Senior Liberal Party leaders as well as building industry lobby groups have stepped up their attack on what they say is an increasing level of unlawful activity by union officials on construction sites, and have renewed calls for the reinstatement of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
Following Federal Court findings earlier this month of illegal conduct by Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and 10 of its current and former officers on four construction sites in Adelaide, Liberal Party Minister for Employment Senator Eric Abetz said the abolition of the ABCC had seen the resumption of a disregard of the law that defined the industry in Victoria and Western Australia spread to other states including South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.
“There is an urgent need to re-establish an effective regulator to enforce appropriate laws and sufficient penalties to deter unlawful conduct, and stop the thuggery and lawlessness in the construction industry,” Abetz said.
Master Builders Association chief executive officer Wilhelm Harnisch agrees, saying laws which saw the abolition of the ABCC also saw maximum penalties for fines imposed for proven breaches of the law cut by two-thirds. They also saw parties no longer being forbidden to apply ‘undue pressure’ to make, vary or terminate an agreement; a narrower definition of ‘building work’ to exclude work performed offsite (and thus limit the regulator’s authority) and the new regulator not having the powers to intervene where the parties concerned had ‘settled’ their differences and legal proceedings with regard to matters in question had been discontinued even if illegal conduct had occurred. The last point enables unions to avoid penalties by coercing builders and contractors to settle legal action.
“The resurgence in thuggish industrial behaviour by the CFMEU would likely have led to further court action by FWBC had it not been hamstrung from the moment it was established to succeed the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) by significantly weaker powers than its predecessor,” Harnisch said.
The latest calls come amid what conservative politicians and industry groups consider to be growing evidence of illegal behaviour by senior officials of the union.
In its interim report handed down last month, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption described a ‘pervasive and unhealthy’ culture within the union and recommended the Director of Public Prosecutions consider criminal charges against the union for intimidation and coercion, and that prosecution be considered against union officials for various other matters.
On November 20, meanwhile, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission instituted proceedings against the union in the Federal Court over alleged breaches of competition law in relation to its actions in pressuring contractors not to use concrete supplied by building products manufacturer Boral after the latter resisted union pressure to cease supplying to Grocon during the union’s dispute with the builder in 2013.
Furthermore, when handing down findings on the Adelaide case on January 15, the Federal Court said the number of union organisers attending one of the sites in question suggested ‘coordinated and strategic action by the CFMEU resulting in deliberate contraventions of Section 500,’ referring to the section of the Fair Work Act stating that right of entry permit holders must not hinder, obstruct or act in an improper manner when on site.
Harnisch said the conduct in the Boral case shows an example of the union "stepping outside the accepted community standards of behaviour," and added that the evidence presented before the Royal Commission about illegal union behaviour had been extensive.
“Master Builders calls on Senators to consider this evidence when next voting on bills to restore the powers of the ABCC,” he said.
While the union did not respond to requests for comment, it has previously argued that the former ABCC had excessive powers, lacked accountability, and represented an attack on workers from the then Howard government which set it up.
As for the Royal Commission, the union says this is a "colossal waste of taxpayers’ money" and a political stunt by the Abbott government designed to produce outcomes which justify anti-union laws.