Shorten’s union troubles aren’t over yet

The royal commission into union corruption may have cleared Bill Shorten, but the Labor leader is still facing pressure over his party’s union links and in many ways his job has just been made harder.

Late last Friday the royal commission into union corruption quietly slipped out a media release, essentially declaring it had given up the chase on Labor leader Bill Shorten.

The statement advised that, following the examination of Shorten’s former union, the inquiry’s counsel believed a number of AWU officials may have had a conflict of interest when “causing the union to enter into lucrative side deals that were not disclosed to the members”.

There was however “no submission that Mr Bill Shorten may have engaged in any criminal or unlawful conduct.” Unsurprisingly, Shorten and Labor moved swiftly to depict the Labor leader as vindicated by the announcement.

However, it would be a mistake to see the union royal commission’s waving of the white flag as taking the pressure off Shorten. In fact, it effectively tightens the screws on the Opposition Leader.

Now the TURC dogs have be called off, Shorten is no longer in a position to dismiss the inquiry as simply being Tony Abbott’s very expensive personal vendetta against him and Julia Gillard. With that convenient deflection no longer available (even if true), Shorten has no choice other than to confront the evidence of union thuggery and corruption that has been uncovered.

In short, the Labor leader and his party will face increasing political pressure to deliver on Shorten’s declaration that they have “zero tolerance” for union wrongdoing and corruption.

It’s no coincidence that one of the early political manoeuvres by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was to call for Shorten to change Labor’s opposition to the Government’s proposal to create a union watchdog and reintroduce the building and construction industry commission.

Calling the “appalling cases” unearthed by TURC “a very sorry tale”, Turnbull pointedly stressed that “anyone who had the interests of the labour movement at heart” should see the royal commission “not as an opportunity for political point scoring but as … a watershed event we should use to clean up the act for the benefit of members”.

In presenting this “test” for the Opposition Leader, the Prime Minister was also gauging the Australian public’s appetite for a political tussle over the need to clean up the unions.

This is partly because Turnbull has a double dissolution trigger at his disposal on the issue – even though he has all but ruled out using it. However, the Government also needs to find a way to counter the union movement’s strong grassroots campaigning capability, which will be rolled out to support Labor at the federal election.

The potential strength of that capability can be seen in seemingly incongruous data that emerged just last month. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that union membership continues to be low, the union-aligned Essential Poll found two thirds of voters still think unions are important “for Australian working people today”.

It’s a little known fact beyond those who closely follow politics that the major parties tend to treat the Australian Senate more as a reward for loyal foot soldiers than a forum for talented community representatives.

Shorten’s challenge is to balance this apparent high public esteem for unions with the need to respond to the troubling findings from TURC. And he must do this while managing the often contentious role of unions within the Labor Party itself.

Like any Labor leader, Shorten owes his position at least in part to the factions that put him there; factions that are loosely arranged according to the unions that make up the party’s membership.

With the help of dominant unions, Shorten kept philosophical divisions to a minimum at Labor’s national conference earlier this year. But the price he paid for such peace was to accede to demands that unions maintain their power over key party decisions such as the preselection of Senate candidates.

It’s a little known fact beyond those who closely follow politics that the major parties tend to treat the Australian Senate more as a reward for loyal foot soldiers than a forum for talented community representatives.

Long-serving unionists, in Labor’s case, or senior office holders in the Coalition parties, almost exclusively populate the upper house along with former political staffers and party apparatchiks from either side.

While no political party has an exclusive right to stupidity, Labor’s union-based factions have made Shorten’s life difficult by demonstrating a lack of political smarts when it comes to exercising their power of Senate preselections.

Echoing the selection of antediluvian Joe Bullock over gay rights advocate Louise Pratt in Western Australian before the last federal election, and an attempt in South Australia to do something similar to Penny Wong, the unions and their factions have a done a deal in Tasmania to relegate the talented (and factionally-unaligned) young shadow minister Lisa Singh to the unwinnable fourth place on Labor’s Senate ticket in that state.

Of the three women only Wong was spared, and then only when senior Labor MP Anthony Albanese threatened to get the original decision overturned by the national executive.

Most recently, Shorten had to deal with unions trying to oust former Labor minister Gary Gray from his seat, an attempt that was apparently abandoned after the now familiar threat of national intervention.

Commenting after the preselection battle smoke cleared, Shorten claimed he supported Gray’s calls for reform of the Labor Party, and that he wanted to give “more voice to rank and file members”.

This ambition unambiguously translates into a reduction of union influence, thereby placing the Opposition Leader in a position where he appears to be acceding to the unions’ demands for their power to be retained (if not increased) while promising the opposite to Labor’s grassroots members.

As a result, Shorten has double trouble when it comes to the unions. Not only is he exposed by his own double-talk on union power within Labor, the Opposition Leader will be under pressure from what is anticipated to be a fresh attempt by the Government to wedge him on union corruption.

Shorten should therefore savour any relief he may feel from being “excused” by the union royal commission. His attempts to be all things to all people when it comes to unions will ensure the reprieve is considerably short-lived.

Hockey steps in to clean up the mess

A week playing Knights and Bigots was a budget distraction the Treasurer could ill afford. But he’s managed to mop up the political detritus and get the campaign going again.

Those listening carefully last Friday may have almost caught Treasurer Joe Hockey humming a few bars from “Sadie the cleaning lady” as he announced his innovative infrastructure deal with state and territory treasurers.

For it was left to the Government’s chief budget spruiker to mop up the political detritus left by his colleagues over the preceding week and get the budget expectations campaign back on track.

The Treasurer, formerly known as Sloppy Joe, is painfully aware that his own credibility as well as that of the Abbott Government is vested in how well the public and the media receive his first budget.

That reception is reliant on a campaign of softening up the voters to expect decisions that are tough but fair, and to build acceptance even before the budget is handed down by creating a sense of momentum and inevitability.

Traditionally, the government uses the final week of Parliament before the six-week break leading up to the budget to create that sense of momentum. So a week playing Knights and Bigots was a distraction Hockey could ill afford.

Nevertheless, Hockey took to the clean-up task with relish. On Friday he threw the states and territories a juicy incentive to sell off their assets, under the guise of an almost too clever euphemism “asset recycling“, thereby effecting a workmanlike attempt to draw our eyes away from the car crash that was last week’s Parliament and refocus our gaze on matters economic.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rolled up his sleeves and joined in on Sunday, authoritatively re-establishing the narrative about “Operation Repair the Budget”. He attended to a few stray splashes by reaffirming the Coalition had committed only to the first four years of Gonski funding and that the NDIS would be implemented in a way that was “efficient and as well-targetted as possible”.

Cormann devoted considerable elbow grease to the troublesome Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms, hoping to dispel concerns over what he claimed to be inaccurate depictions of the changes. He repeated, again, that he developed the reforms as the shadow minister for financial services and superannuation after extensive consultation and a series of parliamentary inquiries that looked at financial products and services.

This appeared to be as much an effort to distance the reforms from the standing-aside Assistant Treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos, as they were to calm citizens concerned about rampaging financial advisers. The former Australian Water Holdings chairman is due to give evidence to the ICAC on Wednesday, at which time Sinodinos’s many fans may be confronted with uncomfortable truths about the fallibility of their man’s widely-regarded political acumen.

Sinodinos has undoubtedly opened a chink on the Government’s flank, causing them to be at least temporarily circumspect when it comes to dodgy deals and corruption. This became clear when, amongst the many dramas unravelling in Parliament last week, barely a peep was heard about the sentencing of former Labor MP Craig Thomson and former ALP President Michael Williamson, for misusing union funds.

Had Sinodinos not been in the picture, Thomson and Williamson would have been brandished by the Government as further justification of the need for the royal commission into union corruption and used to wedge Opposition Leader Bill Shorten from his union support base.

Instead, the Parliament was subjected to the Prime Minister’s twin indulgences, a Racial Discrimination Act retrofitted to accommodate Andrew Bolt and the reintroduction of an archaic honours system.

Perhaps Liberal voters in Western Australia, who are required to attend a polling booth this weekend for the fourth time in 12 months, consider these relics attractive. It’s more likely they’re interested in jobs, health and education, all of which were barely mentioned by the Government last week.

Ironically, Shorten was more on-song with Hockey than the Prime Minister. In his first address to the National Press Club since becoming Leader of the Opposition, Shorten contributed Labor’s threads to the budget narrative by defending his party’s economic record while in government and helpfully nominating four criteria by which the opposition would (and the media “should”) judge the budget.

Shorten also sounded a curious dog whistle to conservative voters, who are traditionally wary of change, warning that a government’s priorities determine whether people are the victims or beneficiaries of change. Shorten cautioned that Abbott’s “bleak, hopeless brand of Darwinsim” means adapting to economic change will require “deep cuts to services, longer unemployment queues, lower wages and lower levels of government support.” We can expect to hear more of that refrain in the coming weeks.

Parliament may be over until the budget is brought down in May, but Hockey shouldn’t put his mop and bucket away just yet. This time next week, he’ll have to contend with another distraction from the budget as parties and commentators alike paw through the entrails of the WA Senate election re-run.

Depending on the election outcome, political strategies and budget narratives may have to be adjusted. Hockey may have to kickstart the budget expectations campaign yet again to create the momentum needed to consolidate public acceptance. And with less than five weeks to go to the budget, there will be little or no time left to mop up after any further prime ministerial acts of self-indulgence.