ACTU Secretary Greg Combet says John Howard’s Royal Commission into the Construction industry is nothing more than a politically motivated stunt to help get the Government re-elected.
I am here today for three reasons:
1. To celebrate with you the opening of these offices
2. To deliver you a message of support from the ACTU – that, in the face of an attack on the union by the Howard Government, the ACTU will stand solidly with the CFMEU in dealing with the Royal Commission into the construction industry
3. To announce that today I have lodged a number of Freedom of Information applications seeking access to Government documents dealing with the establishment of the Royal Commission.
The ACTU believes that these documents would show that John Howard’s Royal Commission is nothing more than a politically motivated stunt – nothing more than an attempt to help get the Government re-elected.
But I’d like to start by saying a few frank things about the Construction Division of the CFMEU. It’s a great union which has an important place in the labour movement. It’s always in the lead on wages and conditions. It’s always there providing support to others. It’s a strong union in a tough industry. And it has to be.
This is an industry where an average of one worker is killed each week.
It’s an industry with more than its fair share of shonky operators where people are ripped off and underpaid through sham contracting deals, where there’s a massive avoidance of payments. It’s estimated that about 20% of workers compensation premiums in this state alone are simply not paid.
It’s an industry where illegal migrant workers on third-world wages have been found, where some employers use stand-over merchants, and where there’s widespread tax avoidance. In an industry like this you need a strong, tough union. A union prepared to stand up for workers rights and make no apologies for it.
But it is not a crime to be a strong union in a tough industry.
John Howard and Tony Abbott would have people believe that it is. That’s why they set up this Royal Commission. They want to play politics. They want to put a slur on unionism by associating it with criminal behaviour.
Abbott even says that the CFMEU is ‘too tough on safety’. I challenge him to tell that to the families of construction workers, face to face.
Well I think it’s important to get something straight. There’s no relationship between decent, strong, effective unionism, and criminal activity. Unions do not support crooks, we support workers. We want a clean industry – and we know that you can’t have one without having a strong union.
The ACTU will stand with the CFMEU and other construction unions in defence of unionism in the construction industry. We will work with you to expose the real issues, and to make sure that any criminal activity is wiped out.
If that was the real reason for this Royal Commission we wouldn’t have a problem with it. But everyone knows why it was really set up, to help Howard get re-elected.
John Howard’s got a simple election strategy – throw money around, attack the unions, and play the race card. The Royal Commission fits neatly into that pack.
Howard believes that this will divert attention from his failings:
- Health & education
- Employee entitlements
- Job security, casualisation, longer working hours
- The shameful growth in this country of an under-class of working poor.
If this Royal Commission was really about looking at the problems in the building and construction industry its terms of reference would deal with tax evasion, safety and the security of payments. Consider this about the issue of tax evasion in this industry:
Tony Abbott recently wrote to Andrew Ferguson and said that there is no evidence that tax evasion is more prevalent in this industry than others. Very comforting, but it reveals Abbott to be ignorant and naive.
An organisation no less than the National Crime Authority has clearly found that there is systematic tax fraud in the building industry. The NCA Swordfish Task Force found that:
The businesses involved were reducing their operating costs by evading tax, avoiding superannuation payments, avoiding contributing to workers’ compensation premiums and other typical operating expenses required by Commonwealth and State laws.
The amount ripped off each year in the building industry was $1 billion in 1999, and has grown since then. Tony Abbott should be aware of this. That’s what he should be telling this Royal Commission to investigate. A $1 billion tax fraud.
If this Royal Commission doesn’t get into this territory it will deserve to be condemned.
But as I said before, the motivation and the timing for this inquiry is all politics. You can bet that the Government will seek to use the Royal Commission to throw as much mud at the CFMEU and other unions as possible before the election.
You can expect every bit of muck to be thrown in the opening submissions, timed just nicely for the election campaign.
Some people question this view, question whether the motivation for calling the Royal Commission has more to do with politics than with any genuine attempt to explore the issues contained in the terms of reference.
But look at John Howard’s form. Who would have thought the Government would have come unstuck in a conspiracy to break its own laws during the waterfront dispute?
And who would have expected to see a dispute like that at G & J O’Connor meatworks in Victoria, where Tony Abbott’s own department is implicated in a plot with the company to use hired liars and thugs to discriminate against union members and to cut wages?
Setting up a Royal Commission for a political purpose is well within the realms of possibility. Today the ACTU has lodged FOI applications seeking disclosure of all secret Government documents, discussions or written communications relating to the establishment of the Royal Commission between:
- Tony Abbott
- John Howard
- The Office of the Employment Advocate
- All Government Departments
We believe these documents will support our view. If there is nothing to hide the Government should hand over these documents. Because the establishment of a Royal Commission is no small matter – it’ll cost a lot of money (about $80 million) and it should not be set up for political purposes.
One thing is for sure – the basis for establishing the inquiry which has been relied upon by the Government is an amateurish gossip sheet. I am referring to the hastily cobbled together 10 page report by the Employment Advocate Jonathon Hamberger. It’s a report based on rumours. It contains no evidence.
It’s worth noting that the Office of Employment Advocate has a humiliating record of failed prosecutions against the union, and has no jurisdiction whatsoever for preparing reports about the construction industry. And yet it is on Hamberger’s say so that this Royal Commission has been set up.
The Government can clear things up by producing the documents. But no doubt they’ll drag things and delay the process for the simple reason that there’s something to hide.
We want any crooks out of the industry as much as anyone else. That’s why the union took the initiative and asked the police to investigate the allegations that have been made in recent months.
I can assure you that if you stick on this course, to stand by your record as a strong, effective union where there’s no place for crooks, the CFMEU will maintain rock-solid support throughout the union movement. I will work hard to achieve it. And we’ll see off this inquiry like we’ve seen off others before it.
Which brings me to a few comments about the building and the new offices. I am pleased to have the privilege of opening them.
I first met Andrew about seventeen years ago when I worked not far away at the Lidcombe Workers’ Health Centre, on John St. So I’ve got an affinity with the area, a lot of respect for the union, and a long-standing high regard for the Branch Secretary.
Union offices are important places – there’s a lot of people, plenty of work, and sometimes a bit of politics. It’s the heart of the union. Over the years you build a lot of history around the union offices.
I hope that these new headquarters for the NSW Branch serve the members well for many years to come.
SPEECH BY ACTU SECRETARY GREG COMBET TO THE CFMEU
AT THE OPENING OF THE NSW OFFICE
1pm, Friday, 7th September 2001
12 Railway Street, Lidcombe