By Mungo MacCallum
‘In many parts of the world constituted by trade union officials,’ declared Dyson Heydon, ‘there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts’.
And no doubt there is; but with very minor changes of the last part of the terminology, the same strictures apply to the business community – indeed, even to Heydon’s own legal profession. In fact, it would be hard to find any group within the Australian populace free of the strictures Heydon elaborates.
Certainly he has identified a few (45, to be precise) of the alleged miscreants who warrant further investigation and may or may not face charges as a result – although it must be noted that only 27 are actually unions or their officials; the rest were companies and a those associated with them and other entities.
It sounds like a reasonable bag, until you remember that the whole process took some $80 million and two full years of intensive investigation unearthing and grilling some 500 suspects. Given that level of zealotry, it is hardly surprising that Heydon gathered a few in his net.
But of course Heydon went further: unions were ‘riddled with widespread and deep-seated misconduct….It would be utterly naïve to think that what has been uncovered is anything other than the small tip of an enormous iceberg’.
And of course the learned judge knows a thing or two about naivety. He involved himself with a Liberal Party fund-raiser, and then assumed that his own assertion of integrity would dispel any taint of bias. And of course he displays an arrogant affectation in declining to soil his hands on the internet, leaving his emails to a lackey.
He has now gone for the headlines with a bravura display of invective and innuendo, but his suggestion that the entire trade union movement is irretrievably corrupt needs a little more that rhetoric to sustain it. Even Malcolm Turnbull admits that there are a lot of honest and worthy unionists.
But that has not and will not prevent him from flying in, boots and all, to make the most of its politics. He will go to an election with it, he thunders. Which was, of course, the whole idea: Abbott’s plan was to demonise the union movement and, in the process, strike down Labor’s leaders, Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten, making the latter unelectable.
As it happens, Shorten has already made himself pretty much unelectable, but that Turnbull is determined to sink the slipper: ‘Mr Shorten has got to answer for this’, he threatened within minutes after releasing Heydon’s report. But answer for what? Heydon cleared Shorten of all wrongdoing; there was a somewhat limp slap on the wrist, but nothing at all substantial. But of course, Turnbull and more particularly the Murdoch press regard this as a test: will Shorten roll over to the government’s demands for legislation, whatever they might turn out to be, or will be damned forever as a union puppet?
Shorten was conveniently (perhaps too conveniently) on a scheduled break, and his deputy Tanya Plibersek has simply reiterated the old line that Labor has no tolerance for bad behaviour, from anyone. The unions, led by ACTU secretary Dave Oliver, have been more robust, but have yet to signal a clear political or industrial response.
Shorten emerged to tweet defiance: ‘Bring it on!’ Labor had, he elaborated, got rid of John Howard’s WorkChoices, and would do the same thing for anything Malcolm Turnbull might propose. But the analogy does not stand up. WorkChoices was a deliberate attack on the wages and conditions of the workers. Turnbull has made it clear that under his legislation, the workers would be protected: his target is the bosses, the venal and self-interested union apparatchiks who exploit the workers for their own ends.
Shorten will need a better strategy than bluster. And his first task to decide when he needs to apply it. The government has signalled that its own first foray will be to revive the bill to reconstitute the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which was abolished by Labor in 2012. It was given another run by the government of Tony Abbott, but rejected by the senate.
If it goes down again, it becomes a double dissolution trigger for an election in the first half of the year. Turnbull already has two triggers, the abolition of the Clean Energy Corporation and the establishment of the Registered Organisations Commission, another anti-union measure: but neither is nearly as sexy as bringing back the ABCC, a policeman on the beat against the louts, thugs, bullies, thieves and perjurers.
Labor and the Greens will presumably continue to oppose it, and the more numerate crossbenchers, who realise that their best hope of survival is a double dissolution rather than a normal half senate election, may easily to do likewise. Turnbull has said he regards it as an election issue, and the temptation to go fast and hard may be irresistible.
So what, if anything, can Shorten do about it? The only suggestion to date is an unlikely unity ticket from Bob Hawke and Jacqui Lambie for Labor to disaffiliate from the CMFEU. But for Shorten to follow that advice would be an admission of surrender, and apart from that, it might easily release a vengeful backlash from the political and financial giant.
He has gone just as far as he sensibly can, proposing stronger measures for the governance of unions and, indeed, for all corporate institutions. Many of the cross benchers would like Turnbull to follow the same path – why limit the reforms to the building industry? But the Prime Minister seems determined to focus on the immediate target, which makes it a lot easier to wedge Labor. Shorten, he insists, must declare total war on the unions – or at least on their leadership. Nothing else will absolve him of guilt by association.
Shorten, of course, will not do it – it is against both his self-interest and his lifelong beliefs. Unionism, like politics, is an honourable calling and the fact that it can be besmirched at various times and places does not mean it should be rejected, let alone totally demolished. He is right, of course: just look at Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough, to name but two recent miscreants. But that is another story, and one Malcolm Turnbull most emphatically does not want to talk about.