By Mungo MacCallum
For at least the last 35 years, it has been an iron rule of prime ministers: never set up a royal commission unless you are certain that you will get the findings you want.
The terrible example of Malcolm Fraser’s commission into the Builders Labourers Federation is still fresh in the minds of all his successors. Fraser’s BLF inquiry had all the right ideas: tear into a rogue union and by association with the Labor Party – to impute guilt by association was always the primary motive.
But the government appointed as Commissioner an independently minded lawyer, Frank Costigan, who started by pursuing the BLF, but ended up discovering vast amounts of corporate rorting by some of the Liberals’ most prominent supporters.
Dozens of dodgy companies were outed as serial tax avoiders, beneficiaries of what became know as bottom of the harbour schemes whereby assets were stripped ruthlessly to provide instant tax free profits, some of which were recycled as donations to the Liberal Party.
The big end of town’s embarrassment was acute, and in the upshot Fraser’s Treasurer, John Howard, was forced into enacting a form of retrospective legislation to end the practice. The outraged business community, particularly the big entrepreneurs in Western Australia, never forgave him.
Huge wads of cash were involved, and it was suggested that drug money might be being laundered; code names were invented to cover suspects, the most notorious was the media mogul Kerry Packer, who was given the cypher ‘The Squirrel,’ but was given another alias in The National Times as ‘The Goanna.’
It was a time of political melodrama from which, the Fraser government’s standing was seriously damaged. And thus the bruised Liberal ministers vowed that it must never, ever, happen again.
But the temptation to use the available weapon of using a royal commission to attack the opposition could not be resisted forever, and Tony Abbott has seldom been one to avoid temptation when there is an immediate reward – penance, if any, can come later. The trick is simply to nail down the terms of reference so that there is no deviation from the primary objective, and to ensure the right commissioner.
And thus we have the narrowly focussed Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, under the aegis of the black letter lawyer, Dyson Heydon. And it must be said that the commissioner has stuck strictly to the script: there are to be no Costigan-like excursions into areas which might embarrass the government.
Unsurprisingly, the militant CMFEU has been given a series of whacks, and, as a major donor to the ALP, it has caused a certain amount of collateral damage to its party. But the big target has been the AWU, generally seen as a moderate, even co-operative body which has seldom been involved of any more than the occasional suspicion of industrial shenanigans other than the normal corner-cutting and jay walking.
And it just so happens that a former Labor leader, Julia Gillard, and a current one, Bill Shorten, have been called before the tribunal to answer for charges that would probably have been dismissed as trivial had not they not been ramped up by the interrogators appointed by the Commission, enthusiastically aided and abetted by the muck-rakers of News Corp.
In spite of the diligent efforts of the latter, neither has been felled by a serious blow – Gillard was cleared of all criminality and Shorten has not so far been accused of any. But both have sustained flesh wounds or worse.
The biggest for Shorten came not from the combative counsel Jeremy Stoljar, but from the Commissioner himself: Heydon, in a somewhat unexpected intervention, warned that the Labor leader about his credibility as a witness for talking too much. It was, for some observers, a moment of déjà vu; Heydon had used exactly the same line when querying Julia Gillard. Those who held that the whole thing was an Abbott frame up felt immediately vindicated.
On the other side, the prosecutors gloated that there was no smoke without fire. The ebullient Bruce Bilson got off a zinger of his own with his analogy about a man trying to buy a car, only to find that the dealer was getting a sling. It had little to do with the labyrinthine workings of the actual system of industrial relations, but it was a great line for the pub nonetheless.
And this is the problem for Shorten. If he was trying to defuse the attacks on his union past, he has failed lamentably. Not only may he be called back to the Commission in a couple of months, but its findings will hang over him until they are brought down, and even if he is, like Gillard, cleared of criminality, there are bound to be qualifications his many enemies will exploit. And of course they just might come to a climax around election time.
Abbott must be well satisfied; mission not yet accomplished, but we can report progress. The only real risk is that Heydon just may notice that the cosy deals between union leaders and employers are not one-sided affairs; he could just start wondering about just why, and how, the bosses have been so complaisant and complicit in the shenanigans. But he probably won’t; he has his terms of reference, and the word ‘employer’ is not among them.
He will do what he is told, and what he is being paid to do, and the bill for the whole exercise will be around $80 million at the last estimate. It seems a lot of money for not very much, but at least it is rather more substantial than the earlier Royal Commission in which Kevin Rudd had to talk about pink batts, after numerous inquiries had already exhausted that never very fertile ground.
Royal Commissions need not be a waste of time and money; the one into the Iraq wheat-for-weapons deal told us a lot we did not know, even if no one went to gaol. And we could certainly do with a Royal Commission into the financial dealings of the banks; there are a lot of questions to be asked about that.
But not on Abbott’s watch. He could not be sure where it would go. Or perhaps he could, and that would be much, much worse.