ABC News Capital Hill

  • Minister for Employment
  • Minister for Women
  • Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
  • Senator for Western Australia




GREG JENNETT: If the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill is to pass through the Senate, it falls to the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash to negotiate that and get the numbers. Senator, welcome.

MINISTER CASH:  Thank you very much.

GREG JENNETT: Minister, that hasn't been possible before. Do you have any confidence that you might yet get that bill passed?

MINISTER CASH: Certainly I will be negotiating, as I have always done, in good faith with the crossbenchers. But I think today the Prime Minister has made the Government's position very clear. The Parliament is being recalled on 18 April for the sole purpose of giving consideration to the bill to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission and, of course, in the event that goes through, the Registered Organisations Commission. Our intent is to see these bills passed, because they are good policy. But again, as the Prime Minister made clear today the time for playing games is over. I will negotiate in good faith, but I'm not about to tolerate amendments just for amendments sake. These bills must be passed.

GREG JENNETT: Right, so open to sensible and constructive amendments?

MINISTER CASH: I will negotiate in good faith.

GREG JENNETT: And apart from their own political mortality, when you are sitting across the table from these senators, what other form of persuasion do you bring that you haven't been able to bring to bear before?

MINISTER CASH:  Well for us this is an important economic reform, and sits very nicely with the Government's economic agenda. I mean, the building and construction industry is the third-largest employer in Australia; the sector employs in excess of a million Australians through the thousands of small businesses. So when you're talking about growing Australia, increasing productivity, but at the end of the day creating more jobs for Australians, you cannot have a sector that for decades now has shown it wilfully and quite deliberately does not comply with workplace law. So we are here to clean up the sector, but at the end of the day, in cleaning up the sector, to ensure that we grow the sector and ultimately contribute to more jobs for Australians.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Well, let’s bring our political editor Chris Uhlmann in here. Chris?

CHRIS UHLMANN: One of the real concerns that the Labor Party and the Greens have had is that this bill contains coercive powers. So they say that the members of those unions have a law applied to them which does not apply to other Australians. So what if they move to try and amend that?

MINISTER CASH:   Okay. I disagree with what the Labor Party says. There are basically four things which the ABCC bill seeks to do. The first is to increase the penalties, because when Labor abolished the ABCC and brought in the Fair Work Building Commission they reduced the penalties by about three times. So we will look at increasing the penalties, because clearly to date what has been shown is that penalties are of no deterrent effect at all.

One of the other provisions of the bill is not to bring back coercive powers. The bill already contains coercive powers and the current Senate has already voted to extend those coercive powers, but they have a sunset clause. So all we will be doing is saying we need to remove the sunset clause. But Chris, the reason that the Senate put this provision in the legislation in the first place is it's well known within the building and construction industry that people are fearful of their lives and their jobs, and they do not want to give evidence unless they are compelled to do so. So if you are in the building and construction industry, this is actually a protection for you, so that you can come to us to give that evidence in a safe environment and then not have it used against you.

CHRIS UHLMANN: And how do you respond to the criticism that you undoubtedly will get that you have elevated this bill in the last couple of months in order to get to the position that you’re in now, so it can be used for a trigger to run to an election?

MINISTER CASH: Well again, I disagree with that because the Government, as you know, responding to the outcome of the Heydon Royal Commission, said that the first order of business for the Parliament when we resumed this year would be to re-introduce the Building and Construction Commission bill, which we did in the House of Representatives. The Senate has already had – if it had wanted to – an opportunity to debate these bills, but Labor, the Greens and some of the crossbenchers chose to refer this bill to a committee. Bearing in mind this bill has already been to a committee several times, and I said at the time it is a waste of time sending it to a committee because I can write the report for Labor and the Greens; you are going to oppose the ABCC, and that is exactly what they did. See, yet again deliberate obstruction in terms of bringing the bill on for debate by Labor and the Greens and some of the crossbenchers, and that is why the Prime Minister has today done what he has done. They want an opportunity to debate these bills; they will now have three weeks.

GREG JENNETT: So the advocacy and the arguments that you are making today are understandably economic ones, but ultimately you may find yourself going to a double dissolution election arguing the politics on this with the Australian people. In what way are you convinced that this burns brightly in the minds of everyday Australians?

MINISTER CASH: Well in the first instance, we actually were given an overwhelming mandate at the 2013 election to re-introduce the ABCC. So that is something the Australian public have already voted for. When you are talking about the third largest employer in Australia – over one million Australians employed are by this industry – within reason you are getting into almost every home in Australia. And I think all Australians want to know that they can have a job and that the Government is ensuring that those industries in which we can continue to grow and create jobs, we do.

GREG JENNETT: So it becomes a bit like a referendum on the the way that the Painters and Dockers…

MINISTER CASH: No, I disagree, this is not a referendum on the CFMEU. I think the evidence against the CFMEU and the unlawful behaviour that the CFMEU for decades now has indulged in is there for all to see; a hundred CFMEU officials currently before the courts and over a thousand charges. This is about ensuring that the building and construction industry within Australia complies with the law.

The three of us go to work every day, and guess what; we get to comply with our workplace laws. Why is it that one industry, an industry that I understand has approximately $777 billion worth of projects in the pipeline – talk about the potential for job creation – is still in a state of unlawfulness? We know what the problem is; we know what the solution is because it's previously worked: the re-introduction of the ABCC. So enough is enough, I say to Bill Shorten. He reminds me of the monkey, what is it… see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil when it comes to the CFMEU and their antics. Enough is enough.

CHRIS UHLMANN: But if it is one union, why don't you seek to have the union deregistered, as Bob Hawke did with the BLF?

MINISTER CASH: Deregistration is of an entire union. It’s very obvious in relation to the CFMEU, it is the construction division of the CFMEU which is at fault here. And in any event that can take years and years and years, it could be seen out through the courts. We have a solution, that should the Parliament choose on 18 April, it can actually pass. We don't have to be here for three weeks. This is good policy; it's been proven to be good policy; it's an economic agenda the Government is seeking to pursue. Whilst we've given the Parliament three weeks, if the Parliament wanted to we could pass that legislation on 18 April.

GREG JENNETT: All right. We are going to talk more broadly about the optics of obstruction in a moment. We are hearing just as we speak that the Prime Minister has begun picking up the phone and actually calling some of the Senate crossbenchers. Was that factored into the plan? And, for your own part, is that something you do as soon as today as well?

MINISTER CASH:  Well certainly in terms of the Prime Minister, you would need to speak to the Prime Minister about what he will be doing. But yes absolutely, in terms of what my plan is going forward, of course I will speak to each of the crossbenchers. I have spoken to them all in the lead-up to the ABCC coming into the Senate; I've continued my discussions with a number of them, and again we now have an opportunity to get this legislation through in, within reason, the same form as it is currently in. As I said, the time for playing games is over; let's all be serious now. But I will sit down with each of the crossbenchers in good faith and discuss the legislation again with them.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Do you honestly believe that there is any chance this bill will pass this Senate?

MINISTER CASH:  From my perspective this is good policy. The evidence-base for that has been made time and time since, quite frankly, the Cole Royal Commission about 15 years ago now. The mere fact that we have a hundred CFMEU officials on over a thousand charges currently before the courts would indicate to me we absolutely do need to see the restoration of the ABCC. But, you know, it is up to each crossbencher to argue why they will support it, or in the event that they don't, why they won't support it. And again, the Prime Minister has made very clear today this is an important part of our economic narrative. In the event that the bill does not pass, we will go to a double dissolution election on 2 July.

GREG JENNETT: Somewhere in the middle of the night on Thursday, as it dragged into Friday, did you have a eureka moment where you thought the Senate is giving us evidence of obstruction and game playing right here on the Senate voting law reform, did that feed into government thinking about the need to move and to move swiftly? We are only 48-72 hours...

MINISTER CASH:  The Senate itself has been in a state of paralysis for some time now. The mere fact that we had an opportunity to debate the ABCC legislation several weeks ago and yet it was referred off to a committee, again a committee that we all knew what the outcome would be because it had been to that committee before, would indicate to me that the Senate is in a state of paralysis, in particular when it comes to this legislation. In terms of the dysfunction of the Senate, I think you're right; it was on display unfortunately, in particular with a number of speeches given by the Labor Party on Thursday night and early into Friday morning. But in terms of this decision, my understanding is the Prime Minister made the decision last night, as he referred to in his press conference.

GREG JENNETT: Talk us through the process. So he has come to that in view in isolation or after consultation…

MINISTER CASH:  Well again you would need to speak to the Prime Minister. But I would say that any prudent government would have considered all options and certainly this clearly was an option- Section 5 of the Constitution, we really have no other options available to us. The Senate made it very clear on Friday that they would not support a motion to recall. In fact an amendment was passed to the normal adjournment motion to lock in 10 May. This was obviously the option left to the Prime Minister and he is determined to get these pieces of legislation passed because they are an important part of our economic narrative. But more than that, Chris, we received an overwhelming mandate at the 2013 election. Let's not forget that this is not new policy for this government. We took it to the 2013 election and the people of Australia, they voted for it.

CHRIS UHLMANN: We have heard from some other ministers that some members of the crossbench have refused to speak to them when it comes to their legislation. Is this an experience you have had or can you tell us what was it like dealing with this Senate crossbench and in the end do you think there is no alternative for the Government but to try and expunge it?

MINISTER CASH:  I have always had a reasonable relationship with the crossbenchers. To the extent I've been able to sit down with them, they have always been willing to sit down with me. But you are talking about eight people with eight fundamentally different objectives. So whilst you might be able to say, have a conversation here and agree something, by the time you get to number eight, number one may have substantially changed. So it's not an easy process. It is a time consuming process and certainly to date we have not managed to reach agreement on the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation or the Registered Organisations which as you know has been rejected by the Senate three times.

GREG JENNETT: Yeah why, by the way, is that coming back on if it's not necessary, why is that being coupled up as..?

MINISTER CASH:  Well if the Senate were minded to pass the Australian Building and Construction Commission legislation, as you articulated in your opening comments, the Prime Minister has made it quite clear to the Governor-General, in bringing back the Parliament for three weeks, his objective is to see the passage of two very good pieces of legislation. These are important economic pictures for the Government. So the intention- If the ABCC is passed, would be to work with the crossbench to then get the Registered Organisations Commission legislation passed.

CHRIS UHLMANN: Can I just take you to a step beyond all of this, just to give us a sense of Western Australia, which you know very well, you may well be heading to an election quite soon, the Barnett Government, we know there is on the nose. The most recent polling in fact in The Western Australian newspaper put the Opposition there, despite its own problems, a fair way ahead of the Barnett Government. Do you expect that you will be able to hold what you have in Western Australia, including the senators that you have at the moment?

MINISTER CASH:  Well given that the Labor situation in Western Australia is so dire, in particular with the three members that they do have in Brand, in Fremantle, in Perth, all saying they will not be contesting the next election, I think we have a very, very strong case. In Western Australia in particular, a number of the policies that we did manage to get through under the former Abbott Government, repealing the mining tax, repealing the carbon tax and stopping the boats, they resonate so strongly with Western Australians. In particular, we are a transitioning economy in WA. We are going from that mining phase through to a more services-based industry. We want a Prime Minister who is excited about innovation. We want a Prime Minister who understands what a transitioning economy is. I don't think there can be any arguments that Malcolm Turnbull is not the man to lead us to the new economy. So in Western Australia we very much understand the issues at play but we also understand that Malcolm Turnbull is the man who really does have his finger on the pulse.

CHRIS UHLMANN:  But the issue for you there is that they feel the circumstances of that transition in the economy much worse than anyone else in Australia. So you have seen, in some parts, the employment drop off a cliff, you’ve seen your housing prices fall and quite often people blame governments for that. They may well blame you even though the economy is transitioning, for their circumstances.

MINISTER CASH: But we also though in Western Australia have seen a growth in jobs in the retail sector, we’ve seen job related growth in the health sector, the aged care sector and job related growth in the hospitality sector. So certainly, I think Western Australians can see that whilst we do see the jobs reducing in the mining sector and that's obvious, we are growing those sectors that very much are the new economy. They are also seeing the investment that the Government is making. So the $1.1 billion investment in our Innovation Agenda, I think Western Australians appreciate that this is a government, that whilst we recognise we are transitioning, we are doing everything within our power to ensure that we grow the industries where the new jobs are going to be and we are very much focused on what is now coined as the future of work.

GREG JENNETT:   We do have to let you go on what I imagine is a busy day. We have other crossbenchers to hear from as well. Just one final point, while it looks a generous allocation of time- three weeks for the Senate, we know when senators gather, they get up to all sorts of shenanigans. What would be the attitude to the establishment of a committee inquiry- an old favourite of the Senate?

MINISTER CASH:  Can I say if they were to have yet another inquiry into a bill that has already gone to a number of committees, and again I will write the reports for you, because the positions do not change, that would just be, quite frankly, genuine obstruction and a deliberate step towards a failure to pass the legislation.

GREG JENNETT:   You would call it on that?

MINISTER CASH:  It is not for me to ultimately call it but certainly we are giving the Senate an opportunity to debate or to consider in detail this legislation and to go to a vote on it, do you support it or don't you. A very clear decision. Anything that leads us not to get to that situation, I believe, is an indication of an obstruction of senate.

GREG JENNETT:   Well it certainly is brinkmanship. It's going right to the edge and you’re going to be on it. So Michaelia Cash thanks so much for your time today.

MINISTER CASH:  Great to be with you.

GREG JENNETT:   And I’m sure we’ll hear more from you in the weeks and months ahead.

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