NATIONAL AFFAIRS by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Shorten weakened by royal commission appearance
, August 1, 2015
The appearance of Bill Shorten at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption has done nothing to strengthen the Labor leader’s position in the run-up to the ALP National Conference.
The controversy over his appearance, and the evidence of an undeclared donation from one employer for Mr Shorten’s 2007 election campaign, largely obscured the evidence of widespread corruption, particularly in the building industry.
In his submission to the commission at the start of three weeks of hearings into the activities of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) in the ACT, counsel assisting the commission Jeremy Stoljar SC said: “The evidence the commission will receive paints a disturbing picture of the conduct of the CFMEU in the Australian Capital Territory – alleged corrupt payments, standover and intimidation tactics, and the apparent establishment and promotion of cartels for key trades.”
Mr Stoljar added: “The first witness today is expected to give evidence of paying sums of money amounting to $135,000 in cash to a CFMEU lead organiser over the years 2012 to 2013.
“The witness believes he had no choice other than to make the payments in order to obtain, or retain, work on various ACT construction projects.”
Outside the building where the hearing took place police later arrested the man named by the witness. He had since left the CFMEU.
The CFMEU declined to appear before the royal commission, stating that it had not been given sufficient time to prepare a response to the allegations.
In its earlier hearings into the Australian Workers Union, the commission heard evidence that when Bill Shorten was secretary of the Victorian Branch of the AWU, hundreds of thousands of dollars were passed by several employers to the union, in circumstances in which services were not provided.
Mr Stoljar referred specifically to several particular cases, including one regarding the company Cleanevent, in which it was alleged that the union negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the company, which set pay rates below those of the relevant award.
At the same time, Cleanevent paid the union $25,000 a year.
In the case of the BMD Constructions Pty Ltd, a civil construction company, it was alleged that the union had invoiced the company for occupational health and safety training which the union did not provide, and used the money to enrol BMD employees as members of the union, thereby inflating the union’s membership.
Mr Shorten denied any wrongdoing, and said that he stood by his record in improving wages and conditions of employees.
A point which undoubtedly damaged Mr Shorten’s credibility was the revelation that another company, Unibilt, had put on its payroll a nominee of Mr Shorten, to work as Mr Shorten’s electoral campaign organiser in 2007.
Although the “payment-in-kind” was far above the threshold for election donations, Mr Shorten did not declare it until a couple of days before appearing before the royal commission. Mr Shorten accepted “ultimate responsibility” for this error, but said that the correct information should have been supplied by his campaign staff.
While readily agreeing that his campaign manager was not a “research officer” for the employer, as he had been described, Mr Shorten pointed out that this was the employer’s description, not his.
Counsel assisting the royal commission also alleged that in several other cases, the AWU had received large amounts of money from companies, including construction joint venture Thiess John Holland and glassmaker ACI, for training, education and professional consulting services that were never provided.
It was not suggested that Mr Shorten was personally involved in these matters.
While some members of the Government were clearly pleased at the discomfort that Mr Shorten faced, it is important to wait until the royal commission reports before contemplating legislative action.
The royal commission is not due to report until the end of the year.
The Federal Government has already tried to introduce modest reforms to Australia’s industrial laws, but they have been blocked in the Senate.
Tony Abbott said recently: “We have the [Registered Organisations] bill that will give union governance the same integrity that we’ve long had in corporate governance; we’ve got the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill, which will restore the rule of law on our major construction sites.
“If the Labor Party wants to get its act together, wants to ensure that we never have this kind of problem again, it should get cracking and help the Government to pass this legislation.”
The royal commission’s findings will strengthen the case for appropriate and effective legislation. But the Government should wait for its report before reintroducing its legislation in the Senate.