Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has essentially presented the Senate with an ultimatum: pass laws to more strictly monitor the nation’s unions, or face a rare double dissolution election.
Turnbull made his move this week by having Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove recall parliament for a special three-week session, from April 18, and by setting a date of July 2 for a potential double dissolution, if they can’t work things out by then.
He also moved the federal budget forward from May 10 to May 3, clearing the way for the potential drama ahead.
A double dissolution of parliament would see the public vote on all 150 seats in the House of Representatives, and all 76 seats in the Senate. In a standard election, just half of the Senate is voted on, as Senators typically serve six-year terms.
The dramatic turn of events is all part of the prime minister’s efforts to pass through a pair of bills, both relating to the governance and monitoring of trade unions.
The first bill, rejected once by the Senate already, is to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the trade union watchdog established by the Coalition in 2005, and abolished by Labor when it was in power in 2012.
The second bill, which has been rejected twice by the Senate, would create another government body, the Registered Organisations Commission, to provide the government greater investigation and information gathering powers over unions.
In an interview with ABC’s 7.30 host Leigh Sales on Monday, the prime minister made his position clear.
“Many if not most Australians are well aware of the level of lawlessness and corruption and waste in the construction industry,” Turnbull said.
“The Heydon Royal Commission set it out very graphically, if we had reason to doubt it.
“There [are] about a hundred officials of the CFMEU and members of the CFMEU facing court proceedings at the moment.
“There has been a degree of lawlessness in that construction sector that was identified by the Cole Royal Commission years ago.”
The findings of the Cole Royal Commission over a decade ago led to the Howard Government’s creation of the ABCC – a body Turnbull says reduced disputes and improved productivity in the sector by 20%.
“[When] the Labor Party [was] in government, [Bill] Shorten in fact as the minister, abolished the ABCC and what have we seen: industrial disputes rising,” Turnbull said, “lawlessness rising.”
The PM pointed to statistics showing 70% of Australia’s industrial disputes take place in the construction sector.
“Heydon was right and I believe we are right in saying there should be a special regulator,” he concluded.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Turnbull’s manoeuvre was simply an indication the prime minister was “in full panic mode”.
“We’re not afraid of a double dissolution election,” Shorten said.
“Australians are not afraid of a double dissolution election either, they just want people to get on with their interests rather than playing political gains.”