A union leader has called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to explain why he is not setting up a body to investigate political corruption, rather than spending $52 million on an inquiry into unions.
Tony Sheldon, the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), spoke on Thursday outside a hearing of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, where he was about to give evidence.
The commission is looking at the operation of the McLean Forum Ltd, an election fighting fund set up by TWU officials.
During the past three days, it has been revealed the fund was used to support an internal union campaign to unseat Queensland branch secretary Hughie Williams in 2010 and back candidates in the Health Services Union and Flight Attendants Association of Australia elections.
Before entering the hearing, Mr Sheldon said the commission was looking at “trivial” matters when its funds and the resources of 100 federal police could be used to “deal with corruption, pedophilia and terrorism”.
He called on Mr Abbott and Employment Minister Eric Abetz “to come down to this court and explain why $52 million is being spent on this royal commission rather than setting up a national ICAC – an inquiry into corruption in the political sphere across this country”.
Mr Sheldon said the inquiry had spent two hours on Thursday talking about payslips and whether there was a one-month difference in a wage increase for an employee who “has more responsibility than anyone in the Queensland union” for people working in a highly dangerous job.
He was referring to the evidence of Scott Connolly, assistant secretary of the Queensland TWU branch and former federal senior executive with the national branch, who denied in evidence on Thursday morning he created a job to get a salary hike.
Mr Connolly is also a director of the McLean Forum, a TWU fund used to fight elections.
It was revealed at a royal commission hearing this week that forum money was used to fund campaigns in the TWU and also to back favoured candidates in battles within the troubled Health Services Union and the Flight Attendants Association of Australia.
Mr Connolly was on the New Transport Workers Team (NTWT) created to challenge incumbent Queensland branch secretary Hughie Williams in a 2010 election.
The NTWT received more than $200,000 from the McLean Forum to back the ticket of Peter Biagini, who successfully ousted Mr Williams.
He said he spoke to fellow directors of the McLean Forum about “providing resources to the NTWT campaign” because a change was needed in Queensland.
The commission has been told the union was “bleeding members” under Mr Williams’ leadership.
Jeremy Stoljar SC ,counsel assisting the commission, asked if Queensland branch members were told where the funding was coming for.
Mr Connolly said they knew it was coming from friends and supporters of the campaign.
He also said the Queensland election was “within the ambit” of the forum’s use of funds.
Mr Connolly was questioned by Mr Stoljar about his salary when he took up the job of assistant secretary – a new position for Queensland for which he was the only candidate.
Mr Connolly said when he nominated for the job, “there was no guarantee” he would be the only candidate and his salary stayed much the same as it was when he worked for the national branch, about $90,000 a year.
Mr Stoljar produced a document showing it was $125,000.
Jim Glissan, counsel for the TWU, intervened to say the $125,000 was a total package, including superannuation and allowances, and the rate reflected increases in recent years.
Mr Connolly took the job in 2011.
The hearing continues, with Mr Sheldon giving evidence.