Pressure is mounting on Employment Minister Michaelia Cash to explain why Nigel Hadgkiss was appointed to head the building industry watchdog months after it emerged he was facing allegations of breaking the Fair Work laws he was meant to enforce.
Mr Hadgkiss resigned from his $420,000 job on Wednesday after he admitted to contravening the Fair Work Act by recklessly misrepresenting union rights to enter workplaces in 2013 when he was heading up a Fair Work office for more than two years.
Australian Building and Construction Commission boss Nigel Hadgkiss has resigned. Photo: Simon Schluter
Senator Cash faces increasing pressure to explain if she told Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of the allegations against Mr Hadgkiss when he was promoted to head the new Australian Building and Construction Commission in December 2016.
Senator Cash told the Senate she first became aware of the allegations against Mr Hadgkiss in October last year, three months before he was automatically posted to the new position.
Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
“Merely because behaviour is alleged in a court process does not make it a finding of fact,” she said on Thursday.
“It would mean the [construction union] could allege anything against anyone any day of the week. Should we not allow the court to undertake its due process?”
A spokesman for Senator Cash said there was no cabinet appointment process for the ABCC commissioner.
“When the ABCC legislation passed the Parliament, the legislation prescribed that the head of Fair Work Building and Construction automatically became the head of the ABCC,” he said.
Labor’s employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor Photo: SMH
Senator Cash would not comment on whether she told Mr Turnbull or cabinet of the allegations against Mr Hadgkiss before he took up the role in December or whether she had received any legal advice on the matter.
Labor’s employment spokesman, Brendan O’Connor, said Senator Cash’s position had become “untenable”, saying it would be a “fundamental breach of ministerial responsibility not to disclose legal proceedings” to cabinet.
ACTU president Ged Kearney. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Mr O’Connor said Senator Cash had further questions she needed to answer about how early she knew about the allegations against Mr Hadgkiss.
He said written complaints about Mr Hadgkiss’ conduct were made in July last year, alleging Mr Hadgkiss had taken down information from the former Fair Work Building Inspectorate’s website and had stopped hard copies being distributed.
“How can the minister maintain that she had no knowledge of Mr Hadgkiss’ law-breaking behaviour until October 2016, when court proceedings were instituted against him on 19 August 2016, with contemporaneous media coverage of that fact and of the behaviour which constituted Mr Hadgkiss’ law breaking?” Mr O’Connor asked.
“Does the Minister really expect the Australian public to believe that no one in the FWBI, or her department, or her office brought to her attention that her regulator was subject to legal proceedings for breaching the law he was charged with regulating?”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions said the Turnbull government should not be paying Mr Hadgkiss’ legal fees with taxpayers’ money.
“Mr Hadgkiss was a political appointment to a $426,000 a year job, not elected by anyone, who took it upon himself to blatantly act unlawfully for years,” ACTU president Ged Kearney said.
“The ACTU is calling on Minister Cash to give the public answers about this scandal: what she knew, what the Prime Minister was told, and when that information was available.
“We also want to know why Mr Hadgkiss was reappointed to his position while under investigation?
“It’s evident this is a cover-up that must extend far beyond the Minister Cash’s office.”
Ms Kearney was also critical of Senator Cash praising Mr Hadgkiss for re-establishing the rule of law, “even though she has known for almost a year about his law-breaking behaviour”.
“Working people have no faith in this government or the bodies they create and people they appoint,” Ms Kearney said.
“Minister Cash has spent the past two years attacking working people and their unions, and she has never been held to account for her vicious behaviour.”
Mr Hadgkiss was appointed as ABCC commissioner earlier this year after the Coalition government reinstated the ABCC, which was the trigger for the 2016 double dissolution election.
Mr Hadgkiss breached section 503 of the Fair Work Act by publishing website material that misrepresented the rights of union officials during entry to premises to meet workers. He failed to correct the material despite concerns being raised by his staff.
In an agreed statement of facts tendered to the Federal Court this week, Mr Hadgkiss admitted that, in December 2013, he directed his agency to not publish changes to right-of-entry laws that were of benefit to unions.
The former Labor government had changed the right-of-entry laws in late 2013 and they took effect on January 1, 2014.
Mr Hadgkiss directed staff to not publish the new rules on the agency website, fact sheets, posters or booklets because he expected the new Coalition government to abolish them; however, the laws were not changed.
The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union took legal action against Mr Hadgkiss that led to his admissions.