Malcolm Turnbull wants to make industrial relations a “frontline issue” at the next election and will use the findings of Abbott’s Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption to go on a union bashing offensive.

The Commission has exposed new embarrassing evidence for Bill Shorten of cosy AWU deals with bosses that slashed union members’ wages.

Turnbull will try to convince the public he is fighting corruption and not coming after their wages and conditions.

But central to his agenda is the revival of the Howard-era Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) which treats ordinary construction workers like second class citizens and gives authorities special powers to go after building industry unions.

The building industry unions in Australia are a key part of the movement and hobbling them would be the first step in a more general attack. When Turnbull talks about unions needing to be “much more agile”, this is code for wanting them to roll over on penalty rates and other issues.

Also on Turnbull’s legislative agenda are new laws giving the state more power to interfere in trade union governance.

This isn’t about defending the interests of ordinary workers but about demonising unions and tying them up in bureaucratic red tape.

Part of the offensive is to beat up the talk of “lawlessness” in the construction industry. A recent Fair Work Commission report showing that CFMEU officials are being breached in increasing numbers was used to hype up the need for change. But most are being breached over minor bureaucratic issues such as walking onto a building site without the required notice.

The problem is not any entrenched corruption in the CFMEU but rather the restrictive workplace laws that prevent unions from operating effectively.

The arrest of CFMEU organiser John Lomax on blackmail charges is typical of the witch-hunting atmosphere around the Commission. These charges generated sensational newspaper headlines but were quietly dropped a few months later.

Only in the dreams of Liberal politicians does putting industrial pressure on employers to pay better rates of pay amount to blackmail.

The Commission

Turnbull has already described Dyson Heydon, the head of the Commission, as the “ultimate straight-shooter” and he will try to convince the public that the Commission is fair and independent.

But from day one it has had a union bashing agenda. It was established by Tony Abbott who had used this same tactic before. In 2001 he established the Cole Royal Commission, which was also supposedly designed to fight corruption in the building industry. This commission cost the tax payer $65 million and resulted in no prosecutions but still recommended new anti-union laws.

Abbott hand-picked Dyson Heydon, a renowned conservative with connections to the Liberal party, because he could be relied upon to generate the right headlines and write a report that would put the Liberals on the offensive.

Kathy Jackson, a Liberal party star witness, was given preferential treatment by Dyson’s offsiders at the Commission and extensively briefed about what questions to expect. Even then she stuffed it up and her $305,828 splurge of union money on herself was exposed.

AWU dodgy deals

The commission has exposed corrupt deals made by AWU officials (including Bill Shorten) where wages and conditions were traded off in return for payments such as for AWU memberships, or to fund AWU political campaigns.

A former finance manager at Cleanevent admitted in the Commission that the company hid its payment of $25,000 a year to the AWU because it was a bad look for both the union and the company.

ACI Glass paid $450,000 to the AWU over three years through two secretive accounts. It also funded a $130,000 overseas trip by then AWU official Cesar Melham.

Meanwhile a Thiess senior executive admitted that the company issued false invoices for $300,000 to hide the fact it was paying for an AWU organiser on site.

These deals are indefensible. They have seen workers’ wages slashed and have given the Liberals a stick to beat the unions with. But there are double standards about how unions and employers are being treated.

The major beneficiaries of the deals have been the employers. It is estimated that John Holland Construction made a cool $100 million from its deal on the EastLink tollway project. The cleaning company Cleanevent pocketed $2 million a year in stolen wages by not paying proper penalty rates.

But we’re not seeing the same witch-hunt against employers. The ripped off workers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for redress. This commission is only going after unions and needs to be opposed tooth and nail.

By Mark Gillespie

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