When the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was set up by the federal government, it was widely seen as a political witch hunt intended to smear the union movement with guilt by association to the scandals that had emerged in the Health Services Union (HSU).
With a bit of good fortune and a lot of spin-doctoring it would also provide the Coalition with handy ammunition against the ALP at the next federal election, likely to be held in late 2016 — a contrived “ticking Tampa”.
The Commission’s terms of reference required it to report to the government by December 31. But this month, it was given a 12-month extension — coincidentally aligning its final report closer to the federal election cycle.
When Attorney-General George Brandis announced the extension, he said he was responding to a request from the royal commissioner, Dyson Heydon, contained in a letter dated October 2. Yet the letter from Heydon expressly said it was not an application to widen the commission’s terms of reference or to extend its reporting date. Counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar SC, had said the commission was looking forward to delivering its report, as requested, by the end of this year.
The Attorney-General’s response was to say that it was very apparent from what the royal commissioner had said in his correspondence “that there is a large amount of unfinished business”. What he might more accurately have said is what Green Left Weekly reported this year — that the budget papers released in May anticipated an extension of time into next year.
A total of $53.3 million was allocated for the Commission’s operations over 14 months. The budget papers provided a government estimate that $23.4 million would be spent by the commission by June this year and allocated a further $30 million for the financial year to June next year.
GLW also reported at the outset that the commission was a standing invitation to the disgruntled and the disappointed to publicly settle old scores with headline-grabbing allegations that would never be tested in court because they were either hearsay or just plain unsupportable.
Despite Stoljar insisting that the public hearings are not forums for untested allegations, this is precisely what has occurred. When untested allegations of bribery have been made in commission proceedings, the commission seemed unaware that the wide powers with which it has been invested allowed it to follow the money trail and determine the veracity of such claims.
But what few anticipated was the way the commission would try to protect the so-called “whistleblower”, HSU official Kathy Jackson, by parading her as an example of how disgraceful whistleblowers are treated in unions and presumably use it to recommend some draconian remedy.
Unfortunately for the commission’s strategy, the HSU is pursuing Jackson in the Federal Court for allegedly spending about $1.66 million of HSU funds without authority.
Embarrassingly for the commission, the information that led to the HSU’s court action was available in the commission’s files, yet it took mainstream journalists to join the dots together resulting in Jackson being recalled to the commission witness box.
There will undoubtedly be cases of genuine corruption uncovered during the hearings of the commission. The remedy for corruption is democratised in which decisions over financial matters are made by members.
Another part of the democratising project is for union rules to make it mandatory that members decide whether they want their union affiliated to the ALP, from where much of the corrupting influence in unions comes.
The royal commissioner will now be required to report to the government by mid-December on the inquiry proceedings to this date. According to press reports, he will then bring down his report dealing with criminal matters in December next year.
If there is one union the government wants to get rid of it is the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, and it must be hoping that the commission will provide a convenient excuse for it to do so.
In this regard, the royal commissioner would do well to take heed of the lecture he delivered at the law graduation ceremony at Notre Dame University in September last year.
In an address defending Australian Catholicism, he quoted approvingly from the dissenting judgment delivered earlier in the year by Lord Sumption in the UK Supreme Court where he referred to “the complexity of the modern law and its progressive invasion of the interstices of daily life”.
He went on to say: “With that invasion comes a growth in state power. And with that growth comes the capacity and the temptation to abuse state power.” The royal commissioner might remind himself that he has an opportunity to prevent such abuse.