The New Daily

Unions probe needs to deliver more answers

ANALYSIS: Royal commission findings have still left several unanswered questions.

CFMEU workers

Are the findings of the commission just the tip of the iceberg? Photo: AAP

The final report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption runs to great length – some six volumes – but still leaves the impression of not quite nailing things down.

At one level, Commissioner Dyson Heydon argues the findings are clear-cut.

“There is little that is controversial about the underlying facts,” he writes in the report’s introduction.

“Almost all of the underlying facts have been established by admissions to the Commission, incontrovertible documents, decisions of courts and tribunals or well-corroborated testimony.”

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This sounds pretty solid – and was repeated afterwards by the Prime Minister, the Employment Minister and the Attorney-General.

But many of the findings are hotly contested – in some cases denied outright – and the report admits in the small print that its findings are, in fact, opinions backed by evidence.

Dyson Heydon

Commissioner Dyson Heydon’s report referred to “widespread and deep-seated” misconduct by union officials.

Mr Heydon, a former High Court judge, says the inquiry uncovered misconduct among a wide variety of unions and industries, but then notes that it was not universal and “may not even be typical”.

Nevertheless, the report asserts that “it is clear that in many parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts”.

“It would be utterly naïve to think that what has been uncovered is anything other than the small tip of an enormous iceberg.”

Now, this inquiry cost at least $45 million (although Labor and the unions say the final cost will be far higher). It called more than 500 witnesses in 189 hearing days, gathered millions of documents and was backed up by a 50-plus police task force.

After almost two years, it has referred 48 alleged criminal matters to prosecutors and some 43 civil matters. Is that the tip or the iceberg? I was hoping the final report would tell me.

My concern is that I want to see better disclosure from all sides of politics – not just the unions and the ALP.

turnbull brandis cash

Malcolm Turnbull announces the findings of the commission, flanked by George Brandis and Michaelia Cash. Photo: AAP

For example, the former director of the Victorian Liberal Party, Damian Mantach, has been charged with siphoning off about $1.5 million from the party. And the federal Liberal Party gets millions of dollars from the mysterious Canberra-based Greenfields Foundation.

Some of the case studies considered by the Heydon royal commission were already known, including rorting by former Health Services Union leaders like Michael Williamson (who is in jail) and former Federal MP Craig Thomson.

Similarly, legal proceedings were already underway against the Victorian CFMEU, which saw it penalised millions of dollars over the tactics employed against Grocon and Boral.

It’s true that the inquiry turned up evidence of further personal rorting by some union leaders, but the most damaging case study was probably that involving the Australian Workers’ Union and an employer called Cleanevent.

Low-paid cleaners allegedly lost between $1 million to $2 million a year in penalties due to a “side deal” whereby the company paid the union $25,000 a year for staying on a date workplace agreement.

Michael Lawler and Kathy Jackson

Kathy Jackson was referred to authorities to consider whether she has committed criminal offences. Photo: AAP

The Heydon inquiry was accused of going easy on another former HSU leader, Kathy Jackson, who was initially hailed as a whistleblower, but who was this year ordered by the Federal court to repay some $1.4 million to the union.

The final report gives Ms Jackson a blast, but sought to blunt the frequent criticism that it pursued a “case theory” and ignored other evidence that did not fit the narrative.

“There is nothing inappropriate about counsel assisting in a commission of inquiry having a theory of the case,” the report said.

“On the contrary, it is the duty of counsel assisting to have a theory of the case, if by that expression is meant a hypothesis or conception of where the evidence might lead.”

Maybe so, but the inquiry often considered evidence against unions without taking account of the bigger picture. Like workplace death and injury in the construction industry, or billions of dollars being lost in phoenix companies and other corporate rorts.

Mr Heydon showed a similarly narrow, legalistic mindset when he accepted the ill-fated invitation to speak to a Liberal Party fundraising dinner, and then did not appear to grasp why he was being criticised.

Back in 2003, I reported on how the Howard government talked up the many prosecutions that would flow from the confidential volume of the Cole royal commission into the construction industries. But none did.

We will see what happens with the Heydon royal commission.

Mark Skulley is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne. He was a reporter for The Australian Financial Review for almost 19 years, which included a decade covering national industrial relations and the world of work. View all of his columns here.

  • Rye an

    To suggest that all he uncovered was nothing more than “the small tip of an enormous iceberg” is sheer, speculative, sloppy, political spin which demonstrates clearly what this was really all about and Heydon’s alignment
    Police have failed to act on 90% of this ‘old news’ in the past, but we know a rehash is always useful for the Murdoch neocons.
    The Hun and Tele are all over it of course but sad to see Turnbull sullying himself by associating himself with the Abbott smear tactics; it appears he’s no different after all.
    There needs to be a RC into the misuse of taxpayer funds by way of RCs for political smear campaigns.

    • mulga mumblebrain

      The ABC, as expected, has served the Right’s class war agenda with practised servility.

  • Boris Feigin

    And how many business owners phoenix their businesses and rip off honest working people? How much in shareholder value was destroyed by overpaid fatcat company directors in the past year? How many workers died on construction sites after cutting corners due to pressure from management? Screw this report and screw Turnbull. I don’t accept it. We will fight and we will win..see you at the polls.

  • Mrfunbro

    Thanks Mark…many questions indeed. This RC is a stunt and should be viewed by voters as such. A stunt to attack their rights at work from. Heydon is unable to prosecute a case based on hear say and attack defendants for not providing enough specific details to matters from many years hence when he couldn’t even give a straight answer about his recent LNP fund raiser gig. There probably are some bad apples in the union movement but I bet there’s not as much corruption in union’s as in the corporate world. The LNP basically collect graft disguised as donations to keep our corporate tax laws weak and ineffective. A federal ICAC would sort them out.

  • Athinker

    One must remember that nobody has yet been charged with anything as a result of this commission. Once charged, if ever, they will need to be convicted of something before anything of substance can be claimed about them.

    This is still an entirely political matter.

  • Niall d’Christopher

    Did anyone really and truly expect anything else? If there was actually any great revelation or something of real substance uncovered, why would it be released at a time of the press/political cycle when NO ONE is ‘listening’? If there was ANYTHING, anything at all, not already known to law enforcement authorities, the government would have held it back to gain the greatest ‘mileage’ when the holidays are over. Me thinks Malcolm “where’s my NBN” Turnbull is the 2015 Australian salesman of the year – a brand new pair of white shoes are on the way Mal.

  • Crystal Keeper

    And their alternative?

  • Luke McKenzie

    Very few businesspeople were referred for possible criminal action. And then only for their dealings with unions.
    No mention of corrupt dealings between companies, between big business and government, price fixing, tax avoidance, exploitation of labour both foreign and domestic. All this being only the tip of a massive iceberg I am sure.
    All of this also being undertaken with the backing of a government which is no longer ours. Or at the very least a government not willing to investigate.
    Much easier to attack the unions every few years and create the illusion they are improving the industry .

  • mulga mumblebrain

    And the Lieberals flat out refuse a Royal Commission or any other inquiry into financial industry malfeasance.

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