'Dysfunctional' CFMEU faces split as Labor introduces demerger bill following John Setka AFL stoush

Kat Wong
AAP
Jack Riewoldt reacts after umpire Stephen McBurney makes a decision during a 2013 game.
Jack Riewoldt reacts after umpire Stephen McBurney makes a decision during a 2013 game. Credit: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

One of Australia’s largest unions could soon split after the federal government waded into a stoush between the AFL and the union’s leaders.

A proposed demerger bill would allow the manufacturing division of the Construction, Forestry and Maritime Employees Union (CFMEU) to split from the broader organisation if supported by a vote.

This comes as the union’s Victorian secretary John Setka piles pressure on the AFL to fire its chief umpire.

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The 59-year-old has criticised the AFL for hiring Stephen McBurney, the former head of the now-defunct industrial watchdog the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

Mr Setka, who stands down later this year, threatened to delay work on AFL construction sites if the sport failed to give in to his demands and sack Mr McBurney.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke said the laws will give the manufacturing division a choice.

“The status quo is dysfunctional and cannot continue,” he said.

“We will provide the opportunity for members of the manufacturing division to vote on their future.

“The members in the manufacturing division include workers in largely feminised industries like textiles - and it’s not hard to see why those members might want to leave,” Mr Burke said.

Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie has previously called for textile, footwear and clothing workers to be able to hold a secret ballot to vote to leave the CFMEU, saying they deserved “freedom” from Mr Setka.

The CFMEU Manufacturing Division national secretary Michael O’Connor welcomed the opportunity.

“The government is doing the right thing, they have listened to us and are respecting the good judgment of our members,” he said.

“We thank Senator Lambie and Minister Burke who are backing us in to give our members an opportunity for a brighter future outside of the CFMEU and a more respected and active role in the labour movement, free from the shackles of the dysfunctional CFMEU.”

But the union’s national body said the federal government should not be intervening in determining union coverage, “which poses a huge risk of leaving workers worse off”.

“Using legislation to decide on union coverage would set an incredibly dangerous precedent a future anti-worker government could use to trample on workers’ rights,” said CFMEU national secretary Zach Smith.

“The government needs to scrap this plan and show it respects the very clear rules around union amalgamations that have been backed in by the Federal Court.”

Mr Setka has been involved in a string of workplace controversies and a public breakdown of his marriage to Emma Walters in his decade at the helm of the Victoria and Tasmania CFMEU.

The union boss was expelled from the Labor Party in 2019 over accusations he told colleagues that anti-family violence campaigner Rosie Batty’s advocacy had led to men having fewer rights.

He has rejected the allegations.

Mr Smith said Mr Setka would leave the CFMEU with an “enormous legacy” of making members’ lives better and had recently delivered a 21 per cent pay rise for construction workers in Victoria.

Mining union members of the CFMEU voted to split from the union in 2023.

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