Turnbull doubles down on industrial relations reform


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has delivered an ultimatum to parliament members: either pass two industrial relations reform bills that would address union corruption, or get out.

Turnbull dropped this bombshell early Monday morning, giving the senate and house until 18 April to pass the two industrial relations reform bills. One would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a watchdog body charged with regulating the construction sector and enforcing workplace laws. The other would establish a Registered Organisations Commission with investigatory and information-gathering powers over unions.

This move is just the latest development in the debate around union corruption that’s been churning for years. Back in December 2015, Commissioner Dyson Heydon released a six-volume report representing nearly two years of inquiry. In it, he touted Australia’s trade unions as havens for “louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts.”

After the report was released, Turnbull said he was prepared to fight if parliament did not support responding measures; clearly he is making good on his word. More than 40 individuals and organisations have been referred to police or other authorities under suspicion of acts ranging from blackmail, bribery, death threats and misappropriation of funds.

The report’s 79 recommendations represent a hardline approach to industrial relations reform, which would steamroll some bedrock union practices. Both the Royal Commission and the Liberal Party are calling for corporate-style regulation of unions as a way to curb corruption. Some supporters of the bill, including Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, have suggested making it a criminal offence for an employer to make financial payments or offer benefits to unions.

Some of the extremely tight regulations are interesting when brought up against research showing that unions operate best when democratic structures are embedded. In 2009, David Peetz from the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing at Griffith University and Barbara Pocock from the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia conducted an analysis of workplace representatives, union power and democracy in Australia. What they found was that strong unions are better at defeating internal corruption.  

Peetz later commented that unions are not agencies of the state, and therefore the government should not be deciding who runs them or how. At the recent AIRAANZ Conference, he stated that the ABCC legislation – whatever the merits of the Heydon Royal Commission’s findings – does not address the issue of union governance in a way that can be applied to all unions across all industries. He also called the Royal Commission report a “a mixture of objective observations and politics.”

Turnbull has justified this push to approve the two industrial relations reform bills by stating that the biggest winners would be unions themselves: “They would be the winners, just as greater transparency, greater accountability in the corporate sector delivers benefits for shareholders, the stakeholders in those institutions.” 

At this point in time, Turnbull remains pessimistic about the ABCC bill passing: “Regrettably, [senators] seem to be even less supportive of the bills this year than they were last year,” he says of crossbenchers. The budget meeting has also been moved forward a week to 3 May to facilitate a double dissolution, which might see all sitting senators and representatives fighting for their seats.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten responded to this turn of events by saying that Turnbull is “in full panic mode” and acting in his own self-interests rather than those of all Australians.

Turnbull has said both bills are a critical part of his economic plan because “union militancy was a handbrake on the construction sector.” The construction industry employs more than one million people, and Turnbull has said that it is at the centre of Australia’s competitiveness.

He has built his plans for development around innovation. “The time has come for the Senate to recognise its responsibilities and help advance our economic plans, rather than standing in the way,” Turnbull says.

It will take a lot of work to undo the damage done by current union leadership. Past Royal Commission reports point to systemic issues within union regulation and behaviour. However, because Turnbull has yet to deliver any concrete economic or development policies, it’s hard to connect the dots and see how this bill push is a worthwhile endeavour.

It will be interesting to see how unions and the government continue to circle this issue, assuming the government doesn’t implode in the coming weeks. Perhaps the debacle is best summed up with Turnbull’s newest slogan: Continuity and change. Can we have the best of both worlds here? Either way, things will reach the pointy end soon if nothing is done.

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Dan Erbacher
Dan Erbacher
8 years ago

I cannot believe your comment that. AHRI should be supporting this legislation, and indeed any legislation that addresses union corruption, intimidation, and corporate governance. Those of us in the private sector who have to deal with these union thugs have had a gutful of the timid and acquiescent approach. It’s time for AHRI to start supporting its members on this issue in a much more robust manner. The unions have been given unprecedented power by Gillard and Rudd who wound back 25 years of IR reforms under the lies of rolling back Howard’s Workchoices program. At the moment we are… Read more »

Dan Erbacher
Dan Erbacher
8 years ago

I forgot to include the comment from your article. Here it is: “it’s hard to connect the dots and see how this bill push is a worthwhile endeavour…”

Lena Dimopoulos
Lena Dimopoulos
8 years ago

Dan, in your comment, you have used extremely emotive and disrespectful language, particularly by stating all union representatives as “Neanderthals”. “Corruption” and “intimidation” can be found in many industries and are not the sole domain of union representatives, nor are these the problems, as you see them, caused by Labor governments. We have a high standard of living in Australia based on our balanced IR laws, thanks to the work of many union representatives over our country’s history, which we had at one time been very proud of. Social instability often results in countries where unions are very weak and… Read more »

Andrew Upfill
Andrew Upfill
8 years ago

Great comment Lena, balance in the IR debate is required not the ‘rabid beast’ that appears to be the polar opposites of the Liberal and Labor Parties approach to workplace relations. The toxic workplace culture is as prevalent in construction sites as it is in small business. Great that AHRI maintain a neutral position just presenting the facts. There are enough lobby and factional interests in the major political parties without AHRI adding to the mix!

Steve M
Steve M
8 years ago

Surely fairness and balance must be our goal in most settings, including employee and industrial relations? The historic value of unions in our wonderful country cannot be under-estimated however current value must be measured and judged also. And I know from recent experience that the balance is currently neither fair nor balanced. Contemporary law must reflect community expectations and standards, including in respect of the simplest of human behaviours. I have watched on almost helplessly as a union has run a campaign based on lies across my not-for-profit organisation. Why? Because we are the largest provider in our sector and… Read more »

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Turnbull doubles down on industrial relations reform


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has delivered an ultimatum to parliament members: either pass two industrial relations reform bills that would address union corruption, or get out.

Turnbull dropped this bombshell early Monday morning, giving the senate and house until 18 April to pass the two industrial relations reform bills. One would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a watchdog body charged with regulating the construction sector and enforcing workplace laws. The other would establish a Registered Organisations Commission with investigatory and information-gathering powers over unions.

This move is just the latest development in the debate around union corruption that’s been churning for years. Back in December 2015, Commissioner Dyson Heydon released a six-volume report representing nearly two years of inquiry. In it, he touted Australia’s trade unions as havens for “louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts.”

After the report was released, Turnbull said he was prepared to fight if parliament did not support responding measures; clearly he is making good on his word. More than 40 individuals and organisations have been referred to police or other authorities under suspicion of acts ranging from blackmail, bribery, death threats and misappropriation of funds.

The report’s 79 recommendations represent a hardline approach to industrial relations reform, which would steamroll some bedrock union practices. Both the Royal Commission and the Liberal Party are calling for corporate-style regulation of unions as a way to curb corruption. Some supporters of the bill, including Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, have suggested making it a criminal offence for an employer to make financial payments or offer benefits to unions.

Some of the extremely tight regulations are interesting when brought up against research showing that unions operate best when democratic structures are embedded. In 2009, David Peetz from the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing at Griffith University and Barbara Pocock from the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia conducted an analysis of workplace representatives, union power and democracy in Australia. What they found was that strong unions are better at defeating internal corruption.  

Peetz later commented that unions are not agencies of the state, and therefore the government should not be deciding who runs them or how. At the recent AIRAANZ Conference, he stated that the ABCC legislation – whatever the merits of the Heydon Royal Commission’s findings – does not address the issue of union governance in a way that can be applied to all unions across all industries. He also called the Royal Commission report a “a mixture of objective observations and politics.”

Turnbull has justified this push to approve the two industrial relations reform bills by stating that the biggest winners would be unions themselves: “They would be the winners, just as greater transparency, greater accountability in the corporate sector delivers benefits for shareholders, the stakeholders in those institutions.” 

At this point in time, Turnbull remains pessimistic about the ABCC bill passing: “Regrettably, [senators] seem to be even less supportive of the bills this year than they were last year,” he says of crossbenchers. The budget meeting has also been moved forward a week to 3 May to facilitate a double dissolution, which might see all sitting senators and representatives fighting for their seats.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten responded to this turn of events by saying that Turnbull is “in full panic mode” and acting in his own self-interests rather than those of all Australians.

Turnbull has said both bills are a critical part of his economic plan because “union militancy was a handbrake on the construction sector.” The construction industry employs more than one million people, and Turnbull has said that it is at the centre of Australia’s competitiveness.

He has built his plans for development around innovation. “The time has come for the Senate to recognise its responsibilities and help advance our economic plans, rather than standing in the way,” Turnbull says.

It will take a lot of work to undo the damage done by current union leadership. Past Royal Commission reports point to systemic issues within union regulation and behaviour. However, because Turnbull has yet to deliver any concrete economic or development policies, it’s hard to connect the dots and see how this bill push is a worthwhile endeavour.

It will be interesting to see how unions and the government continue to circle this issue, assuming the government doesn’t implode in the coming weeks. Perhaps the debacle is best summed up with Turnbull’s newest slogan: Continuity and change. Can we have the best of both worlds here? Either way, things will reach the pointy end soon if nothing is done.

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6 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
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Dan Erbacher
Dan Erbacher
8 years ago

I cannot believe your comment that. AHRI should be supporting this legislation, and indeed any legislation that addresses union corruption, intimidation, and corporate governance. Those of us in the private sector who have to deal with these union thugs have had a gutful of the timid and acquiescent approach. It’s time for AHRI to start supporting its members on this issue in a much more robust manner. The unions have been given unprecedented power by Gillard and Rudd who wound back 25 years of IR reforms under the lies of rolling back Howard’s Workchoices program. At the moment we are… Read more »

Dan Erbacher
Dan Erbacher
8 years ago

I forgot to include the comment from your article. Here it is: “it’s hard to connect the dots and see how this bill push is a worthwhile endeavour…”

Lena Dimopoulos
Lena Dimopoulos
8 years ago

Dan, in your comment, you have used extremely emotive and disrespectful language, particularly by stating all union representatives as “Neanderthals”. “Corruption” and “intimidation” can be found in many industries and are not the sole domain of union representatives, nor are these the problems, as you see them, caused by Labor governments. We have a high standard of living in Australia based on our balanced IR laws, thanks to the work of many union representatives over our country’s history, which we had at one time been very proud of. Social instability often results in countries where unions are very weak and… Read more »

Andrew Upfill
Andrew Upfill
8 years ago

Great comment Lena, balance in the IR debate is required not the ‘rabid beast’ that appears to be the polar opposites of the Liberal and Labor Parties approach to workplace relations. The toxic workplace culture is as prevalent in construction sites as it is in small business. Great that AHRI maintain a neutral position just presenting the facts. There are enough lobby and factional interests in the major political parties without AHRI adding to the mix!

Steve M
Steve M
8 years ago

Surely fairness and balance must be our goal in most settings, including employee and industrial relations? The historic value of unions in our wonderful country cannot be under-estimated however current value must be measured and judged also. And I know from recent experience that the balance is currently neither fair nor balanced. Contemporary law must reflect community expectations and standards, including in respect of the simplest of human behaviours. I have watched on almost helplessly as a union has run a campaign based on lies across my not-for-profit organisation. Why? Because we are the largest provider in our sector and… Read more »

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