The Australian, February 8, 2017:
In a substantial defeat for the CFMEU, the Turnbull government will seek today to amend and toughen the Australian Building and Construction Commission law passed late last year by restoring the critical provisions it was forced to remove because of demands by senator Derryn Hinch.
This follows a decisive change of mind over the summer holidays by Senator Hinch. The impact will be to inject sharper teeth into the law.
It will help those companies that have defied the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union over the past two years and were disadvantaged by the Hinch concessions that infuriated the government and offered the CFMEU critical gains.
A range of crossbench senators confirmed last night that the Turnbull government had the numbers to change the law back to its original intent.
This will be a substantial win for Malcolm Turnbull and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, and gives the government the chance to transform conditions in the building industry.
“Over the summer break, I spoke to a lot of people, subcontractors and middle-sized construction companies,” Senator Hinch told The Australian.
“They told me the legislation was killing them. My view is that I listen to people, and that’s what I did. I contacted Malcolm Turnbull and told him we needed to look at this again.”
The ABCC law included a new building code that began on December 2, with a “transition period” that delayed the start of the code under which only code-compliant companies could tender for government contracts.
The government is making two vital amendments. First, it is changing the Hinch-driven two-year “transition” back to nine months as the government initially proposed. This speeds up the new regime for the industry.
The practical effect of the two-year provision was to reward companies that did sweetheart deals with the CFMEU in the run-up to the new law and punish those companies, such as Kane Constructions, which had defied massive union pressures in the run-up period but got little reward for it.
As soon as the law came into effect, the CFMEU shut down 13 sites in Victoria operated by Kane Constructions in a show of its ongoing power.
The second amendment prohibits companies with non-code-complaint enterprise agreements from being awarded commonwealth government-funded building work. Under the amendment, such companies can still tender for such projects during the transition period but cannot be awarded contracts — another decisive toughening of the law. “This simple amendment will create a level playing field for those in the industry,” Senator Cash said last night.
“Ensuring only companies with code-compliant agreements can be awarded taxpayer-funded construction projects will deliver significant improvements to Australia’s third-largest industry.”
The government has agreed that the proposed changes will be sent to a Senate committee, which is expected to report next week. After the report, the bill will be put to a vote.
Senator Malcolm Roberts, who takes the lead for One Nation on industrial relations issues, said: “We will support the amendment because it provides protection for union members, small business and taxpayers. We want to remove the undue influence of the CFMEU right through this parliament. After the vote last year, I approached two senators and told them I believed they had been dudded by the CFMEU.”
He said One Nation wanted to end the “cartel” operating between the CFMEU and some big construction companies.
The One Nation decision on this issue was taken under the guidance of party leader Pauline Hanson, based on a recommendation by Senator Roberts.
Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm said: “I am in favour of the amendment. It was obvious to me when the bill passed that the two-year delay meant the beneficiaries would be the CFMEU and the building companies close to it. I had more chats with the minister and she decided that this was an issue. I support what she now wants to do.”
Senator Nick Xenophon said last night: “I supported the original nine-month transition period. My position hasn’t changed but in the interests of Senate process, the amendment ought to go to a short Senate inquiry and be dealt with next week.”
It is apparent the key figure in this remarkable tightening of the new law is Senator Hinch.
While he was subjected to fierce criticism for his position last year, Senator Hinch has revealed a willingness to listen to industry figures and change his mind.