The Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) has thrown down the gauntlet to the Turnbull government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) after a ruling by the ABCC Commissioner that South Australian Power Networks employees are to be covered by the code.

This, says the union, flies in the face of assurances given by federal employment minister Michaelia Cash. The union says these assurances were “unequivocal, telling the parliament that the ‘building code specifically provides for exemptions for essential service providers’”.

According to CEPU national secretary Allen Hicks, the Commissioner’s ruling “exposed the Turnbull government, which may have misled senators earlier this year in their attempts to have the building code legislation passed”.

“Clearly, either the ABCC is in breach of the laws governing the building code, which we will be arguing in the federal court, or the employment minister misled the parliament,” said Hicks.

Hicks has also written to SA Power Networks chief executive officer Robert Stobbe, asking the company to support the union’s legal action to overturn the “unfair and illogical decision” and “restore industrial certainty to SA Power Networks and restore rights to [construction and maintenance services division] CaMS workers.”

"The building code was never designed for essential services such as power and telecommunications,” Hicks said.

“We always feared that code was intended to spread outside the building and construction sectors, stripping away fundamental employment protections for workers, imposing unwieldy obligations on employers, and threatening the long-standing industrial harmony that has been achieved sectors such as telecommunications and electricity distribution.”

The ABCC has a history of influencing the course of political events in Australia. Set up by the Howard government in 2005, it was then disbanded by Julia Gillard, only to be given a new lease of life by Malcolm Turnbull.

It also became the trigger for the 2016 ‘double-dissolution’ election which the Coalition only narrowly won.

According to a spokesperson for senator Cash, “This is just another desperate attempt by building unions to undermine the ABCC and the Building Code, which is designed to ensure safe and productive building sites and ensure that taxpayers’ money is not wasted.”

“It is a simple fact that the code actually enshrines workers’ rights and provides important safeguards, including the enforcement of security of payment laws which provides protection to small subcontractors,” said the spokesperson.

While the federal government says the code allows the ABCC commissioner to exempt companies from the code if they provide essential services, such as the provision of electricity, natural gas, water, waste water, or telecommunications, the CEPU’s Hicks claims there seems to be confusion within the ABCC over the actual role and function of telecommunications workers.

“The ABCC appears to have fundamentally misunderstood the role of SA Power Network’s construction and maintenance services division, leading to the preposterous finding that people who roll out and expand telecommunications and electricity services are not performing an essential service,” he says.