Union Royal Commission a platform for the disgruntled

June 27, 2014

In the first two weeks of hearings at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, further claims were made against Labor leader and former national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) Bill Shorten.

Former Health Services Union (HSU) official Marco Belano told the commission that Shorten donated $5000 to his 2009 union election campaign when Shorten was parliamentary secretary for disabilities in the Labor government.

Shorten’s spokesperson said the claim was “completely untrue”. Belano also claimed that senior Victorian federal Labor MP David Feeney, an ally of the HSU’s Kathy Jackson, was responsible for raising funds for his election campaign in the HSU’s No 1 Branch in 2009.

Not to be outdone, HSU official Kathy Jackson testified that Shorten gave thousands of dollars to a Victorian Labor Party “branch stacker”, David Asmar. At the time, Asmar worked for Victorian Labor Senator and factional operative Stephen Conroy. The money was said to be for Asmar to pay for ALP memberships.

Jackson admitted she gave Asmar $7000 — presumably to fund his Labor “branch stacking” habit. But she denied using HSU credit cards for more than $1 million of personal expenses or inappropriately paying $36,000 of union funds to a company called Neranto No 10 of which she and her former husband were co-directors. She also denied illegitimately siphoning $284,500 of union funds into a “slush fund” — the National Health Development Account.

Jackson admitted that she controlled the account and spent it as she saw fit, but said this was done after general authorisation from her branch committee of management.

She said many unions had similar accounts. Apparently slush funds are so vital to the efficient and proper operation of unions that without them unions could not survive. The leaders of the three unions she claimed operated similar unaudited accounts — the AWU, the National Union of Workers and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association — denied Jackson’s claim and condemned the practice.

On the first day of hearings in Perth, the Royal Commission heard from a Transport Workers Union member who wasn’t happy that the enterprise agreement he was employed under made it compulsory for his superannuation contributions to be paid into the industry fund TWU SUPER. That would be the not-for-profit fund that maximises benefits rather than erodes them with excess fees and charges imposed by profit-making funds and banks.

The reason for the commission airing this otherwise inconsequential matter became clear when counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoltjar SC, raised the possibility of a conflict of interest for the TWU because four of their officials where among the nine directors of the superannuation fund. Stand by for an attack on unions representing their members on superannuation boards.

The commission also heard from a former AWU union delegate who worked on the Thiess Dawesville Channel project south of Perth in 1992. It is from this project that a former AWU union official, Bruce Wilson, allegedly extracted thousands of dollars from Thiess for training services.

The delegate said in evidence that he “wasn’t aware of a vast amount of people doing training” but conceded under cross-examination that it could have taken place without him being aware of it.

On the proceedings so far, it is hard to see the relevance of this Royal Commission, other than providing a platform for the disgruntled and those disappointed at not getting Labor pre-selection. Unless, of course, it is a series of show trials to serve as camouflage for anti-union legislation.

This is perhaps why the Australian Council of Trade Unions has decided not to participate in the development of policy recommendations after the release of issues papers.

ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons said one of the reasons for this was because “the minimal background provided in the issues papers, together with the questions asked, give the impression that the commission has predetermined the issues at hand prior to the conclusion of hearings, or even the conclusion of investigations into any particular matter.”

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.