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Issue #1795      September 20, 2017

Editorial

Whose law?

This week’s Guardian features an interview with two trade union officials in which they expose how Australia’s labour laws deny workers and trade unions fundamental rights while allowing employers to act with impunity. The construction union (CFMEU), in particular, has been subjected to a constant barrage of large financial penalties for doing nothing more than carrying out legitimate trade union activities.

Last week, on September 13, the Federal Court imposed record fines totalling more than $2.4 million on the CFMEU and nine of its officials. The case was taken to court by the notorious Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) which never lets up hounding unions and trade union activists on construction sites. The federal union received a fine of $1.3 million and the NSW branch more than $950,000. Nine officials and delegates were fined a total of close to $150,0000. This was over industrial action taken at Barangaroo in Sydney in 2014.

“The CFMEU is to be regarded as a ‘recidivist’ offender,” Justice Geoffrey Flick, said in his decision. “It is, with respect, not possible to envisage worse union behaviour ... The CFMEU’s conduct exposes a cavalier disregard for the prior penalties imposed by this Court and exposes the fact that such prior impositions of penalties have failed to act as a deterrent against further unlawful industrial action”.

Flick feared “that even penalties imposed at the maximum now permitted will not act as a deterrent.” He then throws a line to the Turnbull government for harsher measures: “Whatever further steps may be taken by the Legislature to prescribe a meaningful sanction to achieve an acknowledged existing purpose of deterrence is a matter for the Legislature to pursue.”

Just hours after Flick handed down his decision, came news that Nigel Hadgkiss, Commissioner of the ABCC, had been forced to resign. He had fallen on his own sword. The man who heads the political police who hound trade unions and workers on construction sites had admitted to recklessly breaching the Fair Work Act. The CFMEU had taken him to court over a serious breach of the Act.

The former Labor government changed the right of entry provisions in the Act in 2013. They were to come into force from the beginning of 2014. Hadgkiss instructed his staff not to update the information on the ABCC’s website and fact sheets and posters that are distributed to workplaces. Instead, he told them that the new Coalition government was going to change the law. For almost four years the inaccurate information regarding right of entry and where union officials could meet workers remained in the ABCC’s material.

The official mission of the ABCC, according to its website, is “to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the Australian building and construction industry.” In reality the ABCC is a political instrument which has the aim of destroying the trade union movement and providing an environment of fear and intimidation in which employers can hammer workers with impunity.

“He was prepared to put up misinformation, it appears he wanted fact sheets to reflect laws he wanted to be in place rather than what was actually there,” ACTU president Ged Kearney said.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, it turns out, knew back in October 2016 that Hadgkiss was before the courts over his unlawful conduct. This knowledge did not stop her appointing him as the Commissioner of the ABCC. Instead of stepping down, as anyone with an ounce of law abiding integrity would, she issued a press release following his resignation. In it she sings his praises as having a long and distinguished career in the public service, including Assistant Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, and Executive Director of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (NSW). If anyone knew the seriousness of recklessly breaking the law, someone who has held such positions should!

Cash’s hypocrisy and lack of acknowledgement of the seriousness of Hadgkiss’s breach of the law is gobsmacking: “Mr Hadgkiss has played a pivotal role in restoring the rule of law to Australia’s building and construction industry, despite relentless opposition and appalling intimidation from lawless construction unions and their political supporters.”

Watch this space for Hadgkiss to receive a slap on the wrist; after all he has paid the “ultimate price” of losing his $460,000 job.

Next article – Super group concerned

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