DYSON HEYDON’S Royal Commission into the union movement has taken on a dangerous new complexion this week for Labor “leader” Bill Shorten, as it probes various alleged deals, machinations and activities engaged in by his own union — the AWU — and various high-profile figures in it. With deeply distasteful “revelations” already swirling around his contemporaries, the inquiry stands to damage Shorten even if found personally blameless.
Regular readers are, of course, well aware of the extreme distaste and contempt in which I hold the union movement in Australia, its activities and tactics, the “principles” that supposedly guide it, and a fair number of the people in it; an institution that has historically served a constructive purpose and can rightly claim a record of reasonable advancement of workers’ conditions has in recent times become little more than a hotbed of vicious, unreasoning partisanship, industrial militancy and (sometimes) violence, and a tool for all-out savagery against conservative parties: irrespective of whether they hold office or not, and irrespective of whether they have done or even advocated anything particularly at odds with the ALP/union agenda or not.
Some readers known to me personally have expressed surprise that I have failed to spend more time commenting on proceedings at the Heydon Royal Commission into the trade union movement, and my response has been standard: I believe the labyrinth of criminality and deeply unethical misconduct that that investigation is charged with navigating, unravelling and (where appropriate) prosecuting is so deeply entrenched, and the “activities” under the spotlight so interwoven across the movement, that to avoid any prospect of saying anything at all that is prejudicial to its eventual findings and any charges arising from them, my preference is to wait until the Commission has reported — and any charges stemming from it have been laid.
But with the Commission now turning the blowtorch onto the union opposition “leader” Bill Shorten himself ran before entering Parliament — the Australian Workers’ Union — it would be remiss to allow its proceedings to pass without at least some cursory acknowledgement.
For background, readers can access the coverage of the Commission in The Australian today here, here and here, and the articles I have attached provide sufficient detail to serve to both background those who have not been following the week’s developments at the Commission and to get them across its findings and activities to date where the AWU is concerned.
They weave a tale of cronyism, fraud, deceptive conduct and self-interest on the part of the union and key figures within it; and they detail a pattern of AWU agreements with business that benefit the union certain figures within it at the expense of the pay rates of its affected members.
They tell of an elaborate plot to stack union numbers by “recruiting” unknowing “members” with monies raised in the name of training, occupational health and safety, and other ostensibly legitimate activities, which are then used to artificially inflate union representation at Labor Party conferences and in other forums the union (or individuals within it) have a vested interest in maximising their clout.
And the scandal being uncovered at the AWU is already reaching into the ALP, with prominent AWU figure Cesar Melhem — now an MP in the Andrews government in Victoria — already adversely named at the Commission, and stood aside from key duties until the investigations are finalised.
I do not propose to say too much this morning; again, I am loath to prejudice Heydon’s inquiry, and whilst my personal belief is that irrespective of whatever good the union movement claims to achieve nowadays, it is so riddled with criminal and corrupt misconduct that the official investigation into it is crucial: and I have opined before, when the Commission was established, those unionists who take seriously their rhetoric about providing representation for workers and striving to achieve safe workplaces should allow the Commission to do its work in the knowledge their unions will be cleaner and leaner in the end, with a swag of crooks lurking within prosecuted, and a better “case” for their mission then able to be put anew to a sceptical public.
A change of government federally before Heydon reports is all it would take to kill off this historic opportunity to clean the unions up once and for all: if the process of uncovering criminal abuses in the union movement is prematurely derailed, the likelihood is that another opportunity to do so will not arise for many years — if ever.
But as Heydon probes the AWU (and with various high-profile skeletons already leaping out of the closet as he does) I think Shorten is faced with a classic “lose-lose” proposition that could crush what authority remains vested in his “leadership” of the ALP and permanently extinguish his delusions — and pretensions — as a viable prospective Prime Minister of Australia.
Whilst I must be emphatic that I make absolutely no judgement of any innocence or guilt on Shorten’s part personally where misdemeanours in his past life as a union official are concerned, it obviously goes without saying that were he to be found to have personally engaged in such behaviour (and especially if subsequently charged) then his political career would be terminated in the blink of an eye.
But I think that even if Shorten is found blameless — and he may well, in fact, be beyond reproach in terms of the obscenities being uncovered by Heydon at the AWU — the Commission could finish him off anyway; guilt by association is a powerful and often unwanted consequence for those touched by this type of inquiry, and in any case, the web of union “mateship” and its tightly spun networks make it difficult for Shorten to avoid any of the rap some of his old pals may end up having to shoulder.
Already, the wheels are coming off Shorten’s “leadership” of the ALP; the Shorten strategy of blindly opposing everything, combined with ridiculous one-line “zingers” that make him look like an absolute dickhead, has run its course, with Labor’s post-2014 budget opinion poll lead evaporating, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government regaining the ascendency.
Shorten Labor has tried to use the Senate to worsen the state of the same budget deficit Labor presided over the creation of in the first place — and now, just as it tries to turn the “doubled” deficit against the government — its handiwork is beginning to blow up in its face, for there is ample anecdotal evidence that the voting public is just not buying the story.
We know the proverbial mutterers are muttering: and certainly, Tanya Plibersek exudes every appearance of setting herself up for a run at the Labor leadership just as soon as the requisite 48 of Labor’s 80 MPs can be persuaded to formally abandon Shorten: and I am reliably assured that efforts to “persuade” MPs in these numbers are proceeding apace.
And Labor’s decision (in cahoots with the
Communist Party Greens) to scuttle in the Senate a bill that would not unreasonably have subjected unions to the same standards of conduct and governance lawfully required of the corporate sector may yet come back to bite Shorten on the arse, with Heydon determined to get to the bottom of the illegal outrages perpetrated by the unions and the thugs who are influential in them, and with his own union now being administered the proverbial dose of Epsom salts.
The point is that mud sticks — a point Labor knows all too well, which is why (for example) it has spent years trying to literally destroy Tony Abbott with highly personal (and almost completely unfounded) accusations of misogyny, sexism, and hatred of women: to date it has failed, but the evidence of its progress in these lamentable enterprises can be found in the results of any mildly qualitative opinion survey.
But these are fabricated stories that have been disseminated for petty partisan political purposes; what is coming out of the Royal Commission about the unions now is factual, tangible, and some or all of it may very well be criminal.
And so, Shorten faces a dilemma: if he’s guilty of anything and it’s flushed out, it destroys him politically; if he’s innocent, but some of his mates go down on the end of a wholesale prosecution of charges arising from Heydon’s inquiries, it seems likely that the stench of corruption and public revulsion at union excesses could — by association — take Shorten down with it.
In other words, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, but if there is a moment that eventually proves, with hindsight, to be the point Shorten signed his own death warrant, I believe it will be the day he and the Greens expediently voted down the measures to bring the unions into line with the existing expectations of the business community.
From that day forward, Shorten aligned himself forever with anything done in the name of the unions that broke the law: and on the face of what is now emerging about his old fiefdom at the AWU, it seems that about the nicest thing to be said is the observation that with friends like those, Shorten hardly needs enemies, and especially when it seems his new-ish friends in the Labor caucus have just about had enough of him in any case.