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The Cole Royal Commission: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

By Jim Marr - posted Thursday, 10 April 2003

Hands up all who have read transcripts from the Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. Bugger all? Well that will suit Tony Abbott, whose plan to write unions out of the construction industry script is entirely dependent on the average Aussie being kept in the dark.

Much play has been made, by Abbott and the media, of 392 Commission findings of "unlawful conduct", the vast majority against the CFMEU and its officers.

Well, let's go there, noting that Cole and Abbott have been careful to use the word "unlawful" rather than "illegal". How do these findings stack up against the claims on which the Workplace Relations Minister and his Office of the Employment Advocate justified the Royal Commission, namely that the industry was characterised by widespread standover tactics and corruption?


Below are the essence of Cole's first three findings against the CFMEU's NSW branch and, believe me, they give an accurate flavour of what follows …

  1. "Murphy, in that capacity, entered the Whitehaus Apartments site on 24 April 2002 and did not notify the occupier of the premises of his presence as soon as was reasonably practicable;
    "on the material before me, I am satisfied that Daniel Murphy, an organiser for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Engergy Union, engaged in unlawful conduct".
  2. "Fryer, in that capacity, entered the Whitehaus Apartments site on 24 April 2002 and did not notify the occupier of the premises of his presence as soon as was reasonably practicable;
    "on the material before me, I am satisfied that Lincoln Fryer, … engaged in unlawful conduct".
  3. "Smith, in that capacity, attended the Whitehaus Apartments site on 28 May 2001, stopped work on the site and held discussions with employees during working hours outside of meal-time, or other break times;
    "on the material before me, I am satisfied that Phillip Smith … engaged in unlawful conduct".

Fair dinkum, Cole has uncovered the industrial equivalent of jay walking and recommended the equivalent of the death penalty.

He has come up with 212 recommendations designed to ensure that building workers have no effective voice in their industry.

This is not just an argument that Cole's "unlawful" findings are so far from the Abbott-Hamberger predictions that they should be overlooked, however. Far from it, his Commission was so flawed, so inherently biased, that its findings and recommendations should be rejected in their entirety.

Alan Jones, hardly a trade union activist, was on the money when he advised Abbott to use the report as a door stop on a Canberra garage.


The Commission process was highlighted when it opened its Sydney hearings in June last year. Its investigators had been trawling NSW for three months looking for rorts and had prepared around 110 witness statements. Four or five were overviews from peak bodies, the rest, without exception, were allegations of wrong doing against trade unionists. It beggars belief that a $60 million Commission couldn't discover one misdemeanour by any employer right across the state.

Since then, about a dozen individuals have revealed they made serious allegations against non-union parties only to be told their testimonies would not be needed.

The result was a parade of rip-off artists making accusations against the CFMEU and its members.

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An edited version of this was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 3 April 2003.

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About the Author

Jim Marr is author of First the Verdict, the story of the Cole Royal Commission.

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Construction, Forestry and Mining and Energy Union
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