The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was originally set up by former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard in 2005. Another former Liberal Prime Minister Tony Abbott tried but failed to reintroduce it in 2014.
It was the reason current Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called a double dissolution election. 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?
- The ABCC has coercive powers to compel people to speak. This effectively takes away building workers’ right to silence and a lawyer. Failing to comply can result in six months’ jail.
- The legislation is discriminatory. No other industrial regulator has the power to disregard basic legal rights.
- When this legislation was last in effect under the Howard government, construction worker deaths reached a 10-year high.
- The ABCC makes it harder for union and workplace health and safety representatives to ensure safety on site.
- The legislation is anti-union legislation, specifically aimed at the CFMEU. The CFMEU now faces harsher penalties than any other union in any other industry if they break industrial laws in defence of their members.
- 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 took place on March 9, which resulted in thousands of workers and supporters across the country taking to the streets. An addition to this campaign is the newly elected ACTU Secretary Sally McManus who rather than being backed in to a corner and condemning the CFMEU for breaking the law, responded by saying where the laws are unjust she does not see a problem with breaking it.
Unsurprisingly, Labor’s Opposition Leader Bill Shorten did not back McManus on those claims stating "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 more generally 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 is not in the rhetoric from any union or official, it will be in the actions in the coming months and the campaigns that are built to challenge and ultimately rip up any legislation that puts workers lives at risk.