Dear Derryn Hinch: A fix for the ABCC fiasco

The Australian, December 7, 2016: Robert Gottliebsen

I have good news for my old journalistic mate Derryn Hinch: You can recover from what was a bad couple of weeks involving the ABCC and backpacker fiascos. At the same time, you can champion the so called “subbies” who are currently being knocked around in commercial building contracting.

You’ve already taken the first correct step and sacked your gatekeeper, John Clements, who did not serve you well in the fiascos, and, by 2017, the backpacker tax will be confined to history.

However, your contribution to the ABCC legislation is going to cost Australia billions of dollars in overpayment for infrastructure. It will be a continuing sore.

I know there is a very serious side to Derryn Hinch and that this multibillion-dollar blow to the nation will plague your conscience.

The ALP and the Greens can’t tell anyone the truth on this matter because they depend on being doled out part of the money that corporations pay the building unions.

The simplest way to fix the ABCC legislation is to make its introduction effective immediately rather than wait until after the election in two years’ time. Unfortunately, that’s virtually impossible.

But in fact there is a better way.

Recognise that apart from taxpayers, the people who are hit hardest by the cartels between the big builders (via the unions) are the small subcontractors.

These subcontractors are the power houses of most building projects but they are handed standard form contracts with horrible clauses that tell them what to do. The large companies are the enforcers of these unfair contracts because they take the work away if the subbies try to break out.

I fought long and hard to get Parliament to pass unfair contracts legislation which stops such bad behaviour by large corporations in any industry. I rate it as one of the greatest journalistic achievements of my 50-year career.

The act came into operation last month and the ACCC estimates eight million unfair contracts must be changed but when the unfair contracts are linked to industrial relations it becomes hard to regulate.

That’s why the WA government’s break through this week is so important to the nation.

I explained yesterday (WA’s line in the construction sand is a win for subcontractors, December 6) that the WA building code is all about looking after the small business ‘subbies’ in the belief that that such action will slash costs.

The WA code does not talk about unions at any length. I believe that, if added to the Federal Code, the WA Code will fix most of the ills in commercial construction and there would be no long waiting period.

All WA building contracts from January 1, 2017 will require compliance with unfair contract provisions both in the Independent Contractors Act and under the Australian Consumer Law. That means that if a subcontractor has less than 20 employees and the contact is worth less than $300,000 over one year ($1 million over longer contracts) then there can be no non-negotiated prescriptive instructions that are unfair to the subbie and not essential for safety etc.

There can be no removal of the subbie if there is a non-union employee of the subcontractor on site and, of course, the subbies have to be paid on time.

It is very easy to add the WA code to the national code and make the addition applicable immediately.

Derryn, if you drive this through the Parliament you will become the hero of subcontractors around Australia. I would think Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon would support you.

Finally, one more piece of advice. Look at the last couple of weeks in the Senate as being akin to the time when you first joined 3AW and your ratings fell. You had a great assistant (Terry Hayes) and you lifted your game. The rest is history.

Take care with the appointment of a new assistant and if you need help framing the WA code into the Federal code I know people who can do it free of charge. You don’t need the public service.

If you were to become the hero of the subcontractors you would also be the hero of the nation because we would be able to build a lot more infrastructure for our dollar