AMMA chief executive Steve Knott reflects on the significant IR developments of the past week, including why AMMA welcomes the Prime Minister’s Royal Commission into union corruption but believes a restored ABCC is more important for weeding out union thugs and crooks from the building and construction industry.

IN his National Press Club Address last week, (February 5), AWU secretary Paul Howes called for a 1980’s style ‘national accord’ between business and unions to promote greater competitiveness of Australian enterprises.

ALP Leader Bill Shorten soon after called this vision ‘a fantasy’ as long as the Abbott Government was at our national helm. The fantasy with Howes’ suggestion is in fact that just 13% of private sector workers are union members and only decentralisation allowing direct workforce engagement will produce a modern system supportive of economic and competitive growth.

The past week has seen Howes and Shorten engaged in an industrial relations pantomime, raising some valid legislative and workplace productivity issues but ultimately deflecting attention from decades of corruption in some areas of the union movement.

Howes and Shorten are well aware that recent allegations of bribery and corruption in Australia’s largest construction union haven’t done any favours for a movement already facing declining membership and impact. Deliberately or not, the theatrics succeeded in temporarily diverting the national conversation away from this issue.

Unsurprisingly, both Howes and Shorten continue to resist a Royal Commission into union corruption, officially announced by the Prime Minister on Monday.

What is unfathomable is that they also continue to oppose the reestablishment of the only regulatory body with proven results in cracking down on union thugs and crooks – the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Introduced by the Howard Government in 2005 following the Cole Royal Commission, the ABCC noticeably increased productivity, increased compliance with our country’s industrial laws and delivered a more equitable and harmonious Australian building industry. It was making real progress when it was unjustifiably and deliberately neutered part way through its work.

Industry clearly warned the former ALP government that replacing the ABCC with its own watered-down version, complete with fewer investigative powers and reduced penalties would see a return to industrial lawlessness and thuggery.

Evidence of such lawlessness and thuggery is now overwhelming. The public has awakened to the sick union culture plaguing Australia’s construction sector.

Cole, as well as the Gyles Royal Commission and later the Wilcox Inquiry, all reported similar findings of illegal industrial action, unlawful use of trust funds, intimidation of employers to sign agreements or select ‘union friendly’ contractors and, most concerning of all, bribery and other criminal conduct.

These findings were not fabricated by a flawed process or conjured up by political witch hunts and it is time the union movement gets serious about restoring the lost public confidence in their ethics or activities.

Howes said in his Press Club Address that corrupt union leaders are ‘traitors’ to the movement. He is right, but if today’s union and ALP leaders don’t drop the naive denialism and support a restored ABCC to begin cleaning out the thugs and crooks, they too would fail to honour and maintain the contribution of their forebears.

Difficult decisions must be made, including whether the ACTU distances itself from the CFMEU and whether Shorten will maintain both ties and funding from unions whose officers have been found to break the law. Both are matters only for the leaders of those organisations and they will ultimately be responsible to their members for whichever decision they make.

Amid the current CFMEU mess, we mustn’t forget that many union officials and leaders do some excellent work to improve the welfare and livelihood of working Australian people.

As the national resource industry’s peak employer group, AMMA often engages in robust policy and industry debate with unions, but out of the spotlight we have a respectful and effective working relationship with ACTU President Ged Kearney, Howes and other key union leaders.

Our organisations work constructively together on both domestic and global bodies such as the National Workforce Relations Consultative Council, the International Labour Affairs Committee and the ILO. Most of the union officials I have personally engaged with during three decades in industrial relations, while often fierce in disagreement, represent their members effectively and lawfully.

But just as we collaborate on important labour market regulation, surely it is a no-brainer that the re-establishment of an effective industrial regulator in the construction sector should be universally supported by all peak bodies.

As Tony Abbott embarks on a wider Royal Commission into union corruption, the ABCC could immediately begin to stamp-out corruption, bribery and criminality from the construction industry. We simply need the senate to pass the relevant legislation as soon as possible.

A restored ABCC will weed out the crooks and thugs, investigate and refer criminal activity to relevant authorities. All citizens, union officials and employers will have nothing to fear from the regulator’s return, save for those breaking the law.