THE PENDING release of the Trade Union Royal Commission’s final report has spawned a last-gasp attempt by ALP “leader” Bill Shorten to propose measures to limit the political fallout of the inquiry for Labor; after two years of stonewalling, insisting there were no issues of misconduct at unions, his half-baked proposals stink of panic and desperation and must be ignored. Shorten is peddling a political trap Malcolm Turnbull must avoid at all costs.
One of the (many) substantive criticisms made of Malcolm Turnbull by conservative Liberals, as the embarrassing final months of his hapless first stint as Liberal Party leader played out, was that Turnbull was too eager to provide “bipartisanship” to Labor at every available opportunity, thus eliminating any and all points of difference between the Coalition and the ALP.
From wasteful, misdirected, and largely unnecessary stimulus spending to Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and to a slew of controversial Rudd government initiatives, Turnbull repeatedly traded away the opportunity for the Coalition to differentiate itself and to some extent, the country is paying for some of these own goals now through the ballooning national debt Turnbull helped inflate by waving then-Treasurer Wayne Swan’s ill-advised stimulus package through Parliament.
There are already signs this love of “bipartisanship” remains alive and well in the Turnbull bunker, but more on that a bit later.
The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is to hand its final report to the Governor-General today, with its subsequent release by the government set to occur as soon as tomorrow; The Australian is carrying a report that details a letter — sent by opposition “leader” Bill Shorten to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last Wednesday — the aim of which is basically to enable the ALP to evade the political fallout from what is universally expected to be a damning indictment on union behaviour by proposing a series of half-baked, half-arsed and abjectly pathetic last-ditch measures to reposition Shorten and Labor as “tough” on union misconduct.
Frankly, any utterances by Bill Shorten, his parliamentary colleagues, or their cronies in the union movement to the effect that they are at all concerned with malfeasance at trade unions should be dismissed with the contempt they deserve, and no Australian voter should succumb to the temptation to listen to a man whose political career is deservedly terminal trying to slither toward credibility on the backs of the many of his union buddies who now face prosecution.
For the past two years, Labor and the unions — to a man — have stonily maintained the mantra that the Royal Commission was nothing more than a politically motivated witch hunt, despite ample evidence at the time it was instituted of wrongdoing and illegal behaviour at a number of unions that more than justified such an inquiry being convened.
When this position began to grow indefensible (and to look absolutely ridiculous to the watching Australian public) the line about politically motivated witch hunts gave way to increasingly bitter attacks on the Commission, individual Commissioners, and legal counsel working on it.
Thanks to some imbecile at the NSW Division of the Liberal Party who saw fit to extend an invitation to Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon to deliver the annual Sir Garfield Barwick Lecture — an invitation that was, it seems, hastily and unthinkingly accepted — Labor and the unions were handed a soft target upon which to turn their onslaught, and respected former High Court Justice Heydon was subjected to an outrageous and baseless barrage of accusations of wanton political bias and personal slurs from elements at the ALP nonetheless pretending to act in good faith and in the name of upholding the law.
Shorten, for what it was worth, earned himself an official reprimand at one of his appearances before the Royal Commission, for despite having publicly pledged to “co-operate fully” with the Commission — he could hardly fail to promise to do that — his testimony was vague, rambling, tangential, and waffling.
(Needless to say, there was much that Shorten — just like a lot of other persons of interest who appeared before Heydon — could not remember).
And when all of those endeavours came to nowt, Labor’s designated attack chihuahua Penny Wong led the charge of an equally insidious push to politicise the office of the Governor-General and have Sir Peter Cosgrove intervene to shut the Commission down on the basis of spurious charges of “bias,” obliterating its 1975-vintage position of outrage that the Governor-General accepts advice from his or her Prime Minister and no-one else (Whitlamesque emphasis added).
Now, in the cold light of a pre-Christmas hangover and facing an imminent federal election Labor is increasingly likely to lose badly — and confronted by the dawning reality that the Royal Commission’s findings are certain to be very, very grim — all of a sudden, Shorten wants to “help.”
Shorten has already been advised that he personally faces no action arising from either his testimony before the Commission or from his time at the helm of the AWU in Victoria and nationally. But in view of the belting that seems set to be unleashed on unions and union officials over alleged violations of various laws, his preparedness to be “tough on union wrongdoing” now is disingenuous, to say the least.
At this point, I refer readers to an article published in this column just three weeks ago, following the arrest and charging of CFMEU figures John Setka and Shaun Reardon; that article deals, in part, with a so-called clean-up of the union movement Shorten announced at that time a Labor government would pursue, and it contains a link to a piece from the Courier-Mail that details at length exactly what Shorten’s “clean-up” might entail.
As I pointed out then, Shorten’s regime of proposed penalties were unlikely to deter the most hardened and militant unions from repeat transgressions in future. Yet the details of what Shorten now apparently proposes — as reported in The Australian and based on his letter last week to Turnbull — seem, if anything, even softer than what he trundled out to deflect attention from the arrests of Setka and Reardon.
The one nugget from The Australian‘s article this morning is the proposal to reduce the political donation disclosure threshold from $13,000 to $1,000 for individuals, companies, and unions: this probably sounds great to anyone loosely interested in probity in politics, and it also plays into Labor’s longstanding obsession with cutting the Coalition off from the corporate monies that Labor (for what I would have thought are obvious reasons) generally fails to attract.
The intention is obvious: with sleight of hand, Shorten’s “initiative” is intended to deceive people into thinking that just as the Coalition would be cut off from corporate donations, so too would Labor be cut off from the mass funding it receives from union members’ fees.
But the glaring omission is that no provision is contained in the proposal to stop unions from funding and engaging in political campaigns of their own: the $13 million advertising blitz against WorkChoices in the run-up to the 2007 election, for example, was booked and paid for by unions directly — not from funds donated to the ALP. Under Shorten’s proposal, there would be nothing to stop unions from effectively conducting campaigns against the Coalition from their own funds on Labor’s behalf. Electoral advertising laws require only that advertising material carries an authorisation and details of the organisation to which the person providing it belongs.
In other words, Shorten actually has the bare-faced audacity to put a proposal on the table that purports to crack down on illegal union behaviour but which in fact would result in the Coalition being permanently handicapped if ever implemented whilst the ALP — with a slight readjustment to its relationship with the unions — could skip off, scot-free, to a more advantageous position at all future election campaigns.
It isn’t for nothing that Shorten is increasingly derided as “Billy Bullshit” by those who watch politics, but this is just one smartarse manoeuvre too many.
It isn’t unreasonable to subject unions to the same standards of accountability and governance that apply to the business community; the union movement has been allowed to act as a law unto itself for far too long. The damning imminent report of the Royal Commission is the end destination of such latitude, and it has to stop.
Shorten’s protestations that it is “unfair” for “union volunteers” to face penalties for misconduct akin to those applicable to company directors should be ignored; it’s a bit like saying an incorporated small enterprise with two staff should be immune to the law as well. It shouldn’t. If such regulations are as “onerous” as he claims, then all that expertise in training unions have been caught out issuing false invoices for at the Commission might be put to some practical effect in bringing their “volunteers” up to speed.
But really, just the fact Shorten is trying to negotiate anything over this issue at all is a sign he knows his union mates are cornered and, coming this late in a process that has gone on for two years, stinks of desperation, expediency, and panic.
The deeply unpopular Shorten was only ever able to assemble election-winning poll numbers on account of the six years he and his party spent demonising, defaming and then crucifying former Prime Minister Tony Abbott; once Abbott was removed from office, there was nothing to detract from the simple fact Shorten is completely unelectable.
The Turnbull government has a perfectly good Registered Organisations Bill on its books; it has only been voted down by Labor and the
Communist Party Greens out of self-interest and to protect their union mates. There is no principle involved on the part of Labor and the Greens in defeating that Bill three times to date, and those parties should be shown no indulgence now in the face of a stack of prosecutions set to hit the organisations their handiwork has repeatedly been contrived to protect.
And this brings me back to the Prime Minister and his past fondness for “bipartisanship.”
It is true that Turnbull and Trade minister Andrew Robb compromised with the ALP to get the free trade agreement with China through Parliament recently — not coincidentally, in the face of a concerted and dishonest campaign by the CFMEU to discredit it — and whilst the amended version of the agreement was and is better than no agreement at all, it would be disturbing if those compromises were successfully exploited by the ALP as a precedent to hoodwink the Prime Minister into doing its dirty work now.
There is no middle ground when it comes to eradicating and punishing illegal behaviour, and there are no grounds for leniency (in the name of “fairness”) in shielding unions from the standards that should have been imposed upon them decades ago, and to which they have been immune for far too long.
The recommendations of the Royal Commission should be adopted and implemented without exception, and every alleged instance of criminality resulting from it vigorously prosecuted.
As for the Coalition’s Registered Organisations laws and the accompanying legislation to reconstitute the Australian Building and Construction Commission, these should be reintroduced to Parliament as a matter of great urgency and — if once again voted down by Labor and its associates at the Greens — immediately used as grounds to call a double dissolution election fought on the issue of acceptable standards and probity in the union movement and those sections of the wider economy the unions have for decades been allowed to control unfettered.
As for Shorten, Turnbull must tell him to tell his story walking.
Shorten deserves the electoral humiliation he is on a collision course with and his union mates deserve to be brought to justice. It is not Turnbull’s job to either help Shorten retrieve his standing as Labor “leader” or to ameliorate the punitive action headed in the direction of Trades Hall.
And were Turnbull to agree to the duplicitous attempted stunt that would shackle the Coalition at future elections whilst effectively allowing unions to run and pay for Labor’s campaigns, it would validate every past doubt held about his judgement by conservative Liberals once and for all.
Simply, Shorten is trying to entrap Turnbull. It is imperative he be given nothing more than short shrift.