Blackmail charges against two Construction Forestry and Mining Union bosses have been dramatically dropped in a major blow to the Coalition’s Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
CFMEU state leaders John Setka and Shaun Reardon have been fighting allegations they blackmailed Boral managers Paul Dalton and Peter Head at a cafe meeting in April 2013.
It was alleged the pair had threatened to blockade Boral plants and trucks if the company refused to meet union demands.
Prosecutors finally dropped the charges on Wednesday midway through a pre-trial committal hearing in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.
“After a careful assessment of the evidence we’ve heard, I have instructions to withdraw the charges against both accused,” prosecutor Ray Gibson said.
“I understand there will be no application for costs by the defence.”
The charges against the union officials came at the recommendation of the royal commission on trade unions.
Mr Setka and Mr Reardon’s legal team agreed with the decision to drop the charges, as did the magistrate.
“I think it’s a very sensible resolution to this matter,” magistrate Charlie Rozencwajg said.
The meeting at North Melbourne’s Auction Rooms cafe was called by Boral in the hope the union would lift a blackban on its cement deliveries.
At the time of the meeting, the CFMEU was waging industrial war against building giant Grocon, which Boral supplied with cement.
The union wanted to appoint its own OH&S representatives at Grocon sites because of safety concerns.
Speaking outside court and surrounded by supporters, Mr Setka thanked his lawyers and reasserted his innocence.
“Our job is to make sure that workers go home to their families”, Mr Setka said Wednesday of the Boral meeting.
“That was we were trying to do.”
Details of the meeting emerged as Mr Dalton gave evidence during Mr Setka and Mr Reardon’s committal hearing, which was to determine if there was enough evidence to send them to trial.
Mr Dalton said Boral had organised the meeting with an aim to “do a deal” with the union officials.
Defence counsel Neil Clelland QC had suggested the meeting began jovially.
“You shook hands, ordered coffee and Mr Setka and Mr Reardon joked about their weight loss challenge,” Mr Clelland said.
Mr Setka and Mr Reardon were charged in 2015 after an investigation by a joint Victorian and federal police unit, following a referral by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
They had fought hard to get the charges dropped, taking the long-running case to the Supreme Court at one point. They finally succeeded on Wednesday, more than five years after the cafe meeting.
Later, federal jobs minister Michaelia Cash defended the union royal commission’s legacy. She was asked if the decision was embarrassing for the coalition government, which had pursued the CFMEU through the royal commission and the courts.
“Absolutely not. That is a matter for the Victorian police,” Senator Cash said.
“The CFMEU are without [doubt] one of the most notorious, in fact, they are the most notorious union in Australia. I think we’re up to about $14 million in fines.”