Coercive building industry law passes lower house

March 2, 2012

The House of Representatives narrowly passed changes on February 16 to the undemocratic building industry laws that target building workers.

The Building and Construction Industry Improvement Amendment (Transition to Fair Work) Bill, which will replace the Building Industry Improvement Act, was narrowly adopted by a margin of one vote. The bill is now before the Senate.

The government, Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent MP Bob Katter moved several amendments to the bill in the House.

The government’s amendments, which were supported by Bandt, Katter and independent MP Andrew Wilkie, prevent the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate from pursuing action against building unions in matters that have already been resolved with employers.

However, the fact that coercive powers remain in the bill ensures that construction workers and their unions are still subject to special powers that criminalise union activities.

Speaking in support of his amendment to replace the entire wording of the bill with the one line “Repeal the [Building Industry Improvement] Act”, Bandt told the parliament: “There is a basic principle that should continue to apply: there should be one set of laws in this country that apply uniformly to all citizens. You should not have fewer rights in this country just because you turn up to work in a hard hat and boots than if you turn up in a suit and tie.”

Bandt and Katter also unsuccessfully moved amendments to remove the Act’s coercive powers, but ALP and Coalition MPs defeated them.

Independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor voted with the Coalition against the bill. Oakeshott cited concern about the timing of the bill and the state of the building industry.

He said: “I am not buying into the rights and wrongs of the ideology around whether it is fair that one industry or one union is targeted or whether coercive powers are good or bad, but I do think the timing of this legislation is of concern. We therefore need to be sensitive to some of the arguments around how we help the construction industry to improve and grow, rather than burdening it at a challenging time.”

The Senate inquiry into the bill handed down its report on February 29. The committee was made up of ALP, Liberal and National Party Senators, as well as the Greens’ Lee Rhiannon.

Its recommendations tinkered around the edges of the legislation. It says it should be passed because it introduces changes to the previous Howard-era law, such as providing more resources for oversight by the Ombudsman and including the reimbursement of wages and income for witnesses called to give evidence.

Coalition committee members presented a dissenting report, recommending that the legislation not be passed.

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