The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was originally set up by former Prime Minister John Howard in 2005. Another former Prime Minister Tony Abbott tried but failed to reintroduce it in 2014.
It was the reason Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a double dissolution election last year. The result was a Senate willing to pass ABCC legislation, thanks to the likes of Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch who voted with the Coalition.
Why is the ABCC so controversial and why are unions, particularly the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), so opposed to it?
- ONE: The ABCC has coercive powers to compel people to speak. This effectively takes away building workers’ right to silence and to a lawyer. Failing to comply can result in six months’ jail.
- TWO: The ABCC is discriminatory. No other industrial regulator has the power to disregard basic legal rights.
- THREE: When this legislation was last in effect under the Howard government, the workplace deaths of construction workers reached a 10-year high.
- FOUR: The ABCC makes it harder for union and workplace health and safety representatives to ensure safety on site.
- FIVE: The ABCC is anti-union, specifically aimed at the CFMEU. The CFMEU now faces harsher penalties than any other union in any other industry if it breaks industrial laws in defence of its members.
- SIX: This legislation does not just affect construction workers. The new ABCC also includes anyone who is involved in the industry, including truck drivers and manufacturers. It will also impact on workers’ families due to secrecy provisions, which prevent an individual worker from telling their family they have been interrogated.
A national day of rallies against the ABCC and other attacks on workers was organised on March 9. Thousands of workers and supporters protested across the country. Newly elected ACTU Secretary Sally McManus refused to be backed into a corner and condemn the CFMEU for breaking the law, said where the laws are unjust they should be broken.
Labor’s Bill Shorten did not back McManus, saying "If you don't like a law, if you think a law is unjust, use the democratic process to get it changed." Shorten’s comments have prompted many sarcastic responses on social media, including the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union tweeting a list of gains for workers (and society) which were all won by breaking unjust laws.
The ABCC is yet another unjust anti-union law that will need to be broken. No doubt construction workers will be arrested, as some are already pledging to do, rather than give up another worker.
The test, however, will be in the actions in coming months and the campaigns that need to be built to challenge and ultimately rip up any laws that put workers’ lives at risk.