Will the real Shorten please stand up?

The man who faced the royal commission into unions was confident and articulate. Who was he and what had Labor done with Bill Shorten?

The man who faced the royal commission into unions was confident and articulate. Who was he and what had Labor done with Bill Shorten?

Analysis for The New Daily.

Bill Shorten feels the slow burn of royal commission’s interrogation

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten might not have to be caught red-handed to be damaged by the union royal commission’s inquisition. If he slips up on a key detail, his party will lose whatever faith they still have in him.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott may have bounded out of bed this morning with more than his usual vigour. For him, a former industrial relations minister in the Howard Government and now the self-appointed scourge of Labor PMs, the much-anticipated day had arrived when former union leader and now Labor leader Bill Shorten would face Abbott’s Royal Commission into union governance and corruption.

This would be the interrogation of a third Labor leader by an Abbott Government-commissioned Royal Commission, following on from Kevin Rudd’s attendance at the inquiry into the Home Insulation Schemeand Julia Gillard’s appearance before the same Royal Commission being faced by Shorten today.

In the cases of Rudd and Gillard, their scrutiny under the veil of a Royal Commission was an attempt by the Abbott Government to recast history and blacken the names of the two former Labor Prime Ministers: to depict Rudd’s determination to roll-out stimulus spending as irresponsible and fatal; and designate Gillard as a dodgy lawyer who had personally benefitted from doing special deals for unions before embarking on a political career.

It is too early to tell whether either attempt will have any permanent impact on the two former PMs’ historical reputations.

However Shorten’s appearance before the union Royal Commission, jauntily known as #TURC on social media, has another purpose altogether. This interrogation is not only meant to besmirch but to bring down the Labor leader, to cast enough doubt on him – even if only in the eyes of his own colleagues – to either precipitate another Labor leadership change before the upcoming federal election, or exacerbate existing voter concern about Shorten’s suitability for high office.

Royal Commission examinations are not for observers who like to cut to the chase. They do however make compelling watching for those of us with a penchant for the slow-burn lawyerly interrogation that’s become the staple of myriad popular crime shows.

In this respect, the Commission’s counsel (or prosecutor), Jeremy Stoljar, has not disappointed, systematically taking Shorten, the former state and national leader of the influential right-wing union the AWU, though a series of documented events to determine whether he personally benefited from arrangements made with his knowledge during that period.

Of the three Labor leaders who have endured these Coalition-inspired witch-hunts, Shorten appears the most relaxed. He’s been well-schooled by his lawyers to use concise language, and has felt confident enough to offer mini-dissertations to provide context. In response, Stoljar has sternly asked for shorter answers.

One of the main issues investigated today was whether the services of an employee of the labour hire firm Unibilt was in effect hired and then donated to be Shorten’s campaign manager when Shorten was a Labor candidate in 2007, and whether this donation had been declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.

The campaign manager’s wages were later paid by the AWU, although Unibilt continued to furnish the cash for that purpose. Reference was also made to another worker on the Shorten campaign whose wages were paid by the AWU.

It’s certainly not unusual for political operatives to move in and out of various roles, and the funding of those positions is not always straightforward. Staffers employed by party headquarters, for example, may work in politicians’ offices, or corporate lobbyists aligned with one party or another may take leave to work on election campaigns. Political staffers employed at the territory, state or federal level may take leave to work in election campaigns at other levels.

Some political staffers may even have their salaries topped-up by the party machines, to compensate for their low remuneration compared with equivalent roles in the corporate world.

So in itself, it’s not unusual or necessarily underhanded for an employee of another organisation to work on the campaign of a Labor candidate, or their office, or to be funded by someone else. And it’s not often that such a resource is declared as a donation (even though it should be).

It became clear during Shorten’s evidence that he had indeed declared the Unibilt employee as a donation – sometime in the past few days. Given that Shorten’s experience with “donated” staff is a common practice, we should expect to see a number of other updated candidate returns in coming days, from both sides of the political fence.

Then there was the question whether Shorten gained a personal advantage by getting the donated staffer from Unibilt at the same time the company was negotiating a wage agreement with the AWU. Shorten denied he was involved in the wage negotiations.

The more troubling element of the donated campaign manager was not so much that he was an undeclared donation but that he might not have known he was actually employed and paid by Unibilt.

This question of unknowing employees leads to the other, more politically dangerous, matter being examined today. This is whether Shorten knew of, or was involved in, wage agreements that required employers to pay union memberships for employees who were unaware they’d been signed up to the union.

The rationale for such a practice would be to boost the official membership numbers of the AWU and therefore the number of votes it was allocated within Labor Party decision-making processes.

Accounts differ as to whether the employees in question knew they were members – and had agreed to be, for compulsory unionism is illegal – but current AWU secretary Ben Davis told the Royal Commission he stopped this practice because it weakened the union’s bargaining powerSome of the relevant paperwork from that time has also become unavailable, apparently due to a computer upgrade.

We are yet to hear what Shorten knew about these deals, and whether they were sanctioned by him. The Commission has resumed this afternoon to further apply the screws to Shorten concerning these arrangements.

No doubt our erstwhile PM is hoping Shorten’s hand will be caught in the tea caddy, not only demonstrating to the Liberal base that Abbott is tough on unions, but that those dastardly unionists just can’t be trusted. This strengthens the campaign narrative that will be rolled out by the Coalition at the next election.

However, Shorten may not have to be caught red-handed to be damaged by this inquisition. If he loses his nerve, slips up on a key detail, or starts to obviously lie, his party will lose whatever faith they still have in him.