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Speech: Tabling of inquiry report into proposal to restablish Australian Building and Construction Commission

Senator WRIGHT:  The Senate Standing Education and Employment References Committee has not minced words in delivering its report into the government's approach to re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission, or the ABCC as I will call it from now on.

There is a long history to this issue, and the committee's findings can be summarised around five key problems. Firstly, the government's proposal embodied in the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 disproportionately compromises human rights when you consider its objectives. Secondly, the bill does not contain adequate protections to balance the extensive coercive powers that the ABCC would have. Thirdly, there is no evidence that the ABCC would enhance productivity. In fact, the few sources that the government uses to support this claim have been discredited to the extent that they cannot be relied upon. Fourthly, the ABCC would have no jurisdiction to investigate criminality in the building and construction industry, so the claim that criminality in these industries is a rationale is spurious. In fact, evidence from law enforcement agencies was that the fact there may be criminals involved in the industry does not make it unique. Finally, the committee also concluded that the findings of Cole's Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry-still cited by supporters of the ABCC proposal after more than a decade-do not warrant re-establishing the ABCC.


The Australian Greens are particularly concerned about the proposal's impact on human rights and its disregard for appropriate legal protections. Even from a general legal point of view the bill is troubling. The Law Council of Australia states it has numerous features which are contrary to the rule of law principles, traditional common-law rights and privileges. These relate to the burden of proof, the privilege against self-incrimination, the right to silence, freedom from retrospective laws and the delegation of law-making power to the executive. The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties also highlighted the human rights implications and the extreme powers that the ABCC would have to compel workers to produce documents, attend hearings and answer questions under the penalty of imprisonment. The Law Council, in its submission to the inquiry, submitted that the Commonwealth government has committed to upholding traditional rights and freedoms and yet here we have proposed legislation that would transgress many of those. It would be inappropriate to pass this legislation without considering this bill's significant impact on those.

We do not need to speculate to understand how the ABCC would impact on the industry. In the scheme of things the ABCC has only recently been abolished, and one of the worst examples of the ABCC's excesses in its last incarnation is the story of Ark Tribe, a unionist who hails from South Australia, my home state. In 2008 Ark Tribe, who is a rigger, discussed safety issues with his union colleagues on a construction site at Flinders University in Adelaide. As a consequence, the ABCC demanded he meet with them to discuss the legality of his actions. When he refused to give details of the meeting, the ABCC took him to court. In this landmark case, Ark Tribe was ultimately found not guilty after an 18-month legal fight, but it was a fight that took its toll on Ark, his family and supporters and had the potential to deter others who are committed to taking action in relation to workplace safety. That finding was a nail in the ABCC's coffin, yet this government proposes to resurrect it.

I commend this report to the Senate. The Australian Greens believe that free, independent and democratic unions are an essential pillar of a civil society. Unions have a proud history of enhancing wages and conditions for their members. Their role in ensuring the best possible safety for workers, especially in high-risk industries, is crucial. The benefits unions have fought for and won over a long period of time flow on to all workers. As long-term advocates against the ABCC, the Australian Greens will continue to fight for workers' rights to organise and work within a fair and equitable industrial relations system. The Greens will block this ABCC legislation and future attempts to legislate it.

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