With the release of the TURC report Turnbull and Heydon are trying to sell the idea that unions are systemically corrupt, even perhaps that they can’t be anything else but corrupt, because the rules of their governance are so slack. Turnbull has seen this as his chance to out-Abbott Abbott, brilliantly taking Abbott’s Royal Commission and using it as a way of both protecting his back and further ingratiating himself with an adoring public. The Turnbull Enlightenment has never been so optimistic.
In effect, the entire union movement, and anyone associated with them has been collectively smeared. No partisanship here. Move along please.
Predictably, the media – who have been running a slightly snarky, hipster line in the background on the Commission’s relevance and reliability – have cast aside all doubts and are now calling for Reform!
The SMH editorial yesterday was a particularly perfect example of this. It had two-bob each way: criticise the conduct of the Commission, but accept wholeheartedly its findings, as if the two can be neatly considered separately. What was unofficial yesterday is official today. Like Dyson Heydon or not, now we must “Do Something”. In telling us Labor and the union movement have been a giant con job foisted on the public since they took workplace issues into politics, the SMH, nowadays more obsessed with trivia, young gels in trouble from texting too much, airline horror stories, and celebrity click bait, got a bad attack of Teh Serious, and told us:
The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption began hearings 20 months ago when the Herald, like so many others, felt angry and cheated by unions and their Labor Party mates. The royal commission’s damning final report released on Wednesday will only inflame that anger and entrench a sense that the broader community has been conned.
The con has been committed not just by what federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten calls “a small number” of union leaders. It has been part of what commissioner Dyson Heydon calls “an enormous iceberg” of misconduct in a movement which allows room for “louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts”.
How union corruption figures in the next election depends solely on Mr Shorten. To win voter trust and survive as Labor leader, he needs to ditch the party’s rhetoric that this royal commission was only a political witch-hunt. True, the conflict of interest revealed by Justice Heydon in agreeing to give a Liberal-linked speech has forever diminished the standing of his findings. And the commissioner’s language at the start of the final report is remarkably strong for an otherwise reserved former High Court judge…
But no amount of criticism of Justice Heydon’s personal views can overcome the mountain of evidence against the labour movement.
Ah yes, the TURC was rotten, but Bill Shorten has-questions-to-answer and needs-to-do-certain-things. Is anybody frightened by this self-serving thunder? Once again a Fairfax paper has reverted to type, just like the glory days of the masthead, when old Sir Warwick would pontificate from his Darling Point mansion by the Harbour, railing against communists, Labor politicians and union thugs.
After over a year of “investigation” and the expenditure of $80 million dollars, with jobs-for-the-boys a plenty (Jeremy Stoljar is Dyson’s protege and chambers mate) Heydon managed to cobble together a few examples – most of them involving retired union reps settling old scores going back years (or even decades) – mixed in with some sensationalist celebrity victimization (Gillard, Shorten), to attempt to sell the idea of “systemic failure”. Then he extrapolated these few incidents out (most of which are yet to involve arrests, much less convictions) to claim that unionists are simply rotten human beings: “thugs, liars, perjurers”, even “louts”. What’s a “lout”? A minister who puts the hard word on junior female staffers in Hong Kong bars? Someone who stands under a sign that says “Bob Brown’s Bitch”? A Treasurer who smokes a Cuban cigar to celebrate breaking every election promise he ever made? I dunno. If being a lout is now a crime, then we’re going to need more courtrooms to handle the tsunami of accusations about to arrive.
At one point Heydon even said that some of this bad behaviour was so obvious it didn’t need evidence. As my old Dad used to say, “It’s ‘known’, son. It’s just ‘known'”, when I asked him a particularly ticklish question he didn’t have an answer for.
Sorry Dyson, it DOES need to be proved. You can’t extrapolate in such matters. People’s livelihoods and reputations are at stake. We saw what “assumptions” did to Julia Gillard and Bill Shorten, to name just two. Even though they have been completely exonerated, the media is predictably telling their readers and viewers that they STILL have questions to answer. When it gets to court, “It’s just… y’know… the vibe, Your Honour” won’t wash.
Disappointingly, Turnbull has latched onto this “extrapolation” scam and is now claiming that he wants to improve unionism. How long until he claims that unionism has “no greater fried than Malcolm Turnbull”? I thought Tony Abbott wore that one out.
Some unions are too militant and some are not militant enough for Heydon’s liking. It seems that scoring high paying jobs for members, protecting their physical health, ensuring projects are finished on time and profitably isn’t enough nowadays. Bill Shorten should have taken the AWU out on strike and killed the freeway. He should have let the workers at the mushroom farm continue to cripple themselves with repetitive hand injuries. Would THAT have satisfied Heydon? I’m not sure, but it might have sated his fetish about nasty unions doing nasty things.
There is a body of thought that believes unions should be treated no differently than corporations. It started with the victimization of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and has festered until today. It will continue to fester. People who hold this belief think that because unions are societies that gather together to exert pressure on their employers, therein lie the seeds of “conspiracy”. A corporate competitor can do pretty-well what they like to harm their competition to advantage themselves, but the workers just need to cop it sweet, to slavishly accept whatever the bosses dole out to them… or go to jail. Heydon and his pals want to turn unions into friendly societies, not advocates for safety in the workplace and for decent pay and conditions. I’ve met a million like Heydon. He was the perfect choice: an academic lawyer who’s never had to do a real day’s work in his life, telling others how to organize their working lives.
It won’t wash, in my opinion. The TURC findings might seem important now, but they are not. In a sensation-deprived Xmas holiday period, the Report is what passes for “news”… as if an RC into union corruption was going to find anything other than unions are “corrupt”… that would have justified the $80 million, wouldn’t it? The more corrupt the better, in Heydon’s twisted logic. More bang for the buck.
There are plenty of other vital issues at stake in Australia: penalty rates, the GST, superannuation, mass unemployment, fair taxation. And who’s going to be foremost among those fighting these issues? The unions of course, and Labor. We need them, and the punters, in their hearts of hearts, know it. No-one has a job today, with the pay and conditions they take for granted, without a union at some stage being behind it, and fighting for it. After all, Labor’s decency and the fight the unions have fought are (ironically) part of why Turnbull is so successful in the polls. The punters love the glamour of Turnbull, but they know they can only afford to love it because Labor is there to protect them from his and his cronies’ excesses. Part of me wishes Labor would let some of the Coalition’s horrors through parliament, or even threaten to, to show the punters what they really voted for.
Every few years the Tories think that this time they’re going to get rid of the unions. Work Choices shows how wrong they were and continue to be. But salivating right-wingers, believing that they will finally be rid of pesky industrial advocacy in 2016, will be receiving a reality check. You can’t save a country that’s shedding jobs, pay and conditions, by getting rid of the very people who fight to preserve them.
Events will overwhelm this tacky union bashing exercise. Time will erode its potency. “Fixing the unions” will recede into the background noise like most of the other agenda items the Liberals try to run. Running an election on this basis – the extrapolation by an old patrician hack of the conduct of a few into the systemic nature of a whole movement – will fail again, as it always has. The case is too flimsy to maintain. There is evidence, but of what? That some union leaders take advantage of their positions? Who knew?
Shorten has weathered the storm. Like our ancient gerbil-like mammalian ancestors he does the wise thing. He hides under a rock until the fire and the ash from the asteroid have blown away (and with it the dinosaurs and all they stood for) and thinks. He plans. And then he comes out from hiding to prosper. When the odds are against you there’s no point sacrificing yourself. Shorten fights the battles he can win. He doesn’t throw his political life away by dying a glorious, but pointless death. Shorten has always played a long game.
Turnbull is making sure the old Liberal Party script is being re-run. Bash the unions. Challenge Labor to betray their origins. Extrapolate the sins of a few to the many. Protect your mates. Do deals. Survive until the next annual general meeting. Collect your bonus in the meantime.
His statement yesterday was out of kilter with the caring, sharing Turnbull the public thought they had purchased. It had shades of Godwin Grech about it. It was a typical Turnbull shortcut. If in doubt, go for the scandal: the Snakes and Ladders theory of politics. It was a sign of his weakness and his poor judgement.
Unsure of what he wants to do about the GST, penalty rates, superannuation, taxation of large corporations, education, innovation, science, Global Warming, surpluses, the Republic, gay marriage, Turnbull is nevertheless absolutely sure of what he wants to do about unions. At last he’s found something he can stand for, and something that might please Tony Abbott and his apostles. Sounds like “Win-Win”… but only to Malcolm Turnbull and a few in the media, dazzled by his brilliance. But we are seeing Malcolm Turnbulls true colors at last: indecisive, phoney and shallow, a Tory chancer who can’t resist going the biff to make himself look tough. Not a leader, more a barrister with a brief, in love with the sound of his own voice.
It won’t wash, Malcolm. It never has.