One of the many travesties of the Howard Government was the establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and its supporting legislation, the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act (BCII Act).
Together they strip away the basic human rights of workers in these industries, taking away the right to silence and giving the ABCC sweeping powers to compel evidence with harsh penalties for not complying with their demands. The legislation also imposes severe restrictions on the rights of building and constructions workers to organise and collectively bargain.
This is arguably John Howard's Work Choices agenda at its most extreme - but strangely we've heard relatively little about it. This legislation went through Parliament at the time that the concept of Work Choices was introduced and was essentially swamped by that debate. It also came on the back of the media hype surrounding the Cole Royal Commission, meaning it effectively slipped under the radar for most people.
While the Cole Commission heard evidence of similar amounts of corruption and thuggery on both sides of the fence, and the Royal Commission resulted in few successful prosecutions, the media of the time was filled entirely with accusations of union thuggery, standover tactics and corrupt activities, and was curiously silent on the accusations of corrupt and dirty dealings by construction companies.
There was certainly nothing in the findings of the Cole Royal Commission that justified the draconian legislation contained in the BCII Act.
The Australian Greens opposed both the ABCC and the BCII Act at the time they were introduced, and have consistently spoken out for the abolition of the ABCC and the repeal of the BCII Act.
At the time I felt a bit like a lone voice in the wilderness. While the ALP opposed the legislation in the Parliament they didn't speak out against it too loudly in public, and any comments attempting to draw attention to the issue were mostly ignored by the media.
The ABCC is an affront to our democracy.
As I said in my second reading speech on the legislation that established the ABCC:
"If you were to ask someone to guess which country you were talking about when you described a place where the right to silence was being removed and workers could be thrown in jail for failing to incriminate themselves or dob in a mate, where unions were being locked out of workplaces and could only inspect conditions and safety at the boss's discretion, where workers could be told to sign up to unfair contracts or not get a job and could be dismissed with no comeback because somebody was having a bad day, what kind of country would you think we were talking about? A proud nation with a long tradition of workplace organisation, a supposed commitment to a fair go, a commitment to site safety and an atmosphere relatively free of industrial turmoil?
No, you would think of some despotic dictatorship where workers worked for next to nothing in sweatshops or on building sites and were treated as mere commodities and where the real cost could be measured not in wages but in human lives. And this could be Australia. This is the brave new world of workplace relations under the Howard government."
The Greens will not shrink from defending the basic human rights of workers in the building and construction industry. It is wrong that the ABCC can compel individuals to provide information, produce documents, or attend to answer questions at an examination. It is even more offensive that the penalty for failing to do so is six months jail.
The ABCC operates more like a 'star-chamber' with individuals denied the right to silence and access to a lawyer of their choice. Lawyers have a limited role and the Commission determine its own practices with a high level of secrecy. Commissioners play the role of both questioner and judge - ruling on whether their own questions are in order.
There is no doubt that the primary aim of this legislation is to hurt and eventually destroy the building unions. Such an aim has no place in a democratic nation that recognises the fundamental right of freedom of association. But more than that, the Act and the ABCC targets the unions through their members - ordinary Australian workers - who are subjected to a Spanish inquisition.
It is unacceptable that a union official is currently facing jail for refusing to attend an interview with the ABCC to answer questions about what happened at a union meeting.
The ABCC has powers that few organisations in Australia have ever had - I understand only bodies like the Australian Crime Commission, investigating organised crime have similar authority. These laws criminalise the ordinary collective action of workers, giving such workers less rights than alleged murders. It is an inordinate and over-the-top response to issues in the industry. It is able to bully and harass ordinary workers to pursue its ideological mission to destroy the building unions with little regard of the consequences for workers and their families.
I have repeatedly spoken out against the ABCC in the past 3 years. Not only did the Greens oppose the BCII Act at the time it was introduced, but I also subsequently moved a disallowance motion for the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Regulations 2005. I used that opportunity to describe the harassment and bullying workers and their families were experiencing from the ABCC. I have subsequently raised the issue in parliament as well as outside in speeches to rallies, in forums and in the media.
The ABCC should be abolished and the building industry regulated just like any other industry -- in a fair and just manner that balances the needs of productivity and the economy with the health and safety of workers.