ACTU Secretary Greg Combet points out the hypocrisy in the latest Howard Government witch hunt against unions.

The announcement by Prime Minister John Howard of a Royal Commission into the building and construction industry exposes the double standards employed by this Government.

The political motives of the Government in calling the Royal Commission must be examined. The Prime Minister began last week by ignoring calls for an inquiry into allegations that Supreme Court documents were bought for use in a mud-throwing exercise designed to damage former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

The Government refuses to examine claims that the office of Mr Howard’s Parliamentary Cabinet Secretary Bill Heffernan was used to facilitate the purchase of the documents through a Liberal Party “volunteer”. Announcing the Royal Commission in Perth on Thursday, Mr Howard answered a reporter’s question about the Cash for Documents affair by saying: “I don’t know and I don’t intend to find out.”

This stands in stark contrast to the eagerness of Mr Howard and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott to sanction this Royal Commission.

Unions have acknowledged that some problems exist in the construction industry. That is why allegations of unlawful behaviour have been referred by unions to the police. Current police inquiries should be allowed to continue free of the political circus that will surround this Royal Commission. Any other allegations should also be referred to the police. There is no place for violence or corruption.

The Government’s stated reasons for the Royal Commission clearly demonstrate its political motives. The pretext is a two-month-old report by Employment Advocate Jonathan Hamberger. The 10-page report was hastily cobbled together in May on the urgent instructions of Mr Abbott.

The Hamberger report is a flimsy gossip sheet of unsubstantiated allegations, nearly all of them from newspaper reports. In an extraordinary attack on State police, Mr Hamberger claims that State police generally lack both the willingness and the expertise to deal with matters with an industrial relations component. No evidence is provided to justify this serious claim, yet Mr Abbott uses the report to support a Royal Commission.

Mr Abbott has also pointed to the level of industrial disputation in the construction industry as warranting judicial investigation. He said on radio earlier this month that the level of industrial disputes in the construction industry was significantly higher than in other industries, based on figures for April. But this is disingenuous of Mr Abbott – a different picture emerges when the real measure is used: the annual dispute rate.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that the number of days lost to industrial action in construction more than halved to 86,200 in the year to April 2001 – down from more than 174,000 in the previous year, and much lower again than the 1999 figure of 214,000. The decline was also larger than the all-industry average.

The Howard Government is establishing a dangerous precedent by establishing a Royal Commission on such thin grounds. This sits uncomfortably with the Government’s refusal to investigate more serious industrial relations matters.

The Coalition has been blatant in its attempts to demonise unions since it came to power in 1996. It has rejected calls to reveal the full extent of its involvement in the 1998 waterfront conspiracy, and is still fighting in the courts to block the release of documents.

The Government has also refused to investigate a dirty-tricks conspiracy to cut the wages of unionised workers at the G&K O’Connor meatworks near Melbourne. That dispute is the subject of more than 700 pages of secret Government documents that Mr Abbott and Mr Hamberger have refused to release to the public. The O’Connor dispute involved lockouts, alleged criminal tactics, incitement to violence, perjury, frame-ups, and industrial spies.

The Government’s zeal for the construction industry inquiry also contrasts with its indifference to the real problems within the industry – the crippling impact of the GST, the highest incidence of workplace deaths of any industry in Australia, and an epidemic of tax avoidance through bogus sub-contracting arrangements.

Mr Howard can be assured that unions will make every effort to turn the focus of this inquiry on to these issues. After all, these inquiries have a habit of turning an uncomfortable spotlight on the activities of Mr Howard’s constituents – the employers. The last Royal Commission into the building industry, called by the then NSW Liberal Government in 1990, cost $24 million, revealed the use of standover men by some companies, but produced not one union prosecution.

The far better course would have been to allow the police to do their job – something that the unions had actively sought.