Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will appear before the trade unions royal commission in less than three weeks as pressure mounts over deals he struck as leader of the the Australian Workers Union (AWU).
Mr Shorten last week agreed to front the royal commission – which has been investigating an industrial agreement struck between major construction firm Thiess John Holland and the AWU – and his testimony was expected in late August or early September.
However, Commissioner Dyson Heydon has now summonsed the Labor leader to appear on July 8 after Mr Shorten’s lawyer’s requested his appearance be brought forward.
Mr Shorten will be asked to address reports Thiess John Holland paid the AWU nearly $300,000 following a workplace deal that saved the company as much as $100 million.
Mr Shorten struck a deal that cut workers’ conditions on the EastLink tollway project in Melbourne, where construction started in 2005, according to Fairfax Media.
The deal allowed the builder to effectively work around the clock by cutting conditions around rostering and weekend work, the reports said.
But EastLink’s former chairman Tony Shepherd said it was a “model” workplace agreement and Mr Shorten was good to deal with in his former role.
“As far as we were concerned, the industrial relations agreement that they negotiated was a good one, a really good one,” Mr Shepherd said.
“It was flexible, it certainly paid all of the workers very well.
“I thought it was a model for the future – Victoria had an atrocious record on major projects, on the delivery of major projects … and this showed that it could be done there.
“I found him pretty good, I felt he was pragmatic and realistic about what needed to be done and certainly he looked after the interest of his members and the interests of the AWU.”
Mr Shorten was AWU Victorian branch secretary from 1997 to 2006, and national secretary from 2001 to 2007.
Documents on the Australian Electoral Commission’s website show Thiess John Holland paid the AWU Victorian branch more than $170,000 in the 2006-07 financial year, originally noted as a “donation”, but later amended to “other receipt”.
Pyne says arrangements need to be explained immediately
The Federal Government said Mr Shorten needed to immediately explain the arrangements before facing the royal commission.
“Why did Thiess John Holland regard payment of $300,000 to the AWU as an acknowledgement of the flexibility of the AWU deal?” Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne asked in Question Time, citing the newspaper report.
“Why can’t the Leader of the Opposition answer them today?”
Labor frontbenchers have expressed confidence the arrangement was above board.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus emphasised the arrangement had been voted on.
“I don’t know the details of that arrangement, but I’d say of course this is a workplace arrangement that’s been voted on by the members of the union and the people in that workplace, it’s been approved by the Commission,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“What we are saying here, that it’s somehow wrong to achieve industrial peace, somehow wrong to achieve good workers conditions and the continuation of an enterprise, apparently I read from the reports, it finishing early because of the good industrial conditions on the site?
“I don’t think anyone could complain about that sort of win-win.”
The commission has also heard the AWU, under Mr Shorten’s leadership, struck a deal with Melbourne building company Winslow Constructors that involved the firm paying more than $38,000 for union memberships for its employees.