CFMEU antics spark cross-bench rethink on union strike off laws

The Morrison government will launch a fresh campaign to win crossbench support for new laws that will make it easier to deregister unions, including the militant CFMMEU, after several minor parties signalled they might now support the reform.

In the wake of a controversial social media post by CFMMEU official John Setka, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned the government is considering options for curbing the power of the union after years of "demonstrating their lawlessness and their thuggery and their brutality, their threats".

CFMEU building division Victorian secretary John Setka

Photo: Paul Jeffers

The Coalition's first priority is a bill, introduced to the Parliament last year but still before the Senate, that would grant the government new powers to deregister unions, disqualify officials and prevent union mergers if they repeatedly breach the law.

The CFMMEU, known as the CFMEU until a recent merger with the maritime union, has paid more than $15 million in fines since 2015 and currently has about 80 officials involved in legal proceedings on a range of charges.

Industrial Relations Minister Kelly O'Dwyer said the legislation was "critical to protecting Australian workers" and foreshadowed renewed discussions with the crossbench at the same time as minor parties have indicated their opposition could be softening.

"I will continue to talk to the crossbench about the government's Ensuring Integrity Bill but let's be clear: if Labor did the responsible thing and supported this important bill in the Parliament, it could be law very quickly," she told Fairfax Media.

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick said his party – holding two Senate votes – was "comfortable" with the Ensuring Integrity Bill but wanted to make sure unions did not face harsher treatment than corporations.

"We don’t want to impose upon the unions penalties that are not consistent with what you have in the Corporations Act," Senator Patrick said, adding the government had been receptive to Centre Alliance's feedback during earlier negotiations.

"We have looked at the conduct of the CFMMEU and in particular judicial commentary on their conduct and are disturbed by it. There are other unions we have contact with where there would be no issue arising if the legislation were to pass."

Liberal Democratic senator David Leyonhjelm said he was open to the bill after the government, under Ms O'Dwyer's predecessors in the portfolio, had shown support for his amendments to increase protections for freedom of speech and altering the public interest test to be considered in proposed amalgamations.

"If they are accepted, I can vote for it," Senator Leyonhjelm said.

"There is a question as to whether the CFMEU, having been prosecuted and convicted so many times, and appears to believe that is just a cost of doing business, should be allowed to continue to do that."

He said deregistration was a "very, very serious" step and expressed a preference for a crackdown that would see the union improve its behaviour and continue operating.

Independent senator Tim Storer told Fairfax Media he had been in discussions with the government and opponents of the bill, which he said he was still considering.

"I am continuing to consider whether it is appropriate to classify corporations and unions in the same category," he said.

Derryn Hinch said he supports the right of unions to amalgamate but was still considering the legislation, which has "changed a lot". United Australia senator Brian Burston has previously expressed support for the bill.

Without the backing of Labor or the Greens, the government needs eight of 10 crossbench votes to pass legislation.

Last month, Federal Court judge John Logan branded the union's record "disgraceful and shameful" and suggested they should be deregistered, warning "an organisation which manifests an inability by its internal governance to rein in aberrant behaviour cannot expect to remain registered in its existing form".

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has faced pressure – from both the government and internal Labor critics – over his factional ties to the union.

Michele O'Neil, new president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said the government's threat to deregister the CFMMEU after John Setka's controversial tweet was a distraction from real issues.

Michele O'Neill at a rally in Sydney on Wednesday

Photo: AAP

She said the tweet was now a non-issue because Mr Setka had apologised.

"This is a beat up from the government, the government is more concerned about a tweet than what is happening to these workers who are underpaid, who aren't treated fairly," she said pointing at the dozens of early educators calling for better pay at a rally in Sydney.

"The government is more concerned about looking after the big end of town and trying to distract from their own division, it's a big distraction."

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