Ewin Hannan | June 10, 2009
Article from: The Australian
INFLUENTIAL union leader Joe de Bruyn has declared Labor does not have a “mandate” to scrap the coercive powers of John Howard’s building industry watchdog in its first term, contradicting construction unions, which are leading a national campaign to have the powers abolished.
While the ACTU has declared the abolition of the powers its No1 issue, Mr de Bruyn said the Rudd government did not promise before the 2007 election to scrap them. The national secretary of the right-wing Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association also refused to commit to supporting a motion to next month’s ALP national conference demanding the powers be scrapped immediately.
“Our position is very clear: there should be one law for all workers, but the government doesn’t have a mandate for that in its current term of office because it didn’t say that to the people of Australia when it went to the polls,” Mr de Bruyn told The Australian.
He said Labor went into the last election promising to replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission with a new body within Fair Work Australia in 2010. “It was elected and therefore that is its mandate, and I would expect that it is going to continue to say that,” he said.
“I think, long term, the government should do something different but I don’t expect they will change their view in the current term of office. Everything that was in its industrial relations platform is part of its mandate. There can be no argument about that.”
Mr de Bruyn’s comments will be welcomed by the Rudd government, which has spent the past week rolling out a succession of cabinet ministers, including Julia Gillard and former ACTU presidents Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean, to reject the union push to weaken the ABCC.
As Kevin Rudd stood firm on the issue yesterday, Labor strategists are also likely to use Mr de Bruyn’s comments to try to undermine the union campaign to confront Labor’s political wing at the ALP conference.
Responding to Mr de Bruyn last night, ACTU president Sharan Burrow urged the government to negotiate with unions to settle the dispute over the ABCC.
“Unions acknowledge the new Fair Work laws starting on July 1 are a major step forward for workers and we welcome the government’s other achievements for working families in relation to maternity leave and safeguarding jobs in tough economic times,” she said.
“However, the ACTU believes that the laws covering construction workers are unfair and have no place in Australia’s industrial relations system. We urge the government to sit down and discuss a resolution to the issue.”
Urging unions and cabinet ministers to stop their public brawling and “take a cold shower”, Mr de Bruyn drew a distinction between the party platform agreed at the last ALP national conference and the promises taken by the then opposition to voters at the subsequent election.
“What Labor says in its platform, adopted at its last national conference, is what it was aspiring to do,” he said. “What the Labor government has a mandate to do from the people of Australia is what it said in its election promises, and the two areas are a little bit different.”
He said the report by the Wilcox inquiry, which said the ABCC’s coercive powers should be retained for five years, “is one of the factors that has to be taken into account and cannot be ignored”. Building unions have criticised the Wilcox findings.
“I would expect that the government will seek to implement the Wilcox recommendations, but the unions will say, ‘Yes, but we want to go further’, and I think that is what the discussions need to be about,” Mr de Bruyn said.
“The government at the moment doesn’t have a mandate from the people to go further, but the unions do want it to go further and I think that’s the issue that needs discussion.”
The Prime Minister yesterday reaffirmed Labor’s position on the ABCC, and stared down Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes over claims the government was “sending in the stormtroopers” to quash debate between the party’s political and industrial wings ahead of next month’s ALP national conference.
“I meant what I said prior to the last election and I said about the future of the ABCC that it would continue and that there would be a replacement body by 2010,” Mr Rudd told Sky News.
“Furthermore on the substance of it, and you’d have to be Blind Freddy not to conclude that there have been historical problems, most particularly in the Victoria and West Australian divisions of the construction division of the CFMEU (Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union).
“There will always be limits to how far we can responsibly go, and we have made that very plain to our friends in the trade union movement.”
Dave Noonan, the national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division, disagreed with Mr de Bruyn.
“I would say that there is absolutely a mandate,” he said.
“I think it was absolutely clear that Labor said they were going to abolish the ABCC. We had a difference with them about the timing.
“They said they would keep it until 2010 but nowhere did they tell the Australian people that they intend to maintain coercive powers. And Forward with Fairness, which was the policy they took to the Australian people, says that Labor doesn’t agree with separate (laws) for workers.”
Mr de Bruyn said cabinet ministers and union leaders should stop “slanging off at each other in the media”.
“I do think that all of us should go and have a cold shower,” he said.