One of Tony Abbott's first acts as Prime Minister was to announce a Royal Commission to “shine a spotlight” onto the so-called “dark corners” of the trade union movement. The commission would expose the criminality and impropriety that allegedly blights Australia's trade unions.
Led by former High Court Judge John Dyson Heydon, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption officially began in February 2014.
It called more than 500 witnesses in 189 hearing days and cost the public purse nearly $50 million. More than a million documents were collected and multiple task forces were set up to assist the commission.
Its final report — which described unionists as “louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts” — comprised six volumes, many thousands of pages and 79 recommendations.
As expected, the commission did uncover instances of theft, bribery and dubious arrangements with employers, including the corruption and betrayal of their members that infected the upper reaches of the Health Services Union. But many of its findings relied on hearsay and the dubious recollections of employers and others who have an interest in curbing the influence of unions.
As well as referring some individual officials for possible prosecution, the main recommendations of the royal commission included: the creation of a stand-alone union regulator, such as the government's proposed Registered Organisations Commission; tighter financial auditing of unions and checks on supposed conflicts of interest; greater protection for union whistleblowers; new powers to disqualify union officials who commit "breaches of the law"; and a requirement that union leaders pay their own penalties when fined by a court (rather than have the union pay them).
Geelong Trades Hall Council Secretary and Socialist Alliance industrial relations spokesperson Tim Gooden told Green Left Weekly: “The final report of the Royal Commission is a complete stitch-up of the union movement, designed to prepare the way for an all-out attack on union rights and workers' conditions in 2016, in the lead-up to the federal election.
“The commission's report is a blatantly political document, which exaggerates the level of corruption in the unions and blames union officials for just doing their job."
“While any individual cases of corruption by union officials cannot be tolerated by the movement, it is up to the members to hold their leaders to account — not some jumped-up retired judge, who used up tens of millions of tax-payers' dollars over two years, at the behest of the big business-backed Coalition government, to come up with very little against the great bulk of union officials and delegates.
“Dyson Heydon is a Coalition front-man, as shown by his agreement to speak at a Liberal Party fund-raising dinner last year. No one should be surprised that the report was released during the media dead period just before New Year's Eve, when it would only receive minimal public and journalistic scrutiny. Most of the report was not released and what there is consists of untested allegations.
"Nevertheless, the attacks on union rights prefigured in the royal commission report, together with the Productivity Commission report released just days earlier, which recommends cuts in weekend penalty rates and other threats to employee conditions, reveal that the Turnbull government, backed to the hilt by the business class, is planning an all-out assault on workers' and union rights as a key part of its re-election strategy.
“This requires an urgent and strong response from the union movement. The ACTU has called a 'National Leadership Forum' in the first week of February in Melbourne. Affiliated unions should call for discussion of a mass reply to these looming attacks by the Coalition and big business to be put high on the agenda of that meeting and not let the 're-elect the ALP' strategy dominate the discussion.
“We need a vigorous community campaign, backed up by rallies and if necessary industrial action, to defend the rights of unions and working people. This campaign needs to be even bigger than the Your Rights At Work campaign, which effectively brought down the Howard government in 2007.”
ACTU national secretary Dave Oliver said: “This Royal Commission was a biased and politically motivated exercise from the start. It was always about prosecuting an ideological agenda to cut workplace conditions.
"The release of this report, just a week after the Productivity Commission recommended slashing penalty rates, shows this government's real intention is to slash living standards for working families.
"I reject any assertion of widespread, unlawful corrupt conduct. There is no evidence of systemic, corrupt conduct in the union movement. But between 2009 and 2013, 837 workers in the industries investigated by this Royal Commissioner have died doing their job.
“We are very concerned some recommendations will make it harder for workers to raise safety concerns in their workplaces.”
Dave Noonan, national construction secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), said if the Turnbull government was serious about rooting out rorters, rogues and crooks, the Liberal Party would be a good place to start. He said any matters of substance in the report could easily have been dealt with using existing mechanisms such as the Federal Police.
“In the construction industry there are plenty of real issues that need investigating. Safety is at an all-time low. Fatalities and accidents continue as employers cut corners and avoid their legal responsibilities.
“Phoenixing [where a business collapses, owing creditors, including workers, large amounts of money, only to rise from the ashes under a new name and free of debt] is hurting small businesses and workers as companies take advantage of legal loopholes to avoid paying debts, taxes and wages.
“The focus of the Turnbull government should be on these issues as well as investigating the return of black lung in the mining industry and doing something about the use of flag of convenience ships to ply the seagoing trade between Australian ports.”
Queensland Council of Unions president John Battams said: “The report's recommendations and reform proposals, if adopted in full, would undermine the ability of employees to organise and protect their rights at work.
“Unions could justifiably point to business and politics, and ask why they are not facing similar recommendations and extraordinary penalties.”
Several Coalition backbenchers, including Abbott, have called on the government to call an early election, even a double dissolution, on the basis of any continued refusal by the Senate to back a restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), the former-Howard government's widely hated industrial police force, and other industrial issues arising from the trade union royal commission.
Any such move would be a direct challenge to the trade union movement. Bring it on, and let's mobilise unionists and the community to defend union rights and living conditions for all working people.