Minister slams Labor 'protection racket' after union High Court failure
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Minister slams Labor 'protection racket' after union High Court failure

Federal Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O'Dwyer has accused the Labor Party of running a "protection racket" for union thugs, after the High Court threw out a CFMMEU appeal against a decision to impose maximum fines on the union and its law-breaking official.

The militant Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union had sought leave to appeal a full Federal Court decision imposing a maximum $306,000 fine against the union, and $10,200 against the official who abused a site manager while breaching right-of-entry laws.

Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O'Dwyer says Labor must distance itself from the militant CFMMEU.

Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O'Dwyer says Labor must distance itself from the militant CFMMEU.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The High Court ordered the CFMMEU to pay the Australian Building and Construction Commission’s legal costs of defending the application, which had sought to challenge the penalty imposed on the union and its former Queensland president Dave Hanna.

Mr Hanna was found to have breached right of entry laws at a Brisbane construction site, squirting water in the face of the site manager and refusing to leave while firing off obscenities in the 2015 incident, saying: "Take that phone away or I'll f---ing bury it down your throat."

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Former CFMEU Queensland president Dave Hanna was hit with the maximum penalty for his "abhorrent" behaviour.

Former CFMEU Queensland president Dave Hanna was hit with the maximum penalty for his "abhorrent" behaviour.

ABCC Commissioner Stephen McBurney said the High Court’s refusal to grant special leave
vindicated the Commission, which Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has pledged to abolish if Labor wins the coming federal election.

"I will continue to seek the imposition of maximum penalties in appropriate cases to deter repeat offending by the CFMMEU and others," Mr McBurney said.

Ms O'Dwyer agreed, saying the ABCC was "a very important cop on the beat".

"It is very important that we have a regulator that is ensuring that we are putting an end to thuggery, bullying and intimidation on construction sites right across this country," she said.

CFMEU National Construction Secretary Dave Noonan said the ABCC "enforces laws against construction workers that do not apply to any other Australian".

"They are laws designed to drive wages and conditions down, and have the effect of making a high risk industry less safe,” Mr Noonan said.

Ms O'Dwyer slammed Labor for its opposition to the ABCC, saying if elected it would "want to run a protection racket for the CFMMEU who are engaged in what can only be described as thuggish behaviour. It shouldn't be tolerated."

She said the courts had "made very clear that the CFMMEU are one of the most recidivist unions in this country".

"They are up before the Federal Court time and time again," she said, repeating her call for Mr Shorten to distance himself from the CFMMEU.

"Even Bob Hawke, former leader of the union movement, has said that there needs to be a disassociation from the thuggish tactics involved," she said.

Mr Hawke famously deregistered the Builders Labourers Federation when he was prime minister in 1986, a task the Coalition has been unable to achieve with the CFMMEU, which was known as the CFMEU before it merged with the Maritime Union in March.

Opposition industrial relations spokesman Brendan O'Connor said a Labor government "will make sure that any person or organisation who breaches the law will be held accountable".

"Unlike the Liberals, Labor will work with employers and unions to bring greater cooperation to Australian workplaces, not just in the building industry but across the economy," Mr O'Connor said.

The vast majority of cases brought by the ABCC involve the CFMMEU, which paid $5.6 million in fines over the past financial year, as the main defendant.

The government's Ensuring Integrity Bill, which would make it easier to deregister law-breaking unions, remains held up in the Senate and is not expected to pass, while employers have mounted a legal challenge against the CFMMEU merger.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions, which supports the CFMMEU's tactics, is campaigning for a dramatic overhaul of the nation's industrial relations laws.

Mr Shorten has promised to "look closely" at the union peak body's demands, including a return to industry-wide bargaining, ahead of Labor's national conference next weekend.

Federal Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta said while imposing the fines against Mr Hanna and the CFMMEU that it was "the most recidivist corporate offender in Australian history".

On appeal in the Full Federal Court, Justice Richard Tracey said the union had "determined that its officials will not comply with the requirements of [the Fair Work Act] with which it disagrees" and "simply regards itself as free to disobey the law".

Dana is a federal politics reporter, covering health and industrial relations. Previously, she was a reporter for The Australian.

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