Shorten’s union troubles aren’t over yet

Shorten’s union troubles aren’t over yet

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.

Royal commission stand-off could define the election

Royal commission stand-off could define the election

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 thuggerydodgy 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.