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ABC Newsradio – Vote and Potential Double Dissolution on ABCC


GLEN BARTHOLOMEW (Host):  Well it is true Australia could go to the polls on July 2 if the Senate doesn’t pass laws to set up a construction industry watchdog.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will recall Parliament on April 18 to reconsider two pieces of legislation aimed at addressing union corruption and the building and construction industry.

He says if Senators don’t pass the legislation he’ll call a double dissolution election with both houses going to the polls.  Construction lobby group the Master Builders Australia has been quick to welcome the Government’s move and the CEO Wilhelm Harnisch joins us now.

Good Evening Wilhelm.


GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  Why is this a good move?

WILHELM HARNISCH: Well, it’s a good move because the return of a tough cop on the beat is important for the construction industry, it’s important for the economy and very important for the community.

Because at least four Royal Commissions have found that unlawful behaviour on building sites is a major problem and it’s a problem that needs fixing.

We cannot let this go for another decade, for another Royal Commission to find exactly the same as previous Royal Commissions that we’ve got building unions that simply don’t want to behave like normal people. They believe they’re above the law and they behave in ways that you don’t find in other workplaces.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  Are there not adequate legal mechanisms already available to investigate and prosecute any criminal activity?

WILHELM HARNISCH:  Look that’s a very good question. All these Royal Commissions have made similar findings and reached similar conclusions based on solid evidence that need a special agency with special powers is needed to deal with the building unions extraordinary behaviours that are currently not covered by the laws.

As you know, the building unions make much of the question of why such behaviours are not simply referred to the police.

Well the Victorian Police, in a major report that they put to the Royal Commission, made it quite clear that they are not equipped to deal with the culture of the building unions that allow corruption and criminality to flourish.

This underscores the problem that building unions believe they are above the law.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  Let’s look at that.  You say nowhere in any other workplace do you have a culture where workers, contractors, subcontractors come to work feeling intimidation and thuggery and where women get abused.  What is going on at these worksites exactly?

WILHELM HARNISCH:  Well exactly that.  We’ve got workplaces, building sites where subcontractors’ employees are regularly confronted by overt aggression, denigration and bullying.

Now, this has been documented.  This is not something that we’re making up.  Obviously we, our members report this on a daily basis.  In no other industry do we have businesses, small businesses being bullied and intimidated.  In no other industry are women regularly subjected to such overt aggression and levels of abuse. These have been all recorded independent.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  What’s the impact – the cost of all that then to the broader community?

WILHELM HARNISCH:  Well the issue there is culture.

The impact to the community is that the community, in effect, is paying more for classrooms, it’s paying more for hospital beds, it is paying more for childcare places and why should the community pay for their hard-earned taxes that they give to the Government to pay more for things that they desperately are wanting and needing.

The community is in effect paying a building union tax.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  Have construction companies been complying or turning a blind eye to this as the price of doing business?

WILHELM HARNISCH:  No they’re not turning a blind eye.  They are unwilling participants in this culture that is being forced upon them by the building unions.

That was well and truly documented by Justice Cole in an earlier Royal Commission, it was reinforced by the Heydon Royal Commission and it is reinforced on a regular basis by other agencies like the Fair Work Building and Construction (FWBC).

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  Have they been part of the problem though?

WILHELM HARNISCH:  No. I mean part of the problem is the intimidation of the unions where the contractors are forced because of their commercial vulnerability to enter these arrangements because they know that if they don’t there will be trouble, industrial problems on building sites which they can’t afford because they have got to meet deadlines, they’ve got to mitigate the risk of liquidated damages, they’re not completing major projects on time which can be as much as a million dollars a day so the unions are aware of that and they exploit that industrially to their own unlawful advantage.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:   You say reinstating the building watchdog would help to restore confidence in the industry.  Is there no confidence now – the high level of construction activity would suggest otherwise?

WILHELM HARNISCH:  Yes confidence in the construction sector is lacking because of the lack of statutory protections that are available to construction contractors who stand up to building union thuggery and say no to unreasonable union demands.

At the moment there are no effective statutory protections for contractors and subcontractors to be able to say no to the demands of building unions and that was demonstrated in the evidence to the Heydon Royal Commission last year.

Both the Heydon Royal Commission and the Victorian Police submission to that inquiry also reinforced the need for the ABCC to be the tough cop on construction sites.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  Why stop there then?  Senator John Madigan says anybody that thinks corrupt or criminal behaviour only exists in the building industry is kidding themselves.  Senator Glenn Lazarus says he’d only agree to the establishment of a broader anti-corruption body.  Is the focus too narrow?

WILHELM HARNISCH:  We must remember that we’ve got to separate the two issues.

The ABCC is designed to tackle the building unions’ ingrained and institutionalised culture of unlawfulness that allows corruption and criminality to flourish. Corruption and criminality are a symptom of the toxic industrial culture of the building unions and their unlawful behaviours and there are other agencies already in existence that deal with that.

These agencies are already in existence and the cross bench Senators should argue for more resources for those agencies to deal with criminality not only within the construction industry but outside it.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:  Wilhelm Harnisch thanks very much.


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