A decision in the Ark Tribe case is expected to be handed down in Adelaide tomorrow, as a new poll shows the public supports the union’s role in protecting safety on building and construction sites.

Tribe, a rigger in his late 40s, is accused of failing to attend an Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) inquiry in 2008. The penalty is six months imprisonment.

As previously reported in Crikey, the ABCC was set up in 2005 by the Howard government after claims of crime, coercion and corruption on building sites. The commission was invested with powers that include the controversial power to compel building industry participants and members of the public to attend its inquiries and answer any questions put to them during the proceedings, including questions about fellow workers, employers, contractors, union officials and union members.

Soon after the Rudd government came to power, it announced plans to replace the commission with a Fair Work Inspectorate. But Labor’s proposed legislation stalled in the Senate because of opposition by the Greens to Labor’s plans to retain the commission’s power to deny building industry participants the ancient right to remain silent.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert pointed out that while this right was being denied as a matter of course to construction workers and other building industry participants, it continued to be accorded to those accused of even the most heinous crimes.

Yet while serving as workplace relations minister, Julia Gillard, a former industrial lawyer, called for the retention of the compulsion powers. She argued that while “lawlessness” had abated on construction sites, there was still a need for “a tough cop on the beat.” Siewert counted that any lawlessness should be a matter for the police, not the bureaucracy.

ABCC regulations continue to prohibit any industrial action or union activity on building sites, except in cases of health and safety emergencies. Yet an Essential Research survey carried out last month reveals there is public concern about the ramifications of restricting union representation on building sites, which remain among the most dangerous workplaces.

Almost a quarter (22%) of respondents to the online survey said they had “a lot of trust” in the construction workers’ union to handle safety of building and construction workers, ahead of government regulators (19%) and the federal government (8%). Most (47%) agree that limiting the role of unions on construction sites will decrease safety; 29% disagreed with the statement.

Meanwhile, for more than two years Ark Tribe and his family have lived under the threat that he will end up in jail because he failed to attend and ABCC inquiry. A few days ago he emailed this message to his supporters:

This case is always on my mind. It’s not been a comfortable few years. But I’ve always said I’ll follow it right through to the end, so no one else has to. So my son doesn’t have to, my mates’ sons, and even some of my mates grandsons don’t have to go through what I’ve been through.

My lawyer says that this is the first case of its nature that will test the laws of the ABCC. Most people are horrified when they find out there is no right to silence in the compulsory interviews, or that the ABCC can force you to answer questions about what happens in your workplace.

I didn’t set out to test these laws. I’m just an ordinary bloke who went to work one day on a construction site in Adelaide.

I’ve been able to do this with the support from people like you all around the country. My family, mates, the blf social club, and the union have been incredible.

Thank you for all your messages of support. I’ll have them with me when the verdict is handed down on Wednesday 24 November.

Peter Fray

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