The grim reality of the polling only confirms that it is time, time and half, perhaps even double time for Bill Shorten to decide just what he is to do about Dyson Heydon’s Royal Commission into the unions and in particular his own involvement.
Shorten’s first reaction was to dismiss the whole thing as a political stunt, a witch-hunt devised by Tony Abbott, and he had a point. There was and is little doubt that the primary aim of the inquiry was to damn at least some of the trades unions, and by extension the whole movement and, as the ultimate target, the Labor Party and its leaders.
It focussed early on Julia Gillard, and later on Shorten himself. And of course, another commission had called in Kevin Rudd. The evidence of payback and spite was obvious. And then, Heydon’s acceptance of a Liberal Party function that turned out to be a fund-raiser brought up the issue of bias, even cronyism.
The fact that Heydon exonerated himself did not exactly clear the air.
The ALP’s hope that the exercise would not be shut down – neither Heydon nor Abbott was ever going to take that option – but that it would be seen as so discredited, so politically smelly that it could be effectively discounted.
But it wasn’t; with a lot of help from its boosters, especially from the Murdoch press, the commission has pressed on, and has revived and expanded the revelations of examples of stand over tactics, bullying and outright thuggery within one union in particular – the CFMEU. And it has moved on to the AWU with witnesses talking of kick backs, sham invoices and, of course, the AWU’s former boss, Bill Shorten.
Now, as aficionados will realise, these are totally separate concerns. The CFMEU is a left-wing, militant union with a long history of allegations of seriously bad behaviour. It has been very successful, both industrially and financially, but it has always had a reputation for skirting as close to the rules as possible and sometimes going over the line. It has been very easy to portray the CFMEU as the bad guys – almost criminals, in fact.
But the AWU is totally different; a middle of the road union willing, often eager to negotiate with the employers at times to the point of collusion. In Shorten’s time at the top, the union was concerned not with confrontation but with outcomes: looking for what is usually called win-win situations to satisfy both the workers and their bosses.
And of course the AWU itself prospered under the regime. Abbott once disparaged the union as “a business model,” a somewhat bizarre insult from the man who boasted that his government was open for business. And indeed, there was and is a corporate side to the AWU, a structure to grow the organisation as well as providing dividends for its stakeholders, whether those within its own a ranks or among the rank and file.
Shorten himself gained great power and influence, but has never seriously been accused of corruption; the worst that has been claimed is that the employers paid for a worker during his election campaign. Personally he is clean, just as Malcolm Turnbull is when it comes to his tax matters.
But this does not solve the problem: it is all about perception. Just as Turnbull cannot avoid the taint of being involved in tax havens, Shorten cannot shrug off the feeling that there has to be something pretty suss about backroom union deals. The punters, especially the more than 80 per cent who are not members of unions, do not see the distinctions between the CFMEU and the AWU; to them, all unions are pretty much the same. And if the shit is hitting the fan, and Shorten is in the witness box (or the dock, as they perceive it) that is enough to find him guilty.
Shorten’s defence has been detailed and convincing; he has, as he has repeatedly said, answered some 900 questions, and no-one has actually suggested that he has done anything that is not entirely within the law. But that doesn’t matter; the voters are not reading the transcripts but the headlines. What they remember is that Heydon once warned Shorten: “I am concerned about your credibility as a witness.” Gratuitous and uncalled for perhaps, but devastating nonetheless.
And it will be in this atmosphere that the new stories about Shorten will be assessed, whether or not he is actually recalled before Heydon. At least Abbot is not still there to hurl his hate-crazed rhetoric across the despatch box of parliament; Turnbull will be both more measured and circumspect. But his attack dogs may not be so forbearing, and the Murdoch press will be relentless and ruthless. Not only does the ageing mogul dislike Labor and all its works; once, many many years ago, he had a nasty experience with the unions of Britain, and it has scarred him for life.
Shorten can expect no respite, no even a level playing field. So he will have to prepare for the worst, and railing about Turnbull’s tax arrangements is not the way to do it. As Turnbull happily admits that he has a lot of money, so what? Shorten has a tougher job: he has a lot of union -based baggage, and even if he wanted to shed it (which he doesn’t, and nor should he) he has to convince a sceptical electorate that it should be no impediment to him becoming Prime Minister.
He and his advisers may already be planning for the inevitable onslaught to come. There isn’t much he can do about a hostile media, but he must at least hope that Dyson Heydon, whom he has been attacking as biased and unfit for his role, will maintain the lofty judicial disdain he has shown to date and give him a fair hearing. If the judgements fall against him, the verdict will be far more devastating than a mere finding of the Commission. And throwing himself on the mercy of the voters is not likely to bring a reprieve.