Construction watchdog row splits Labor
Phillip Coorey Chief Political Correspondent, smh
August 26, 2008
KEVIN RUDD and Julia Gillard are staring down a growing revolt by Labor backbenchers and the unions over demands the Government abolish immediately the construction industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
The Prime Minister told caucus bluntly yesterday that his Government would abide by its election promise to retain the commission until January 2010 before replacing it with a new inspectorate still being developed.
"We will be adhering to all our election commitments, including the ABCC," he said.
In the first real sign of internal dissent for the Government, about 40 Labor MPs and Senators were expected at the National Press Club last night for a union organised event in which Constitutional lawyer George Williams and other experts spoke against the watchdog and its powers, which many feel are draconian.
Also yesterday about half a dozen MPs expressed concern in caucus about plans to deny welfare payments to parents whose kids miss school.
Discontent came mainly from the left. Apart from the perceived harshness of the welfare measure, some complained that they first heard about it in the media. This is despite it being in the budget and reported in the Herald two months ago.
The Victorian Senator Gavin Marshall has cross-factional support for a caucus motion he will present next week for debate on September 16. A draft of his motion called for the ABCC's powers to be at least curtailed until 2010 but colleagues were urging him yesterday to toughen it up and call for the commission's immediate abolition.
The commission was established by the Howard government to clean up rogue union behaviour on building sites.
It has extraordinary powers to police industrial laws. The Victorian Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union official Noel Washington currently faces a six-month jail term for refusing to answer questions from commission investigators.
A group of the nations largest unions launched a "rights on site" advertising campaign yesterday and at last night's gathering was also addressed by three other union officials who were "interrogated" by the ABCC under the threat of prison.
Ms Gillard, the Workplace Relations Minister, is under pressure from the union movement to fast-track the introduction of new industrial relations laws as well as abolishing the commission now, and not in 2010.
But she said yesterday there would be no change to the abolition date or, in the interim, the commission's powers.
"The date is quite clear in the [election] policy. The ABCC will continue to exist until the end of January 2010," she said.
"It would remain as it works now, its powers as they are now, until the end of January 2010."
Senior Labor strategists said the Government had no choice. As well as being accused of breaching an election promise, changing policy now would expose it to allegations of being captive to unions, the very allegations it faced before the election.
It would be disastrous for Labor in Western Australia, which will go to the polls on September 6.
A Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union official, Dave Noonan, said the unions would continue to fight because construction workers were being singled out for harsher treatment than the rest of the workforce.
"The Government knows that these are bad laws and there is no reason to keep bad laws in place for one minute longer than they need to be," he said.
He said Labor governments should not be captive to "wealthy property developers".