appalling in this country. As a result, the industry is burdened every year by nearly $3 billion in unpaid debts, including subcontractor payments, employee entitlements and tax debts averaging around $630 million a year—and that is just over the past three years.
Those who lose out here are the workers and subcontractors. And why? Because the government is not taking action. The government are sitting on their hands. They are happy for this shift in contractual arrangements because it gives more power to the big company owners, and the subbies, the employees, the workers and the labourers, are at their mercy.
The economic cost of insolvencies in the construction industry is staggering, and that is because of the state the industry is in. This is what should be addressed. The construction industry consistently rates as either the highest or the second-highest, against all other industries, when it comes to unpaid employee entitlements. Who picks up the bill? The public. The construction industry is sitting back. They are so happy. They have their servants in here—the likes of Liberal and National Party senators and MPs—running around and trying to set up an ABCC, and meanwhile their profits roll in. Even when they go belly up—and I will talk about phoenix companies—who picks up the cost of employee entitlements? The public purse. Taxpayers paid over $226 million from 2009-10 to September last year to employees of insolvent companies in the construction industry alone. Where does it come from? That money is through the Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme. That has to be done. We have seen what happens in the past—remember the famous case when Mr Howard was the Prime Minister and what happened to the Manildra workers—but top industries and top company directors are getting away with it because they know they can.
The whole situation with phoenixing is absolutely huge in the construction industry and that should be addressed. Phoenixing is the fraudulent act of shifting assets to a new company to avoid paying tax, entitlement benefits et cetera. Again, it is huge in this sector. The Senate report into insolvency found that compliance with corporations law is optional for many company directors. How does that come about? It is because of the culture that has been allowed to develop. In a single year, over 3,000 possible cases of civil misconduct and nearly 250 possible criminal offences under the Corporations Act were reported in the construction industry alone. This suggests an industry in which company directors' contempt for the rule of law is becoming all too common. That is why I said it is becoming the culture. They get away with it. Why aren't those issues being addressed? Why don't we hear Minister Michaela Cash give one of her impassioned speeches about the outrages in the industry? These are the issues that are being ignored. The ABCC, I repeat, is being used for cover to allow the backers of the Liberal and National Parties to get away with some of the ugliest issues that you could see play out. I remind senators: this is a dangerous industry and people die because of the corners that are being cut when companies do not follow the law on building sites and allow safety checks to be carried out that ensure that the law is enforced.
This is how businesses are operating. There is an environment in which non-payment for work carried out is commonplace, cash flows are uncertain and businesses lower down in the subcontracting chain have little power relative to those at the top of the chain. Who is at the top of the chain? I will come to that shortly: their political donations and where they are flowing. The Liberal Party are picking up big cash because of the way they are handling this construction industry. That is something that we need to give considerable attention to. The figures are easy to find. They can be found at the Australian Electoral Commission. I have said it many times: it is wrong that the data comes out long after the election and that the public will not know who the big developers are that fund the Liberal and National Parties in this election, but we know what has happened previously and it has been happening for well over 10 years.
Croissy, which is Westfield's Frank Lowy's family company, in the financial years of 2001-02 and 2003-04 gave $300,000 to the Labor Party, and in 2001-02 gave $250,000 to the federal Liberal Party. These donations amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars rolling in from the Kingold Group of Companies, Hong Kong Kingston Investments and Furama. These are all companies that come up in the property sector when you look at the donations in detail. Big money comes in and it is having a corrupting influence on our democratic process.
We are coming up to an election and people are holding fundraisers. There was a very interesting one where Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O'Dwyer, was outed about her fundraiser being sponsored by the NAB. Firstly, it is extraordinary and it should be sung from the treetops. It is quite audacious at a time when the banking industry was further exposed in how damaging it is to our economy and how it rips off ordinary people. We have the Assistant Treasurer, Kelly O'Dwyer, holding what has been called a 'glitzy pre-election political fundraiser' with the Treasurer, Scott Morrison, to be held 10 days after the budget so that they can spruik the budget there. Firstly, that in itself is quite questionable because the budget has often been developed with great public sector input, and the Treasurer and the Assistant Treasurer are out there using it as a fundraiser. A table at this breakfast will cost between $100,000 and $150,000. These are the corrupting aspects of our political process. This is what should be investigated. I do not know which developers will go to this breakfast, but you can be sure that there will be some. I notice that the donations list I just read out includes Brunswick Property Victoria Pty Ltd. They gave $300,000 to the Liberals at a federal level in 2014-15 on a couple of occasions. They could well be there and there could be other big donors. We should be having a proper investigation into issues in the construction industry with regard to insolvency and the whole chain of command, from the big players, the big developers, down to the very exploited subcontractors. That is what we need to investigate, and we need a thorough investigation into political donations. They are the issues that should be thoroughly investigated.
I will just go back to the situation with Ms O'Dwyer. She was an NAB executive; now she is a politician—and here she is with this very cosy deal continuing with her former employer, one of the big banks. We are told that they are too big to fail. The government is refusing to have a royal commission into them. Why won't they have an investigation into those issues? It is also worth noting that at the time Ms O'Dwyer took up her job at the National Australia Bank her responsibility was to look after the extremely rich families worth more than $30 million. Now you could say that maybe her job description has not changed that much. That was her job description when she worked at the NAB, and I would say that this is the job of the government these days: it is to look after the extremely rich in this society. That is another way you can describe the ABCC.
Senator Williams interjecting—
I am happy to acknowledge the interjections from our senator from the National Party—
I will let you say that. I would not use that one. It was good that you came in at that time, Senator, because the Nationals are out there on the hustings saying how they are the friend of the farmer and that they are in here conducting the good fight against the Liberals. I have heard them say that they are in here conducting the good fight against the Liberals and Labor. But the Nationals are in lockstep with the Liberals on political donations. They are just taking the money in and refusing to have the all-important inquiry that we need into political donations to sort this out.
Let's come back to the issue at hand about the construction industry and the ABCC. Why is it being set up? In the first instance, it is to weaken the unions and, in time, to destroy the union movement.
Senator Williams interjecting—
The Productivity Commission did not think that the ABCC was needed, Senator. The ABCC is a very dangerous body—my colleagues have set that out very clearly.
I congratulate the CFMEU for the work that they do on the job protecting workers' rights and promoting safety. The CFMEU have a dinner coming up in May. It is their annual dinner. I suggest that Minister Cash could learn a great deal by coming along to it. By coming to it she would see the union working with industry in a very positive way on safety. The money raised is for the Workplace Tragedy Family Support Group. It is one of the most moving nights I go to. You hear speeches from the children of people who have lost their lives and from the widows who are doing it really tough. This is money raised for them. This is why we need to get rid of the ABCC, to not allow these bills to pass and to ensure our construction industry is safe and that unions can continue to do their work.
I rise today to speak on the ABCC bills. I strongly oppose this legislation and will be voting against it. I admire my crossbench colleagues for attempting to negotiate with the government. Of course we should be tackling corruption and misconduct. We should be doing everything we can to clean up all facets of our society, including our legal system, our commercial sector and the political sphere. Corruption is not unique to the building industry. If the government was fair dinkum, it would be looking to tackle corruption across the board.
The ABCC's unique focus on the building sector and the draconian nature of its coercive powers render it inconsistent with fundamental democratic principles, including equality before the law, the presumption of innocence and the right to silence. The parliament should be reluctant to pass legislation that offends these principles. The ABCC legislation provides inspectors with powers that are arguably greater than those possessed by ASIO and other intelligence organisations. These powers allow the ABCC to force anyone to provide information, produce documents or answer questions. If you do not comply, you face criminal prosecution and six months in prison.
Say I was a young apprentice who witnessed a fatal workplace incident due to faulty machinery. I contact representatives from my union to voice my concerns and a meeting is scheduled to discuss those concerns. The ABCC hear about the meeting and decide to investigate what occurred at that meeting. Under the proposed laws the ABCC can come to my home at 9 pm without a warrant, bring whoever they like with them, enter my home where my young children might be sleeping, search whatever they like, interview whoever they like and take whatever they want. If I do not oblige, I face six months in the slammer, or they can find me up to $36,000 if they deem my meeting illegal.
I have done nothing wrong. I wanted to raise concerns about that fatal accident with the intention of preventing it from occurring again. That does not matter to the ABCC. I do not have a right to silence. I do not have a right to privacy in my own home. I am not afforded the right against self-incrimination. My basic human rights are taken from me just for voicing my concerns over a life-threatening issue. I have fewer rights than an alleged murderer. Not even the police hold these powers. If coercive powers of the type proposed are genuinely needed, which I seriously question, they should apply to all people in all industries.
On 24 February the Senate passed a motion moved by Senator Wang and myself resolving to hold an inquiry into the establishment of a federal corruption body to be known as the National Integrity Commission. The inquiry will consider the adequacy of Australia's existing legislative, institutional and policy frameworks in addressing corruption and misconduct wherever it is occurring. It will also consider the nature and extent of coercive powers possessed by various statutory agencies, whether these are consistent with democratic principles and, if not, whether they are strictly necessary to each agency's ability to carry out its work.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly rejected the idea of establishing a national corruption body. Attorney-General Senator Brandis, when rejecting the need for such a body, went so far as to suggest that Australian federal politics is remarkably free of corruption. Yet this is a government whose Cabinet Secretary, Arthur Sinodinos, remains under investigation—