Officers from Victoria Police and the Federal Police lowered the boom on the Australian Building and Construction Commission at Senate Estimates Hearings, earlier this year.
Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton said in March, the ABCC – the forerunner of today’s Fair Work Building Commission Inspectorate – provided it with “around” two leads a year but none of them had brought a criminal conviction.
A federal police spokesman thought they might have received a “couple of referrals” but could not point to a conviction.
They were talking about the period 2007 – 2012 when the ABCC swaggered across across the construction landscape, using sweeping coercive powers to force building workers to attend secret interrogations and produce documents.
Failure to answer questions, even informing family members they had been interrogated, was punishable by prison.
The Australian Building and Construction Commission, was given the powers of a standing royal commission to eliminate effective trade unions from the sector.
The excuse, from Coalition Workplace Relations Ministers Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews, was the need to tackle “thuggery, corruption” and “violence” in the industry.
But the facts show the ABCC, like the Cole Royal Commission – established by Abbott on the same grounds – never went near criminality. It used its powers to attack unions in a bid to drive down wages, conditions and job security.
The Cole Commission employed more than 100 investigators, and spent $60 million taxpayer dollars, on a two-year investigation of the sector.
It tapped phones, recorded meetings and seized bank records but didn’t get enough evidence to convict a single trade unionist.
The ABCC and the FWBC have been in existence for more than 10 years since, chewing their way through nearly $300 million.
While police evidence shows they have failed in their stated mission, they have been able to weaken campaigns against employers who rort the system.
Tax evaders, phoenix operators, employers of illegal labour and companies that default on wages, super and other entitlements have never had it so good since the FWBC started contesting the union’s right to enforce agreements and, even, enter workplaces.
FWBC Inspectorate head, and former federal policeman Nigel Hadgkiss, set the tone when he told a Senate Committee hearing, way back in 2003, his organisation would not prosecute employers who ripped off workers.
Since then he has helped turn the ABCC, and now the FWBC Inspectorate, into a partisan industrial police force.
Hadgkiss devotes much of his time to political speech making. He addresses all sorts of gatherings in support of Tony Abbott’s industrial agenda.
He uses those speeches to push ideological talking points – safety is a union beat-up; unions are bothersome third parties interfering in the relationship between employers and workers; and, that their rights to visit workplaces should be severely curtailed.
He contests the validity of collective bargaining and contends most employer rorts are none of the union’s business.
In 2005, Hadgkiss initiated legal action against the Victorian Government because it refused to award a contract to a cut-price operator accused of dusting rural Yallourn with asbestos.
His methods, characterised from the beginning by the aggressive use of secret recordings, have drawn judicial censure.
Justice Marshall, in the federal court, labelled a Hadgkiss’ attempt to seize bank records of Multiplex employees, who had stopped work to honour a dead colleague, as “foreign to the workplace relations of civilised societies, as distinct from undemocratic and authoritarian states”.
In a 2009 report, Justice Murray Wilcox outlined the partisan nature of the ABCC, saying an ‘economic’ report it had had prepared to justify its existence, was “deeply flawed” and should be “totally disregarded”.
The ABCC, under Hadgkiss, was also incompetent. It admitted using invalid notices to force 203 people to attend compulsory interrogations, between 1995 and 2011.
Hadgkiss returned to the FWBC after the Coalition regained power. He immediately stepped-up anti-union harassment with an emphasis on blocking workplace visits.
The FWBC utilises tightened Right of Entry rules to tie the CFMEU in red tape and legal action.
Wherever employers like Lend Lease, which has an poor safety record, complain, the FWBC jumps.
It contests safety issues, sends inspectors to follow, photograph and harass union officials and advises employers on keeping union officials off its sites.
Lend Lease recently delivered the CFMEU a three page list of requirements its officials must follow to enter Barangaroo, in Sydney.
It contains 29 separate points – from where they must wait for their company “escort”, to a prohibition on the use of “photographic, video or audio recording devices without Lend Lease management’s express permission”.
Meanwhile, Hadgkiss contests virtually every right of entry permit the union applies for, including renewals that have to be done every three years.
Currently, the CFMEU has at least five organisers or elected officials unable to do their jobs properly because of FWBC objections to permit renewals for individuals who have already satisfied the Fit and Proper Person criteria.
Some of these people have been in limbo for months, including a 30-year veteran whose credentials have never previously been questioned, and Queensland state secretary, Michael Ravbar.
Under Hadgkiss, the FWBC acts as a taxpayer-funder industrial and legal adviser to businesses who try to undermine industry standards. It also bankrolls court cases for them.
Abbott’s royal commission has heard direct evidence of how the FWBC supports employers who sack union delegates, welsh on negotiated agreements or operate sites where workers have been killed.
The record shows it has little, if any, interest in combatting crime.