Scroll Top

John Setka annoys you, Prime Minister? Welcome to our world


By Denita Wawn.

This article was originally published in The Australian on Wednesday June 19, 2024

The events involving the CFMEU campaign against the AFL because of a personal vendetta against its head of umpiring, Stephen McBurney, the former head of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, are exactly why our sector needs an industry-specific workplace relations regulator.

The wider community, along with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers, are now witness to exactly the type of tactics and thuggery that have flourished in many parts of the building and construction industry for decades, and that continues to worsen.

It is sickening to see how so many are powerless as a very public display of bullying and threats plays out against an individual who is just doing their job.

This conduct is designed to send a clear message: “It’s our way, or the highway. You play by our rules, not the rule of law, and if you want to betray us, you’re going to pay a price.”

For our members who run building sites, expletive-laden abuse, intimidation and threats of retribution are nothing new.

And the irony of the latest campaign by Victorian CFMEU construction secretary John Setka isn’t lost on them, with one company I spoke with recently saying: “Welcome to our world, Prime Minister.”

This echoes much of the recent feedback and messages I’ve received, and underpins the frustration growing in building and construction businesses.

The industry never understood why the government abolished the ABCC when there was so much clear evidence that it needed to stay.

There have been four royal commissions, hundreds of court judgments, and dozens of other reports and independent inquires that forensically examined the unlawful and illegal conduct of building unions. They all reached the same conclusion – there are problems unique to building and construction, and therefore there is a need for an industry-specific workplace regulator or specific rules for the industry.

The evidence is compelling, with our research showing building unions are responsible for about 90 per cent of all breaches of workplace laws governing freedom of association, right of entry and anti-coercion provisions.

This is almost 20 times more than all other unions combined, and building unions are 48 times more likely to break right-of-entry rules than any other union.

Courts and judges are just as frustrated as our members, with a litany of publicly available judgments criticising the CFMEU as “bringing the union movement into disrepute” and for being “the most recidivist corporate offender in Australian history”.

But despite this, the government abolished the ABCC to appease one of its largest political donors. In doing so, it turned a blind eye to the thuggery, abuse and the need for an effective body with strong powers to uphold the rule of law on building sites. And now it’s coming back, stronger than ever, with building unions so emboldened they are willing to have a fight with our Prime Minister and the AFL.

Perhaps now the government will understand the frustrations felt by employers and small businesses about changes to workplace laws since it came to power.

Small subbies and tradies don’t understand why the government passed changes that increase financial penalties for them while giving unions even more rights at the same time they abolished the only regulator that protected them.

We have heard some argue that the Fair Work Ombudsman will be responsible for protecting construction workplaces from this behaviour, but we are yet to see a single case taken up. As builders now tell me: “There is nowhere for us to go.”

It’s not just tradies who pay the price, it’s the public servants, including female inspectors, who are intimidated from carrying out their job, and it’s taxpayers who have to pay more for projects and time delays in the middle of a housing crisis.

If the government is serious about ensuring workplace laws are strong and effective, it must immediately take steps to deal with the bullying and intimidation the CFMEU deploys.

Welcome to our world, Prime Minister. As our members say: If you don’t stop it now, it will only get worse.

Sign up to our news and media mailing list.