This opinion article by Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Townsville Bulletin on 4 November.
Queenslanders, particularly those from the north of the state, are famous for their “have a go” attitude.
Living so far from the so-called halls of power in Canberra and even Brisbane, it’s not really surprising that many people in cities like Townsville have learned to get on with things themselves rather than worry about what politicians are arguing about much further south.
But next week, a debate will take place in Canberra that is absolutely critical to Townsville. It is essential for regional communities like your own that next week the Senate does the right thing and passes legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Let me tell you why.
We know that modern infrastructure – whether it be roads, rail, schools, hospitals or community facilities – underpins strong regional economies and communities.
In Townsville and the surrounding areas, there are currently $818 million worth of major projects like this under construction, with a pipeline of major projects worth an additional $721 million.
This is a significant amount of investment in the region, a much-needed injection of activity that could be a game changer for the local community. So it’s important all these projects proceed smoothly, and are delivered on time and within their budget.
The community should not have to wait one day more than absolutely necessary for vital new infrastructure and essential upgrades. And every taxpayer has the right to demand that public money – their money – is never wasted, but spent wisely with maximum return.
But without the oversight of the ABCC, these projects remain at risk of cost blow-outs and delays. Right now, the culture of the building and construction industry is not a productive one. The rate of industrial action in the construction sector is seven times the average across all other industries.
But the problem is much bigger than that. Four royal commissions over 40 years have told us the building industry has “a culture of systemic corruption and unlawful conduct, including corrupt payments, physical and verbal violence, threats, intimidation”.
Like any other workplace, construction sites are more productive when people work together, respectfully. That is, when they come up with solutions to the problems they face day to day.
How can we expect someone to do their best when they’re working in a culture of fear and bullying?
If a regional work site is experiencing this type of combative behaviour there’s no guarantee the vital infrastructure will be successfully delivered. Lower productivity and delays caused by industrial disputes can lead to cost blow-outs for investors – and this can have a serious impact on whether future projects go ahead at all.
Governments have limited funds for vital community infrastructure. Higher construction costs means fewer hospitals and schools and reduced investment in roads and rail.
Private investors want to be confident in an infrastructure project’s viability before they invest. The risk of suffering a cost blow-out created by higher construction costs may discourage them from investing altogether. Do we really want to risk vital infrastructure, like the Townsville Airport expansion currently in the pipeline, not being funded?
We need conditions that encourage private investments in regional projects and help ensure the Government gets value for money from their investments.
So, how will re-establishing the ABCC help?
The ABCC will be fundamental to cleaning up the industry and changing the construction industry’s culture.
It will do this by ensuring unions, employers and all other players in the industry obey the law and take mutual responsibility for the culture in each workplace. This should make worksites more productive and co-operative.
We need to do all we can to equip our regional communities to thrive.
That means ensuring they have new infrastructure which better connects the local economy to the national and global economies. It means making sure there is adequate infrastructure to deliver vital services, like education and health services, and make the towns more appealing and liveable.
The ABCC will be an important piece of the jigsaw in achieving this vision.
I urge Labor and the crossbenchers to work with the Government to pass the legislation and restore the ABCC.