Op-ed - ABCC is a proven fix for the construction industry

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

Whether you’re reading this article in an office, a train station, a cafe or at home, take a moment to think about what’s involved in the construction of these buildings.

Every day, a million Australians use their minds and muscles to build the apartments, houses, offices, roads, shopping centres, hospitals, schools, hotels, airports, stadiums, police stations and community facilities we all need.

Construction is our third largest industry. It accounts for 8 per cent of our gross domestic product and provides the foundation on which the rest of our economy is built. We depend on about 165,000 sparkies, 124,000 carpenters, 87,000 plumbers, 46,000 painters, 43,000 civil engineers, 35,000 concreters, 34,000 plasterers, 33,000 brickies, 32,000 tilers, 26,000 cabinet makers and many other tradies to literally build Australia.

To do their jobs effectively, they need a work environment that’s co-operative, productive and where the rule of law is enforced. More than 300,000 small businesses in this industry need a system that’s fair and free from bullying, intimidation and dodgy deals that prevent them competing for work. Unfortunately, as has been evidenced in two royal commissions, the building industry is held back by systemic illegal industrial action. It is stained by a toxic culture of bullying and intimidation. It is corrupted by a militant union that considers itself above the law.

At the end of last month, there were more than 100 representatives of the construction union before the courts, which in recent years have imposed fines of more than $8.25 million on this union and its officials for proven breaches of the law. However, this is an insufficient deterrent for the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union, which treats law-breaking as part of its business model and fines as simply a cost of doing business.

The rate of industrial action in the construction sector is five times higher than the average across all industries. This is costly for our economy. Master Builders Australia estimates important infrastructure such as schools and hospitals cost taxpayers up to 30 per cent more because of the amount of working days lost because of industrial action at building sites. This affects all of us.

An Adelaide reader may wonder why their city is home to two of the world’s 20 most expensive buildings (the over-budget Myer Centre and Royal Adelaide Hospital).

A Gold Coast reader may question why the Commonwealth Games in their city should be held hostage by the CFMEU scheduling four hours of stop-work meetings each day at the Carrara Sports Precinct. Or why Games chairman Peter Beattie has to reassure taxpayers that “some fat” has been factored in to allow for these delays.

Across Australia, taxpayers would be right to question how many more hospitals, schools and other critical pieces of infrastructure could be built if we had a more productive, less acrimonious building industry.

This is a longstanding problem. Fortunately, we know there’s a proven solution. In 2005, the Howard government introduced the Australian Building and Construction Commission — a tough cop on the beat that enforced the law. By ensuring unlawful action could be appropriately investigated, dealt with and penalised, the ABCC got results and productivity in the building industry increased.

Unfortunately, at the behest of his union mates, Bill Shorten (as former workplace relations minister) abolished the ABCC in 2012. Since then, the rate of disputes in the construction sector has increased by 34 per cent. In all other industries, the rate of industrial disputes has declined by 32 per cent. Before the ABCC, disputes were at five times the average. During its operation, disputes fell to double the average. Since its abolition, disputes have risen to four times the average.

Those who oppose reintroduction of the ABCC need to answer some simple questions. Why should any Australian have to work in an industry where the rule of law does not apply? Indeed, many are deterred from doing so.

For example, the Productivity Commission notes female participation in the construction industry has declined during the past two decades — against the trend in most other industries. How can we attract more women unless we can change the culture of bullying and intimidation?

Why should small businesses be held to ransom by a militant union or be prevented from competing for work if they don’t toe the line? Why should taxpayers have to pay more for schools, hospitals and other infrastructure because the rule of law is ignored?

The ABCC legislation would not prevent legitimate safety issues being raised or addressed by employees, unions or health and safety regulators. In line with the trend across all industries, the rate of injuries at work resulting in death, while volatile, has been trending down for the past decade — falling from 5.8 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2003 to three deaths per 100,000 workers in 2014. Here the Howard government’s Building and Construction Work Health and Safety Accreditation Scheme has made a real difference. Accredited companies have recorded significant reductions in injury rates.

Restoring the ABCC is not a leap into the unknown. It has been tested and we know it works. Restoring the ABCC was a commitment we made to the people at the election. It is a sensible solution to a clear problem. It should be passed by this parliament.

This article appeared in The Australian newspaper today, 31 August 2016.

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