The case for restoring the ABCC

When politicians are presented with a clear problem for which there is a proven solution, they have a responsibility to act. Parliament will soon be asked to pass legislation reintroducing the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The case is overwhelming and growing.

There are presently 113 officials from a single union — the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union — before the courts for more than 1100 suspected contraventions.

But restoring the ABCC is not just about curbing illegal behaviour by militant unions; it’s about improving productivity and reducing costs in one of our most important industries. Restoring the rule of law to work sites is an important part of our national economic plan. Militant unions are costing Australia hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

All of us rely on the one million workers and 300,000 small businesses who devote their energy and enterprise to building the offices, apartments, roads, shopping centres, hospitals, universities, schools, airports and other infrastructure we use every day.

Australia’s 165,000 sparkies, 124,000 carpenters, 87,000 plumbers, 46,000 painters, 43,000 civil engineers and the many thousands of concreters, plasterers, brickies, tilers and other tradies belong to our third largest industry. They do more than contribute 8 per cent to our GDP — they literally build Australia. When there’s a problem in the construction industry, it flows through our whole economy. And there is a big problem, due to the CFMEU’s toxic culture. Its lawlessness, as one Federal Court judge noted, has become “an embarrassment to the trade union movement”.

In recent years, courts have imposed more than $8 million in fines on the CFMEU. However, as numerous judges have observed, penalties are not nearly enough for a union that treats law-breaking as part of its business model and fines akin to parking tickets — simply a cost of doing business. This helps to explain why two-thirds of working days lost to industrial action are in the construction industry.

We all pay the price for the lawlessness, bullying and standover tactics of the CFMEU. Master Builders Australia and others estimate building costs are up to 30 per cent higher due to the working days lost to industrial action on building sites. In other words, militant unions are making it more difficult and expensive to build hospitals, school and roads.

The ABCC has a proven record in enforcing the law and ensuring unlawful action is properly investigated, dealt with and penalised.

The ABCC was established by John Howard in 2005, but abolished by Bill Shorten (as workplace relations minister) in 2012. During the seven years in which the ABCC operated, productivity in the construction industry increased by 20 per cent. Since its abolition, productivity has flatlined, while the rate of disputes in the sector has increased by 40 per cent. In all other industries, the rate of industrial disputes has declined by 33 per cent.

Prior to the ABCC, industrial disputes in the construction industry were at five times the all-industries average. During the ABCC’s operation, disputes fell to double the average. Since its abolition, disputes have again risen to five times the average.

Shorten appears to have no appetite to do anything other than roll over. The CFMEU wields clout within the ALP because it makes donations to Labor and the Greens. So in the face of Labor and Green acquiescence and obstruction, the outcome of this legislation rests with independent and minor party senators.

The Senate showed it can work to fix a problem, when 10 crossbenchers supported legislation that will protect Victoria’s Country Fire Authority and its tens of thousands of volunteers from a hostile union takeover. Soon these senators will have the opportunity to stand up to another bully and fix another problem. By restoring the ABCC, we can create a better construction industry, which in turn will build a stronger Australia.