ALLAN PATIENCE. Base politics or incredibly clumsy policing?

Oct 26, 2017

Police raids on political parties or associated institutions at any time should raise concerns – and the hackles – among democratically minded citizens. The recent raids on AWU offices in Sydney and Melbourne, seemingly in search for “dirt” on Bill Shorten’s time as head of the Union, should be ringing alarm bells. Are the police acting independently, as our weak Prime Minister claims? Is this an attempt to silence one of the country’s most effective political advocacy groups – to wit, GetUp!? Are the federal police seeking to curry favour with an incumbent government by going after the Leader of the Opposition? Is it all of the above? Or is it simply Canberra’s latest bureaucratic SNAFU?  

Whether you agree with it or not, GetUp! is one of the most robust and policy-relevant voices in politics in contemporary Australia. That it gets up the collective nose of the government and its clamorous supporters is hardly surprising. Note Herr Senator Abetz’s staccato fulminating against it at every opportunity afforded him by his New Ltd supervisors.

GetUp! is routinely challenging the passivity and complacency of the electorate; the falangist tendencies festering within the Coalition, the incompetence of the Turnbull government, and the mindless partisanship of the Murdoch media. It provides invaluable alternative information and analysis to what is offered by our mendicant politicians and their media masters. As such GetUp! is one of the most necessary and healthiest tonics presently available for Australia’s faltering democracy.

Earlier this year the Coalition (with the egregious support of Nick Xenophon and Derryn Hinch) passed legislation to establish a Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) – a bureaucratic watchdog basically designed to put the screws on how Unions raise and spend members’ funds in political campaigns. The AWU is being investigated by the ROC for alleged improprieties in funding of both GetUp! (to the tune of $100,000) and Shorten’s 2007 political campaign (to the tune of $25,000).

The whole shambolic affair suggests either government conniving with the ROC (whose days will certainly be numbered in the event of a Shorten Labor victory at the next election), or clumsy stupidity among the senior levels of the ROC and the AFP. Either way, this is dangerous. Where will it all end? Will the next raid be on academics’ offices because they offer political analyses critical of governments? Are we going to see the CWA being raided because some of its urban branches support a Yes vote in the same-sex marriage postal survey? 

Whoever made the decision to action the raids has demonstrated almost unbelievable heavy-handedness by adopting this way over the top approach, especially at this time. It looks like we have an ambitious but numbskull bureaucrat (or a small number of them) at the top responding to the growing crisis of the Turnbull government as opinion polling goes south and as the decision of the High Court on the eligibility of Barnaby Joyce to sit in parliament looms darkly above it.

The Royal Commission into union corruption, set up by the Abbott government, failed to deliver the expected hobbling of the trade union movement and the nailing of Bill Shorten as a creature of corrupt and violent union officials. Given this failure, whoever is in now charge (if any one is in charge) he, she or they are apparently going after Shorten again, raising doubts about the legality of AWU political donations that were made a decade ago. The whole affair stinks to high heaven.

However, this mad dog strategy is already seriously backfiring on the government. Minister for (Un)Employment Michaelia Cash’s strident parliamentary denials that her office had managed the media’s reporting of the police raids on the AWU have now been revealed as total falsehoods. If the Westminster tradition means anything at all these days, Cash must take full responsibility for the involvement of her staff member in alerting the media to the police raids and resign immediately. Whatever spin she and the Prime Minister try to put on the whole affair is now unbelievable. The affair taken on the appearance of a particularly desperate political witch-hunt.

The Labor Opposition should keep their powder dry over this issue. They would be wise to respond with dignified indifference to the provocations they are receiving from both the ROC and the government. Let them remain aloof from the pettiness and nastiness that is motivating these raids. For it is not impossible that the raids will either be found to be illegal by the Federal Court, or that they will yield about as much as the Royal Commission into so-called union corruption. The ALP should wait patiently for government to dig itself into a hole on the issue and use this ridiculous imbroglio as grounds for abolishing the ROC as soon as it comes to power. Then they should proceed to a Royal Commission into the Finance Industry in Australia with wide ranging terms of reference and plenty of resources to go after the banks and others in the industry.

For we of the voting public this grubby little affair – apparently initiated by the ROC, possibly in cahoots with the government – confirms the cynicism and contempt we rightly feel for all that is going on in the federal parliament and politics generally in this country right now. And we will so look forward to voting against this kind of politics at the next federal election. Bring it on!

Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science in the University of Melbourne. 

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