Crossbenchers can transform the ABCC bill into something wonderful

The Australian, November 23, 2016:

Two remarkable events have the potential to transform our nation. First, we discover that the current Turnbull government has the negotiating skills required to deal with the Senate. Alleluia!!

And, second, Australians have elected a group of crossbench Senators who have skills rarely found in the upper house and who are prepared to act for the nation, as illustrated by the whistleblower amendments.

In that context I would like the crossbench Senators of the 45th Parliament to consider taking a nation transforming step.

They have before them the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation. We need the legislation so that we can build our infrastructure for 20 to 30 per cent less than it would otherwise cost.

But it was designed by Coalition politicians who unfortunately mix with big builders in the cocktail set, so it is a bill that concentrates its attack on unions and not enough on the way the building employers conduct their business.

To their great credit, the crossbenchers have already picked up that the people who need extra help are the small contractors.

The large contractors ram down the throats of small contractors standardised horrific non-negotiable contracts that boost their costs and force them to pay big sums to the unions, a part of which is then transferred to the ALP and the Greens.

And if the small contractors don’t toe the line, the union declares they can’t join the club. In other words, they’re out of business. Sadly, that’s Australia 2016.

The ABCC legislation will help the situation but it does not target this vital cog in our building industry cartels.

Thanks to the wonderful work of the crossbenchers in the 44th Parliament, we have a meaningful unfair contracts act which is a world-leading reform and came into operation this month (Big business needs to get with the contract overhaul program, November 11).

The ABCC act should be amended to specifically embrace the unfair contracts act but instead of there being a $300,000 limit on contracts covered in commercial building there should be no limit.

It’s a simple but wonderful change. In theory that change is not necessary but Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) boss Rod Sims has legislative difficulty when dealing with cartels and bad business practices done under the smokescreen of “industrial relations”.

Accordingly, a link between the ABCC legislation and the unfair contracts needs to be made very clear and the $300,000 limit removed in commercial building.

In WA that’s exactly what Treasurer Mike Nahan has tried to do. He announced his plan in May (WA’s radical plan to end building-union collusion, May 6) but the building industry cocktail set plus their mates in the WA industry bodies appear to have thwarted him. But he is still battling because WA simply can’t afford to spend 20 to 30 per cent more on infrastructure (Mike Nahan’s radical appeal to the ACCC over building industry collusion, November 21).

And, if the horrible clauses that exist in small business commercial building contracts are made void and it is properly policed, then it will encourage efficient and innovative contractors (plumbers, electricians etc) in the housing industry to tender for commercial contracts.

Currently they dare not tender because they are simply not prepared to corrupt their business with bad work practices and big payments to the unions-ALP- Greens push.

I know my readers must be tired of my regular comments on the unfair contracts legislation but it’s a huge step forward for the nation and because of our wonderful crossbenchers we have the chance to use it for more hospitals schools, roads, bridges etc.

Footnote: On November 18 I wrote a commentary which set out how the unfair contacts act would transform bank overdrafts for small enterprises. The article was totally correct in all the detail except one — in the case of banking, the policeman is the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) not the ACCC which is the policeman in all other unfair contracts. ASIC boss Greg Medcraft will need to make sure his people are up to speed on this because there is much at stake (The unfair contracts that the banks forgot, November 18).