Trade union witch-hunt must be shut down

August 21, 2015
Brisbane protest against Abbott's anti-union kangaroo court, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

The future of the federal government’s anti-union, kangaroo court — the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption — is in doubt, following media revelations that the commissioner, retired High Court Justice John Dyson Heydon, accepted an invitation — not once, but twice — to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser while serving on the body.

The commission first sat on April 9 last year and media reports say Heydon received the invitation to speak via email just one day later, on April 10. He was approached again in March.

Further doubt was cast on Dyson Heydon’s impartiality following media reports that he also sat on the Rhodes Trust selection committee in 1980 that approved Tony Abbott for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. Dyson Heydon is also reported to be receiving $3000 a day — close to $1 million a year — for his role as commissioner.

In 2001, the Cole Royal Commission into the construction industry paved the way for the introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission — “the building industry Gestapo” as it was commonly known.

The commission was similarly set up as a witch-hunt against political rivals and unions and as a pretext for the introduction of new anti-worker laws, to criminalise union organising, threaten union insurance and superannuation funds and generally increase government interference in the internal functions of unions.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) lodged a submission to the commission on August 20 requesting that Dyson Heydon recuse (disqualify) himself. It was heard on August 21 and Dyson Heydon announced he would make a determination about his role on August 25.

The ACTU has also called for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to shut the commission down and “stop wasting millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing his own political agenda”. ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver said in a statement on August 19 that the ACTU has always maintained that the commission is a “political witch-hunt” designed to weaken Abbott’s political opponents.

The Greens were the first in parliament to call for the commission to be aborted following the revelations. The ALP gave notice that it would seek Senate support for a motion on August 24 calling on the governor-general to revoke the commissioner’s appointment. But, even if the motion is passed, it is unlikely to be agreed to by the governor-general.

Dyson Heydon’s opinion on the governance of unions is a matter of public record. John Rainford wrote in Green Left Weekly in April last year that it was Dyson Heydon who raised the idea during the Gyles Royal Commission into Productivity in the NSW Building Industry in 1990–1992, that unions should be policed by corporate laws despite the fact that they are not corporations.

Perhaps responding to the pressure of media scrutiny, the commission released a budget and operational update on August 19. The document reveals that it has a budget of $61 million over two years. It has already spent $28 million hearing the testimony of 441 witnesses in 149 public and private hearings. A total of four people have been arrested.

One of those was Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) organiser and former rugby player Johnny Lomax, who has been charged by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) with blackmail arising from negotiations in 2013 with a painting company over paying its employees above the minimum rate.

The CFMEU is calling on the AFP to drop the charge against Lomax, who they argue was engaging in lawful industrial activity. CFMEU Construction Division National Secretary Dave Noonan said the union is standing by Lomax. “Achieving a pay rise for workers is not blackmail,” Noonan said. “Unions are there to get better wages and conditions for members and that is what Mr. Lomax has done.”

Noonan said that in 2013 Nel Trading had paid workers thousands of dollars in backpay after they appealed for help from the CFMEU because they were being underpaid.

Importantly, the “whistleblower” who first raised allegations of misconduct that became the pretext for setting up the commission, former Health Services Union (HSU) official Kathy Jackson, has just been ordered to repay up to $1.4 million to the union following civil action by the HSU against her in the Federal Court. Jackson is also reported to be under criminal investigation.

This result shows that unions, when they function democratically and in the interests of their members, can deal with officials seeking to line their own pockets at members’ expense.

Show trials, such as the royal commission, were plainly not set up to protect the rights of union members at all, despite the rhetoric.

When the Cole Royal Commission was first announced in 2001, Victorian unions resolved to not cooperate with it. In the light of these revelations, and the ACTU's call for it to be shut down, unions should consider motions of non-cooperation again.

Ultimately, the only way for workers to resist these attacks and to start to regain the rights that have been lost — thanks to the disastrous strategy of many unions during the Accord decades — is to mobilise their class muscle and unite in struggle with communities under attack. Through this they can start to build the kind of political alternative that puts workers’ rights and communities above corporate greed and profit at any expense.

[Susan Price is a unionist and a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]

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