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Questions raised over taskforce

QUESTIONS are being raised about the effectiveness of the national taskforce mooted at the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry.

In his opening address to the commission’s Sydney hearings, Counsel Assisting Nicholas Green QC indicated that such a taskforce could be needed to enforce law in the building and construction industry.

Industry figures believe the national taskforce will be too eastern-centric, too bureaucratic and too backward looking.

Hanssen Pty Ltd director Gerry Hanssen said any national taskforce would have to concentrate on present-day problems.

MBA industrial relations manager Kim Richardson said eastern states-based taskforces tended to concentrate on the “golden triangle” of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

In one recent case the Federal Office of the Employment Advocate received a complaint regarding a right-of-entry dispute.

The office arranged for a team to come from Sydney to investigate – 12 months later.

WA’s own three-man Building Industry Task Force was credited with removing much of the lawlessness from WA’s building industry.

However, it was disbanded on March 28 because the new WA Government believed it was too confrontational, was perceived as anti-union and was duplicated by other government departments. It was replaced with the Building Industry and Special Projects Inspectorate, which many builders believe is ineffectual.

Former WA BITF member Jim Zacknich said the taskforce had been effective because it had concentrated on present misdeeds.

“We decided that what had happened in the past should stay in the past and that we should just concentrate on the things that were happening now,” he said.

“I think we got on top of the problems that were out there. We mostly stamped out the casual tickets that the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union were forcing on employers.

“When we were appointed there were no expectations of us. Whoever takes over will have unrealistic expectations put upon them.

“My greatest concern is that any new taskforce will need to find someone qualified enough and experienced enough to be able to make prosecutions, but also to provide advice on site.”

The taskforce’s three members – former Interstruct director Geoff Marsh, former WA police inspector Jim Zacknich and former Miscellaneous Workers Union assistant Allan Shuttleton – used the criminal code and IR laws to get their results.

It also helped unions with right-of-entry provisions and prosecuted several builders.

Mr Zacknich said the taskforce’s biggest achievement was to convince builders to stand up to the unions.

“People won’t do that without support of government or if they see nothing is being done,” he said.

“We played the role of the cop on the corner, letting businesses know that we were there to help them and stop some of the lawlessness that was taking place.”

Former WA Industrial Relations Minister Graham Kierath said that, when the Court Government had first come to power in 1992, it had considered holding a royal commission to find out the extent of the problems in the building industry.

“We were told a royal commission would not achieve much. It would only bring us bad publicity for the couple of years that it ran,” Mr Kierath said.

Mr Shuttleton said the criminal code had been one of the taskforce’s best weapons.

“Where we were able to prosecute on threats and extortion it became a real deterrent because of the legal fees they had to pay to defend those actions,” he said.

“There are rules for industrial action. Joe McDonald would never have been prosecuted as many times as he was if he had followed those rules.

“I know of people who were too scared to come forward because they were threatened by the union. Their families were threatened.”

Mr Kierath said prosecutions under the criminal code had made up a large part of the taskforce’s prosecutions.

He said it also had been necessary to make taskforce members industrial inspectors.

“The CFMEU in particular used jurisdiction very skilfully. If they were faced by a WA inspector they would claim they were there on a Federal award matter or vice versa,” Mr Kierath said.

However, there had been some criticism of WA’s BITF.

Doric director Charles Neophytou said the taskforce’s presence had simply lulled builders into a false sense of security.

“While the industry had the relief of the taskforce, the unions were plotting to overthrow their Liberal masters,” Dr Neophytou said.

p Next week: Industry fears for the future.

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