In October 2016, the re-elected Turnbull government ramped up its efforts to pass the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, which would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission. The bill would be passed, in a gutted form, on November 30, and the new body would commence on December 2, 2016.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash was the portfolio minister and, along with the Prime Minister, the face of the government’s push to, as it endlessly insisted, restore the “rule of law” to the construction industry.

We knew at the time that some of the claims made by Cash and Turnbull about the construction industry were outright lies. What we’ve since learned is that another key Coalition claim about construction, that it has experienced massive wages blowouts due to the CFMEU’s militant tactics, is also false.

After yesterday, we know something else happened in October: Cash found out that Nigel Hadgkiss, the head of what was then the Fair Work Building Inspectorate, had egregiously breached the Fair Work Act. Yesterday in question time, Cash was forced to admit: “I became aware of the behaviour in October 2016.” (You can always tell when a minister feels caught out in question time — their normally extensive answers that fill up the available time are suddenly curtailed to the fewest possible words).

Hadgkiss, a Coalition favourite, was immediately appointed to head the Fair Work Building Inspectorate by Eric Abetz when the Coalition was elected in 2013. Shortly thereafter, Hadgkiss told Inspectorate staff not to correct misleading advice from the Inspectorate that told employers they could direct unions about where to hold on-site meetings. For two years, the advice was left uncorrected despite staff warnings, until the CFMEU warned the Inspectorate it was breaching the Fair Work Act. The CFMEU then went after Hadgkiss about the failure, and discovered emails revealing his role in preventing staff from correcting the advice.

In doing so, the CFMEU brought down the man that the Coalition confidently expected to bring down the CFMEU.

But not merely did Cash know about Hadgkiss’ actions nearly a year ago and do nothing about them — such as, for example, ask him to stand aside. She then appointed Hadgkiss as head of the ABCC on December 2, 2016, using the transitional provisions of the ABCC bill to continue his appointment by Abetz in the new body when it was established.

That is, Cash appointed as head of this body intended to enforce the rule of law in the construction industry a man who, by her own admission yesterday, she had known for over a month had behaved in a way that breached the Fair Work Act. Cash is now trying to justify herself by saying they were only allegations against Hadgkiss, which contradicts her statement in Hansard that refers to his “behaviour”, but whether allegations or not, it changes nothing. Hadgkiss’ appointment was an extraordinary action by a minister and immediately raises serious policy and political questions:

  • What role did the consideration of Hadgkiss’ behaviour play in her decision to appoint him? Did she obtain legal advice?
  • Did she inform the Prime Minister that at the very least, serious allegations had been made against Hadgkiss that, if admitted, would lead to his resignation?
  • Why did Hadgkiss accept his appointment to the ABCC when he knew he had broken the law, even if he had not at that point admitted it?

In the absence of some startling revelations about what went on between the minister and Hadgkiss between October and December 2, 2016, such as the latter misleading the former, Michaelia Cash, the eternally laughing face of the government’s industrial relations agenda, must resign. To have appointed someone in such circumstances is an extraordinarily reckless act.

Peter Fray

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