Speech in Parliament on the ABCC Bill

2.40pm | November 28, 2016

Before turning to the substance of the bill, I would like to take a moment to look at the path it has taken to get here. When the Prime Minister used this bill is a trigger for a double dissolution election, he talked about how important and urgent the bill was. That is not borne out in any way by the path that the bill has taken. The first time it came to the Senate was in February 2014. It was in March 2015 that we had the second reading debate. We had constant delays; it sat on the backburner for months at a time; and, suddenly, it became very important when the Prime Minister dipped in the polls and started having difficulty in negotiating in the Senate. This bill has never been about policy for all of the window dressing. This is simply a bill about politics and about tactics.

The double dissolution election was four months ago. There have been seven clear sitting weeks since then. If the bill was so important, why are we only getting to it now? The answer is of course: just tactics. The government were holding off because they were worried it would not pass. Now the Prime Minister thinks that he might get a win, and he desperately needs a win—because this is a Prime Minister that desperately needs a win to keep him going over the summer break. But the problem is that this would be a win that only helps the Prime Minister and does absolutely nothing to address the issues that we as a nation are actually facing.

Way back when, in the Prime Minister's letter to the Governor-General, he said that the ABCC bills 'represent important elements of the government's economic plan for jobs and growth, and of its reform agenda'. If what the Prime Minister said in that letter is true, if that is the plan for jobs and growth, and its reform agenda, then that is very disappointing and we should be very, very worried. I understand that the Prime Minister needs to throw some red meat from time to time to the right wing of his party. His hold on his leadership is tenuous, and they ask more and more of him. But he did promise economic leadership—that was his pitch. That was his reason for displacing Mr Abbott as leader of the coalition. He did that because he said that Mr Abbott had failed to deliver economic leadership. But we are not seeing much economic leadership here. Instead, the Prime Minister is going back to basics, back to what is always trotted out when the Liberal Party are in trouble, and that is some pretty unproductive union-bashing.

There are real economic issues that we should be talking about instead of this. In the last fortnight, the ABS issued its labour force figures, and we see that employment growth has slowed to 0.9 per cent, down from 1.9 per cent months ago. There are now 1.8 million Australians who are unemployed or underemployed. We know what that means for those families and we know what that means for the long-term ability of those people to contribute to the economy. Wage growth has hit a fresh low—below two per cent. Workers across all industries are seeing pay increases that barely match the cost of living.

The deficit continues to blow out. We have had a report which projects a further $24 billion deterioration of the Commonwealth budget under Mr Morrison and Mr Turnbull. That follows a deficit for 2015-16 that blew out by eight times what had been projected at the 2013 election. But the only plan that is ever presented by those opposite is cuts to services, and an unfunded corporate tax cut that will blow out the budget even further.

We could talk about housing—the fact that a fraction of rental and share house accommodation is affordable for people who live on government payments, that young people's rate of property acquisition is falling or that older people are trapped in inappropriate rental accommodation. In the last year, we had a committee inquiry into women's economic security in retirement, and people told us that the single biggest predictor of whether or not an older woman will live in poverty in retirement is whether or not she owns her own home. Do we see any comment about that, any action on that? We see nothing—absolutely nothing. All we see is a bill which claims to support jobs and growth but which has a very, very tenuous relationship indeed with that agenda. There are no plans.

In the Prime Minister's letter to the Governor-General, he also said:

The ABCC Bills relate to one of the largest sectors of our economy, which employs over a million Australians and is responsible for around 8 per cent of GDP. The re-establishment of the ABCC aims to improve productivity in this crucial sector, protecting and promoting employment.

But the thing is the ABCC did not lift productivity last time. The Productivity Commission looked into it and said that the evidence for aggregate productivity increases and cost savings was 'weak'. The Prime Minister has claimed that re-establishing the ABCC will increase productivity by 20 per cent. Nobody knows where that figure comes from. What is clear is that the introduction of the ABCC saw the number of workers' deaths climb. The truth is that, if you want to lift productivity in the Australian economy, there are better places to start.

The finance sector is much bigger than the construction sector, and much more systemically important. You have to remember that it was not industrial relations in the construction sector that jeopardised the entire global economy eight years ago. Hundreds of thousands of Australians did not lose their retirement savings because of misconduct on building sites. It is the finance sector, isn't it, that has been embarrassed by all these financial scandals decorating the front pages of our newspapers, and that has been examined in this place and in Senate committees, with calls for a royal commission? But we do not see a special institution being created to oversee that sector, do we? No. In fact, we see a repudiation by the government of any need to examine in any serious way the shortcomings in that industry that are holding back productivity not just in that sector but across the economy. There is no response—nothing meaningful. We do not see anything about that.

What we see instead is this bill, a Trojan Horse of a bill, the effect of which is excessive and unfair regulation that is out of step with the needs of workers and the needs of the construction industry. At the heart of this is simply union-bashing and an antiworker ideology.