BY SUE BOLTON
If you thought that the federal Coalition government's royal commission into the building industry is meant to investigate corruption, you're wrong. The terms of reference of the royal commission, and federal minister for workplace relations Tony Abbott's explanations of its purpose, make it clear that this is an excuse to outlaw militant unionism.
Despite his best efforts, former workplace relations minister Peter Reith was unable to find a big construction company prepared to follow the example of Patrick Stevedores' attack on the Maritime Union of Australia — the royal commission, announced on July 26, became the government's next best hope.
Reith's replacement, Tony Abbott, took advantage of allegations of corruption in the industry made by construction union leader John Sutton to order a report from the head of the Office of the Employment Advocate, Jonathan Hamberger, himself a former Reith staffer.
The striking thing about the report, which was issued on May 11, is that allegations of corruption are only a very minor part.
Hamberger's report mostly concentrates on condemning construction unions for a litancy of "offences": attempting to join up all workers on building sites, entering building sites whenever they are required, policing health and safety issues on site, insisting that sub-contractors have enterprise bargaining agreements with the relevant union before they can start on a job, enforcing "no ticket no start" agreements, insisting that employers contribute to industry superannuation and redundancy trusts, and insisting that employers hire union activists.
At a July 26 press conference, Abbott made it crystal clear that the royal commission has nothing to do with investigating corruption and is all about nobbling militant unions, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in particular.
Abbott told the media, "It's almost five years since my predecessor, Peter Reith, nominated five industries that were in need of immediate industrial reform. He nominated the waterfront, [construction], the coal industry, the meat industry and the Commonwealth public sector... all of those industries have seen significant reform, except for the construction industry."
"In Perth", he said, we have "the reappearance of 'no ticket no start' signs... And Melbourne, of course, has been a long-time hotbed of industrial disputation in the construction industry. We've had recent outbreaks of industrial anarchy, here in Victoria, not all of them associated with the CFMEU, but often encouraged by the CFMEU."
He disapprovingly quoted figures showing industrial disputation in the construction and mining industries accounted for 50% of all disputes.
The government's union-bashing motives were further exposed on July 31, when Abbott backed away from an earlier commitment that the royal commission also investigate widespread tax avoidance in the building industry.
In an interview with Green Left Weekly, Victorian branch president of the CFMEU John Cummins criticised the royal commission's terms of reference as being as "broad and subjective as you like", "a football field".
The terms of reference include investigating "the nature [and] extent of any unlawful or otherwise inappropriate industrial or workplace practice or conduct".
The commission is "attacking our bread and butter and that's our wages and conditions", said Cummins. "They're targeting our pattern bargaining. They're looking to have a crack at our ability to union-build, to recruit, right of entry, those sorts of things are all fair game."
The royal commission is even targeting the industry funds — superannuation, C+Bus, Incolink, the redundancy scheme and the portable long service leave scheme.
Cummins believes the federal government has been wanting to target building industry funds for some time. It wants to give employers a choice of which funds to pay into, so that they can "deliver superannuation to their mates in the banks and so the employers can improve their credit ratings in deals with banks where they would give the banks superannuation work".
Wanting to ensure union officials aren't on superannuation fund boards is another motive, Cummins suspects.
The commission has already set up its taskforce of inspectors to go around building sites. Construction workers are wary of these inspectors, said Cummins, because there have already been instances where the Office of the Employment Advocate has been involved with illegal tape recordings and setting people up.
"They're into ambushes and entrapment", he said.
As the government has done with the censorship board, the ABC board and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the royal commission is stacked with people who have a vendetta against the unions.
The commission's secretary, Colin Thatcher, for example, was formerly the assistant director of the Business Council of Australia and has served stints as an adviser to Coalition governments in Western Australia and Queensland overseeing the introduction of anti-union laws.
Any faint hopes that the politicised royal commission would operate fairly were dashed when, on October 10, the royal commission head, Justice Terry Cole, issued a three-page set of conditions on parties wishing to appear before it.
The conditions ordered parties to produce by October 31 written statements on all unlawful or inappropriate conduct that they are aware of relating to workplace practices, industrial disputes, wage claims, safety incidents, financial transactions and management of industry superannuation funds in the past three years across the entire construction industry.
The onerous nature of these conditions prompted all of the unions, the major construction companies and Incolink to withdraw from the commission.
On October 12, Cole dropped the directive that parties produce written statements listing all unlawful or inappropriate workplace practices. However, the commissioner continues to insist that unions and other parties do not have an automatic right to be represented at the commission.
The six conditions which Cole is insisting on include a guarantee that unions will not organise protests against the commission and that parties will not have the automatic right to cross-examine a witness.
Cummins described these directives as flying "in the face of any concepts of natural justice and presumption of innocence".
The agenda of the royal commission, says Cummins, "is all about flushing out all the narks and anti-unionists and getting them to flock to the hearing to make all the unsubstantiated accusations and slanders that they can".
Cole has already complained that the construction workers' protest outside the commission on October 10 in Melbourne and on October 15 in Adelaide was an attempt to intimidate it.
Cummins described the Melbourne protest as theatrical and good-natured, with its star attraction being Terry the Kangaroo presiding over a kangaroo court.
Federal Labor leader Kim Beazley and ALP spokesperson on industrial relations Arch Bevis have both condemned the timing of the royal commission but have stated that they are not opposed to the commission proceeding.
In a doorstop interview on July 27, Beazley said: "If we assume office, I'm not going to shove this royal commission down. I'm going to wait to see what the royal commission comes up with, and if there's useful material there, we'll do something with that material."
While the timing of the royal commission is designed to advantage the Coalition during the federal election campaign, this is not its primary purpose.
The government hopes that the commission can be used to create a public perception of strong unions as being corrupt and using standover tactics. That can then justify the introduction of even more draconian anti-union laws.
However, the government's strategy of using a royal commission to do its dirty work might yet backfire. The royal commission into the Painters and Dockers Union in the early 1980s uncovered the "bottom of the harbour" tax evasion schemes of the corporate rich.
A decade later, the NSW Building Industry Royal Commission headed by Roger Gyles implicated industry employers in corrupt practices.
The federal government, and its business mates, may still end up with egg on their faces.