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In April 2001 the Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott, asked the Employment Advocate to provide a report “regarding behaviour in the building industry”.  This led to the Cole Royal Commission into the building and construction industry, costing taxpayers $60 million, making it one of the most expensive in Australia’s history.

The Commission was criticised as ‘politically biased and fanatically anti-union’.  The Victorian Council for Civil Liberties noted that the ‘perception of a political agenda was reinforced by the method in which the commission gathered evidence and conducted its investigations’. Of particular concern was the curtailment of the rights to legal representation and cross-examination.

Victorian Secretary of the Construction Division of the CFMEU, Martin Kingham, was charged with contempt after failing to produce requested documents detailing the names and personal details of trade unionists who participated in a union training school.

Mr Kingham maintained that he did not have any such documents and did not know if they even existed.  He successfully defended the charge and costs were awarded against the Federal Director of Public Prosecutions.  Outside the court, Mr Kingham said the political witch-hunt masterminded by Federal Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott had been exposed.

“Abbott and Howard cashed up the Cole Royal Commission with $60 million of your money and mine so it could hunt down legitimate unions and workers,” Mr Kingham said.

“Abbott is so obsessed with his anti-union agenda he’ll go to any lengths to stir up trouble. His agenda is to drag people through the courts, to spend taxpayers’ money to tie up the unions in costly legal actions.”

“This bloke is a joke. He ought to be sacked or at least put on a short leash so he can do as little damage as possible to Australian workers and industry until the whole anti-union mob can be tossed out at the next election,” Mr Kingham said.

Although hundreds of allegations of criminal behaviour were referred to the Cole Royal Commission, they resulted in only one conviction — and that involved an employer.

Recommendations from the Royal Commission led to the setting up of the Australian Building and Construction Commission in 2005 to be, using Tony Abbott’s oft-repeated phrase, the “tough cop on the beat”, and it was given powers that greatly exceeded those given to any police officer in the nation.

“The ABCC can force people to answer questions in secret and to reveal documents that relate to any of its investigations. This negates a person’s right to silence. It also removes their privilege against self-incrimination, a protection that has been described by the High Court as a ”cardinal principle of our system of justice” and a ”bulwark of liberty”.

There are no limits on the type of information that can be sought by the ABCC. A person can be compelled to hand over personal phone and email records, reveal memberships of a union or political party, and report on private meetings.

This can be applied to anyone. Workers can be brought in, not because they are suspected of wrongdoing, but to report on the activities of their co-workers. Family members, including young children, can be told to reveal information about a parent in the building industry.

In case there was any doubt about the scope of these powers, the law says that the ABCC can override the protections that innocent people have under privacy law. The law may well be unique in also allowing the commission to ignore the confidentiality of cabinet documents and to demand secret national security information held by agencies such as ASIO.

The problem is not just one of extraordinary power, but also that the expected safeguards have been stripped away. Unlike other bodies that question people, the ABCC does not need a warrant from a judicial officer or other independent person. The normal grounds of reviewing its decisions have also been excluded, meaning federal law cannot be used to argue that the ABCC has breached the rules of natural justice or made a decision in bad faith.”

“The ABCC constitutes a frontal attack on basic legal and democratic rights. It can demand that a worker submit to interrogation on pain of prosecution. Its inspectors can enter building sites, interview anyone without a lawyer present, demand documents and force people to provide information relating to industrial action or internal union business. The watchdog also has the power to initiate prosecutions with fines of up to $110,000 against unions or $22,000 against individuals for taking unlawful industrial action. Disclosing the contents of an ABCC interrogation can lead to six months’ imprisonment, as can refusing to attend a hearing or answer questions.”

In August 2008, Noel Washington, a CFMEU official, was summonsed to appear before Geelong Magistrates Court for refusing to comply with summons issued by the ABCC which alleged that Washington had distributed a flyer that made “derogatory” remarks about a Bovis Lend Lease site manager.  (Where was Tim Wilson when we needed him.).  Six days before his trial, the DPP dropped the charges.

In December, the Fairfax press reported on the case of a Melbourne academic — which it was prevented under the ABCC’s legislation from even naming — who witnessed a scuffle while walking past a building site and found himself under interrogation by the ABCC and under threat of imprisonment if he revealed his interrogation to anyone.

In its 2008 submission to the Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations, a consortium of four unions, estimated that since 2003 more than a quarter of a billion dollars had been spent on the Cole Royal Commission and the establishment and operations of the ABCC. This is claimed to be about 10 times more than the sum received during the same period by Cancer Australia and the Australian Law Reform Commission.

The unions pointed out certain facts.

  • The number of deaths have gone up since 2005: from 3.14 per 100,000 workers in 2004 – before the ABCC started – to 4.8 per 100,000 workers in 2007 and 4.27 in 2008.
  • Threats of fines, interrogations by the ABCC and imprisonment make it harder for construction workers to take a stand over poor safety.
  • Construction workers have to be able to prove that ‘there was an imminent risk to their health and safety’ to avoid fines for stopping work over safety matters.
  • The ABCC has a track record of pursuing workers and Occupational Health and Safety Authorities for court investigations where workers take action to defend their safety.
  • The ABCC has never taken an employer to court over breaches of Occupational Health and Safety laws.
  • Research has shown that where there is a strong union presence at construction workplaces, there are fewer serious injuries and deaths.
  • Construction remains one of Australia’s top four most dangerous industries, accounting for 24% – the highest number – of work-related fatalities in 2008, according to the latest available Australian Safety & Compensation Commission report.
  • Australia’s Construction Industry Laws have been condemned six times by the International Labour Organisation.
  • The ABCC will cost Australian taxpayers $165.4 million for the period 2007-08 to 2011-12, under budget forward estimates.

Adelaide worker Ark Tribe was the first union member to be charged with failing to attend a hearing of the ABCC in 2008.  Mr Tribe had been summonsed to appear at the ABCC after he walked off a construction site at Flinders University over safety concerns and if convicted, faced a maximum penalty of six months in prison.

Mr Tribe was found not guilty of the charge in November 2010 and, in 2012, the legal saga finally concluded when Commonwealth prosecutors agreed to pay $105,000 for his legal fees.

In 2010, Julia Gillard removed John Lloyd from his position as head of the ABCC.  He moved on to become the director of the Work Reform and Productivity Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs, and then, in January 2013, was appointed as Victoria’s new “red tape commissioner” charged with waging a war on red tape to boost productivity and reduce costs for Victorian businesses.

The ABCC was replaced by Fair Work Building Construction in 2012.  The Fair Work Act has delivered significant labour productivity growth and low wage growth, with industrial disputation far below the average level of the Howard years, but Tony Abbott has said “To let the militant unions of this city and state know that the rule of law must always prevail we will re-establish the ABCC and finish the job . . . The law must be supreme, no one is above the law.”

In the leaders’ debate in August 2013, Tony Abbott, when promoting his role in creating the Australian Building and Construction Commission, said:

“That led to the achievement of some $6 billion a year in productivity savings and in cost reductions to consumers in the commercial construction sector,” he told the Brisbane people’s forum.

This claim has been labelled mostly false by Politifact.

Abbott sourced the $6 billion figure from a 2010 report prepared by the Canberra consultancy Econtech for the Master Builders Association.  Justice Murray Wilcox in 2009 described an Econtech report on construction industry productivity as “deeply flawed” and that it “ought to be totally disregarded.”

Now Econtech has produced a new report that, according to Bernard Keane, “makes that effort look like the gold standard of intellectual rigour”.  He goes on to say “OK, so rubbish reports like this are common as muck, true. But this is more significant because it’s on the basis of stuff like this that the Coalition has committed to reinstitute a major attack on basic rights. And that attack will not just be on the rights of construction industry unionists, but all of us.”

30 comments

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  1. Terry2

    Deeply disturbing, Kay!

    Abbott comes from the Howard school and follows his doctrine: if you can destroy the Unions, you will severely weaken the Labor party and their funding base and thus retain power indefinitely.
    Work Choices was the first attempt and it failed miserably but that doesn’t mean they will give up.

  2. FSM is coming.

    Clearly getting rid of this sick bastard is no going to be easy. No matter how much dirt is thrown. the prick is Teflon.
    the ABCC is a threat to every single working person in this country. It seems to be modeled in the same vein as say, North Korea.

  3. winstonclose

    Excellent Article Kaye Lee.

  4. patsy

    PLEASE how do we get the people to understand what this court jester is doing to this country of ours…Murdoch…rhinhart….bolt…jones..etc. they do not care because they are WEALTHY…….if shit happens it will not hurt them……

  5. billy moir

    The labor party and the unions are inept at sharing themselves and less than that at highlighting the rabbott’s character flaws. Unlike the liberals they canot take, hold and sell a position.
    They set up a price the rabbott calls it a tax, labor lets the media call it a tax and juliar is set free. Murdoch and the morning shows fame the flames and we burn on the back of fools who do not challenge the rabbott but just believe.
    His fear that pensioners and the poor end of society are going to see the doctor too often so he will charge them $6 cash per visit. Well it is not a ‘great big tax of the miner’s super profits, it is only a 1.5% tax or 3% tax for their 6 month’s check up and only 4.5% tax if they get a cold and go to the doctor for an outrageous three times a year.
    The strength of his meanness of spirit and his amoral understanding of economics is shown by him taking $9million from Legal Aid and spending $25million trying to prove Rudd was a lemon.
    The man is our future, loved and admired by working men and women. Not only was he right to lie about gillard because she deserved it for ruining our economy but he wasn’t really lying she was????? It is a treat to talk to the clp boys they still have no idea what howard did or what the rabbott has done beyond controlling the economy(like 9 million off Aboriginal legal aid “the bastards are all thieves” and 25million for pink batts rudd should be convicted for murder)

  6. Wun Farlung

    I can see a nice little tie in with “bikie laws”
    Democracy at work is a thing to behold.

  7. Bill Morris

    Billy I think you are saying that the ALP is inept at communication and Public relations, and Billy while honest in spirit and intent your post above only serves to reinforce that opinion. Wordsmithing is a skill best left to the experts, unfortunately most of them lean more towards chasing the dollars than spreading the truth.
    The exceptions are well known to readers of the AIMN and similar.

  8. Bill Morris

    “The law must be supreme, no one is above the law.” A typical piece of Abbott drivel that conveniently overlooks the fact that justice and “the law” are two entirely different things, especially when the laws are drafted purely to serve the agendas of mean spirited, self serving egomaniacs.

  9. Wun Farlung

    Well put Bill (very diplomatic), I read billy’s post and couldn’t get it.
    Thanks

  10. scotchmistery

    Billy takes the view that irrespective how many times PM Abbort shoots himself in the foot, the silence from the ALP is deafening. I cannot but agree with him. Bill your point whilst well-made actually says that isn’t really the case, when it really is.

    Wordsmithing may not be the strong suit of all, but it is the position that when all the Billies make their points, they are right, even if they don’t string their words together in a way that would make Murdoch sit up and take note.

    The ALP should have closed the ABCC down but chose not to, so they wouldn’t upset the BEOT (Big End of Town), which has seen ALP governments one after another, shut up and roll over, rather than upset Murdoch et al, and look where it got them.

    What is now needed is an ALP with the spine to look at the new paradigm in Australia-Politik. A regime where Tony stands up and he gets put down. Instantly. We need a politik of nay-sayers, since that’s what this moronic electorate understands. An outfit that goes out and doesn’t just look for dirt, they dig it as fast and as far-flung as possible. We need an electorate that is enraged by the lack of concern for the lower paid, that is outraged by the abuse of power and money which is the hallmark of this so-called “government”.

    We need an electorate which will report the full story of not only the Abbort and his uber-chums, like Jones, Pyne, Brough, Ashby, Blot et al, and Murdoch and his sons. Every single step out of legal line.

    Such things as Alan Jones used to bash the heads of 11 year old boys into their desks when he taught at Ironside School in Brisbane in the 60’s. Those things need to be out there. All the time. Constantly revisited. Things like reminders of his interactions in public toilets in London, his particular fondness for younger rugby players etc.

    And they need to be there all the time.

    Then let Billy say his piece.

  11. Kaye Lee

    I understand everyone’s frustration. I share it. But I dislike degenerating into the Pickering gossip mentality. It is hard not to after listening to the Coalition do it for years but, really, do you want to be like them?

    There is so much to discuss about what they are doing right now to ruin our country and their obvious short term gratification fixation that the gossip isn’t necessary.

  12. olddavey

    Misty,
    Let’s not forget Alan Jone’s behaviour in certain public toilets, and heaven forbid, what he may have been hoping to get up to in the ARU dressing rooms.
    Excuse me while I vomit.

  13. Kaye Lee

    You should hear what I say on my verandah. I have also had to delete my own comments at times because I was spewing the poison of frustration.

    I have one positive thing to add. 3 years is 36 months and we have already endured almost 4. That is over 10%. Counting down…….

  14. Sandra Searle (@SandraSearle)

    Kaye, I think what Billie wants is to fight fire with fire – ‘what’s good for goose is good for the gander’ so to speak. Politics is such a dirty game, always has been at most levels of government.
    TA & his mob do not have any social conscience whatsoever. That is what we are all so very upset about. That and the fact that they want to destroy every single good thing that Labor brought in during their term in govt.
    So the big question is, just how can they stopped in their tracks.

  15. Matters not.

    Seems to me that Labor members are on ‘holidays’, missing in action so to speak.

    Yesterday we had Chris Bowen in prime time saying that Abbott won’t meet his five year targets re ‘new jobs’. Please. We won’t know for five years. An election away.

    At the same time we have ‘climate change/global warning’ writ large. Records here, there and everywhere. The Bureau of Meteorology was out and about pointing out the reality but Labor members were ‘hiding’.

    Why? They have a very good case to make that the ‘carbon tax’ (more accurately described as a price on carbon pollution) was doing what it was supposed to do but they are missing in action.

    Modern politics is about ‘total war’. No quarter given. And none expected.

    Just ask the Republicans in the US and the LNP in Australia.

  16. lawrencewinder

    I’ve always found the Liarbrils oddly dislocated from reality but leavened by some who had a sense of humanity. This present rabble and, it would seem, many of their “Bright-Young-Things-of-the-Future” are far out on the rabid right.
    How do you treat a rabid dog?

  17. Kaye Lee

    Sandra they can be stopped by the truth. We just have to keep getting it out there.

    Matters not, I sense that maybe people are realising that carbon pricing, which cost them so little in reality, is a far better option than Tony’s direct inaction.

    How do you treat a rabid dog?

    1. Stay well away from it- you do not want to get bitten.

    2. Hit it with something(like an umbrella or a bag-one filled with heavy books is good) while yelling as hard, loud and roughly as possible- to frighten the dog away from you and to get help.

    3. Put your free arm on the back of the dog’s neck.

    4. Fall forward, and push the arm that is in the dogs mouth up, while pushing the one on its neck down.

    5. Know that this will break the dogs neck, and it will let go.

    Or vote them out in 2 years and 8 months.

  18. Matters not.

    I sense that maybe people are realising that carbon pricing, which cost them so little in reality, is a far better option than Tony’s direct inaction

    Kaye Lee this ‘sensing’ may or may not be accurate. I personally wouldn’t have a clue. But I do know that constant ‘shouting’, otherwise know as repeating of a ‘mantra’ seems to work.

    But it’s a big mistake to reduce the climate change debate to the ‘narrow’ definition of economics.

    It’s a bit like saying “I don’t want to pay for this life-saving operation because it’s too expensive”.

    Perhaps, perspective is lacking?

  19. Kaye Lee

    Perspective, priority, and an understanding of the role of a government are all apparently lacking, as is any long term planning or risk management.

    For this government EVERYTHING is about economics and they don’t even do that well. Their idea of economics is to help billionaires and big corporations as much as they can cause that will work FULL STOP. We have no detail of how that will work but it just will and even if it doesn’t we don’t care as long as the rich get richer.

  20. olddavey

    Sorry, Kaye,
    You’re right, but sometimes I think of these people and can’t help but say mean spirited things.
    I hate to think what we’ll be saying in two years time.

  21. Matters not.

    understanding of the role of a government

    And the role of government is?

    Come across John Ralston Saul?

  22. CMMC

    The Australian Building and Construction Commission will no doubt start investigating Ron Medich, Michael McGurk, Lucky Gattellari ……etc.

  23. Kaye Lee

    I wrote this a few weeks ago on the role of government.

    Just reading up on Saul and globalisation now.

  24. Abetz has Nazi Bloodlines

    I thinks the previous Howard Government left a environment of unsafe workplaces due to their tenor on Industrial Relations. The Royal Commission into the Pink Bats installation scheme should be able to easily highlight, depending on its Terms of Reference.

  25. Fiona

    A great piece – thank you, Kaye Lee.

    We are heading down the road to serfdom with frightening rapidity.

  26. PeterF

    Kaye Lee, While it may not be good to repeat information which attacks the individuals in this government and it’s supporters, perhaps we could direct everyone to Chris Masters’ book ‘Jonestown’. The stories in there have never been challenged by the subject of the book, possibly because he would not want the book to be given the publicity it deserves. And on another matter, no-one seems interested in asking whether or not Tony Abbott was asked to leave the Seminary. Perhaps they would not like to know the truth surrounding that question.

  27. Paul Raymond Scahill

    I for one would like to know why the “Mad Monk” was asked to leave the seminary (or is that cemetary) it is more or less the same where this arsehole is concerned. I say stop the “idiot” now while we can, do not allow this imbecile to destroy any more of this countrys safeguards. I would be the first in line to get RID of this clown. Pardon the pun but he is not dissimiar to a clone of John Howard. Move him on like they did “Honest John”. It is time to protect the ABC, ABCC, et al. Hear hear>

  28. TimePasser

    Thank you Kaye. It is encouraging to read Tony Abbott’s opinion:

    “….the rule of law must always prevail. . . The law must be supreme, no one is above the law.”

  29. Kaye Lee

    As we have seen, laws are no impediment….we’ll just change them. Who cares about environmental approvals or people’s right to challenge them, or people’s right to silence or to not incriminate themselves, or to associate with other people who ride bikes.

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