The regulatory landscape of the Australian building industry landscape is set for a dramatic shake-up with the passing of legislation to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
Legislation to abolish the ABCC and replace it with a new Fair Work Building Inspectorate which will operate as part of Fair Work Australia passed through the Senate on Tuesday night and is now set to become law.
Upon its inception, the new Inspectorate will be charged with regulating building industry practices, but will have fewer powers than the current regulator with regard to compelling individuals to provide information and will have shorter timeframes in which to bring action in response to alleged criminal behaviour.
More controversially, an eleventh hour amendment to the legislation means that the new body will be unable to bring prosecutions with regard to alleged criminal behaviour where the matters concerned have subsequently been agreed to and resolved by the parties concerned – even where alleged criminal behaviour has occurred.
News of the ABCC’s abolition has been welcomed by unions, who feel the regulator’s powers are too broad and who saw its inception in 2005 following an earlier royal commission into industry practices as an attack on workers by the Howard government.
“This is a great step forward for construction workers, and for any Australian who cares about workers’ rights” CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor says.
“After seven years this flawed and damaging organisation, and its war on construction workers, is over”.
But building groups say that the ABCC has been instrumental in cracking down on illegal practices within the industry, and that its abolition risks the return of unlawful behaviour. Wilhelm Harnisch, Chief Executive of Master Builders Australia, points to the imposition of a total of $2.570 million in penalties by the courts across a range of areas involving illegal conduct (unlawful industrial action, right of entry, sham contracting and coercion) as evidence of the Commission’s success, and says that the passing of the new legislation represents a ‘mourning period’ not just for the industry’s industrial relations environment but also for the broader community.
“Last night, the Parliament passed a Bill that defies common sense and will seriously risk damaging the industry’s productivity and at the same time lessen the community’s welfare” Harnisch said on Tuesday.
“There remains serious systemic unlawful industrial behaviour in the commercial building sector that can only be properly dealt with using the current laws administered by the ABCC”.
Harnisch says that ‘as sure as night follows day’, there will be another need for a major inquiry into the industry’s unlawful conduct unless building unions change their entrenched ways because practices that are only just being quelled now will return and once again become common place.
“The old practices of stopping concrete pours, overtly coercing and bullying subcontractors and creating an environment of fear are just around the corner”.