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.