COVER STORY Dyson report only partial answer to union problems
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, January 30, 2016
The findings of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, released in December, if implemented by Federal Parliament, will go some way towards tackling the abuses of power by leaders of a handful of trade unions, but many issues remain unresolved.
The royal commission was roundly attacked by the ALP and the ACTU, which described it as a political witch-hunt. In light of the fact that its recommendations include changes to the law, there is real doubt that any changes to the law will get through the Opposition-swayed Senate.
The Royal Commissioner, former High Court justice Dyson Heydon, catalogued alarming cases of misconduct by officials of a handful of trade unions, most egregiously in the building and construction industry.
However, the Royal Commissioner was attacked for his in-principle agreement to give a lecture arranged by a lawyers’ branch of the NSW Liberal Party.
When Mr Heydon’s attention was drawn to the fact that the event was linked to the Liberal Party, he immediately withdrew, but the incident was used to attack the independence and legitimacy of the royal commission.
To have agreed to speak at the event showed a degree of naiveté which Mr Heydon’s enemies managed to exploit relentlessly.
In his report, Mr Heydon said: “The case studies examined have revealed widespread misconduct that has taken place in every polity in Australia except for the Northern Territory.
“There is little that is controversial about the underlying facts.
“Almost all of the underlying facts have been established by admissions to the commission, incontrovertible documents, decisions of courts and tribunals or well-corroborated testimony.
“There has been financial misconduct by two AWU state secretaries in Western Australia in the mid-’90s, Bruce Wilson and Ralph Blewitt. Bruce Wilson continued his behaviour in Victoria as state secretary of the AWU there.
“A state secretary of the AWU in Victoria in the first part of this century, Cesar Melhem, has been responsible for numerous actions favouring the interests of the union over the members, which may be breaches of legal duty.
“Two TWU WA state secretaries, James McGiveron and Richard Burton, in 2012–13 depleted union funds to the extent of over $600,000 in relation to what may have been the unauthorised purchase of expensive cars and the arrangement of an unauthorised redundancy.”
In relation to the building industry, the commission identified two Victorian officials of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) who may have committed blackmail.
Additionally, the report said, “in Queensland, the state secretary of the Builders Labourers Federation of Queensland (BLF), David Hanna, may have fraudulently made additions to his house.
“He, together with the Queensland state secretary of the CFMEU, Michael Ravbar, together with various officials and employees, participated in massive destruction of potentially relevant documents …
“An organiser, Darren Greenfield, may have made a death threat and taken bribes.”
It is clear from the report that anarchy reigns on many large building sites, and the commission recommended the re-establishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, a body abolished by the Rudd Labor government.
Whether this happens will depend on the Senate.
The commission’s lack of real knowledge of the union movement is shown in the misdescription of Tony Sheldon as “national secretary of the AWU” (Final Report, Vol. 1, Part A) when he is actually national secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU).
Further, the commission drew no distinction with regard to the gravity of industrial misconduct, with bribery and extortion being treated similarly to defects in the administration of union officials’ re-election funds.
Lack of democracy
A matter that the commission did not deal with is the lack of real democracy in trade unions.
To be sure, all union elections are now conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission – a consequence of campaigns run by the NCC over many years. But contested union elections today are rare, and invariably involve a falling-out among union officials rather than a rank-and-file challenge.
This is a direct result of the forced amalgamation of unions inaugurated by the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s, the effect of which was to create industrial empires in which the membership has only nominal control.
The royal commission is probably not even aware of it, but it is now impossible for ordinary members of a union to challenge and defeat incumbent officials, because the financial and logistical resources needed to conduct a challenge are now beyond the resources of any ordinary member or group of members. There have been no such challenges for years.
Expecting the law alone to make union officials accountable is a blunt and ineffective instrument, when union members themselves are as powerless as they are today.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.