Construction watchdog to be defunded to bolster federal budget

Construction watchdog to be defunded to bolster federal budget

06/09/2022

The union-hunting construction watchdog will be defunded in the next year to bolster the federal budget in the face of economic upheaval as Labor plans to scrap the controversial body altogether, a move that will need to pass through parliament.

Labor has pledged to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, an oversight body it sees as highly politicised for its persistent pursuit of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, however, as a statutory authority, its removal will have to be legislated.

Members of the CFMMEU have been persistently targeted by the construction watchdog.Credit:Jesse Marlow

The party’s election costings show it plans to largely rip the ABCC’s operating budget out this coming financial year, identifying $28 million in savings from the watchdog’s $35 million budget to prop up the nation as the new government grapples with the $1 trillion debt.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke’s office declined to comment on the forecast savings, which show the saving increasing to $36.6 million in the 2025-26 financial year, equivalent to the commission’s entire budget.

Dave Noonan, national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction and general division, said the government had a clear mandate to get rid of the commission, describing it as “a remnant of the Workchoices era”.

“It is a rogue regulator that has operated as a taxpayer-funded arm of the Liberal Party. The ABCC has no place in a modern construction industry and must be abolished,” Noonan said, mirroring the sentiment of Electrical Trades Union assistant national secretary Michael Wright.

CFMEU Construction and General Division National Secretary Dave Noonan.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“The ETU looks forward to a new government curtailing and abolishing the ABCC at the earliest possible opportunity,” Wright said.

When Labor was last in power, it replaced the Howard-era construction watchdog with the less intrusive Fair Work Building and Construction agency, which was then replaced by the ABCC under the Coalition in 2016 after then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull used the legislation to trigger a double dissolution election.

The Building and Construction Commissioner, Stephen McBurney, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age earlier this year lawlessness would flourish without an oversight body in place, but the commission declined to comment on this occasion.

ABCC commissioner Stephen McBurney says lawlessness could thrive if the construction industry is left unregulated.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

The Liberals’ industrial relations spokeswoman, Michaelia Cash, said the Coalition supported the retention of the ABCC, “an effective body that maintains law and order in our multibillion-dollar construction sector”.

“[Prime Minister Anthony] Albanese has a golden opportunity to provide our nation with some economic certainty and immediately abandon his plan to abolish the ABCC,” Cash said.

The government will have parliamentary support to abolish the commission from the Greens, who also have a policy to remove it, but they would need at least one vote from the Senate crossbench to pass the legislation, and it is understood those more likely to vote in favour of its abolition have not yet reached a position.

A spokesman for One Nation’s Pauline Hanson, who is favoured to retain a Senate spot alongside party colleague Malcolm Roberts despite still being in a close race with the Liberals’ Amanda Stoker, said her party opposed the commission’s abolition.

Adelaide University industrial relations expert Andrew Stewart said the costings assumed the legislation could be passed quickly and take effect within months.

“That’s unrealistic,” Stewart said. “If Labor does succeed in abolishing the ABCC, that will ultimately be a matter for [senators] Jacqui Lambie or David Pocock to decide.”

Stewart added it would be difficult to achieve without a Senate inquiry, and consideration of the increased workload on the Fair Work Ombudsman, the general workplace watchdog.

RMIT industrial relations expert Anthony Forsyth said if the ABCC went, the ombudsman would become the de facto enforcement body for the construction industry.

“In my view, building workers should be subject to the same laws and regulator as all other workers,” Forsyth said.

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