Weekly column for The New Daily.
Labor and the Government are locked in an arm wrestle over Dyson Heydon and the union royal commission that will define their election strategies.
If there’s certainty about anything that will happen this week in politics, it’s that the Labor Opposition will do everything it can to bring down the royal commission into union corruption. Labor knows that doing so will seriously disrupt the Government’s re-election strategy.
The royal commission has always served a dual purpose for the Government. Over the short term, it’s been a mechanism for digging into the union pasts of Labor leaders in the hopes of tainting Julia Gillard’s legacy and crippling Bill Shorten’s future.
But over the longer term, the royal commission was intended to create voter distrust for the union movement – and by extension, Labor – by highlighting the worst behaviour of union officials.
The Government intended to exploit the resulting antipathy for unions by drawing Labor into a battle over laws meant to curtail union power. Accordingly, a bill to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission is due to be debated in the Senate today.
Also to be debated today is the re-introduced bill aiming to establish a Registered Organisations Commission, which would have the power to “supervise” the conduct of employer organisations and unions, including the use of coercive investigatory powers and criminal penalties. Once Labor and the Greens combined to defeat this bill, which they can with the support of three other Senators, the Government would then have a double dissolution trigger.
At least that was the plan: the momentum created by the mounting evidence of union rorts at the royal commission, paired with Labor’s protection of unions by defeating the ABCC and ROC bills, theoretically would have created a favourable anti-union re-election climate for the Government either at the end of this year or in early 2016.
Labor knows this momentum can be arrested by killing off the royal commission.
It won’t be enough to protest about the perceived or real conflict of interest that has arisen from Dyson Heydon’s foolish acceptance of an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party function, or even to boycott the commission’s proceedings.
If the inquiry continues to publicly gather evidence of union thuggery, dodgy deals and rorts, then the vast majority of disengaged voters will more likely dismiss complaints about the royal commissioner’s bias.
Only by bringing the royal commission to an early end will Labor have any chance of repairing the damage already done to the party – and its leader – through guilt by association with the dark element that patently exists within the labour movement.
According to another Drum columnist, Michael Bradley, Heydon’s removal would bring the inquiry to an end. But it is highly unlikely Tony Abbott will sack Heydon or impose on him to stand down – if reports are correct that the royal commissioner was his personal appointment, the PM can hardly afford to admit to another failed captain’s pick.
And given the royal commission has unearthed actual evidence of less than desirable union practices, it’s unlikely voters will raise arms against Heydon in the same way they felt compelled to do over the excesses of the former speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.
However, if Labor does manage to bring down Heydon and thereby the royal commission, the Government will have to rewrite this re-election strategy.
At least one commentator has pointed out that John Howard faced dire opinion poll ratings like those currently being experienced by Abbott, but that Howard turned this around with an ambitious reform agenda that led to re-election (albeit with less than an outright majority of the vote).
Yet there is nothing to suggest Abbott or his Government have the political nous required to devise, let alone run, an election campaign based on serious reform.
Treasurer Joe Hockey’s efforts to end our “entitlement” mentality have failed, thanks to an ill-judged first horror budget, an indulgent second magic pudding budget, and footage of stogies being puffed and helicopters landing on golf courses.
Parallel efforts to get the premiers to take the running (and grief) on increasing John Howard’s GST have been somewhat more successful, but the case for an increase (to pay for schools and hospitals) is much less electorally compelling than the original argument for the tax’s introduction (which included the scrapping of several other taxes and a tax cut for everyone earning up to $60,000).
Then there is the business community’s most favoured reform, workplace relations, which the PM will not even contemplate for fear of raising the ghost of WorkChoices.
Without a reform agenda, the Government is left with national security and asylum seekers – two sides of the same coin as far as the Prime Minister is concerned – on which to fight the next election. However, Labor’s recent decision not to rule out boat turn-backs makes it more difficult for the Government to argue it’s tougher on asylum seekers than the Opposition.
Whatever policies end up dominating the next 12 months and the next federal election campaign, trust and competence will be the underlying themes. This will not be so much a matter of “who do you trust to tell the truth?”, because no one expects politicians to be honest, but “who do you trust to run the country?”. This trust will be dependent on the extent to which voters are convinced the competing parties have cohesive, competent teams with economically responsible but fair policies.
Labor may manage to kill off the royal commission and neutralise public concern about its association with unions, but it will still have to contend with its Rudd-Gillard past and all that entails.
However, an even more difficult challenge faces Abbott and his team. The Coalition Government has proven to be neither cohesive nor competent over the past two years, and seemingly incapable of balancing economic soundness with the public good. It is on this that the Government will be judged on election day, and no amount of union corruption will spare it from that scrutiny.