Comment

Coalition doesn't let the facts stand in the way of the fight between 'good and evil'

If you've been around a while and followed the debate about "law and order" in the construction industry, you'll know it's a bit like Groundhog Day.

In the film, Bill Murray's character wakes up every day doomed to relive the same events in the same order. Murray's character tries to take advantage of this time loop, but becomes increasingly depressed, committing reckless acts and attempting suicide. It's not until he uses his experience to achieve enlightenment that the time loop is broken and he finds love and fulfilment.

Construction workers, like everyone else in this country, have a right to freedom of association.
Construction workers, like everyone else in this country, have a right to freedom of association. Photo: Peter Braig

In the debate around the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) ever since Tony Abbott's opportunistic calling of the Cole Royal Commission in 2001, the same spurious arguments have been run. The ABCC, we are told, is there to combat corruption and thuggery. This completely ignores the fact that the agency has never had any jurisdiction over these matters, which are the domain of the criminal law. However, a fact like that has never prevented successive ministers and media outlets from framing this as a debate between the forces of good – made up of the Coalition parties and their supporters, the property developers and constructors who are keen to root out corruption and thuggery – and the union/ALP/Greens mafia who are beholden to the wicked CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union).

You may be forgiven for thinking that those who claim the ABCC will combat thuggery and corruption cannot be mistaken – or worse, lying. But former ABCC director and current Fair Work Building Commission head Nigel Hadgkiss has said that in relation to criminal law, that the agency "does not prosecute these matters". The Minister for Employment has also clearly stated that "The ABCC's role under the bill will be to regulate workplace relations".

CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan.
CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan. 

But they continue to argue the criminal line, despite the facts – and the facts are that this bill is designed to cut wages, conditions and the right to union representation.

The Coalition has at various times accused the union of playing the "safety" card, but the facts speak for themselves. Statistics from a Safe Work Australia report in June 2015 dealing with injuries and deaths in the construction industry, show that under the ABCC there was a significant rise in workplace fatalities. The ABCC began its operations on October 1, 2005, and in 2006 there was a 37 per cent rise in fatalities in the industry. In 2007, at the height of the ABCC, the number grew to 53 deaths. After the closure of the ABCC in May 2012, the numbers dropped significantly and in 2013 had fallen to 21.

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With all the talk about these laws being aimed at "unlawful" union behaviour among union bosses, it's important to note that more than 500 workers have been prosecuted by the ABCC, for taking action against safety breaches, or in support of more apprenticeships for young people, or against the abuse of 457 visas. In a current case, the Fair Work Building Commission is seeking access to the union's membership records. Construction workers, like everyone else in this country, have a right to freedom of association and should not have their privacy threatened by an overzealous regulator with a political agenda.

The ABCC bill contains the government's proposed building code that outlaws clauses in EBAs relating to limits to casualisation of workers, provisions to encourage more apprentices on jobs, and measures to outlaw sham contracting. The lowering of workers' pay and conditions, undermining their job security and reducing their ability to have a say on their conditions, is a stealthy return to WorkChoices.

That's not the only thing the Coalition is keeping quiet about. They consistently fail to mention the unlawful conduct of unscrupulous employers in relation to insolvencies in the industry which rob workers of their wages and superannuation and send small businesses to the wall. The practice of declaring bankruptcy, then opening the following day under another name only to repeat the same offences, cost workers up to $137 million in lost wages and entitlements in 2013-2104. Unpaid taxes for construction industry companies for the same period was up to $487 million.

The unsavoury truth is that this bill attacks the rights of ordinary people and dismantles legal protections against exploitation from greedy developers, protections that are a cornerstone of our democracy.

No wonder the Coalition keep regurgitating the "thuggery and corruption" lies to convince people of the need for the ABCC. If the Coalition wants to recover from Groundhog Day syndrome, where the same thing happens over and over again, they need to follow the example of the protagonist in the film and start doing things differently. They need to talk to all parties in the industry and work co-operatively with us to solve the problems.

They must acknowledge that the workers who build our towns and cities are a living, breathing part of the communities in which we live and not the bogeyman in the fictitious tales they like to tell.

The unsavoury truth is that this bill attacks the rights of ordinary people and dismantles legal protections against exploitation from greedy developers.

Dave Noonan is national construction secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

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