Questionable facts and more than a few distractions are sure to be hurled around as all sides try to win or fight the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
The pity is the public becomes none the wiser about why industrial lawlessness must be stamped out in the Australian construction industry. The brickbats that both sides will no doubt exchange seem to becoming more personal and mostly unfounded.
Only recently, the CFMEU deleted a tweet accusing the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of being “happy” for workers to die if it meant greater profits for donors. But that retraction was soon followed by CFMEU chief David Noonan provoking fresh government outrage by launching a personal attack on Workplace Relations Minister Michaelia Cash. Noonan accused Senator Cash of not being concerned about deaths on building sites, which the union claims increased under the first incarnation of the ABCC.
Noonan is not the only one to play the construction deaths card to help distract the public’s attention from the real issue at hand. The sad fact that construction workers are still being injured and killed in such high numbers is unacceptable and inescapable, but that is not what the ABCC legislation is all about. This is despite the CFMEU claiming to be the sole custodian of workforce safety interests. They are not, and leveraging this as a core reason for their being simply shows how bereft the CFMEU is of responses to the issues facing Australian construction today.
The above table is an extract from Work Safe Australia’s report of construction injuries and deaths over the period 2003 to 2013. The average number of construction deaths per annum over this period was 36. The number of construction deaths for 2015 was 26 and year to date in April 2016 was four. Any death is still unacceptable and tragic, and the industry as a whole is concerned and working on improving. But to accuse Cash of not being concerned about workplace safety is a brick bat too far.
Prime Minister Turnbull also needs to step up and use more instructive facts than the ones he put to the Macarthur Chamber of Commerce luncheon on March 26. The PM claimed that the level of industrial disputation had gone up by 34 per cent since the Gillard labour government displaced John Howard’s original ABCC legislation with the Fair Building Work Commission in 2010. The Conversation conducted a FactCheck on the PM’s claims and found that they were technically correct, but in part skewed by their selectivity.
The public is not adequately informed if it is to rely on lost time data sets which speak only to the 12.9 days (1.29 per cent) being lost per 1,000 days worked in the construction industry due to industrial disputes. The PM overlooked the potential to lift productivity for the remaining 987.1 days (98.71 per cent) not mentioned in his statistics. All unproductive workforce inputs affect the cost and value for money performance of the Australian construction industry. The PM’s data does not explain the unchecked rising cost or poor productivity of construction in Australia. Construction productivity should concern both the government and the CFMEU.
Turnbull could have drawn from the exhaustive evidence of unlawful conduct by unions from the Heydon Royal Commission and the matters being brought to the courts by FWBC commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss. This evidence is far more widespread and compelling than the very limited claims referred to by the PM in his public advocacy for the reinstatement of the ABCC so far. In my view, the public would better relate to the the intimidation and abuse that is being exposed than the selective facts used by the PM.
Measuring industrial dispute related lost time to explain construction productivity shows a poor understanding of the challenges the industry faces to lift its competitiveness and innovativeness. The reintroduction of the ABCC should be accompanied by a more detailed analysis of the breadth of factors which go to lifting the construction industry’s productivity. This will involve measures which shine light on both management and the labour force. The challenge here is the industry’s traditional resistance to measurement of its performance.
But the PM and Noonan are not the only ones detracting from the public having a clearer understanding of what is at play here. Academia and the media often tend to weigh in with somewhat biased views as well, perhaps influenced by their own union associations. I have been following The Conversation’s online exchanges since the publication of its fact check. I put this to one academic commentator who replied “Your sense of bias would be correct. A large number of commenters here claim an allegiance to a particular point of view. As far as myself, I am always keen to try to understand the reasoning of both sides, but perhaps an unintentional bias prevents me from understanding how this ABCC in provoking debate and union militancy helps the economy, trust in the law, or votes for the LNP.
“Productivity can be also viewed differently," the same commentator added. "Some can see it as a matter of cheaper, faster, better, whereas others will see it as a characteristic of a golden age when wages are high, unions strong and the economy is also strong and growing. Competition can as easily encourage corruption, as it can increase productivity.”
The reality is that if uncontrolled wages and industrial lawlessness was once a golden age, it has passed. Just ask the workers in the steel and motor vehicle industries.
Despite the divergence of views that are being expressed in The Conversation, there is no escaping the fact that construction is transforming from its traditional past to its modern future. Construction is rapidly joining the digital economy, it is industrializing and it is globalizing. It is the same journey that other industries have been on for decades; construction is simply lagging. It’s a great time of opportunity for new enterprises and jobs. Construction, like other industries, will become customer facing and the past fragmentation of its value chain will give way to new collaborations void of traditional dysfunction.
Is it also possible that with the decline of industrial disputation and a more productive industry that there is also a correlation with improved quality, fewer injuries and deaths?
The PM’s claims which gave rise to The Conversation’s FactCheck have unfortunately narrowed the debate and helped to fuel the brickbats now flying.
The conversation so far has avoided the core issue here: turning around Australia’s poor construction productivity and unsustainable costs. This affects the attractiveness of future construction investments and construction’s costs that flow on to affect every other part of the economy. These costs unreasonably affect housing affordability, and the cost of schools and hospitals. They also erode budget capacity for the delivery of other services and projects. For these reasons, re-establishing the rule of law in construction is paramount. Only then can the Australian construction industry’s other challenges be addressed. The ABCC is the horse in all of this, not the cart.
Australian states are not able to effectively deal with industrial disputation and lawlessness. Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia in my view stand out. As changing governments cycle through those states, the CFMEU - and in Queensland, a remnant of the BLF - seems to hold more sway than their actual workforce representation. Any major contractor or supplier trying to work across these multiple domestic jurisdictions is confronted by the complexities and rules of the jungle that prevail. Just ask Boral, Grocon, Lend Lease, Leighton and clients trying to deliver on-time, on-budget resource infrastructure. Its no wonder construction is increasingly sourced off-shore.
The CFMEU cannot have it both ways – reckless indifference and a future. But, the CFMEU remains in denial. They have not come to terms with the new economy and the needs of future workers. That helps explain why on average only eight per cent of employees younger than 25 are members of a union. Even ACTU president Ged Kearney acknowledges that “unions are at risk of moving from national standard bearer to national non-entity.”
What do they have to offer today’s workforce? I hold no candles for any of the major contractors. I am talking to the future viability of Australia’s construction industry and in particular its jobs and SMEs. Establishing an industrial rule of law is a precondition for this. Otherwise, we could be arguing which is the cart and which is the horse for the next 20 years.
The proposed ABCC legislation may be a blunt tool, but that is what’s needed. There needs to be an equally potent counterbalance to the CFMEU and for that matter any other union or employer lawlessness that is so easily able to thumb its nose at the courts. The legislation is critical to helping to create a workplace that is devoid of the abuse and intimidation that Nigel Hadgkiss can evidence and successfully brings to the courts. It is fundamental to creating a modern construction industry that is innovative, competitive and attractive.
Unless Australian construction is rapidly brought to effective compliance with the laws that govern the rest of the community, there will be a high price to pay in the end. I am critical of the unhelpful selection of almost meaningless facts that started this conversation. As for cross-bench Senators equivocating over what to do about the ABCC, I would urge them to take the position that on balance a restored ABCC is important, even with a five-year review. That would place pressure on the government to focus on the industry’s wider measured performance, and it would save the potentially distractive debate that may result from a double dissolution of parliament.
Let’s stop the brick bats. The Australian public is up for national leadership. Why not start here?