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The Morgan Poll continues to show increased polling for Labor and it is now up to 54.5%  on a TPP basis (and about equal on primary votes), with 52% in WA as the “campaign” for Senate seats gets under way there.

Abbott now faces an on-going problem about how much he knew of Sinodinos’s financial arrangements – he refused to say anything in Q time today. His decision not to appoint S to a Cabinet ministry implies he had some concern then.

The Liberals would not have lost in South Australia had the electoral body made the electorate changes it was legislatively required to do. Given that, it is surprising the Liberals did not appeal against its decisions. This supports critiques of their campaign, which seemingly failed to respond adequately to Labor’s “fear” angle that, inter alia, penalty rates would be cut if Liberals won.

Talking of penalty rates, The Australian continues to prioritise problems with the regulatory system (sic) but has published no supportive letters on the subject (including mine!). Today’s articles include one on the need for a building “code” which would involve legislation to outlaw certain privileges now obtainable by unions. This appears to be in addition to the attempt to restore the powers the ABCC had before Labor amended them, but in respect of which the ABCC then managed to obtain only one successful result from the cases lodged by the prosecuting body (the ABCC did not have a prosecuting power).

The problems of  inadequate legislation and its administrators are highlighted in the Fair Work legislation and its administrators. This legislation is open to differing interpretations and, with “a little bit of help from my friends” as the song goes,  unions have in effect been able to prevent individual bargaining (which means the labour market is not a competitive one) and are also able to disrupt or threaten to disrupt business activity unless they receive certain “concessions” from the business. In these circumstances it is not surprising that those businesses susceptible to union targeting conclude that they have to do deals with unions.

The AFR article below on Boral’s problems well illustrates the difficulties faced by larger businesses in handling not simply FW but the legal system generally.  In this case it appears that the CFMEU has simply ignored injunctions obtained from the Supreme Ct. While this seems likely to result in fines, on the basis of the way the present legal system works these are likely to be “affordable” for the CFMEU. Tougher legislation is required.



Urgent need for new code, say builders

Article by Ewin Hannan and Rick Wallace published in The Australian, March 24, 2014

THE nation’s builders have urged the Coalition to fast-track controversial changes to the construction industry code, warning that they need the intervention to withstand union pressure to cave in to new enterprise agreements containing restrictive work practices.

But Labor and the Greens signalled yesterday that they would not support the passage of the code through the Senate, prompting employers to accuse the opposition parties of condoning union coercion and intimidation.

Master Builders Australia yesterday seized on comments by Employment Minister Eric Abetz in The Weekend Australian that he wanted to break the “closed shop” between head contractors and the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union by reviving the Work Choices-era building code.

Senator Abetz said the code, which he promised to release “relatively shortly”, would seek to prevent employers getting commonwealth work if they struck workplace agreements with “restrictive” work practices.

The new code, to be based on the Howard government’s controversial 2006 guidelines, would potentially force the removal of clauses in agreements that relate to outsourcing, contracting, use of labour hire and union rights.

Employers in Victoria said they hoped the code could be used to reduce the 20 rostered days off that apply across the state’s construction sector, claiming that the current 36-hour-week industry calendar left the sector dormant for considerable periods of the year.

The Weekend Australian revealed deep concern among contractors that they were being forced to sign up to generous union agreements to secure work in the building industry.

Nigel Hadgkiss, the director of the Fair Work Building and Construction national industry watchdog, said it was a “widespread practice” for head contractors to strike agreements with unions and then require smaller contractors and sub-contractors to sign up to the same agreement if they wanted work on a project.

Wilhelm Harnisch, the chief executive officer of Master Builders Australia, said the “clear feedback we are getting is that the builders want the code reintroduced as soon as possible”.

“There is a high sense of frustration that it has not happened,” he told The Australian.

“The reason for that is a lot of builders are being pressured to sign new EBAs (enterprise bargaining agreements) ahead of the code. The builders are looking for the code to be able to say to unions they won’t be able to sign (agreements) because they will be ineligible for government work.”

Opposition workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor said while the ALP had yet to see the detail of the proposed code, “we would oppose any legislation that seeks to revive core parts of ... Work Choices”.

“The government wants to use its proposed code to put anti-worker fingerprints all over workplace agreements on building sites,” he said. “The government is inching closer to reviving Work Choices with every new attack on ... conditions.”

Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt said yesterday it “seems unlikely we’ll support a return of this intrusive regulation”.

“When the free market works in favour of employees and they lawfully negotiate enterprise agreements, Tony Abbott can’t rush to regulate quickly enough,” Mr Bandt said.

“This is Tony Abbott striking out lawfully agreed protections that he doesn’t like, as well as legalising conduct the courts have found to be unlawful.

“Before the election, Tony Abbott said Work Choices was dead and buried, but he is now trying to smuggle the corpse in through the back door.”

Mr Harnisch, whose organisation has 33,000 members, including head contractors such as Leighton and Lend Lease at a state level, criticised the position of Labor and Greens, saying they were “condoning coercion, standover tactics and intimidation”.

Lawrie Cross, general manager of industrial relations with the Master Builders Association of Victoria, said the government could use the code to influence upcoming bargaining negotiations with the CFMEU.

In Victoria, workers operate under a 36-hour week, working a calendar that includes 20 rostered days off and 11 gazetted public holidays. Negotiations are expected later this year ahead of the current agreement’s expiry in March next year. Mr Cross said the current calendar ensured contractors were “not occupying building sites for vast amounts of time during the year.

“If the government was to take a stance they don’t want contractors tendering for work if they are using any restrictive form of a calendar, then I think it’s going to force the industry to rethink completely how it goes forward with the notion that there ought to be large chunks of downtime as presently exists,” Mr Cross said.

“It’s their code and I think potentially they could insist that contractors come to them with far more flexible and productive arrangements than they currently do.”

Senator Abetz said he empathised with head contractors who believed they were being “blackmailed” by unions as project delays could leave them exposed to penalties.

But ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said yesterday the minister’s statements about the code were a “government form of blackmail” against builders. He said it was in the commercial interests of builders that workers on projects were engaged under the same wages and conditions.

“This is part of their ideology to take unions on,” he said. “Eric Abetz and the Coalition government don’t like unions and they will do whatever it takes.”

Building watchdog's 15 police referrals in 7 years score no convictions

Article by Ben Schneiders and Clay Lucas published in The Age, March 24, 2014

As the Abbott government moves to revive the building industry watchdog, Victoria Police has revealed that not one criminal conviction was recorded as a result of its information over its seven years in existence.

The government wants to reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which operated from 2005 to 2012, citing a culture of lawlessness in the industry. Abolished by Labor, the watchdog had controversial coercive interrogation powers.

Deputy Police Commissioner Graham Ashton told a Senate hearing last week that the building watchdog provided it with 15 referrals, about two a year. Only one led to a finding of guilt. The offender was placed on a diversion program.

Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan said he thought it had received only ''a couple'' of referrals from records. ''It will be a small number,'' he said.

The return of the watchdog has been justified in part by claims of rampant criminality in the Victorian construction industry.

The man set to head the watchdog, former senior policeman Nigel Hadgkiss, has said the industry lends itself to organised crime.

He was a deputy commissioner of the ABCC between 2005 and 2008 and is now head of the inspectorate that the re-formed ABCC would replace. A spokeswoman for Mr Hadgkiss said the ABCC ''referred matters brought to its attention to the relevant agencies''.

Mr Ashton said police had concerns about the construction industry and indicated much of its information had come from other sources.

''We certainly receive information from other areas and we have had other investigations and convictions, but not specifically from [the ABCC],'' he said.

''We certainly do have quite a lot of information and intelligence dealing with criminality associated generally with this sector and I refer to issues around debt collection, for example, through outlaw motorcycle gangs, primarily the Comanchero outlaw motorcycle gang in Victoria.''

Mr Ashton said bikies were heavily involved in industries including security, liquor, heavy haulage, legal and illegal sex and construction.

Employment Minister Eric Abetz told a recent Senate committee hearing looking at re-establishing the ABCC that the construction sector was ''riddled with illegality, thuggery, lawlessness and intimidatory tactics''.

A spokeswoman for Senator Abetz said it was always an operational decision for police whether or not they prosecuted matters on evidence referred to them.

She said high-ranking police, including Commissioner Ken Lay, had noted problems in the industry. ''Unfortunately, the building industry's problems are unique. The Cole royal commission concluded that the industry was 'singular' in terms of unlawful activity. It also concluded that it was one 'in which the rule of law no longer had any significant application','' the spokeswoman said.

CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan said supporters of the ABCC had ''engaged in a campaign of smear and disinformation calculated to induce a moral panic in the community about the construction industry''.

''The reason for that is simply to persuade the public to accept draconian laws in relation to industrial relations that would not otherwise be acceptable,'' he said.

Boral asks for government help against CFMEU ‘thuggery’

Editorial published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 March, 2014

Mike Kane likened the tactics used by members of the CFMEU in Melbourne as similar to that of the Teamsters Union in the United States 50 years ago.  Photo: Sasha Woolley

Boral chief executive Mike Kane has urged the government to take immediate action against one of the country’s biggest unions, and not to wait for a royal commission to start, claiming threats are stopping the company from pouring concrete in Melbourne.

Speaking to The Australian Financial Review, Mr Kane accused members of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union of engaging in “thuggery” and “unlawful” activity. He said that the union uses threats and coercion, and intimidates his customers into not using supplies from Boral in ­Melbourne.

“The unlawful activity is really a restraint of trade,” he said, adding that some customers have been told by the CFMEU they would be “shut down” if they used Boral concrete.

“For some reason, the union gets a pass on this type of behaviour, but if a company did it, they would be ­prosecuted. It shouldn’t be allowed. We want the government to do something. But nothing has happened yet, the royal commission hasn’t started and meanwhile I can’t pour any concrete in Melbourne.”

The Financial Review was unable to reach the CFMEU for comment on Sunday.

Mr Kane said it was costing Boral between $10 million and $12 million a year, and while that was only small in comparison to the company’s $5.5 billion in annual revenue, it was significant to his Melbourne team.

He also likened the tactics used by members of the CFMEU in Melbourne, who have been accused of threatening to run Boral customers out of business, as similar to that of the Teamsters Union in the United States 50 years ago.

“The government needs to step in and clean out the unlawful activity.

“Thuggery is what it is. And it has been going on for a year.”

He said Boral has obtained several injunctions against the CFMEU that have failed to stop the union’s actions. Those injunctions are now going to contempt hearings against the CFMEU.

“That process unfortunately takes a long time. In the meantime, our customer base has essentially abandoned us in the CBD in Melbourne.

“Based on what they tell us . . . Boral is banned from delivering concrete in those markets.”

The Australian Financial Review

SA Liberals stuck between Brock and a hard place

Editorial published in The Australian, March 24, 2014

THERE is no doubt who is entitled to form government in a parliamentary democracy — whoever can control a majority of seats in the chamber. On that basis, The Australian recognises Jay Weatherill and Labor legitimately can cling to power in South Australia with the support of the independent member for Frome, Geoff Brock. Yet a shambolic election fallout, prospects for instability and concerns about a lack of electoral fairness mean there is much to discuss about the SA result.

While counting is yet to be finalised, it appears likely Labor will hold 23 seats and the Liberals 22, with two independents, Mr Brock and former Liberal minister Bob Such, holding the balance of power. Given the Liberals would have needed both independents and Labor only one, the sudden and serious illness of Dr Such could not have come at a worse time for the state or the Liberal Party. With Dr Such expected to be on extended sick leave, Mr Brock claims to deliver stability by accepting a ministry and giving a fourth term to Labor on condition it breaks some unspecified promises. It is too soon to predict what the future will hold, but stability would seem difficult. If Dr Such retires, a by-election for his seat of Fisher is almost certain to deliver another Liberal MP, taking the tally to 23-all. Mr Brock still would wield the casting vote. The country MP would have to learn to cope with new-found power and scrutiny while mastering the challenges of his first ministry and dealing with the conflicts between his cabinet role and independent status. Mr Brock has put himself in this place despite accepting his electorate is conservative (the ALP polled 11 per cent in Frome). He has also thumbed his nose at the statewide vote. It appears the Liberals will win close to 53 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, attracting an extra percentage point over the majority of the popular vote won in 2010. Like Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor federally, Mr Brock might not want to face his voters again.

The popular vote should have been a focus for the independents; especially because since 1991 (in an attempt to prevent aberrant results) the state’s constitution has deemed that electoral boundaries should ensure a party winning more than 50 per cent of the vote will take a majority of seats. This is where the state’s electoral and boundaries commissions must come under serious question. Charged with delivering fair boundaries based on the 2010 results, their 2012 redistribution effectively awarded the Liberals one additional seat, but still left them two seats short of a majority — even though their 51.6 per cent in 2010 should have provided a clear majority of seats. So those responsible for delivering electoral fairness actually ensured the 2014 boundaries would be unfair — just one seat less unfair than in 2010. Just why the Liberal Party didn’t challenge this ruling in court is something for it to explain to its members, but those in charge of the electoral system must answer to the entire state.

None of this precludes assessments of the marginal seat campaigns run by the respective parties and the freedom of the independent MPs. But it must inform the deliberations of the next redistribution, which must deal with the fact that Labor now is set to remain in power for 16 years, having won the popular vote only once and lost it three times in that period. It is an unholy mess for a state that badly needs stable institutions so it can focus on its debt and deficit crisis, and serious social and economic challenges.

PNG has been vital on borders

Editorial published in The Australian, March 24, 2014

TONY Abbott can feel satisfied with his visit to PNG — the longest by an Australian leader to our northern neighbour in a quarter of a century. The issue of asylum-seekers and the Manus Island centre was always going to dominate. Assurances from the Prime Minister’s counterpart, Peter O’Neill, that legislation to enable the resettlement of refugees should be passed by the PNG parliament in May or June could help ease frustration among the 1300 detainees on Manus.

Getting the resettlement process started is vital to reduce tensions in the detention centre. However, it won’t be an easy fix because Mr O’Neill, like Labor’s last foreign minister, Bob Carr, has concluded many boat arrivals are actually economic refugees. Still, the PNG Prime Minister has recommitted himself to the deal done with Kevin Rudd. His call on other Pacific nations to share the resettling burden was surprising yet understandable. And Mr Abbott has disclosed his government, also, is in talks with other countries aimed at coaxing them into providing refugee places. After last month’s riot on Manus led to a tragic death it is inevitable conditions there should arouse controversy. Yet it is to Mr O’Neill’s credit that he has not been dissuaded from implementing the arrangements that, so far, have been contributing greatly to the success of Operation Sovereign Borders.

Rightly, Mr Abbott extolled the “mateship” Mr O’Neill has shown Australia by vowing to “stay the course” over asylum-seekers and there can be little doubt that the Abbott government has good reason to place Port Moresby high on its list of foreign policy priorities. A major new economic co-operation agreement and an accord to hold annual prime ministerial meetings on the same basis that underpins our relationship with China should further enhance a relationship that is vital to both our interests and should be treated as such.

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