When the idea that the US Congress should establish the House Un-American Activities Committee was first proposed in 1934, the un-American activity that was to be investigated was the racist propaganda from fascist Germany that was being spread by organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
However, this threat from the far right was quickly forgotten as HUAC was turned into an anti-communist crusade by conservative opponents of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. The notion that, through taxation measures, the business community should accept some responsibility for general welfare — not to mention the dangerously radical idea of public ownership — was clearly un-American for some.
They included Joseph McCarthy, who began his career as a circuit judge in the State of Wisconsin before World War II. After the war he used a dirty tricks campaign to win the Republican nomination for the US Senate and was easily elected in 1946. In 1950 he began a campaign against supposed communists and homosexuals working for the government.
From 1953, McCarthy demonstrated his disregard for the rights of others from his position as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Together with the chairman of HUAC, he exploited the new medium of television, broadcasting live hearings of the bullying and smearing by innuendo of witnesses summoned to appear before them. The presumption of innocence was replaced with guilt by association, and the lives and careers of many US citizens were destroyed.
McCarthy eventually brought himself undone by accusing the US Army, the State Department, the Democratic Party in general and the Truman administration (1945-52) in particular, of treason and being soft on communism. Truman’s response was to label him a “pathological character assassin” and “McCarthyism” entered the lexicon, defined as the public accusation of disloyalty unsupported by facts.
There is an eerie parallel to McCarthy’s exploitation of live television with the live streaming of the proceedings of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. However, until the hearings of the commission on October 23, McCarthyism had not reared its ugly head.
John Agius SC, counsel for the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU), used the expression when referring to the line of questioning being taken by barrister Valerie Heath, acting for Lis-Con construction executive, Eoin O’Neill.
Heath had asked a witness from the superannuation fund Cbus whether she was a member of the CFMEU. When the witness said that she was and explained why, Heath repeatedly challenged the choice that the witness had made to join the union.
Agius objected with: “This is starting to look an awful lot like McCarthyism.”
He argued that counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoltjar SC, had spent a lot of time cross-examining in an area where the commission has no terms of reference. He objected to questions about union membership, “on the basis that the fact that people are members of the CFMEU is not against the law, and the fact that they’re members of the union can’t possibly assist this commission if they happen to be working at Cbus.”
Agius is correct to point out that being a union member is not against the law, but it is an obvious point that should not be lost on those who purport to know the law that they are supposed to be administering.
When Agius made his comment about McCarthyism, the royal commissioner Dyson Heydon asked him if the McCarthyism was on his part. Agius replied that it was not on his part, but on the part of those asking the questions.
This reply goes only halfway to the nub of the matter. The McCarthyism on display should have been blindingly obvious to the royal commissioner, who should have brought this to the offending barrister’s attention. In the absence of ignorance, anything less is either condoning or encouraging it, or both.
The royal commissioner could do worse than bring this miserable farce to an end and do what most interested observers believe he wants to do — recommend that unions be brought under the Corporations Act. This would at least have the virtue of putting an end to the wilful waste of taxpayer’s money.