John Menadue. Royal commissions – partisan politics or public interest.Feb 1, 2016
Australia has had a string of politically inspired and often useless royal commissions. The fiasco surrounding Dyson Heydon’s acceptance of an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party dinner made it even more likely that his enquiry into trade unions would be quickly discounted, except for those who wanted to pursue a political agenda against trade unions and by implication, their association with the ALP.
In response to the Trade Union Royal Commission report, Malcolm Turnbull identified himself with business and the political ‘right’ rather than the public interest or the middle ground. He is consistently taking an ambivalent approach whether it is on climate change, coal mining, gay marriage the republic or the NBN. In response to Heydon’s report, he was not as hectoring as the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash. That is not his way with words, but in substance he followed along.. It was the same on his visit to the US. The tone was different but not the substance. We could do with ’more matter and less art’
We have had a long list of royal commissions into trade unions. In 1976 the Fraser government had a Sweeney Royal Commission into the maritime unions. In 1982 the Fraser government received a report on bribery and corruption by the building unions. In 1984 the Costigan Royal Commission dealt with racketeering by the Ship Painters and Dockers Union. In 1989 Heydon and Meagher recommended that trade union officials should have the same fiduciary duties and responsibilities as company directors. In 2001 John Howard commissioned the Cole Royal Commission to investigate the conduct of industrial relations within the building industry.
Despite this plethora of royal commissions, very little resulted.
Perhaps aware of this record, Dyson Heydon in his final report decided that he had to call to his aid a former High Court Chief Justice, Sir Harry Gibbs. In his report, Heydon said
‘Sir Harry Gibbs was universally admired for probity. Near the end of his long life, much of which had been devoted to controversies about the meaning of the constitution, he concluded that it did not matter much for the health of the nation what the constitution meant, so long as one condition was satisfied. That was the inherent decency of the Australian people continued.’
Mystified as anyone would be by this comment about Sir Harry Gibbs. Richard Ackland in the Australian Guardian commented
‘The relevance is mystifying as is the decision to propel Sir Harry (Bill) Gibbs onto the field of battle in this context. Gibbs, while a judge in Queensland, conducted a royal commission into allegations that the National Hotel in Brisbane was the centre of a call-girl operation sanctioned by the Queensland Police. After ruling heaps of available information as inadmissible and accepting an amount of perjured testimony, he could find no evidence of police corruption. This finding was so disastrous that it is credited with empowering the rotten apples in the Queensland police for another 23 years – until the Fitzgerald Royal Commission came along. Why on earth would Heydon launch his trade union report by citing a conservative judge whose name is the kiss of death in the pantheon of royal commissions?’
Tony Abbott established a royal commission headed by Mr. Hanger on the Home Insulation Program, or pink batts as it was better known. In his report Hanger criticized the commonwealth government for having relied on the states to implement their own occupation and health laws, their own employment training programs and their own building regulations. He said
‘To rely on the states and territories to police their own respective workplace health and safety laws seems to have been misguided.’
What a remarkable thing to say! As even the most ignorant would know, the states have clear responsibility in these areas which they jealously guard. To say nothing of the responsibility of employers. Yet Hanger decided to try and pin responsibility on the commonwealth government and let the states and employers go free. For a political beat-up that is hard to better. It is not surprising that we have heard little further about the first of Tony Abbott’s royal commissions into the previous Labor government’s administration. But it gave Tony Abbott and News Ltd an opportunity to attack.
Then we had Dyson Heydon on Julia Gillard. In his interim report, Heydon said that Ms Gillard’s ‘intense degree of preparation, her familiarity with the materials, her acuteness [and] her powerful instinct for self preservation made it difficult to judge her credibility.’ In the same vein as Mr Hanger’s report on pink batts this was also an amazing thing to say. Was Heydon really saying that Julia Gillard was too smart for him? Would he have preferred her to be unprepared and ignorant about the material on which she was questioned?
And despite the royal commission grilling over several days and the media frenzy, Bill Shorten got home free.
The royal commission into trade unions and the Liberal Party favour corporate style regulation of the unions. They fail to acknowledge that corporations exist to advance the profits of shareholders and in this they get enormous advantages through ‘limited liability’. But trade unions are community organisations established to protect the rights of workers in a marketplace that is heavily biased against them. Union activity in Australia has been largely decriminalized since the 19th Century. Unionists should be penalized for taking action for personal gain but they should not be penalized for acting in the course of an industrial dispute to support their members.
This royal commission into trade unions was designed to weaken trade unions. Yet trade unions have been a continuing feature of Australian political, economic and social life that protects vulnerable people in the workplace. When asked in 2014 what Australia had done right to defend the economy against chronic inequality that had occurred in the US, Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz said ‘unions’. Republican presidents and business interests have bitterly attacked the role of trade unions in the US. That is one reason why there is now so much alarming inequality in that country.
It is not surprising that there are strong unions in our maritime, construction and mining industries. Dangerous workplaces will inevitably produce strong unions to ensure workplace safety. Tough work produces tough union leaders. Every ten days there is a workforce death in the construction industry. It is dangerous work. In his cossetted world does the royal commissioner really understand how dangerous construction work can be?
The royal commissions on pink batts and trade unions have been politically partisan. There are other areas of major concern that would have been a more appropriate focus for royal commissions and transparency. Why did almost 600 of our major corporations pay no tax in 2013-14? That included such companies as Transfield, News Group and Exxon. People damaged by conflicted advice from financial planners in our banks were refused a royal commission. There has been systemic exploitation of workers by such companies as 7-Eleven and labor hire companies. But again, no royal commissions in these far more serious areas. And the one royal commission that we should have had above all others was a royal commission on the flimsy and manipulated information that led us into the Iraq War and tragedy for millions of people, a tragedy that is still unfolding.
The HSU and the CFMEU are fair game, but the big end of town that funds the Liberal Party is left to run free.
There is certainly no room in Australia for unionists that are ‘louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers …. ‘as the royal commissioner described some of them. Laws should be exercised or stronger laws introduced to address these problems. But why be so partisan and allow really big offenders to go scott free just because they are closely aligned to the Liberal Party.
At the urging of the big end of town who want him to intervene on the side of capital to the detriment of labour, will Malcolm Turnbull over-reach on industrial relations as John Howard did on Work Choices?