Just when the Morrison government was planning to end its miraculous year on a high with its union-busting bill flying through Parliament, the top end of town spoiled the party.
Nothing is more top end than one of the four big banks and Australia’s oldest bank, Westpac, last week joined our biggest, Commonwealth Bank, in being pinged by the financial intelligence agency AUSTRAC for massive breaches of money-laundering laws.
The agency is pursuing Westpac for breaking the law on 23 million occasions over five years, amounting to more than $11 billion, to create the biggest breach in Australia’s history.
Crucially for the government, it is not only the unions who are infuriated by its hands-off attitude to the shocking revelations of this corporate malfeasance but key crossbench senator Pauline Hanson.
The fate of the Ensuring Integrity Bill, which makes it easier to deregister unions and hit union officials with massive fines, is in the hands of Senator Hanson and her colleague Malcolm Roberts, or Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie.
Senator Hanson says she will not “go out there union bashing when we cannot deal with white-collar crime, especially what Westpac has done with 23 million breaches”.
The key crossbenchers have been locked in discussions with trade union leaders Michele O’Neil, Sally McManus and, importantly, delegates from the nurses, cleaners, firefighters and carers unions.
Their purpose is to expose the government’s real intent to weaken the union movement generally while hiding behind the more militant and notorious elements in the construction industry.
Ms O’Neil, the ACTU president, says the government “is hell bent on trying to shut us down”, wanting to remove union officials for minor paperwork breaches. She cites a disparity in fines already between companies and unions for such breaches.
“This is extreme. It’s dangerous. There’s no equivalent in the western world and there’s no justification for it,” Ms O’Neil says.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese took the fight directly to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, pointing out “last week it was reported that an organisation had broken money-laundering laws 23 million times. Was it a union or a bank?”.
Mr Morrison said it was a bank and claimed credit for introducing the Banking Executive Accountability Regime, which can empower the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority to fine and ban executives from lucrative directorships.
The problem is the regime is not retrospective and applies only from July last year – so ignores four years of Westpac’s profitable and illegal behaviour.
In trying to defend the need for his proposed integrity laws, Mr Morrison, like the relevant minister, Christian Porter, cited the CFMMEU’s John Setka and his record before the courts.
This merely exposed the sophistry of their latest arguments.
Mr Setka – who is no longer a Labor Party member but refuses to stand down from his CFMMEU job – went down under existing laws, the very point made by the ACTU.
The PM and his senior colleagues have no compunction demanding that Mr Setka’s head should roll, while they say the fate of Westpac’s leaders is in the hands of the bank’s shareholders.
Mr Morrison doesn’t employ derogatory stereotypes of bank executives, but never hesitates to describe union leaders as “thugs”, as he did in Parliament on Monday.
AUSTRAC’s minister Peter Dutton was slightly more forthright. He accused “Westpac banking bosses through their negligence … of giving a free pass to paedophiles” and said they would pay a heavy price.
That price could be a billion-dollar fine for the bank. But the government that accuses the militant unions of seeing massive fines as no more than the cost of doing business has not accused the banks of reckless lawlessness.
Maybe it’s because, unlike the giant construction union, Westpac has –since 2010 – handed more than $780,000 in donations to the Coalition.
In the world of bare-knuckle politics, doing whatever it takes to nobble your main political opponents and their significant backers is a noble project, no matter how you dress it up.
Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics