Construction watchdog’s successor won’t be as well funded: government

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke says the federal workplace watchdog won’t receive as much funding as the Australian Building and Construction Commission when it takes over its caseload because it will not be launching as many prosecutions.

The building industry has raised concerns about the ability of the Fair Work Ombudsman to police worksites and handle prosecutions begun by the ABCC, whose powers are being wound back before the government tries to abolish it through parliament later this year.

Employment and Workplace Minister Tony Burke says the Fair Work Ombudsman will not be as heavily resourced as the ABCC.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The ABCC was created by the Coalition government in 2016 to tackle lawlessness in the construction sector. Labor went to the election promising to dump the oversight body, which it regards as highly politicised for its persistent pursuit of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union.

Burke said the resourcing of the FWO would be dealt with in October’s budget.

“You wouldn’t give the full resources that were there for the ABCC because you don’t need prosecution for whether or not someone has a union sticker on their helmet,” Burke told ABC radio on Tuesday morning.

“There was a whole lot of the more absurd activities that the ABCC was charged to deal with, that’s gone, but the budget process will deal with what’s required.”

Labor’s election costings show it plans to largely rip the ABCC’s operating budget out this coming financial year, identifying $28 million in savings from the watchdog’s $35 million budget as the government grapples with the nation’s $1 trillion debt.

The government has used a Federal Court case finding against the flying of the Eureka flag and other union insignia on worksites, in which the ABCC was a party, as justification to replace the controversial building code, which contains a list of restrictive clauses, including constraining what can be included in enterprise agreements.

Burke questioned the rationale put by the Coalition that the high number of prosecutions reflected the agency’s success.

“I don’t think prosecuting somebody because they had a union sticker on their helmet is a sensible use of taxpayers’ money. And I don’t think you say, ‘Yay, the organisation did well’ because they got a prosecution up on it,” he said.

The replacement of the code has created uncertainty in the building industry and in commissioner Stephen McBurney’s office, which is working to understand what his current remit is.

Coalition industrial relations spokeswoman Michaelia Cash said the building industry was in “total confusion” after Burke’s decision to strip the ABCC’s powers back to the bare minimum.

“Yes, they had a promise to abolish the ABCC, but let’s be clear, they also promised to consult with the industry,” Cash said.

Burke confirmed on ABC radio on Tuesday that if the government was unable to abolish the body through the Senate, as it is a statutory authority, it would exist in name only and with no way to run it. He agreed it was an awkward arrangement but “not unheard of”.

Asked why McBurney was allowed to keep his $450,000 salary despite his role being in limbo, Burke responded that it was a statutory appointment.

“I would’ve liked to abolish the organisation yesterday,” he said. “Their funding on the pre-election costings that we released dries up anyway to – you know, there’s an extent that there’s minimum fees, you have to pay for board members and things like that.”

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