Thank you, and I congratulate you on your election as Deputy Speaker.
In my first speech to parliament I talked about the need to abolish the ABCC and this disgraceful body which is an ideological witch hunt on unions and an assault on working people. The fact that the opposition, in their very first matter of public importance, choose this topic just shows the depth of the ideological obsession that they have with attacking the union movement and the workers they represent, and I'm really pleased to have this opportunity to talk about it. So, thanks to the opposition for choosing this topic today.
In the words of a Federal Court judge, the ABCC should be 'publicly exposed as having wasted public money without a proper basis for doing so'. That's exactly what this MPI gives the government the opportunity to do. Now, there's a bit of confusion about what the ABCC actually does, and it might be easier to begin by outlining what it doesn't do. Let's be clear. The ABCC isn't fighting for higher safety standards on worksites and prosecuting dodgy operators; that's what unions do. The ABCC isn't prosecuting cases of industrial manslaughter; that's the advocacy that unions are doing. The ABCC is a complete waste of taxpayer money, and all it cares about is harassing union officials, delegates and members and stirring up conflict. Only two of the 39 current ABCC legal cases involve either an underpayment to a worker or a delayed payment to a subcontractor. The other 37 cases involve union officials and delegates.
The ABCC has made an absolute art form of throwing taxpayers' money away on farcical legal cases, and I'll provide some examples. As of last year, the ABCC had spent at least $487,000 pursuing Lendlease over Eureka flags. It wasted at least $432,469 unsuccessfully pursuing the union to the High Court because they demanded a women's toilet on a Melbourne worksite. In 2018 a judge of the Federal Court slammed the ABCC for wasting taxpayers' money for pursuing union officials for having a cup of tea on a worksite. The judge said:
I hold the clear view that this is a case where the ABCC should be publicly exposed as having wasted public money without a proper basis for doing so, in my view.
Why would you care about flags on stickers on a worksite? Why are the Liberal Nationals—the former government—so obsessed with these things?
The ABCC thought that taxpayer dollars were better spent on taking this idea of a request for a women's toilet on a building site to the High Court. Luckily, the High Court laughed this out of the room. As the CFMMEU said at the time, the High Court had a greater sense of decency than the ABCC.
According to Safe Work Australia data there were 154 deaths in the construction industry from 2016 to 2020—that's 154 families who never saw their loved one come home. This is a really serious issue, which governments should be concerned about, and which this body should be concerned about. But what have they done to lower these figures? Prosecute workers for stickers on hard hats. The ABCC spent $500,000 of taxpayer money on enforcing a ban on union logos while workers were dying. It's not the ABCC that protects Australian workers, it's unions that make workplaces safer. All this watchdog does is pursue vexatious litigation to make that work harder.
The ABCC has direct responsibility for protecting construction workers from wage theft. In December they issued a press release boasting that they had recovered $1 million in underpayments for construction workers in the period between July and November 2021. But over that same five-month period the construction union recovered more than $17 million in unpaid wages and entitlements for its members.
It is time that this body was gone, and I am so proud that this is something that this newly elected Labor government will do as a priority, because we are a government that believes in workers' rights and the unions that represent those workers, and we will always be proud of that.