Opinion

Bill Shorten and the $80 million unions royal commission

The venue for the impromptu rally was the Covent Garden Hotel in Sydney’s Haymarket. Slurring with passion, Bill Shorten’s performance would have done any diva proud. He was dragged into the pub when Young Labor delegates spied him walking past last Sunday, after a convivial dinner in a nearby restaurant. They demanded a speech to cries of “Bill, Bill, Bill”. He obliged with a verve rarely seen in his orchestrated performances.

“One day I hope that you belong in a country where marriage equality is legitimate,” he yelled, “where our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are on the national birth certificate of the constitution.” The applause was deafening. He went on: “Where people can organise to have a strong minimum wage and they will not be subject to a royal commission. Where you have a Medicare system which is defined by your Medicare card, not your credit card. Where you can go to university and not have to pay $100,000.” He paused a little, leaned forward, then raised a finger to take off again. “And we will have a country where women are treated equally. We will have a country where we are known for our commitment to multiculturalism. And where no matter who you are and who your parents are this is a country of a fair go, where you can get ahead based upon how hard you work and how much you care about your fellow Australians. You’re a lovely bunch of people. However you vote in the future, just maintain your commitment to politics.”

To chants of “Labor, Labor, Labor” the opposition leader climbed off his chair and left. Sometimes bad looks can, like an ugly duckling, turn into a swan. Someone in the Labor Party clearly thought so, putting up video of the speech on social media the day before Shorten’s appearance at Tony Abbott’s $80 million unions royal commission. At times in the footage, it looked like Shorten might have trouble staying upright. But the big question for the Labor leader, as unpopular as Abbott in the latest polls, is whether he can stay standing until the next election. And more to the point, can he win it.

The prime minister is oblivious to the dangerous political precedent he has set with his Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. All that matters to him is immediate political advantage. Sooling royal commissions on to your vanquished political opponents may one day come back to bite him. For now, Shorten’s record as leader of the Australian Workers Union would have to be fertile ground. Unions, after all, are part of the demonology of the Liberal Party. Never mind that the AWU is a right-wing union that many businesses find reasonable and productive in their dealings – Melbourne’s EastLink road project a prime example.

Abbott piously set the scene: “It seems that there have been a lot of ghosts on the rolls of some of the unions, there have been some deals that have been done to help the unions but to dud the workers, and let’s see what light can be cast on all that in the next day or so.”

The commission’s first target was an area that infuriates the conservatives: namely the fact that unions historically bankroll and support Labor’s political campaigns. In 2007, the union movement in general and the AWU in particular were mounting an all-out assault on the Howard government. They were desperate to be rid of WorkChoices.

Shorten was running for the seat of Maribyrnong. He personally sought a substantial donation in kind from labour hire company Unibilt. It agreed to pay a $50,000 salary for his campaign director. It ended up forking out $40,000, with the AWU picking up the rest.

Jeremy Stoljar, SC, the $3.36 million man assisting the commission, angered the opposition leader by suggesting a conflict of interest: that Shorten used his position as secretary of a union negotiating an enterprise agreement with this company for his own personal benefit. “Absolutely not” was Shorten’s indignant reply. He strenuously objected to suggestions that, “somehow ... it is untoward to raise money for election campaigns ... What that does is that assumes that whenever there is a donation in our electoral system, by anyone, that all other relationships and transactions must immediately be cast into doubt.” He passionately argued, “That is not right and that is not how I operated at the union.”

This of course goes to the very murky nub of political fundraising. Shorten denies the Unibilt executive was asking favours in return. Just as Joe Hockey was utterly indignant when The Sydney Morning Herald suggested he was a “treasurer for sale” when donors paid for access. The cross-party embarrassment became acute when it emerged that Shorten had not declared the donation for eight years. Labor was quick to point out that Hockey and indeed Abbott himself had been similarly slack. Late returns are more usual than not after elections.

The Liberals may be in the dock of public opinion, too, but it is only Shorten and the AWU in the sights of this commission. It’s probably not hard to imagine what letter-of-the-law silks will make of this and the fact that Unibilt’s contract described the campaign director as a “research officer” rather than a political worker. “The records aren’t truthful or accurate,” Stoljar repeated. No one was misled, was Shorten’s defence, although that is still an open question.

The fact of the matter is, as intended, in this forum Shorten is guilty. He “has questions to answer”, as Abbott and his ministers insist. No presumption of innocence here. So far the allegations that he dudded workers has not been established. The commission is still to produce a smoking gun. But as the Liberal-aligned commentators on TV demonstrated, it doesn’t matter. “Bill Shorten badly busted,” was former MP Ross Cameron’s fevered and premature verdict.

Dragging the Labor leader through this expensive demolition exercise could be Abbott’s last throw of the dice. There is real frustration in the Liberal party that the prime minister has been unable to overhaul Shorten or re-establish a clear poll lead. As The Guardian has tallied it, the government has not headed Labor in any published poll in the past 15 months. There have been 151 of them. The ALP has led in 149 of them and was level-pegging in two. This suggests a hardened negative attitude in the electorate to the Coalition. It undermines Abbott’s consoling belief that no matter what voters think of him, they won’t buy Shorten.

The polls suggest otherwise. Abbott’s over-the-top performance on national security and the ABC has not delivered dividends. In fact, Labor ticked up in both this week’s newspaper polls. The Australian’s veteran commentator Paul Kelly has a damning assessment. He writes, “There are dangerous signs of a prime minister reverting to bad habits – too ideological, too arrogant and too unilateral.”

There are also dangerous signs Malcolm Turnbull has had enough. Midweek he targeted his prime minister’s hyperbole about the Islamic State threat. He warned that, “We need to be very careful we don’t get sucked into their strategy and ourselves become amplifiers of their wickedness and significance.”

In a withering critique he said that, “Daesh is not Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan or Stalin’s Russia. Its leaders dream that they, like the Arab armies of the seventh and eighth century, will sweep across the Middle East into Europe itself. They predict that before long they will be stabling their horses in the Vatican. Well, Idi Amin wasn’t the king of Scotland either.”

 The audience at the Sydney Institute was amused. No one had any doubts at whose expense the wit was aimed.

For those slow on the uptake, Labor’s Brendan O’Connor spelled it out: “This is a clear attack upon the way in which the PM has conducted himself.” He called on Abbott to pull Turnbull into line. One wonders how, without precipitating a political showdown.

Many on the Liberal backbench think Turnbull’s provocative speech has everything to do with his belief he would do a much better job leading the nation. Convincing a majority in the party room he is right depends in great part on how long Shorten’s Labor maintains its poll dominance.

In a twist, what is helping save Bill Shorten is Tony Abbott. The two share the rare honour of being our least popular leaders in the history of the published polls. Neither seems to have the X factor that propelled Kevin Rudd to the stratosphere of popularity back in 2007. But Labor MPs insist if there is one thing they’ve learnt from the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd “killing season” it is that disunity is death. The leadership merry-go-round certainly proved self-defeating.

Anthony Albanese came close to being Labor leader after the last election. He won the popular vote of rank-and-file members. But he is backing the rules Rudd imposed on caucus after his comeback. Sixty per cent of Labor MPs would need to support a leadership spill before it could happen. Albanese told ABC Radio he helped introduce these rules and they have given the party stability. But Shorten has no doubt that should he make a dreadful hash of his royal commission appearance murmurings might begin again.

There’s no sign of that yet. Shorten is still standing, though his performance is not quite a Covent Garden show stopper.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "Sitting in the dock for two days". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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