ABC RN with Fran Kelly
- Minister for Employment
- Minister for Women
- Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
- Senator for Western Australia
E & EO
SUBJECTS: Australian Building and Construction Commission, Woodside’s LNG Browse project
INTERVIEWER: Well if the Senate crossbench agrees to pass Industrial Relations reforms for the building and construction sector that the Prime Minister has put on the table we may all be spared an early Double Dissolution election, on the 2nd July but you would have to say at this moment that looks unlikely. Many of the crossbenchers and some of the experts too are voicing concern over the bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, otherwise known as the ABCC. They’re warning that the powers planned for the commission are overreach, that’s the word they’re using commonly. On the other hand the Government argues its merely restoring a commission that existed under the Howard Government and was dismantled under Labor. Federal Employment Minister Senator Michaelia Cash joining us from Perth, Minister good morning welcome to breakfast.
MINISTER CASH: Good morning Fran and great to be with you.
INTERVIEWER: Before we get to the ABCC I just wanted to ask you, you are there in Perth, Woodside announcing late yesterday it’s put on hold the development of the $40 billion Browse basin LNG project. This had great fanfare when it was announced, are you particularly concerned about the employment implications of this?
MINISTER: Look Fran, it is unfortunate to hear the announcement by Woodside. They have acknowledged of course that the current challenging energy market is the reason for putting the project on hold and I think that is what is so important that we do acknowledge. Woodside has said they are not walking away from the project, they remain committed to it and certainly from a Federal Government perspective that’s why we are so focused on the transition to the new economy, we are focused on diversifying our economy but we are also focused on ensuring that from a Federal Government perspective we are investing in infrastructure initiatives in Western Australia that will continue to create jobs across the regions and that’s exactly what we are doing.
INTERVIEWER: OK, let’s go to the ABCC because that is certainly exercising the minds of the crossbenchers and many others, besides why is the Government threatening to go to a Double Dissolution election, bring the budget forward on an issue that really most people aren’t really very engaged with, aren’t really familiar with. The union movement says their polling suggests that most people don’t really care much about it.
MINISTER CASH: I’m going to disagree with you there because this is a fundamental part of the Turnbull Government’s economic agenda, now let me tell you why. The Australian building and construction industry, as we know, is vital to job creation and obviously critical to our international competitiveness. It is an industry in Australia that employs over 1 million people, so one in ten Australians are employed by this industry. When you look at its contribution to total income - so for example 2014/15 - it generated over $300 billion but at the end of the day the most fundamental thing for all Australians is this, when you have an industry that is plagued by widespread disregard for the law, ultimately tax payers pay for it. How do they pay for it? They pay for it because public infrastructure, the hospitals, your schools etcetera cost more. So to say that this isn’t an issue that affects Australians, I fundamentally disagree with and certainly I travel around Australia and I can assure you the feedback that I get in particular from the people in the building and construction industry, is that they get it and they understand why this is so fundamental to Australia’s economic future.
INTERVIEWER: I think a lot of people would agree with you that there are problems in the building and construction industry and one of the key unions the CFMEU, engage in that industry. But not everyone agrees that the Bill you are putting forward (the ABCC legislation) is the right way to go. Yesterday on this program we heard from eminent industrial relations legal academic Ron McCallum from Sydney University. He voiced strong reservations about the ABCC legislation as it currently stands, describing the coercive investigative powers to be granted to the revived construction watchdog, as draconian – I’m just going to play a little of Ron McCallum from yesterday:
The Law Council of Australia hardly a radical body says correctly that it should not be passed in its current form because of these legal drawbacks. Powers of questioning are very draconian; you can be deprived of a legal representative but in particular if the Commissioner or the delegate of the Commissioner believes that that person isn’t an appropriate person to represent you, because of their view of that person. It’s very worrying it’s reminiscent really of some of the legislation passed through the ASIO….
INTERVIEWER: That was Professor at Sydney University, Ron McCallum. What do you think of those criticisms, what do you say to those criticisms that these powers are draconian?
MINISTER CASH: I say Fran that they are wrong and that is a fundamental misrepresentation of the legislation.
INTERVIEWER: So the Law council of Australia has it wrong, he has looked at your law and has got it all wrong?
MINISTER CASH: I’m saying that… the proposed compulsory powers they are not unique. The first thing we need to understand, Labor’s legislation that is currently in place already provides the Fair Work Building Commission with the same compulsory powers as those proposed by the ABCC legislation. That is what I sometimes find strange, that Labor itself did not get rid of these compulsory powers they did introduce a sunset clause and as you know in twelve months’ time…
INTERVIEWER: They are due to run out.
MINISTER CASH: Correct. But they are the same powers.
INTERVIEWER: When you say they are the same powers Minister, can I just zero in on that for a moment. Ron McCallum there, particularly about the powers of the council of questioning, says they are too draconian. That the Commissioner can decide whether he doesn’t accept the legal representative of someone before him brings in. Is that in the current system too?
MINISTER CASH: Our Bill expressly includes the right to be represented by a lawyer at compulsory examination. It also includes…
INTERVIEWER: Does it also say the Commissioner can say I don’t accept that particular legal representative.
MINISTER CASH: Only in certain circumstances, let me tell you why that provision was introduced. There was a case, the legal representative was representing two people at the same hearing. There was an inherent conflict, so what we are saying is we want people to have legal representation. We don’t want them to find out they have been represented by the same lawyer as someone else and potentially be placed in a conflict situation. So that is why we are very clear. Absolutely, we believe in the right to legal representation and the Bill expressly provides for that and one of the other things that I think is really interesting is, the powers already exist as you know with the Fair Work Building Commission but there are similar powers in other industries and sectors, so for example: ASIC the ACCC, APRA. They all have compulsory powers; nobody is saying that they shouldn’t have these almost similar compulsory powers.
INTERVIEWER: I think it’s the almost similar that might be the issue, Minister. It’s the degree of compulsory powers.
MINISTER CASH: No they are almost consistent as I said, they are the same powers that the Fair Work Building Commission already has and I have to say even though Wilcox, when he reviewed the legislation for Julia Gillard, even he had to say that he agreed with compulsory powers because the reason you need compulsory powers in this industry Fran, is because this is an industry as you have rightly recognised plagued by bullying, thuggery, intimidation. If you do not have compulsory powers many victims will not speak out because of fear of retribution and reprisal and we won’t actually solve the situation. As I have said I think this is deliberate overplay because I don’t see Bill Shorten arguing against the Fair Work Building Commission. He clearly acknowledges there is a problem with the sector because they agreed to keep or should I say ensure that there was, a separate regulator for this industry.
INTERVIEWER: Minister, just on that, you mentioned Bill Shorten and Bill Shorten has been speaking this morning on AM – let have a listen to something he said about the ABCC –
I am absolutely up for making sure that unions and employers stick to industrial agreements and there should penalties if they don’t. My track record with sticking to industrial agreements when I was representing workers. But the Government loves to talk about corruption and criminality they know full well, that the ABCC isn’t a crime fighting organisation. It’s a civil body, with civil powers. So I think what we are seeing be it the spurious arguments on productivity, the spurious arguments on lost time, industrial action or the arguments that somehow a civil body is going to be a crime fighting agency. This Government isn’t anti-corruption they are just anti-union.
INTERVIEWER: Minister, that was Bill Shorten this morning but listen rather than talk more about the capacity the coercive powers of the ABCC, can I just ask you finally now because, this will go before the Senate and the crossbenchers say many, many have said it’s a bad Bill they want amendments. I’m just trying to clarify here, is it the fact that if you accept any amendments to this Bill, this Bill is no longer a trigger. Does that mean you are not of a mind to accept amendments or could minor amendments, you know you say you will negotiate in good faith. If cross benchers point out to you a minor amendment, will you accept those amendments?
MINISTER CASH: As I have said, you’re are correct I will negotiate in good faith, but I’ve made it very clear that I am not accepting amendments that are going to in any way change the fundamentals of the Bill. We believe this is good policy, you know, you only have to see what Innes Willox at the Press Club said yesterday in terms of why this regulator is required.
INTERVIEWER: So I’m just trying to get a sense of the level of amendments you can accept and still have a Double Dissolution trigger. Can you accept some amendments if they’re minor?
MINISTER CASH: Ok, certainly minor amendments but again, the majority of the amendments that have been put to me to date, fundamentally change the nature of the legislation. I will give you an example; some crossbench Senators have said to me – can we just get rid of the ABCC legislation and bring in a Federal ICAC - we will amend the Bill to bring in a Federal ICAC. I have said to them you fundamentally misunderstand what the ABCC and that this fundamentally changes the legislation. So Fran that is not something that clearly the Government is prepared to do. Also, I’m not going to negotiate amendments for amendments sake. If the crossbench brings me an amendment I will assume it is one they have all agreed because we need obviously the numbers to get the amendment up but I am focused on passing good legislation not in a Double Dissolution trigger.
INTERVIEWER: Minister, I look forward to speaking to you again as this process moves over the next few weeks. Thank you very much for your time.
MINISTER CASH: Great to be with you, thanks Fran.