Supreme Court rules CFMEU not above the law

The Supreme Court has this week imposed a $1.25 million fine on the CFMEU for illegally blockading Victorian construction sites in 2012, having disobeyed court orders.

The blockade centred on an industrial dispute at the Emporium construction site between the union and Grocon, which involved ugly clashes with police in Melbourne’s central business district.

In addition, the union has also been ordered to pay Grocon’s legal costs, which could be in the order of a further $1 million or more.

At the end of 2012, the CFMEU Victorian/Tasmanian Branch had more than $12.3 million in cash at bank and short term deposits as well as net assets worth $51.9 million.

Strong, loud signal sent

Master Builders’ Chief Executive Officer, Radley de Silva, welcomed the court’s findings.

“The Supreme Court has sent a very strong, very loud signal to the CFMEU that no-one is above the law,” said Mr de Silva.

“These unlawful blockades were part of a militant union campaign aimed at acquiring onsite power, regardless of the costs, and could not be legitimised on the basis of genuine health and safety concerns.

“It’s time the union threw out its outdated playbook tactics of chaos, fear, intimidation and lawlessness to advance its industrial agenda.

“Our industry and our community were held to ransom by the CFMEU for weeks during this blockade.”

No apology, no remorse

In his judgement, Supreme Court Judge Anthony Cavanough described the Emporium blockade as “highly visible and high memorable”.

“I regard these contempts as exceptionally serious. So much so that they warrant explicit classification as criminal contempts, perhaps for the first time in the Australian industrial context,” said Justice Cavanough.

“The Court must visit the defiance of the CFMEU with a penalty which will not only adequately respond to the defiance but also act as a general and specific deterrent.”

His Honour also noted the union has yet to show any signs of regret for its actions in directly disobeying orders from Victoria’s highest court.

“…the CFMEU initially ignored the Court. Later, it contested its liability. It has made no apology. It does not claim remorse,” Justice Cavanough found.

‘Horrific scenes of lawlessness’

Federal Employment Minister, Senator Eric Abetz, discussed the unlawful blockade when speaking at the Master Builders Members’ Conference.

“The law needs to be enforced, whenever it is broken,” said Senator Abetz.

“All of us will recall the horrific scenes of lawlessness on the streets of Melbourne in August 2012.

“The conduct itself was bad enough, but what made it even more contemptible was that it involved a deliberate breach of orders of the Supreme Court.

“It’s hard to imagine a more flagrant display of contempt for the rule of law.

The Minister also spoke to members about the near 18-month timeframe between the first court hearings on the blockade and the final penalties being announced.

“The old truism says that ‘Justice Delayed is Justice Denied’,” Senator Abetz said to members.

“While I am conscious of the separation of the executive government from the judiciary, I trust there were good and cogent reasons why it took nine months for the Supreme Court to reach a decision that the CFMEU was guilty of contempt of court.

“There are no doubt equally good and cogent reasons why it is taking another nine months for the court to hand down its penalty.

“Suffice to say I find it difficult to explain these delays to those that may be minded to seek the protection of the law and desperately need speedy resolution of their issues.”

Fines show the need for the ABCC

The court’s decision reinforces the need for the Senate to pass legislation re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

“It’s events like this that show why we need a strong construction industry watchdog,” said Mr de Silva.

“Labor and the Greens can stand up for jobs and investment by supporting legislation to re-establish the ABCC or they can continue to turn a blind eye to activity that can cripple our sector at the union’s whim.”

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