A key industry lobby group has thrown its support behind the federal government’s proposed changes to industrial relations laws in the construction industry in Australia, claiming the changes would go a long way toward preventing cost blowouts on large scale projects and would help ensure taxpayers derive fair value for their money invested in major infrastructure projects.

In its submission to the government’s Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, which is strongly supported by building industry groups but opposed by unions, Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) says the Bill would have a ‘very positive’ effect in terms of reining in militant union behaviour.

In a statement, Ai Group said four key pillars supported the reforms introduced in response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry in 2003: the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act, various measures now contained in the Fair Work Act (e.g. right of entry, genuine enterprise bargaining), and construction industry codes and guidelines in some states which outline measures by which contractors bidding for major construction projects are expected to abide.

“Unfortunately, each of these four pillars have been substantially eroded through ill-conceived changes introduced since 2009, including watering down the legislative provisions, implementing a much less effective building code, and reducing the powers of the Regulator,”  Ai Group said in its submission.

“These changes have led to many unacceptable work practices of the past being reintroduced to the great detriment of construction industry contractors, subcontractors, clients and the broader community. There have been many recent instances of unlawful coercion by unions and unlawful industrial action and pickets organised by unions.”

Introduced into Parliament on November 14, the Bill represents an attempt by the Coalition government to restore Howard-era type controls on industrial relations in the building and construction industry.

Specially, the Bill, seeks to:

  • reintroduce the ABCC with its former powers
  • allow for maximum civil penalties of up to $170,000
  • reintroduce former provisions of the BCII Act relating to unlawful industrial action and coercion; and
  • outlaw unlawful pickets

The Ai Group submission follows a presentation before a Senate Education and Employment Committee hearing submissions to the draft Bill on the part of Master Builders Australia chief executive officer Wilhelm Harnisch, in which he said the abolition of the ABCC has seen a return to industrial thuggery.

“Since the ABCC was abolished by the previous government there has been a resurgence  of industrial thuggery orchestrated by building unions challenging the in the inadequate powers of Fair Work Building and Construction which was set up by the Gillard Government to replace the building industry’s tough cop on the beat,” Harnisch told the committee.

“We are seeing repeats of the acts of industrial bastardry displayed by the CFMEU in their unjustified behaviour on building sites in Melbourne, Queensland and Adelaide in recent times. The union’s tactics highlight the inadequacy of the powers at the disposal of Fair Work Building and Construction suppress this behaviour which is an affront to the community.”

While it has been supported by industry groups, however, the Bill is strongly opposed by unions.

Earlier this month, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union boss Dave Noonan called on the government to scrap the changes, saying they discriminated against construction workers and that the ABCC’s restored powers would be excessive.