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Issue #1693      July 15, 2015


“Free lunches”

The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is dishing out almost daily headlines for the media. As intended, it is not making life easy for the Labor Party, its leader in particular, and the trade union movement. It has already put former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the stand and Opposition leader Bill Shorten had his turn last week. Prior to that former Labor PM Kevin Rudd was subjected to the Royal Commission into insulation.

The terms of reference of Abbott’s Commission, headed by Commissioner John Dyson Heydon, focus on the financial affairs of trade unions. For more than a year now, trade unionists have been bombarded with accusations. The corporate media have filled pages doing untold damage to reputations and personal relationships.

Abbott set the Commission up to justify legislation to clobber the trade union movement and pave the way for an Abbott-led Coalition victory in the next elections.

The Commission is delivering. For over a year now, there has been a steady flow of stories of alleged trade union mismanagement of funds, leadership links with bikies, thuggery, corruption, coercion of bosses, and so on. The accusations fly, often unsubstantiated or from dubious sources. The sensational headlines hide Abbott’s political agenda from view.

Bill Shorten’s two-day appearance last week as the former Victorian and national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) put the political system on trial. Many eyebrows were raised when Shorten was called in. After all, his co-operation with employers and outright rejection of class struggle makes him the darling of many employers.

Counsel assisting the Commission, Jeremy Stoljar, questioned Shorten about a deal during his leadership of the AWU with Theiss John Holland. It was for work on the $2.5 billion Eastlink Project in Victoria. The company saved as much as $100 million. The workers suffered a massive loss of conditions with the introduction of round-the-clock work, reduced conditions around rostering and weekend work. According to the Commission, the company agreed to pay the AWU $330,000 over three years in a side deal while the union was negotiating an enterprise agreement.

Stoljar questioned Shorten on other deals where companies paid the union hundreds of thousands more dollars for apparently “bogus” services. Some companies paid the AWU for membership of the union to cover the whole workforce. Many of the workers would not know they are or were a “member” of the AWU. In some instances, this was to shut out the militant construction and mining union (CFMEU). Nobody knows by just how much the AWU’s coffers or membership was inflated by such means.

This has serious political ramifications as the AWU is an affiliate of the ALP and its vote is proportional to its membership. But it does not stop there. The Commission revealed a deal between the AWU and the body hire company Unibilt, reportedly for over $60,000 for Shorten’s campaign director in the lead-up to the 2007 elections.

No decent worker or trade unionist would have the stomach for such conduct.

The Liberals have always tried to pit workers against their “union bosses”, against their union as if it were a “third party” that “interferes” in the workplace and “interferes” in their relationship with the employers. Here, Abbott has hypocritically feigned concern for workers.

Shorten indignantly rejected links between the contents – loss of conditions – of agreements with employers and the payments made by employers to the AWU under his rule. He expected the Commission to believe that Unibilt did not want something in return. Outside of the Commission Shorten denied there was any conflict of interest in his conduct.

The employers who were the other parties to these dodgy deals and bogus services are not within the scope of the Commission. But they are giving “free lunches”!

The political system is rampant with corruption. There is no doubt about it. Developers, mining corporations, banks and other corporations are banking rolling the Coalition and Labor parties, with Labor still receiving the majority of its funding from trade unions.

Reforms are needed to the trade union legislation, but not what Abbot has in mind. The electoral system also needs reform and one aspect of this is to end the system of donations and limit spending by candidates to a strict amount. Meanwhile the Royal Commission should be shut down.

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