What exactly is the ABCC?
The Australian Building and Construction Commission (the ABCC) was a watchdog over the construction industry set up by the Howard government in 2005. It monitored the sector and enforced civil workplace laws such as restrictions on unlawful industrial action and industrial threats.
When Labor won government in 2007, it overhauled the ABCC in 2012, giving it a new name – Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC) – and cutting back some aspects of its powers. The FWBC remains in place to this day.
Which workers will be affected by the ABCC?
Construction workers are the main target of the ABCC, but the Bill also seeks to expand the definition of “building work” to cover the transportation or supply of goods to building sites and offshore resources platforms.
This means that workers in the transport and manufacturing industries can also be affected by these draconian laws.
Why is there controversy about bringing back the ABCC?
Unions fiercely oppose its “coercive powers”. These powers, which are not held by any other industrial regulator, give the commissioner the right to compel people to attend interviews and remove the right to silence. Failing to comply could result in jail time.
There is also opposition to specific laws and greater penalties under the ABCC that apply only to construction unions and workers, raising allegations the industry has been unfairly singled out.
Unions fear the ABCC makes it harder for union and workplace representatives to act on health and safety. Construction site deaths hit a 10-year high under the Howard-era ABCC.
What would actually change if the ABCC came back?
Labor did not remove the coercive powers when it set up the new agency, FWBC, and those powers are still often used. But a return to the ABCC would strip away safeguards restricting the regulator’s use of coercive powers.
Currently, a presidential member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal has to authorise the use of a coercive notice before it is executed, and must be satisfied that other avenues have failed. However, under the ABCC, notices are authorised at the commission’s will and as a first resort.
Under a revived ABCC, the construction industry would also face much higher penalties for breaches of industrial law than those for the wider workforce.
The CFMEU says the proposition that one industry should be singled out for tougher penalties contravenes the fundamental principle of equality before the law.