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‘Ludicrous’: Senator Eric Abetz rejects claims he lied about union royal commission

Senator Eric Abetz has rejected the construction union’s claims that the inquiry was a one-sided attack on unions. CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan. Photo: Jorge Branco

Former workplace relations minister Eric Abetz was lying when he said the union royal commission was “a sword that will cut both ways” and would shine a light on both unions and private companies, the construction union claims.

But Senator Abetz says the commission lived up to its promise and the union is trying to divert attention from “devastating findings” against it.

The labour movement was excoriated by the commission on Wednesday when its final report found it was beset by “deep-seated” misconduct.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the findings were “not a case of a few rotten apples spoiling the whole barrel … there are many union officials, and widespread cultures, of impropriety and malpractice”. He pledged sweeping reforms to clean up the sector.

But the report also referred a number of companies to police and prosecutors. They included engineering firm John Holland Pty Ltd and food grower Chiquita Mushrooms, which may have engaged in corrupt conduct, and Winslow Constructors Pty Ltd in relation to possible false accounting.

Senator Abetz had previously said the commission was “a sword that will cut both ways,” and in his report, royal commissioner Dyson Heydon rejected suggestions the inquiry was a one-sided attack on unions.

But Dave Noonan, the national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division, said examples of companies that “behaved appallingly” were raised with the commission but ignored.

“When Senator Abetz said the sword would cut both ways, he was lying. He knew the terms of reference were narrow and designed only to scrutinise unions,” Mr Noonan said.

“In every case where there was employer misconduct, the royal commission did their best to sweep that under the carpet and focus on the real or imagined shortcomings and misdeeds of unions and their officials.”

He said allegations relating to worker deaths, problems with the payment of superannuation to workers and immigration fraud were ruled outside the inquiry’s terms of reference.

Senator Abetz said issues such as workplace safety were legitimate, but an inquiry into trade union governance was not the place to examine them. He described Mr Noonan’s comments as “ludicrous” and said the commission drew attention to numerous instances of wrongdoing by companies and their managers.

“David Noonan can’t overcome the devastating findings of the royal commission by trying to set up straw men to attack me and divert attention,” he said.

“The simple fact is he’s presiding over a corrupt union. Most people are of the view that he must know what is going on within his union and all he has done is basically run defence for them rather than being at the vanguard of stripping out the corruption.”

In a statement, the Australian Council of Trade Unions said companies who break the law “should adhere to the same consequences as everyone else.”

John Holland Pty Ltd declined to comment. Chiquita Mushrooms and Winslow Constructors could not be contacted.

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