||Issue No. 138||31 May 2002|
Interview: The Star Chamber
Politics: The Odd Couple
Media: Audiences Before Politics
International: The Off-Side Rule
Economics: The Fake Persuaders
History: Terror Tactics
Poetry: Food, Modified Food
Review: Spiderman Spins Out the US
Satire: England's World Cup Disaster: Star Hooligan Breaks Foot
The Locker Room
Week in Review
In Defence of Latham
Swans A Pathetic Con-Job
The Star Chamber
Interview with Peter Lewis
The Royal Commission has been travelling around the nation for most of this year, what do you think it has achieved so far?
Very little to this point. A great deal of public monies have been expended. I have to say the majority of the money and resources has been chewed up on stuff that is pretty irrelevant to any agenda about reforming or improving the building industry. The vast majority of the time has been spent on judicial style hearings in a courtroom full of lawyers where union officials and union members are put under immense pressure in the witness box. Usually the incident that is being examined is a petty incident and certainly this kind of process won't lead to any lasting improvements in productivity or any kind of sensible reform of the building industry.
Do you get a sense that the Commission has a sense of the direction of where they want to take this, or are they still fishing for angles?
Well, I think it is a bit of both. Obviously the personnel that would have been chosen to run this Commission have an anti-union bias. It has been quite clear from day one. So they have not been put there to do any favours for the union movement. And generally they would favour prescriptions that would be about restricting our capacity to represent our members and bringing in a range of new laws that would make life more difficult for unions.
Their problem however, is knowing exactly what laws to bring in, and what kind of mechanisms that they might be able to deploy to achieve their goal. It is one thing to have the broad goals, but another thing to know exactly what you want to do.
When he announced the Royal Commission, Tony Abbott really fingered you in an effort to get legitimacy. He said that your comments about corruption within the industry was why he was setting the Royal Commission up. Have any of the concerns that you raised at the beginning, actually been dealt with?
That I think is one of the very ironic parts of this Commission. 99% of the public resources to date, have been used on largely irrelevant petty disputes in the industry, and indeed looking at the agenda for the next five weeks in Sydney, the vast majority of the complainers against the unions are small businesses with absolutely petty complaints. Very few of the allegations that I have looked at would even get a hearing in the Industrial Relations Commission, let alone be the substance of Royal Commissions.
Now, having said all that, it just seems ironic that the Commission, which was ostensibly established to examine serious criminality and corruption and matters like that, seems to have spent precious little time on getting to the bottom of those types of allegations.
I'm not sure of the answer to that. If the Commission was to spend some of its resources on nailing real criminals, particularly those employers in our industry who have got very poor track records in terms of ripping off - not just workers - but ripping off the government - if they went after some of those chronic offenders in the industry, that would be money well spent. But of course there is no sign of them doing that.
I think there is no end of examples in the industry of crooked operators, and indeed some that are even prepared to go the full extent of using colourful identities in their misdeeds, but to date the Commission seems to have spent precious little time, apart from one or two examples in Victoria, where $250,000 was paid to some colourful identities. Apart from that example, it is hard to think of many instances where they have even gone near big time criminality.
So, I am not sure why it is, but I certainly know that the Commission's resources have been very poorly used to date.
� $19 million in legal resources to the Commission, we hear today. How has the CFMEU been able to match that sort of firepower?
$19 million chewed up on lawyers. I think it is just outrageous, and I think the public - certainly if you listen to talkback radio in Sydney and Melbourne today - is giving a predictable public reaction that it's profligacy of the worst kind. And when you think of the irony of these characters that have got their snouts so far into the trough - all these lawyers - are down there investigating collusive practices and lack of transparency and all that sort of thing in relation to workplace arrangements. I mean the irony just jumps out for anybody to see.
It is quite clear that the Royal Commission we should be having is into the rorts of the legal profession. $19 million on what? What productivity? What assistance has this industry got to date - and there is not much sign that it is likely to get any for the rest of the Royal Commission - for all this money being spent on this vast battery of lawyers.
I just think it is an outrage and the public understands that.
Do you have any sense of the response of your rank and file to the hearings to date?
We do. We have in fact just completed a survey of our members in three States and the results that have come back are quite startling. The membership in that survey demonstrates an understandable scepticism - even hostility - to the Commission. It demonstrates that they don't believe that the Union is going to get a fair hearing in this Royal Commission, and that is quite clear from the survey results.
The survey is interesting in other regards too. It shows that there is a very high support amongst the membership for the Union and for its current leadership, and it also, much to Tony Abbott's disappointment no doubt, shows that the more that Abbott confronts us, the more the members are willing to take up cudgels on behalf of their Union. It shows that they have got a lot of faith and commitment to their Union.
I think in fact that the most telling statistic is that if there is an attempt to deregister our Union, 73% of the members would be prepared to go on strike, and about another 17% are prepared to take other forms of supportive action. There was only something like about 10% of the members who didn't volunteer any kind of action in response to an attempt to deregister us.
Now, I think that is an amazing figure for 90% of the members to come back and say that they are prepared to be active around defending their organisation when in fact we are such a big organisation. We are not a small craft society or anything; we are a very big organisation. It shows that the leadership must have been doing something right to attract that kind of support amongst the membership.
Finally, what would the Commissioner need to do to convince you that he is serious about delivering a non-partisan report?
I think it is well past the time that he has to realise that queuing up a vast amount of resources on judicial style hearings into petty disputes is not the best use of the $60 million he has available. If he wants to hold judicial style hearings and examine and cross examine witnesses ad nauseum, it is also well past the time when he ought to start to look at some of the chronic employer offenders in this industry. It is well know that we have given about 10 boxes of examples to the Commission of employers who have repeatedly breached the standards, both legal and customary standards, in this industry. In fact we have provided more than 200 examples of those kinds of breaches.
But to date, six months into the Commission, there has not been one of those employers put through the judicial style hearings. In fact, it is quite telling that the Commissioner has said he doesn't see his courtroom as being a place to investigate breaches of awards and enterprise agreements by employers. He believes that is the proper province of the Industrial Relations Commission.
So we are sort of in a bit of a bind here where the Commissioner has ruled out looking at employer breaches in the public domain - or through the kind of public hearings that he is conducting.
So, if that is to be the way he is conducting it, he ought to forget public hearings altogether and we ought to start to go into more tripartite discussions of all of the serious industry players - because the ones who know about this industry are the people who work in the industry, and they ought to be committing their time to serious discussions about reforms and improvements to the industry.
It is quite clear to me, that if he is not going to look at any employers in the context of public hearings, then I just can't see why we are going to waste much more time on these public hearings with a courtroom full of lawyers that are just queuing up for public monies at an incredibly fast rate.
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