The Labor opposition is still reeling from the Abbott government’s decision to call a wide-ranging royal commission into a coterie of powerful unions — a judicial inquiry that is likely to occupy much of the government’s remaining term in office.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten, with his own deep links with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), realises the pitfalls and dangers of what is effectively an unfettered inquiry, with no historic time limit, into union activities.
The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption can reach as far back as it deems necessary and can continue to investigate for as long as it deems necessary.
It will be a field day for lawyers, and there are estimates that what is the biggest inquiry into the union movement since the Costigan (Painters and Dockers) royal commission, which ran from 1980-1984, will cost taxpayers $100 million.
The guilty finding on former federal MP and Health Services Union (HSU) official Craig Thomson has also provided a salacious curtain-raiser to the main event.
The ALP consistently protected and defended Thomson and helped fund his legal defence. Former NSW ALP secretary and now senator, Sam Dastyari, authorised more than $200,000 of ALP funds to help pay for Thomson’s legal team.
For his part, Mr Shorten publicly defended Thomson. When asked about Thomson’s implausible story, the then Workplace Relations Minister and now Opposition leader insisted on radio in August 2011: “I believe him.”
For weeks the Abbott government had created the impression that a possible judicial inquiry would be limited to examining rogue building unions, namely the notoriously militant Construction, Forestry, Mining, Energy Union (CMFEU).
However, when the terms of the Heydon royal commission were unveiled, its scope was reported as “breathtaking”.
Effectively, former High Court judge John Dyson Heydon, 70, is charged with looking into the financial management and accountability of unions, and the use of funds of any “separate entities” established by trade unions. He will be able to look at anyone who is a representative of a union, and he will probe any allegations of possible breaching of any laws, regulations or professional standards.
The terms of reference specify five unions — the CMFEU, the Australian Workers’ Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Health Services Union and the Transport Workers Union.
However, if there are any other allegations into any other union, Justice Heydon has the option of probing these too.
The Abbott government knows it will be very difficult to prove many of the myriad allegations of rorting, bullying, pay-offs and bribes to union officials and members.
But the object of the inquiry is much broader.
The royal commission into the unions will serve three political purposes, which will also create an ongoing headache for Labor.
First, the unions will be forced into conducting internal investigations into past indiscretions, secret deals with employers and other improprieties.
This will take the organisations themselves away from their primary role of looking after members’ interests, which will cause frustration and dissatisfaction among rank-and-file members.
Second, the commission itself will no doubt uncover actual instances of illegal activities and there will be union officials, present as well as past, who will be forced to resign or stand aside from their positions. This will compound the difficulties unions will have in conducting their business.
And, third, the unions’ ability to mount effective political campaigns, as they have previously, will be severely diminished.
The unions will be hit financially and lose their political focus at the same time.
It is also likely that the close links between Labor parliamentarians and individual unions will be exposed and reputations damaged.
Any MP or senator with strong links to a union (and there are many of these in the federal parliament, including Mr Shorten) will be preoccupied over coming months in ensuring that any skeletons in their own closets are well and truly checked in preparation for possible future cross-examination.
In short, the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption will be an enormous distraction, financially debilitating and likely to speed the decline of union membership and be an ongoing potential problem for the ALP.
And, as a final blow, the recommendations of the commission are likely to consist of new laws, which will curtail certain union activities such as the use of slush funds and other political operations.
Despite the cost in the context of a cash-strapped government, Tony Abbott is willing to let the royal commission run long and hard, even if there are casualties along the way from non-union participants, including business people and others who are involved in union negotiations.