The former Australian Building and Construction Commission is set to be reborn after the bill to re-establish the ABCC passed the Senate.
Senators from One Nation and the Nick Xenophon team as well as Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm and Victorian Senator Derryn Hinch have voted in favour of the Australian Building and Construction Commission Bill to have the amened legislation pass the Senate 36-33.
Whilst as a formality the bill will now go back to the House of Representatives to deal with amendments which were made to the original legislation, the bill is now certain to pass into law.
In a surprise move made in order to gain the support of the Nick Xenophon team, the government abandoned its previously long held opposition toward giving local businesses an advantage in competing for taxpayer-funded projects.
As a result, bidders for government projects worth more than $4 million will need to show how much in terms of locally produced materials they will source, how they are contributing to local employment, how they are contributing toward the development of local skills, the whole-of-life cost of the project (rather than just the construction costs) and that the materials which they are using comply with national product standards under the Building Code of Australia.
First established by the Howard government in 2005, the ABCC was abolished by the Gillard government in 2012 in favour of what is now known as Fair Work Building and Construction, which was more constrained relative to the former ABCC in terms of its investigative powers and was more limited in terms of the maximum penalties which it could secure in court for breaches of the law.
The new law will essentially re-establish the ABCC with its full powers and will restore the higher penalties for contraventions of provisions relating to unlawful action and coercion.
Building industry lobby groups hailed the move, saying the restoration of the ABCC would help to bring law and order back to the construction workplace.
“The passing of the ABCC bills marks the start of a new chapter for the industry and an end to the days where the community is paying more than it needs to for schools, hospitals and roads simply because building unions think they are above the law,” Master Builders Australia chief executive officer Wilhelm Harnisch said.
“Construction workers, small subcontractors and everyone else in the supply chain can have the confidence of going to work every day without fear of being intimidated and bullied.”
Australian Industry Group chief executive officer Innes Willox agrees.
"The rule of law is set to be re-established on building sites,” Willox said.
“The significant increase in penalties that will apply to unlawful conduct should ensure that the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) changes its current unacceptable approach of blatantly disregarding industrial laws. If it does not, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) will have the necessary powers to hold the union to account.”
Unions, however, expressed disappointment with the moves, which they say will harm the interests of workers.
In a statement, Australian Council of Trade Unions Assistant Secretary Scott Connelly said the restoration of the ABCC will harm workers by removing their right to silence in investigations of suspected breaches of workplace law, erode their job security, reduce the employment of apprentices, promote greater casualisation of the workforce and would obstruct those employees who wish to seek help from their union on matters of safety.
“The passage of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill through the Senate is an attack on our democracy and will do nothing to improve the serious risk of death and injury in the construction industry,” Connolly said.
“Every argument the Turnbull Government has given for re-establishing the ABCC is based on pure fantasy.”
Both Willox and Harnisch, however, stress that those who follow the law have nothing to fear from the restoration of the ABCC.
“The ABCC is simply asking for all parties on construction sites to behave lawfully and to treat everyone with respect whether they be union, contractor, subcontractor or supplier, male or female,” Harnisch said.