The Fair Work Ombudsman has been criticised for its handling of a CFMEU case. 

Recent legal proceedings have sparked questions about the effectiveness of Australia's workplace regulators, after Judge Salvatore Vasta criticised the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) for its decision to drop a significant allegation against an officer of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). 

The case concluded last week with the CFMEU and its officials fined over $135,000 for breaches at a Queensland construction site, but a set of withdrawn allegations caught the judiciary's attention.

Originally, the CFMEU faced accusations of physical and financial threats made by one of its officers, including a threat to “grab my bat and start swinging it” if certain subcontractors were not hired, alongside allegations of corrupt payments to Queensland government officials. 

Despite the seriousness of these charges, they were abruptly dropped by the FWO after a five-day trial.

Judge Vasta expressed his bafflement and concern over this decision, stating; “To abandon such a claim, especially at the 11th hour, is something that one would think would not occur lightly.” 

“What launched as a hotly contested proceeding requiring five hearing days, which included robust cross-examination followed by full written submissions, ended quite suddenly with a compromise.”

The FWO defended its actions, citing a need for pragmatic resolutions that uphold the law while managing court resources efficiently. 

Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Michael Campbell highlighted the significance of the fines imposed, saying; “Court penalties are important to affirm the seriousness of breaching right of entry laws”.

However, Judge Vasta suggested that the FWO's decision could undermine public trust in its operations, creating a perception that it “may very well be an Orwellian one; that is, that some victims, and some perpetrators, are more equal than others.” 

He cautioned that such perceptions could suggest the FWO, “by its own actions, has not lived up to its purpose”. 

The questions about accountability follow the recent dismantling of the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the transfer of its responsibilities to the FWO.