ABCC, double dissolution and the Heydon royal commission

July 7, 2016
Building unions protest against the Coalition's plans for a special construction police force.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has declared that, if re-elected, his government still plans to present the bill reinstating the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to a joint sitting of parliament, even as Resources and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg admitted on the ABC's Q&A program that the bill's prospects are effectively "dead".

Turnbull said on July 5 that the reason he had called a double dissolution of parliament was that it was the "only way" to revive the building industry watchdog and crack down on the militant unions.

Turnbull said the procedure of calling a double dissolution and holding a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament was "literally the only option we had other than saying we give up, and we will just wait until the remarkable day that there is a majority in the Senate."

Considering the likely make-up of the new Senate and the close result in the House of Representatives, it seems highly unlikely that a new Turnbull government could muster the numbers in a joint sitting to pass the ABCC restoration bill.

During the election campaign, Turnbull had said that reviving the ABCC would help stop "excessive" pay rises like the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union's (CFMEU) Victorian branch agreement for a 15% rise over three years.

The cliffhanger election result did not please business, which feared that a hung parliament or an uncooperative Senate would see the end of the Coalition's plans for company tax cuts and the reintroduction of the ABCC.

Former Business Council of Australia president and current chair of Infrastructure NSW Graham Bradley said if the Coalition formed government, he wanted to see it persevere with the ABCC, “even if it faces challenges in the Senate”. Bradley said the last thing Australia needed was a parliament “with no clear commitment” to “bring the rule of law back to the construction sector”.

“Across the nation, we have an enormous task over the next few years to deliver massive projects ... that will provide our growing cities with 21st century infrastructure,” said Bradley.

“Reinstating the ABCC will ensure these projects are not frustrated, delayed or made more costly by unlawful union action of the kind that the Heydon report so comprehensively documented.”

Refuting these claims, Victorian CFMEU state secretary John Setka said: “Obviously, the government has failed to convince the public of a lot of their policies. They have actually been very, very quiet on [industrial relations]. Why? Their IR policy is to just smash trade unions and not have workers represented by anyone."

Despite the government's rhetoric on the supposed "industrial emergency" facing the country, which required the highly unusual step of calling a double dissolution election, the Coalition barely mentioned the ABCC or industrial issues during the election campaign.

Opposition workplace relations spokesperson Brendan O'Connor said on July 3 that Turnbull had only mentioned the ABCC four times during the 56-day election campaign.

Even more revealing, six months after the royal commission into alleged union corruption released its report, an Australian Federal Police taskforce has charged just 12 people. Five people have been found innocent so far and only one has been convicted.

Howard Byrnes, CFMEU delegate and a Socialist Alliance candidate in the recent federal election, slammed Turnbull's plan to put an ABCC restoration bill before a joint sitting of parliament.

"This is a travesty of the democratic process,” he said. “Having called a double dissolution election on the basis of supposed 'union corruption and misconduct,' then failed to mention it during the campaign, Turnbull now wants to revive the issue in an attempt to save some political face after suffering a battering in the polls.

"The revelation that the $46-million Heydon royal commission has resulted in only one conviction is an absolute scandal. This massive waste of public money has been an anti-union political stunt from beginning to end.

"And this is the same Coalition government that refuses to support a royal commission into proven financial fraud and illegal behaviour by the big banks. It would be funny if it wasn't so serious."

"In contrast, the Socialist Alliance contested the recent election with the following policy on workers' rights: 'Scrap all anti-union laws; recognise workers' right to strike and organise in law, including solidarity actions; increase the minimum wage; restore all penalty rates; recognise the right to secure work for all, and reverse casualisation; full industrial, residency and citizenship rights for all migrant workers; expand apprenticeship programs; guarantee retirement and access to the pension for all at age 60."

"We condemn outright the Heydon royal commission into unions as nothing but an anti-union witch-hunt. The Socialist Alliance calls on all parties and independents in the new Senate to comprehensively vote down any bill to reintroduce the ABCC, or any equivalent anti-union secret police force."

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