Malcolm Turnbull

In an astonishing last-minute backflip, some of the worst aspects of the Australian Building and Construction Commission’s Stasi-like powers to interrogate Australians will be curbed as part of the government’s desperate negotiations to secure a perceived win on its ABCC bill — with the current powers put in place by Labor to be retained.

In what has been likened to a fire sale of its promises, the government will impose on the ABCC the same restrictions in relation to questioning citizens that currently apply under Labor’s Fair Work Building and Construction, after agreeing to a joint amendment from senators Nick Xenophon and Derryn Hinch. Their amendment is based on a similar one put forward by now-departed senator Ricky Muir before the election.

The original ABCC, and the new version proposed by the Coalition, had security agency-like powers of interrogation in which anyone could be secretly interrogated by the ABCC, on its own initiative and without independent oversight, with people prohibited on threat of jail from revealing they had been interrogated, and no right to silence or legal representation. The ABCC readily used these powers, although they were later revealed to have been used illegally.

When it abolished the ABCC in 2012 and replaced it with the FWBC, Labor removed these powers and replaced them with a requirement that the ABCC seek examination notices from an Administrative Appeals Tribunal judge rather than issue them itself, that it not be able to prohibit people from revealing they had been questioned, a right to legal representation for people being examined and a right not to reveal information covered by legal professional privilege or public interest immunity. However, the government’s restored ABCC would have only had a right to legal representation and no other protections.

The Xenophon and Hinch amendment was passed this morning as the government finally achieved passage of the bill that — at least in name — was the basis for the July double dissolution election. The new ABCC will therefore have the same powers as the existing FWBC. The government and industrial relations hardliners has previously insisted that Labor’s FWBC did not have sufficient powers to control the construction industry, having been “neutered” by the Gillard government.