“You can’t sit on a fence, a barbed wire fence at that, and have one ear to the ground.”
— Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Premier of Queensland, 1968 – 1987
Let me be crystal clear at the outset: it does not matter, in some respects — for now, at any rate — whether or not Bill Shorten, in his past life as a union heavy and senior AWU official, personally did anything improper, illegal, or corrupt; from a similar perspective, it doesn’t even matter to a degree whether or not Shorten was personally instrumental in striking “deals” with companies with unionised workforces that resulted in any or all of those workers being ripped off and/or the AWU pocketing slush money for “services rendered” that were invoiced but never delivered, with those ill-gotten ducats on-traded to buy delegateships at ALP conferences on the basis of non-existent union members.
And the reason it doesn’t matter whether Shorten personally committed improper acts or not is as brutal as it is simple: if dodgy union deeds were committed by the AWU at all during Shorten’s tenure as Victorian and/or national secretary — irrespective of the identity of the individual or individuals who perpetrated them — then the buck has to stop somewhere, and if the man in charge was one William Richard Shorten, then the buck stops with him.
No “three wise monkeys” routine will cut it, and if the stories of AWU corruption that are filtering out of the Heydon inquiry into the trade union movement prove accurate, then Bill Shorten’s position is completely untenable: as a member of Parliament, as a party “leader” or, indeed, as the holder of any position in public office at all.
Anyone who presided over the kind of outrages being aired in relation to the AWU without knowing it is unfit to be Prime Minister, for anyone who claims to find themselves in such a quandary is either an incompetent imbecile or a liar. Yet that is what Shorten’s utterances on the issue add up to.
Last weekend, we discussed the proposition that the Royal Commission into the trade union movement has become a lose-lose bet for Shorten, and this week has apparently seen that contention played out, with explosive revelations before Heydon of rampant misconduct within the union Shorten once led on the one hand, and stout but cursory denials of liability from the man himself on the other.
For now — and, to be emphatic, until they are tested in a Court — the allegations emanating from the Heydon inquiry are just that: allegations.
But they have already forced the resignation of Shorten’s successor at the Victorian branch of the AWU, Cesar Melhem — a Labor MP in the Victorian state government — from his position as upper house Whip; and whilst nobody is officially guilty until proven in Court to be so, the picture taking shape as a result of those allegations is a stark one indeed.
And that, simply stated, is that the AWU is rotten to the core; Shorten’s own union — and upon which so much of his claim to “lead” anyone, anywhere, is based — is being shown, somewhat surprisingly, as one of the dirtiest and shadiest outfits of the lot. With hot competition from the likes of the CFMEU in this regard, such a status is no minor achievement, however dubious.
The revelation that on Melhem’s watch, a company called Winslow Constructors was falsely invoiced $225,000 between 2008 and 2013 by the AWU for “safety training” that was instead used to sign up phantom members to boost the union’s political clout, in addition to $6 million in workers’ entitlements being signed away by the AWU in return for $75,000, goes to the heart of the lawless and corrupt union behaviour that the Royal Commission was explicitly convened to identify, terminate, and prosecute wherever appropriate.
Clearly, such behaviour is neither legal nor justifiable; and far from being a “political witch-hunt” — as Shorten and his cronies in the Labor Party and the union movement incessantly bleat — the resolution and prevention of this sort of thing is very much in the public interest. The fact it has occurred at all amounts to nothing less than a breathtaking abuse of faith, and a contemptuous betrayal of the interests of the very people the ALP and the unions purport to represent.
Readers can access cumulative coverage of the week’s revelations and accusations through these articles from the Murdoch and Fairfax press respectively, and I find it noteworthy that Fairfax — so staunchly in Labor’s corner for so many years, and so happy when it was convened to deride the Royal Commission as a show trial and a stunt — is cutting Shorten no slack now.
In fact, Shorten has rounded on the Fairfax press over the article I have shared above, complaining that the report constituted an “unfair smear” upon him, and the question has to be asked: “unfair” in the sense anything the Abbott government does is branded “unfair” by Shorten if there is political mileage in it for the ALP? “Unfair” because the Fairfax press isn’t playing along to Labor’s script?
Or “unfair” because that’s the closest thing to a dummy spit Shorten can get away with throwing in the realisation his beloved but putrefying union movement is finally being exposed to the public as the lawless, corrupt, rotten edifice it really is?
Indeed, in the spirit of asking questions, Fairfax has returned fire at Mr Shorten, posing four questions arising from the revelations at the Heydon inquiry relating to the AWU that Shorten can reasonably be expected to answer, but has thus far refused to do so.
It will take some time to establish exactly who did what and, importantly, to substantiate it to the point criminal charges — or other remedial action, like union sackings or further parliamentary resignations at the ALP — can be initiated.
But for now — and irrespective of guilt or innocence personally — Shorten is playing a very dangerous and, I believe, self-defeating game.
He took fully two days to condemn the alleged behaviour that has forced Melhem to stand aside, and even then did so indirectly and whilst ensuring no direct criticism or judgement of his AWU crony was contained in his remarks.
He has continued to lampoon the Royal Commission, despite growing evidence that far from any stunt or witch-hunt, its existence is a clear matter of public interest, not some ambit excursion into victimisation and the unjustified obliteration of reputations and careers on the part of the Liberal Party.
Faced with allegations that unionised workers have been ripped off and/or stripped of entitlements, Shorten’s rote response has been to suggest that he, personally, only ever advanced the lot of his union members — and perhaps he did — but it is lacking and in no way satisfactory for him to evade wider questions of misconduct within his own union, which overlapped with his own time in charge of it, and apparently acted out by persons well-known to Shorten and of whom he seems to remain (even now) highly reluctant to denounce.
Ridiculously — and typical of the fatuous, half-arsed, cretinous approach Shorten has taken to his “leadership” of the ALP — he challenged Prime Minister Tony Abbott to a “town hall debate” to compare their records standing up for workers, and whilst such an event could be expected to feature the term “WorkChoices” a record number of times in a short event, the fact Mr Abbott’s tenure as Workplace Relations minister in the Howard government coincided with record employment and wage growth suggests Shorten’s “town hall debate” would risk turning into a public assassination of his own record against a Prime Ministerial opponent well credentialled to bat away any onslaught.
The unity between the ALP and the union movement in seeking to stonewall, deny and obfuscate against material produced before Heydon until or unless it becomes unavoidable to acknowledge — and even then, any acknowledgement is vague, cavalier, and made only to the minimum extent possible — is unsurprising. But given the stakes, and the likely consequences of a wholesale procession of Labor and union figures through a string of successful prosecutions, they probably reckon they have no alternative.
And as trifling as it might sound, Shorten has even seen his way clear, in trying to bat away the “smear” of revelations of misconduct, to channel former Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s tendency to mangle metaphor, idiom and syntax: “I have no truck for any form of corruption (sic),” he told journalists on Wednesday, and “nor will I tolerate it with anyone else.”
Quite bluntly, Shorten should heed another of the former Queensland Premier’s pearls of wisdom.
On the one hand, the mountain of allegations and, apparently, corroborating evidence coming out of the Heydon inquiry in relation to unconscionable, corrupt and/or criminal misconduct on the part of the union movement — including and especially the AWU — and its paymasters, their mates in the ALP, and the army of amoral thugs masquerading as the defenders of workers’ rights is becoming overwhelming.
On the other hand, and to a man, the storyline is fixed: deny liability, get out on the front foot, attack the evil conservatives for embarking on a mindless hunting trip for political gain, and even when someone’s caught out, protest personal innocence, indignation, and crap on about a proud tradition of improving working conditions when even a generous reading of the evidence seems to point in a different direction altogether.
And in the middle is a rising tide of public anger that is — and I am certain of this — playing its part in eroding what little standing Shorten ever had as the “leader” of his party, and slowly destroying its election prospects: not now, not just for next year, but for many years to come, and perhaps even for a generation.
That rising tide of outrage could well be a proxy for the inability to listen and perceive Sir Joh alluded to in his garbled idiocy when he observed that “you can’t sit on a fence, a barbed wire fence at that, and have one ear to the ground.”
As he straddles his own barbed wire fence, there is an irony for Shorten in that a Queensland Premier brought down by a Royal Commission into institutionalised corruption should have bequeathed such a poignant posthumous proclamation of the predicament he, Shorten — self-proclaimed defender of workers and “fairness” — should find himself in.
Even if the Commission doesn’t get Shorten, his colleagues soon will; for as innocent as he maintains he is — and innocent he may well be — the stench of his association with union mates who have been up to no good for too long poses an apocalyptic political threat to the ALP that the Labor Party cannot (and I believe will not) saddle itself with for much longer, with an election due next year and at least one MP, Shorten’s deputy, already jostling to take his place.