IT TAKES CHUTZPAH to spend two unco-operative days giving non-answers to questions at a Royal Commission, only to brief press immediately afterwards that you were asked to co-operate and did, but Bill Shorten has done it; unwilling or unable to give plausible answers to questions of iffy conduct at a union he ran for years, Shorten has shown himself unfit to be Prime Minister. Labor will pay a heavy price if it retains him as its “leader.”
One of the best wraps of Bill Shorten’s pathetic account of himself yesterday at the Heydon inquiry into the trade union movement comes from the Courier Mail this morning; no reasonable observer could accept Shorten was really taking proceedings seriously as he gave answers to questions that seemed designed to obfuscate, delay, and frustrate, and — remembering a Royal Commission is essentially a judicial proceeding — provoke a retired High Court judge by making no secret of the fact the overriding prerogative was to provide no meaningful disclosures whatsoever.
Labor and the unions are outraged by this Royal Commission, which they see as no more than a politically motivated witch hunt.
However, for witch hunts to be worth pursuing, there must first be witches to hunt.
In this regard, the Australian public has been treated to a horrifying picture of the methods and priorities of the unions and some of their key figures; the culture of striking deals with major companies — often involving labour supply discounted well below levels Labor and union rhetoric suggests would or could ever be regarded acceptable — whilst rivers of cash pour into union coffers in return for industrial peace (and through bogus memberships in the names of unknowing employees) is contemptible.
As I have said throughout, even if these practices are legal, they are ethically abhorrent, and exude the distinct whiff of hypocrisy: for whilst the ALP and the unions seemingly fight every election on the spectre of WorkChoices nowadays, what is being revealed is arguably worse than any alleged ills thrown up by the Howard government’s long-defunct workplace laws.
Indeed, there is one glaring difference: under the methods being aerated by the Heydon inquiry, the unions have been revealed to have profited handsomely whereas under WorkChoices, they did not. It is a dubious distinction at best, and hardly anything for the unions to crow about.
It is, perhaps, for this reason most of these deals were struck with little or no written detail, and were concealed from public view.
But in this context, Shorten seems to have forgotten that he was not only the man in charge of the AWU, at various levels, for many years, but — despite his bold assertions in almost exactly these terms — is now Labor’s candidate for the Prime Ministership of this country.
And in this context, voters — already less than enamoured with Shorten, if reputable polling is any guide — have seen a lot to dislike this week about the man who would “lead” them.
In a mirror image to his refusal to acknowledge any fault on his party’s part for the woefully mismanaged federal budget and the almost half-trillion dollar debt pile racked up as the direct result of its incompetence, Shorten the ex-union official refuses to concede he or his union did anything wrong.
By arguing the point before Heydon, he has signalled a belief that it is acceptable for unions to receive tens of thousands of dollars from employers whilst negotiating employment agreements that either fail to optimise conditions or — worse — apparently trade away pay and conditions for under-the-table kickbacks.
In rushing to regularise his financial returns under the Electoral Act this week — namely, to declare the “gift” of wages for a campaign manager at his campaign for the safe seat of Maribyrnong in 2007 — he has signalled a view that it is acceptable for a union leader negotiating workplace agreements to simultaneously receive donations clearly aimed at furthering personal political objectives. It is a poor look, and a conflict of interest whose like must be explicitly outlawed if it is, in fact, found to be legal.
The partial or complete lack of documentation in regard to deals that feathered AWU nests in exchange for striking favourable enterprise agreements can only be interpreted as an attempt to conceal these matters from scrutiny, and to attempt to ensure they could never be discovered: and for that, malicious dismissals of the Royal Commission as a witch hunt ring false, for there is a clear public interest in the details of arrangements covering large numbers of workers being transparent: yet those details have had to be painstakingly extracted from multiple witnesses before the Commission to fully sketch out the whole grimy picture.
On all of these counts, Shorten’s concern, metaphorically, has amounted to little more than a cheesy grin and a shrug of the shoulders.
But his behaviour at the Heydon inquiry has been such that were it to be replicated in a Court proper, he would in likelihood be charged with contempt: and anyone who thinks such a cavalier disregard for judicial process is somehow appropriate or worth bragging about is a grub.
Former ALP President Bob Hogg is right: Shorten’s position as Labor “leader” is untenable, and he should “just go,” or resign; Hogg — himself prosecuted over irregularities under the Electoral Act — has been wildly and viciously attacked by Labor, the unions and the Fairfax press as carrying no moral imprimatur at all, and as a hypocrite, but these dismissals miss the point.
Just because Hogg himself was guilty of what Shorten is now being investigated over does not mean his judgement in Shorten’s case is wrong.
Shorten has shown himself to be, at best, too economical with the truth to be trusted.
His behaviour — not his proclamations of willingness to co-operate — at and around the Heydon commission betrays a man who believes himself above criticism, beyond reproach, immune to the law, and indeed free to behave as a law unto himself.
In turn, this fleshes out a rapidly hardening public perception of Shorten as a shifty, scheming, treacherous, glib, nihilistic liar whose only concerns are for himself and his own personal ambitions — and not, as he too readily proclaims, for “the workers he has spent years working hard on behalf of.”
It may not lead to charges, but the detail already uncovered by the Royal Commission points in the opposite direction to such claims.
The point is that Labor is saddled with a “leader” who, in my view, is incapable of winning a federal election.
Those opposed to the Coalition will point to the modest lead the ALP still retains on the two-party measure in most polls as evidence to the contrary, but the Howard government — in office for almost twelve years and four election victories — trailed Labor, as the Abbott government does now, for most of its tenure.
A new leader is the first and most critical requirement for a Labor Party seeking an early return to office. The problem, as eloquently highlighted by Melbourne’s Herald Sun this afternoon, is that the ALP’s leadership stocks — critically and objectively assessed — run little deeper than a wading pool.
And I will be the first to admit I desperately hope Shorten “leads” Labor to the next federal election.
For now, however, Shorten and Labor are mired in the worst of all worlds.
They have a “leader” for whom sincerity, credibility and integrity are attributes noticeable only by their absence — in the political sense at least — whose performance at the Heydon inquiry has probably put the final nail in the coffin where Shorten’s prospects of ever being elected Prime Minister are concerned.
They now stare down the barrel of the constant threat of a snap election: should Tony Abbott call an immediate double dissolution, Shorten will steer Labor to almost certain — and perhaps catastrophic — defeat, but if the Labor Party moves to dump him or he resigns, an election announcement halfway through the party’s convoluted and protracted new process for selecting a replacement could well see it literally leaderless for a solid portion of any election campaign.
And thanks to his almost pointless appearance as a witness at the Royal Commission this week, additional appearances are virtually certain to follow — and with them, further evidence (were it required) of just how un-Prime Ministerial an individual Shorten really is.
The only constant in all of this is Shorten himself: now damned if he stays or damned of he goes, either way Labor is probably lumbered with him for no better reason than the risk replacing him might trigger an immediate unwinnable election is too great to countenance.
Even so, and whatever his past misdemeanours and shortcomings, Hogg is right: if Shorten had a shred of real decency or concern for the party he professes to love, he would recognise he has squandered his opportunity to lead it in government, resign forthwith, and spare the ALP the excruciating agony of deciding what to do with him.
That he will not means the ALP will pay a very heavy price indeed, and for all of its apparatchiks and thugs who protest that the Coalition should face a Royal Commission, or that Hogg is a crook who should be ignored, or any of the other half-baked excuses being deployed to apologise for Shorten, a central truth remains.
For once, it is all about them: their current “leader” has ensured it is so, and has spent many years in a range of roles working himself — and them — into the dire predicament they now confront.
Rather than defending him to the hilt, they would perhaps be better served considering the incalculable political and electoral damage he stands to inflict on the Labor Party, and throwing him overboard.
But they won’t, of course, for at the Labor Party, you don’t commit such bastardry against a “maaate,” or at least that’s the theory: and in the end, if Abbott pulls on a double dissolution to trap Shorten in his current role, his colleagues will soon learn the full extent of the liability they have saddled themselves with.