Employment Minister Eric Abetz has defended compulsory interview powers to be given to the restored Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) as no different to those held by other federal agencies.

In a fiery senate estimates hearing where he clashed repeatedly with Labor’s Doug Cameron, Senator Abetz said these powers would be oversighted by the commonwealth ombudsman, while people will be given 14 days notice of hearings, and could be accompanied by a lawyer.

“Now I have heard Labor criticism that this is somehow akin to a police state,” he said on Thursday.

“I’m not sure police states say to citizens `You’ve got 14 days to front and when you do there will be available to you … a lawyer. And what’s more, will ensure that you’ve got conduct money.

He listed a raft of agencies including Medicare, Centrelink and the Australian Tax office as also able to call people into compulsory hearings to respond to concerns.

The Abbott government wants to restore the Howard era construction watchdog the ABCC because they believe the body Labor replaced it with – the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate – is not powerful enough to deal with union militancy and corruption in the sector.

The government has introduced legislation to restore the ABCC but Labor and the Greens plan to block it in the Senate.

Eric Abetz

Eric Abetz

Former ABCC deputy commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss will be the new director of the inspectorate, an appointment Senator Abetz on Thursday admitted would automatically make him ABCC commissioner if the new laws are passed.

He appointed Mr Hadgkiss without interviewing any other candidates.

“There would have been a convoluted, expensive, merit selection process in this case,” Abetz said.

“I’m sure Mr Hadgkiss would have come out on top very easily and quickly.”

Senator Cameron pointed to a series of legal judgements critical of the former ABCC for what he called “a lack of balance and lack of fairness (and) incompetence in bringing evidence”.

“Mr Hadgkiss, do you consider yourself one of the luckiest executives in the public service given the judicial criticism that was placed on the ABCC when you were a senior executive?” he asked.

Mr Hadgkiss said there had been an increase in unlawful activity in the industry in the past 18 months, and he held “grave concerns” about the involvement of organised crime.

The head of the Victorian construction watchdog until his recent appointment, Mr Hadgkiss said he had spoken to Victoria Police and the Australian Crime Commission “at quite senior levels”.

“I’m aware of impending prosecutions and I’m aware of active investigations,” he said.

“There are employers (involved), senior union officials, and I’ll leave it at that.”