The Guardian 13 April, 2005

Anti-union commission “wrong”

Industrial relations authorities marked the second anniversary of the Cole Commission’s findings by quietly withdrawing more of the slurs the union-bashing body had made against building workers. Without fanfare, the Industrial Registrar wrote to the Construction Division of the CFMEU conceding that after considering Cole’s allegations in “some detail” there were no grounds to “conduct an investigation or commence a prosecution” against the union’s NSW branch.

National Secretary, John Sutton, said it was “small comfort” after allegations of wrongdoing had been thrown around in public. Newspapers made headlines of claims by Cole prosecutors that millions of dollars had been misappropriated by the union.

Essentially, Counsel Ron Gipp accused the union of knocking off more than $4 million in recovered wages.

Despite strenuous denials and a lack of hard evidence, Cole referred the allegation to “authorities” for investigation. Nearly three years after the headlines were generated, those same authorities have now been forced to vindicate the CFMEU.

Mr Sutton says the wage claims outcome reflects the “complete failure” of the Commission to back-up “slanders” contained in sensational findings, published two years ago. In a report delivered to former Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Abbott, the Royal Commissioner made 392 referrals to investigating or prosecuting authorities.

He boosted that number to 482 by including another 90 instances in a “secret” document withheld from public scrutiny.

Abbott leapt on Cole’s findings to claim Australian building and construction was “largely lawless” and “near anarchy”. He set up a special industry police force, the Building Industry Taskforce, with sweeping powers and promised industrial legislation to severely curtail the rights of building workers.

Two years down the track, Cole’s 482 referrals have resulted in just one criminal prosecution and that was for perjury before the Commission, rather than any industrial activity.

Taskforce chief, Nigel Hadgkiss, has publicly conceded that the majority of referrals to his organisation have been investigated and will not result in prosecutions.

Yet, all the Commission’s findings, and the names of those accused, are still available on its website. John Sutton says efforts to have the names of union members cleared have fallen on deaf ears.

“We wrote to the federal government more than 12 months ago asking that it do the right thing by people who have been publicly accused and subsequently cleared. It refuses to do that, and leaves allegations that cannot be substantiated on the public record.”

The government is now moving to give Hadgkiss’ taskforce increased powers to run its anti-union agenda. It will use its control of the Senate to remove the right to silence from building workers and force them to produce documents on pain of jail.

The taskforce has also been given the power to run industrial prosecutions of the union, carrying six figure fines, and prosecutions of rank and file members, carrying five figure fines and possible prison terms, even when parties to disputes do not want to proceed.

Thus far, the taskforce has churned its way through 13 million taxpayer dollars and recovered just $15,000 in fines. The tenacity with which it pursues its anti-building worker campaign has drawn repeated judicial fire.

Last year, in the Federal Court in Melbourne, Justice Marshall described taskforce tactics as “foreign to the workplace relations of civilised societies, as distinct from undemocratic and authoritarian states”.

This followed an October, 2002, judgement critical of one of its officers, Greg Alfred, who gave sworn evidence, then changed his testimony after being contradicted by a company witness.

Last month, in the federal court, a taskforce case against the CFMEU was described as having been “instituted without reasonable cause”. Justice Wilcox ordered the taskforce to pay the union’s costs, describing its taxpayer-funded action as “hopeless”.

Mr Sutton said the Howard government has given up trying to justify its $65 million Cole Commission. “I don’t think they spend a lot of time dwelling on the substance of the Royal Commission”, he said.

“It served its purpose, but when you can count the number of prosecutions that resulted, on one finger, they realise that the more it’s exposed the thinner it looks. Now they have control of the Senate they don’t bother trying to justify their actions.”

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