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Ben Schneiders and Misha Schubert
April 3, 2009

AUSTRALIA needs an industry watchdog with legal powers to haul building workers into forced interrogations due to persistent “industrial unlawfulness” — especially in Victoria and Western Australia — a report for the Federal Government recommends.

The report by former Federal Court judge Murray Wilcox, to be released today, largely supports weakening the powers of the watchdog that will replace the Howard government’s controversial Australian Building and Construction Commission from next February.

But it says the power to compulsorily interrogate workers, which unions argue violates the right to silence and basic human rights, should remain, albeit with more safeguards in place.

Last night, the national construction secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Dave Noonan, said unions would “oppose any discriminatory laws that treat construction workers differently to other Australians”.

Mr Noonan said he was yet to see the report and was disappointed it was released to the media before being given to people in the industry.

Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Brian Boyd said unions remained committed to abolishing the Building and Construction Commission.

Workplace Minister Julia Gillard is meeting state industrial relations ministers in Adelaide today and will ask them to respond to the Wilcox report by June, before she decides on the future building watchdog. Ms Gillard last night stressed she wanted to maintain a strong industrial policing presence in the sector and a zero-tolerance attitude to law-breaking.

“It is the intention of the Rudd Labor Government to always have a tough cop on the beat in the building and construction industry,” she said.

But in concessions to unions, the report recommends that the current Building and Construction Commission should give up much of its independence and have a semi-autonomous role within the new Fair Work Ombudsman’s office. If building workers did break the law, they would risk only the same penalties as other workers — not the existing huge fines and jail terms — under the proposed overhaul.

In a well-publicised case, senior CFMEU officer Noel Washington last year faced up to six months’ jail for not answering questions from the commission. The case was eventually withdrawn.

The executive director of the Master Builders Association of Victoria, Brian Welch, welcomed the review’s validation of industry concerns about unlawfulness but was concerned how effective the watered-down powers would be. “There are elements of this which we are unhappy with; there are elements that prove and vindicate the things we have been saying,” he said.

He said it was a “shame” that the Building and Construction Commission was recommended to become part of the new Fair Work Ombudsman’s role. He said that would only harm its operations.

When it comes to compulsory interrogations, the proposed safeguards would include staff of the new specialist building division having to meet a number of tests before an interview would be allowed.

Senior staff would have to be present at the video-taped interviews, which would be approved by an independent person.

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