The newly elected Abbott Government is vowing to honour its election promise to abolish the Fair Work Building and Construction Inspectorate (FWBCI) and reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) within 100 days of its election, despite the likely obstacle of a hostile Senate.

The ABCC was established by the former Howard government in 2005 to regulate industrial relations in the building and construction industry by monitoring the application of the National Code of Practice for the Building and Construction Industry (Code), which required businesses tendering for federally funded construction work to be certified compliant with strict workplace relations guidelines aimed at reigning in the influence of trade unions on the collective bargaining process.

Under subsequent Labor governments, the scope of the ABCC's investigative and enforcement powers was reduced and the Code amended to reflect the new Fair Work Act 2009 (Act), eventually resulting in the abolition of the ABCC altogether and the creation of the FWBCI to monitor compliance with the Act and revised Code.

Employment Minister Eric Abetz has confirmed the government is on track to introduce draft legislation required to implement the return of the ABCC in the first sitting week of parliament. However, Labor and the Greens have maintained their opposition to the government's proposed course of action and are expected to prevent any such legislation from passing the Senate before the make up of the Upper House changes on 1 July 2014.

To counteract the anticipated opposition to its legislation, the government is reportedly considering implementing a range of measures that do not require parliamentary approval, with the aim of instilling the hardline approach of the Howard-era ABCC in the current FWBCI. Such measures include:

  • replacing the current chief executive of the FWBCI with a candidate that will implement the government's reform agenda;
  • assigning some of the FWBCI's current responsibilities for enforcing compliance with the National Employment Standards in the Act to the Fair Work Ombudsman, to better equip the FWBCI to investigate alleged unlawful industrial activity within the industry;
  • amending the Code and implementation guidelines to more closely reflect the position under the Howard government; and
  • reversing $24 million in funding cuts to the FWBCI over the next 4 years, as proposed by the Labor government in the 2013 Federal Budget.

A strengthening of the Code as it applies to the influence of trade unions on industrial relations would also bring the federal system into line with equivalent guidelines in place in jurisdictions such as Queensland and Victoria for construction and infrastructure projects funded by State governments.

Employers in the building and construction industry should closely monitor the Abbott government's initiatives to implement its reform agenda over the first 100 days of its term, to ensure they are aware of any changes in their industrial obligations.

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