Tony Abbott may have promised WorkChoices was “dead, buried and cremated”, but his government is on the verge of resurrecting the construction watchdog synonymous with the Howard-era industrial regime.
The coalition has pledged to fully restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) within 100 days of the election, and legislation to re-establish the body is expected when parliament resumes in November.
Employment Minister Eric Abetz says a restored ABCC is required to crack down on union militancy in the construction industry and improve productivity in the sector.
But unions are portraying the new ABCC as a trojan horse for more widespread industrial reforms.
“They start with a union that in their view is quite strong and maybe it is an easier target than taking penalty rates away from low-paid workers,” Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) boss Dave Noonan told AAP.
“It is all about labour market deregulation, and it is all about trying to take out the strong unions first.”
Established by the Howard government in response to the Cole Royal Commission into the construction industry – which itself was set up by then Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott – the ABCC became a byword for draconianism.
Its coercive powers were likened to those wielded by ASIO, including the abolition of the right to silence for those interviewed by the commission, and secret interrogations.
The case of Adelaide rigger Ark Tribe, threatened with jail for not answering questions about an unauthorised safety meeting, brought the body to national attention.
The ABCC was eventually abolished by Labor, who replaced it with the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate.
Director of Sydney University’s Workplace Research Centre, John Buchanan, says there is no doubt the construction union is “strident” and contains a “rogue element”.
“(But) if you’re accused of murder, you’re entitled to get a lawyer in,” he told AAP.
“There is no doubt that the industry is volatile, but we’ve got labour laws that should apply to everyone. You don’t pick and choose who you go after.”
Applying different laws to one industry set a bad precedent, he said.
“Because as soon as you start to lower the standards for one group of workers that will become a reference point for employers in other industries.”
But Senator Abetz cites the bitter dispute between the CFMEU and builder Grocon in 2012 when seeking to justify the need for a tougher construction watchdog.
The CFMEU was found in contempt of court over its blockade of the Emporium site in Melbourne, which saw clashes between police and workers over the right to appoint safety representatives.
“The current legislation clearly isn’t sufficiently tough enough to deal with the thuggery and intimidation that has unfortunately been a hallmark of the building and construction sector,” Senator Abetz told ABC Television this week.
In a sign of the government’s intentions, Senator Abetz has appointed former ABCC deputy commission Nigel Hadgkiss as director of the Fair Work inspectorate, and former ABCC commissioner John Lloyd as chair of its advisory board.
The pair have been charged with overseeing the transition to the ABCC, which frustratingly for the new government is almost certain to be held up by Labor and the Greens until the Senate changeover in July.
Not surprisingly, a restored ABCC has the backing of business groups, who have complained about a worsening industrial environment since its abolition in 2012.
“The re-establishment of the ABCC with all of its former powers should give those who comply with the law nothing to worry about,” Australian Industry Group Chief Executive Innes Willox told AAP.
“The laws and other arrangements were watered down over the past few years and the unlawful and inappropriate union conduct of the past has returned. The ABCC and associated laws need to be re-established without delay.”
The Master Builders Association has called on the Abbott government to quickly abolish the inspectorate and restore the ABCC, saying it’s needed to “suppress the industrial bastardry on Australian construction sites”.
The Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) says resource employers wants the ABCC to stamp out “rising unlawfulness” on onshore and offshore construction sites.
But Mr Noonan says claims that productivity improved under the ABCC “flies in the face of the evidence”.
“During the period that the ABCC was in operation both multi-factor and labour productivity were flat and did not increase,” Mr Noonan told AAP.
“In fact the great increases in labour productivity were prior to the introduction of the ABCC.”
The ACTU President Ged Kearney has described the ABCC as a failed institution, saying: “If there is unlawful activity on construction sites then it should be investigated by the police”.
ALP national secretary George Wright echoed Mr Noonan’s concerns that the government’s crackdown on unions – which also includes increased penalties for corrupt union officials – was an “entree” to other workplace changes.
“I suspect what you will see is a concerted effort by the government to really go after the unions first – union organisation and union finances – obviously as an entree to then have a go at members’ conditions,” Mr Wright told the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday.