There are few things more on-brand for a Liberal politician than attacking organised labour. John Howard virtually made it an art form, prohibiting unions from staging secondary boycotts through the Trade Practices Act, throwing government support behind Patrick Stevedores in its paradigm-shifting clash with the Maritime Union of Australia circa 1998, and eventually spearheading one of the most sweeping anti-worker statutes in the Western world in WorkChoices, which was only partially wound back by the Rudd/Gillard governments.
His successors Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, whilst lacking the ideological zeitgeist characteristic of the Howard era, have taken a similarly antagonistic approach to worker rights since the Coalition seized back power in 2013. Both the Registered Organisations Commission and the Australian Building and Construction Commission, set up in 2016, were established for the predominant purpose of undermining the militant construction unions, and have since been used -- with questionable efficacy -- as vehicles to undermine the Coalition’s political opponents.
Enter the Ensuring Integrity Bill, a piece of legislation which died in 2017’s Senate only to be resuscitated in the wake of the Coalition’s shock 2019 re-election.
If passed, the bill would create legal infrastructures geared towards the disqualification of union officials, the deregistration of unions and the vetoing of union mergers. Many of the provisions have no counterparts in corporations legislation, and the range of persons who can initiate action under the statute -- for example for an order disqualifying a person from holding office -- are amorphous in scope.
Christian Porter cited the ongoing John Setka saga as a catalyst for the bill’s reintroduction into Parliament. Setka, the Victorian state secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union, was accused of denigrating domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty behind closed doors in June, and later that month pled guilty to harassing his wife Emma Walters via text message and breaching a family violence court order. Since then, individuals and groups on the left side of politics have implored, encouraged and demanded his resignation from the CFMEU, leading to a prolonged and ugly showdown between the powerbrokers in the Australian labour movement.
Due to how Setka has conducted himself in the public eye in recent months, it seems likely the proposed amendments will become law later this year. His steadfast refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of his behaviour towards his spouse -- described as “nasty” and “misogynistic” by the Magistrate who sentenced him -- and the message it sends for him to retain his position at the helm of one of Australia’s most influential and well-resourced unions, has been one thing; the thuggish way he has attempted to pressure members of the Senate crossbench to vote against the legislation has been something else all-together.
Even as calls for his resignation reach fever pitch within the ACTU, the ALP and seemingly his own union, Setka has continued to dig in his heels, entering a death spiral of denial, deflection and reactionary attacks. Rather than do the right thing and tender his resignation, depriving the Coalition and its backers of oxygen and forcing the government to defend the bill on its (non-existent) merits, he has remained front and centre, allowing the vote to be reconfigured as a referendum on him.
Whereas until now Setka has been a net positive for the union movement -- he is a charismatic and effective advocate on behalf of his members, a legendary campaigner and a principled critic of “yellow unions” like the Shop Distributors Alliance -- his ego and instinct for self-preservation have made him a tool of the Coalition and the right-wing commentariat, who are harnessing the public’s repudiation of his character as a clarion call to assault the legitimacy of unions more broadly. Further, Setka’s refusal to stand down, even temporarily, accentuates divisions within progressive coalitions, who rightly see action on gendered violence as fundamentally non-negotiable. He is besmirching organised labour to the uninitiated and dividing the left side of politics.
Which is devastating, because outside of the Ensuring Integrity Bill the Coalition’s industrial relations agenda is astonishingly sparse. Whilst the government is currently conducting a review into Australia’s workplace laws, it brought no new legislation into the 2019 election and backbenchers question whether Porter has the experience or will to institute the sweeping changes that employer groups are calling for.
The opportunity to make it to the next election in 2022 without large-scale industrial change, is on the table. The time is now to give the movement time for self-reflection and re-mobilisation, to help ACTU leaders Michelle O’Neil and Sally McManus consolidate their authority, to let the ALP figure out what kind of opposition they want to be.
John Setka is standing in the way of that, and if this bill passes, it will be on his head.
-  The ABCC was originally established in 2005 and abolished in 2012 by the Gillard government in place of Fair Work Building & Construction. It was re-constituted under Malcom Turnbull in the aftermath of the 2016 Federal election.
-  For example, a ‘person with a sufficient interest’ (a term which is undefined) can initiate action under the statute.