The trade union movement is stepping up the pressure on the Rudd Government to shut down the Australian Building and Construction Commission as the case of Noel Washington looms.

Washington, a CFMEU official, is due to appear before Geelong Magistrates Court on 7 August after refusing to comply with summons issued by the ABCC under its extraordinary and draconian powers to coerce potential witnesses to give evidence with minimal legal protection. The summons relates to events in 2007, including at a BBQ in a public park attended by unionists. As the summons notes, the only specific allegations against Washington himself relate to the distribution of a flyer that made “derogatory” remarks about a Bovis Lend Lease site manager.

Using the Washington case, unionists are writing to Labor backbenchers to renew their push for the abolition of the ABCC, despite the Government’s commitment to retain the ABCC until 2010. Murray Wilcox is currently heading a review of what the Government’s proposed replacement, a new division of the inspectorate of Fair Work Australia, should look like.

Washington’s case isn’t the first time the ABCC’s secretive powers have attracted publicity. The ABCC doesn’t confine itself to harassing CFMEU officials, who are its intended targets. In December, the Fairfax press reported on the case of a Melbourne academic — which it was prevented under the ABCC’s legislation from even naming — who witnessed a scuffle while walking past a building site and found himself under interrogation by the ABCC and under threat of imprisonment if he revealed his interrogation to anyone.

The ABCC’s powers are similar to those of the NSW Crime Commission and of a piece with the thinking behind the previous Government’s counter-terrorism laws — that problems that are perceived as being of an extraordinary magnitude — drug trafficking, police corruption, building industry intimidation and terrorism — should be beyond the normal processes and protections of the criminal justice system, and can only be dealt with in secret, away from the accountability and scrutiny that comes from operating in public.

Both sides of politics are guilty of this sort of thinking, regardless of the fact that there is minimal evidence that allowing these bodies to operate in secret does anything other than to encourage incompetence, malice and corruption. Despite that, the likes of Mick Keelty want even less scrutiny of law enforcement activities, despite — or is it because — of the glaring errors uncovered by the media in the Haneef case.

The first consequences of the arrest of NSW Crime Commission assistant director Mark Standen will be observed this afternoon in Sydney when lawyers for convicted drug traffickers Ricky Montgomery, Bradley James Evans and Hayden Rodgers try to obtain Australian Federal Police phone tap recordings of Standen. The men’s case is one of many investigated by Standen which defence lawyers will now push for re-examination.

The NSW Police Association has expressed concern about the appropriateness of the NSW Police Integrity Commission overseeing the Crime Commission in an editorial on the Crime Commission’s infamous Operation Florida listening device warrant.

Peter Fray

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