Top officials from the John Howard government's Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) have been appointed to head its successor, the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate (FWBII).
The ABCC was never completely abolished under the recent Labor government, but instead had most of its functions transferred to the Inspectorate.
Employment minister Eric Abetz appointed former ABCC deputy commissioner Nigel Hadgkiss as director of the inspectorate, and former ABCC commissioner, John Lloyd, as chair on October 17.
Lloyd has more recently worked for right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs. Dave Noonan, the national secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) construction division told Green Left Weekly that Lloyd is a “known extremist on industrial matters” and “his expertise is not in the building industry in particular, it's in ideology”.
“He is also associated with the HR Nicholls Society, who believe there should be no industrial laws, that we should return to using only contract law.”
CFMEU official Noel Washington was unsuccessfully prosecuted in 2008 for refusing to attend an interrogation by the ABCC about a union meeting held outside work hours.
“Our union is stronger than when last confronted by the ABCC,” he told Green Left Weekly. “I'm confident that the membership are with the officials 100%.”
“Bringing the ABCC back is a disgrace, a waste of taxpayers’ money. It's the same tired apparatus as last time.”
Noonan agrees. “The Ark Tribe case found that the interrogation powers were being used illegally, that Hadgkiss had conducted dozens of interrogations illegally, but that doesn't appear to trouble the government,” he said.
The case against Tribe, a building worker who also refused to answer ABCC questioning, was eventually thrown out of court.
Noonan believes the agenda behind beefing up the FWBII is broader than building unions.
He said the Liberal government's past approach shows this. “Their approach in 1998 was to attack the maritime union then construction unions. They aim to weaken all unions, until they are not effective in representing workers any more.”
Noonan says the FWBII under Labor still made it harder for the union to represent members.
“Labor's reforms still maintained a very hostile force against unions. Both the higher management and their footsoldiers are all anti-union, so things didn't get a hell of a lot better.”
Noonan pointed to a federal court decision in September, when “over 100 workers were fined over $1 million, in the Pilbara, five years after the event” for industrial action at Woodside's LNG expansion project. The ABCC had used evidence in court from an undercover state police officer, who attended a union meeting in disguise.
ACTU secretary Dave Oliver recently wrote in New Matilda: “During the ABCC’s reign safety records on Australian construction sites worsened. It did nothing to tackle employers on safety issues and unions were forced to concentrate their resources on dealing with ABCC harassment ... the ABCC conspicuously failed to investigate or prosecute employers underpaying workers.”
Noonan said: “The coercive powers are about intimidation, not just information gathering. If this discrimination was against another group, such as religious or ethnic, it would not be tolerated. Why should it be acceptable to target blue collar workers?
“Some workers will be intimidated into attending interrogations, a lot were last time, and a lot were traumatised by it and bitterly regretted going.
“But there will be always people who take the view it's repugnant to act as informants against their workmates and their union in industrial matters.”
Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay claimed in the Herald Sun that “loose affiliations” exist between bikie gangs and unions, and that bikies are "involved in enforcement and threats and the like and every now and again we'll hear anecdotes of that happening on some construction sites."
Employer groups have also made vague allegations of lawlessness in the industry. Australian Industry Group Chief Executive Innes Willox told AAP: “The laws and other arrangements were watered down over the past few years and the unlawful and inappropriate union conduct of the past has returned.”
Noonan says these vague allegations from “the Liberals and their MBA [Master Builders' Association] cheersquad” are a calculated smear tactic.
“Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz are both legally trained. They both know the distinction between industrial law and criminal law, yet they are deliberately misleading the public,” he said in a statement on September 11.
“The ABCC enforced industrial law. The police enforce the criminal law. The blurring of the distinction between them is a deliberate attempt to smear construction workers and to denigrate the industry. The union’s message to the politicians is clear. If they have any evidence of criminal activity in the construction industry, they have an obligation to immediately provide it to the police.”
He told Green Left Weekly "The media is lazy on this. We saw a particularly appalling piece from the 7:30 Report on the ABC the other night that reported this rhetoric. It doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It should be questioned by the media.”
Washington said the smear would not work. “I don't think it will wash with the public, we have members of bike clubs, just like we have members of tennis clubs in the union.”
Noonan added: “I'm aware we have active union members, holding positions in the union, who are also involved in evangelical churches, but that's up to them. It's not for me as a unionist to pry.”