As legislation to reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission tinkers on the brink of defeat, the nation’s biggest building sector lobby group has stepped up efforts to help get the legislation through, issuing a challenge to crossbench senators to support the Bill and reiterating its stance that unlawful industrial activity can only be stamped out through a strong regulatory body.
In an open letter to cross-bench senators published in major newspapers, Master Builders Australia President Trevor Evans and Deputy President Dan Perkins urged the senators to avoid voting for ‘intimidation and bullying’, and challenged them instead to live up to trust placed they said was placed in them by voters and vote instead for the resurrection of a strong regulator to help stamp out illegal behaviour within the sector.
“A vote for the ABCC is a vote for more and affordable schools, hospitals, childcare centres, aged care facilities and roads. Voting against will give the construction union free rein to continue their industrial thuggery to the cost of all Australians,” Master Builders Australia Chief Executive Officer Wilhelm Harnisch said, adding that Master Builders had thought long and hard about the letter.
“All the industry is asking for is that the Senate crossbench stand up for the rights of the community and not give in to the union thugs and bullies.”
The latest moves comes amid fears the Bill to re-establish the ABCC – which was set up during the last decade by the Howard government as part of efforts to rein in illegal conduct within the building sector but was abolished by the then Labour government in 2012 and replaced by a new regulator called the Fair Work Building and Construction Commission which had more restricted powers – may fail as at least three senate crossbenchers have indicated they have concerns about the Bill.
With Labour and the Greens both opposing the Bill, the government needs the support of at least six out of eight crossbenchers to get the legislation through the upper house.
Construction groups say there is considerable evidence to suggest that illegal union activity has returned to building sites since the ABCC’s abolition.
Handed down last December, the interim report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, for example, found evidence of a ‘pervasive and unhealthy’ culture within the CFMEU involving purposeful and deliberate breaches of the law, lying on the part of union officials and vilification and trashing of the reputations about those who spoke out about union wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Fair Work Building and Construction Commission Chief Executive Officer Nigel Hadgkiss last month told Sourceable he was ‘alarmed’ by an apparent ‘relentless rise in lawlessness in Australia's building and construction industry.
The latest developments also come amid data showing that the construction sector loses more working days per thousand employees through industrial action than any of its peers in other industries, albeit with the sector recording the second most peaceful quarter from an industrial relations point of view during the December quarter for more than two years.
Throughout calendar 2014, the sector lost 30.2 working days per thousand employees through industrial disputes, outstripping the sector worst performing sector (manufacturing – 12.3 working days per thousand workers) – by more than two to one.
Still, unions oppose the ABCC’s return, saying the former ABCC was part of an ideological attack on workers by the Howard government and complaining that the former watchdog was riddled with incompetence and abused its powers.
Such concerns were heightened back in 2011 after the then ABCC acknowledged that as many as 203 notices sent to workers to inform them of the then ABCC’s intention to force them to cooperate with its investigations had not been issued in the proper manner.
Despite this, Harnisch says senators should vote to reinstate the former regulator.
“Unions have rights but they also have responsibilities, particularly to the community they live in. They have a responsibility to comply with the standards of behaviour the community expects,” he said.
“As representatives of the people, the crossbench Senators have a higher duty to ensure the overall wellbeing of their community.
“They must live up to the trust and responsibility granted to them and vote to re-establish the ABCC.”