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- Comment: Union bribery revelations will help Abbott's plans
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has given the clearest signal yet his government will launch a royal commission and broaden the scope of the inquiry to examine union malfeasance and corruption.
Abbott considers Royal Commission
The Prime Minister may expand a promised judicial inquiry into a full Royal Commission examining union corruption in the building industry.
The Coalition promised before the election to instigate a judicial inquiry that would examine the Australian Workers Union corruption scandal.
But the Prime Minister confirmed on Tuesday that a Fairfax Media investigation into corruption within the building industry had added to growing calls for a full royal commission with wide-ranging powers.
‘‘We made a commitment pre-election that there would be a judicial inquiry into union slush funds and a royal commission is in fact a judicial inquiry and we will honour the commitments that we made pre-election,’’ he said.
‘‘I notice there have been various calls including from people inside the union movement, inside the Labor movement, inside the Labor movement more generally, for a fuller inquiry and the government will be making appropriate announcements in due course.’’
Mr Abbott also pressed Labor and the Greens to reverse course and throw their support behind the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission with full powers.
‘‘If the Labor Party is serious about tackling corruption again they will stop standing in the way of the re-establishment of a strong cop on the beat in that particular industry,’’ he said.
Labor, unions and the Greens have opposed the restoration of the ABCC.
Employment Minister Eric Abetz earlier seized on Fairfax Media reports of corruption within the building industry, arguing they should convince Labor and the Greens to get behind the Coalition’s plans to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
The Coalition has long pledged to reinstate the construction industry watchdog, despite opposition from Labor and the Greens. It introduced legislation to parliament late last year, but it faces defeat in the Senate, given the current make up of the upper house.
‘‘The last feathers that [Labor and the Greens] may have had to fly in opposing the re-establishment of the ABCC have been completely plucked out this morning,’’ Senator Abetz told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.
A joint Fairfax Media/ ABC investigation found that officials from Australia’s powerful building unions are being bribed by corrupt companies that need their support to win multimillion-dollar contracts.
The construction industry rackets involve labour hire, traffic management, scaffolding, crane and building companies, several of which are connected to bikies and organised crime figures.
The investigation identified several influential Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union officials, organisers and shop stewards in NSW and Victoria who have been given bribes and other inducements by the companies.
Senator Abetz said that while corruption was well known within the building industry (pointing to the 2001 Cole royal commission into the building and construction industry), he was nevertheless surprised by the extent and detail of corruption in the reports.
‘‘What it exposes is an endemic culture of corruption across the states,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not just one little pimple.’’
He said that the fact that the revelations had come from Fairfax Media and the ABC ‘‘basically disqualifies Labor from saying this is some sort of conspiracy by News [Corp]’’.
Labor employment spokesman Brendan O'Connor said Labor had not changed its position in relation to the ABCC.
''We do not support a new layer of red tape and bureaucracy when its been show that it has not added to improvements in productivity and arguably its seen a decline in safety in workplaces,'' he told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.
Mr O'Connor said that if there were serious allegations of criminal behaviour, they should be referred to the police.
The Labor spokesman also dismissed Senator Abetz's suggestion that money was ''slushed around'' between unions and the ALP, given that the CFMEU was a donor to the party.
''I think the attempt by the government to draw a nexus between an allegation of crime and the way in which the party receives funds is a politically motivated effort by the minister,'' he said.
''We all know that this government hates unions, it always has.''
Mr O'Connor's brother, Michael, is the national secretary of the CFMEU.
Greens leader Christine Milne said that the "serious allegations of corruption" should be investigated by the police, but said the Greens would not support the ABCC legislation.
"The re-establishment of the ABCC, a body which removes peoples' rights at work and has no power to prosecute crimes, is an ideologically motivated threat to the rule of law."
Former prime minister John Howard said he did not find the allegations hard to believe, noting that his government had first set up the ABCC in response to concerns about the construction industry.
"What's come out in the last 24 hours just illustrates how totally wrong and irresponsible it was of the former Labor government to neuter [the ABCC]. And the sooner its brought back to its former position, the better."
Responding to the Fairfax/ ABC reports, NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell also called on Labor and the Greens to back the ABCC.
''If ever there was a reason for the Greens and the Labor Party to get out of the way of the federal government's legislation to re-establish the Australian Building Construction Commission, this is it,'' he told reporters in Sydney.
''They out to take this as a wake-up call to pass the legislation as a matter of urgency so we can again have confidence in the construction industry.''
Labor has argued that the ABCC, which was set up in the Howard era, was too extreme. In 2012 it replaced it with the Fair Work Building and Construction inspectorate, which it says has adequate powers to deal with illegal behaviour.
Before the federal election, the Coalition also pledged to hold a judicial inquiry into union ‘‘slush funds’’, ‘‘to provide Australians with true and complete answers in relation to the formation and actions of the Australian Workers’ Union Workplace Reform Association’’.
Since the election, it has has been reported that the Abbott government will transform this inquiry into a broader royal commission on union "slush funds," that will scrutinise union officials and senior Labor politicians.
Senator Abetz would not be drawn on whether Tuesday’s allegations would be considered within the scope of the judicial inquiry.
‘‘[Today’s] revelations are very, very concerning and I’ll be getting some advice as to the best way forward,’’ he said.
‘‘I think the revelations do put another complexion on some of the issues that we raised during the election campaign.’’
The Employment Minister said the government would have more to say on the judicial inquiry.
with Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and Ben Schneiders