Australia

The politics of the damning report into Australia's unions

Attorney General George Brandis, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash speak at a press conference regarding trade union corruption Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking at a press conference, promised to act upon the results of the commission's inquiry into trade union corruption

The criticisms were as colourful as they were numerous.

Australia's Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption (TURC) released its final report on Wednesday and in it recommended a slew of criminal charges against officials.

Among the 5000-odd union officials representing Australian workers were "thugs" and "perjurers", "louts" and "bullies", according to the report. Terms like that jostled for prominence with "thieves" and those who had failed in their duty to act as trustees of funds.

Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon, the former High Court justice who led the inquiry over 189 days of hearings, said the report exposed just a small amount of the corruption endemic to Australia's labour movement.

But union leaders and other critics called it a politically motivated attack on unions and their political arm, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). During the commission process they also voiced their concerns about the political allegiance of Mr Heydon.

The report's findings are shaping up as a key political battlefront, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promising to fight a federal election around the issue if legislation to establish a union regulator is not passed through the Senate.

'Tip of the iceberg'

The commission has referred a long list of union officials to police for potential prosecution.

One is Derrick Belan, who resigned from his role as NSW secretary of the National Union of Workers (NUW) after being summoned to the inquiry. Mr Belan controlled a so-called union "slush fund" holding A$25,000 ($18,242; 12,305) in cash, purportedly to pay for union elections. But the NSW branch of the NUW hadn't conducted an election since 2002. After the fund's account was closed two years ago, the cash found its way into Mr Belan's home safe and stayed there, even after he was no longer the NSW branch chief, the commission disclosed.

Mr Belan had to be escorted to the inquiry from a psychiatric hospital, which he checked himself into after resigning. He denied committing fraud or asking anyone to do so on his behalf. The allegation posed by the inquiry is that he used his union credit card to pay for a variety of inappropriate expenditures including Tiffany jewellery, lingerie and sex toys. He told the commission his niece, Danielle O'Brien, controlled his finances. When she appeared before the inquiry she wept and apologised for many of the alleged misdemeanours, saying she had no training or qualification for the role of union bookkeeper. She added that she did not try to conceal any of these activities.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten was also grilled by the commission in July 2015. The final report included no adverse findings against him, but it did detail irregularities which took place at the Australian Workers' Union ( AWU) during his tenure.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The commission's final report did not contain adverse findings about Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten

Cesar Melhem, Mr Shorten's successor at the AWU, also came in for special attention. The report accused the current Victorian Member of Parliament of being "responsible for numerous actions favouring the interests of the union over the members which may be breaches of legal duty". Mr Melham denied any wrongdoing and said he would fight the allegations.

In making 79 recommendations for reform, Mr Heydon referred 45 unions, union officials, companies and executives to the police and other agencies for investigation.

"These aberrations cannot be regarded as isolated. They are not the work of a few rogue unions, or a few rogue officials," he said.

"The misconduct exhibits great variety. It is widespread. It is deep-seated. It would be utterly naïve to think that what has been uncovered is anything other than the small tip of an enormous iceberg."

'Smear attempt'

But many regard it as naive to think the commission, its commissioner and his findings are anything other than a transparently partisan and politically motivated attack on unions and the ALP.

The TURC was established in March 2014 by former prime minister Tony Abbott, a conservative Liberal Party politician renowned for his combative temperament and distrust of the union movement's Marxist roots and powerful influence.

From the beginning, unions and the ALP leadership branded the commission as an attempt to smear the reputation of the movement and senior figures within the Labor party, including Mr Shorten and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who also gave evidence.

When it emerged that Mr Heydon had accepted an invitation to speak at a fundraising event organised by a branch of the Liberal Party, Labor and the unions pounced, declaring the commissioner politically compromised. Mr Heydon had, in fact, almost immediately rescinded his acceptance, but the allegations of bias flew regardless.

Revelations that Mr Heydon had years earlier sat on the panel that awarded Mr Abbott his Rhodes Scholarship provided more ammunition for the commission's many opponents.

On August 21, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the AWU and the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union applied to have Mr Heydon replaced on the grounds he was biased. But the commissioner himself was tasked with weighing their arguments, and Mr Heydon found they had not made a convincing case that he should recuse himself.

Labor and the unions have dismissed the commission's report as biased. So far the majority of the findings are either admitted or uncontested. Further, major corporations and executives also stand accused.

The government has flagged its intention to implement the commission's recommendations, which are already shaping up as a key issue for the next federal election.

That leaves the ALP's leadership in a bind - should they accept the report's findings and take on the unions that underpin their party's existence or risk gifting a bag of lethal ammunition to their political opponents?

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