Federal parliament will convene for three weeks from Monday for a special sitting to consider the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and the Registered Organisations bills. Crossbench senators are facing the threat of a double-dissolution election if the bills do not pass.
The government’s case for the bills is essentially that they are necessary to deal with widespread corruption uncovered by the trade union royal commission. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argues the ABCC’s restoration is a “critical economic reform” and will reduce the high levels of industrial disputes on building sites.
But what is actually provided for in the two bills? And to what extent would they actually deal with union corruption or criminality if passed?
What is the ABCC bill?
The ABCC bill’s main purpose is to re-introduce the Howard-era regulator for the construction industry.
In 2012, the Labor government replaced the ABCC with Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC). It has reduced powers and lower penalties for breaches of prohibitions on unlawful industrial action and coercion.
The current arrangements have, according to some, allowed damaging and unproductive practices to re-emerge in the sector.
The powerful Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union continues to oppose the ABCC’s ability to subject construction workers to compulsory interrogations under threat of imprisonment (among other features of the bill).
In addition to restoring the ABCC, the bill would:
expand the definition of “building work” subject to ABCC oversight to cover the transportation or supply of goods to building sites and offshore resources platforms;
create new prohibitions on the organising or taking of unlawful industrial action, or unlawful picketing. This is a response to disruptive pickets by building unions such as that which took place on the Grocon Myer Emporium site in 2012;
increase penalties for unlawful industrial action from A$10,800 to A$34,000 for individuals, and from $54,000 to $170,000 for corporate entities – including unions – with the same penalties applying to unlawful picketing;
remove the current limitation preventing the regulator from initiating or continuing enforcement action where the parties involved have settled a dispute; and
give legal effect to the government’s procurement framework that enables further Commonwealth control over the industrial practices of companies tendering for federally funded projects.
What is the Registered Organisations bill?
The Registered Organisations bill seeks to implement the Coalition’s 2013 election policy to impose higher standards of regulation on union officials – mainly in response to the Health Services Union corruption scandal.
Under this legislation, a new specialist regulator, the Registered Organisations Commission, would take over responsibility from the Fair Work Commission for oversight of registered unions and employer associations.
In addition, the bill would, in many respects, align the regulation of registered organisations with that applying to corporations. This includes:
increasing the obligations of office-holders in registered organisations with respect to the disclosure of material personal interests, and decision-making where officers may have such interests;
strengthening the financial, disclosure and transparency requirements applicable to officers in financial management matters; and
increasing civil penalties and imposing criminal liability for serious breaches by officers of their statutory duties.
The Senate has already rejected this bill twice.
The government is expected to introduce a new version of the bill to include some of the royal commission’s broader recommendations. This may include new criminal offences relating to the payment of corrupting benefits/secret commissions, and increased regulation of union-run “slush funds” (as the royal commission described them).
Will they combat corruption?
In his letter to the governor-general requesting parliament’s recall, Turnbull described the bills as necessary:
… to deal with widespread and systematic criminality in the building and construction industry.
However, the ABCC bill mostly imposes only civil penalties for workplace law breaches in the construction sector – with the exception of the criminal penalties for not participating in a compulsory witness examination. It does not include any measures to tackle union corruption.
The Registered Organisations bill deals with union corruption but in a broad sense, rather than anything specifically focused on the construction industry.
Much of the current debate also overlooks the existing building industry regulator – the FWBC – and that it has some of the former ABCC’s coercive powers (until May 31, 2017).
We will know soon whether the crossbenchers will bow to government pressure and pass these two controversial bills.