Why is a construction union leader demanding the AFL sack its top umpire?

<span>John Setka (right) and the CFMEU have long criticised the ABCC, which was led by Stephen McBurney (left) from February 2018 until its abolition by the Albanese government.</span><span>Composite: Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images/AAP Image/Daniel Pockett</span>
John Setka (right) and the CFMEU have long criticised the ABCC, which was led by Stephen McBurney (left) from February 2018 until its abolition by the Albanese government.Composite: Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images/AAP Image/Daniel Pockett

The Victorian union leader John Setka has demanded the AFL sack the head of its umpiring department, threatening shutdowns on league-linked building sites unless it complies.

Setka, the state secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, made the threats earlier this week in relation to Stephen McBurney, a former AFL umpire who was appointed head of officiating in March.

McBurney is also a former commissioner of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a body repeatedly criticised by Setka, which was formally abolished by the Albanese government in 2023.

Why is Setka campaigning against McBurney?

Setka’s beef with McBurney is not new.

His union has long criticised the ABCC, which pursued dozens of cases against it before it was abolished. From February 2018, the ABCC was headed by McBurney.

In 2018, Setka tweeted a photo of his children holding up a sign reading “go get fu#ked” with the comment “to McBurney & ABCC … GO CATCH REAL CRIMINALS YOU COWARDS!!”

He later deleted the tweet.

In May 2018, he wrote in a union blog post: “Malcolm Turnbull has a new top dog for his attack dog, the anti-worker ABCC. Stephen McBurney … was an assistant commissioner of the ABCC under John Howard at a time when construction worker deaths peaked – 48 killed in 2006 and 51 in 2007.”

The following year, McBurney said he was “very concerned” about reports that cocaine had been sold by then-CFMMEU organisers out of a union vehicle, and signalled a crackdown on building entry permits.

What has Setka threatened?

According to multiple media reports, Setka has threatened union “work to rule” campaigns or shutdowns on multiple sites linked to the AFL, including a proposed new stadium in Hobart and a training base for the Adelaide Crows.

Setka says the AFL must immediately sack McBurney, whom he described to The Australian as an “anti-union, anti-worker fucker”, or “this is going to cost the AFL a lot of fucking money”.

How has the AFL responded?

The AFL is backing McBurney, an experienced lawyer and umpire.

“All projects the AFL contributes to are designed to provide better training venues for AFL and AFLW players, gender-friendly facilities and change rooms at community football clubs, and to create a more welcoming footy environment for families who make up many of the 1.2 million club members and the many more millions of fans who attend games, so we are hopeful any intended action does not impact players, supporters or the wider community who benefit from upgrades to local clubrooms and our stadiums,” the AFL said in a statement.

“Steve McBurney umpired 401 games, including four AFL grand finals, he has been a long-time mentor to umpires at every level and has done an outstanding job since returning to the AFL to take up the role of head of officiating.”

The AFL umpires association also backed McBurney, saying:

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“Given the recent appalling and threatening commentary from the Victorian Secretary of the CFMEU, John Setka, the AFLUA wishes to again declare its support for Stephen McBurney’s appointment to the AFL’s Head of Officiating role.

“In the AFLUA’s dealings and negotiations with the AFL, any differences of opinion are managed in a positive, respectful, and civil manner. With Steve as Head of Officiating, we have every confidence this relationship will continue for the betterment of umpiring.”

What could happen next?

The Albanese government and Victorian government have been criticised for not coming down harder on Setka.

Setka was unrepentant on Wednesday when asked about the AFL’s statement, so it appears neither party is likely to back down.

Perhaps the feud will not outlive Setka, who announced earlier this year that he would not renominate for his role in an election to be held later this year.