9 things we learned from Bill Shorten's two days of evidence at the royal commission into unions

Bill Shorten

ALP leader Bill Shorten just spent two days in the witness box at the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption (TURC). Counsel assisting, Jeremy Stoljar SC, quizzed the MP over payments made to the AWU, the union Shorten led, by companies dealing with the union. It was a mostly ponderous affair, with partisans on either side of the political divide watching on, cheering for their side and reading every moment as proof of their arguments.

For the ALP side it’s Tony Abbott’s $80 million witch hunt. For conservatives it’s vindication of their view that unions and their political wing are riddled in unsavoury practices.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering the former national secretary of the Health Services Union (HSU) Kathy Jackson, once lauded by the conservative side as a brave whistleblower, is currently in court on an unrelated matter. The HSU is suing her, alleging she misappropriated $1.3 million of union funds for personal expenses.

The truth is that Shorten’s testimony is a small part of a bigger picture about the way business is conducted in Australia and when commissioner Dyson Hayden hands down his findings at the end of the year, it will make for intriguing reading.

But here’s what’s emerged over the past two days.

1. Electoral funding disclosure laws in Australia are broken. It started yesterday with revelations that Shorten’s campaign manager, when he first stood for parliament in 2007, was paid for via a “donation” from a labour hire company. It was never declared and Shorten corrected the record just two days before appearing before the royal commission. Labor supporters immediately flooded social media with stories pointing to indiscretions when it came to disclosures on the Conservative side of politics. And NSW residents would remember last year’s ICAC hearings about banned developer election donations. If nothing else comes out of this royal commission, you can’t help thinking reform of who and how people and organisations support a political party financially would be one thing voters would welcome. There’s a bad smell in Australian politics when it comes to the way parties obtain funding.

2. Unions find lots of ways to clip the ticket during negotiations. When cutting a deal for workers, they also like to offer a range of services to the businesses involved, from training to education and the occasional party. Stoljar spent most of today asking Shorten about invoices from the union to Thiess John Holland, ACI Glass and Chiquita Mushrooms, trying to establish what services were delivered and whether they were bogus invoices. Shorten said he would never allow fake invoicing, but it became clear unions see themselves as consultants to the business while simultaneously doing battle with them on behalf of the staff.

Bill Shorten at the royal commission into unions. Source: screenshot

3. Commissioner Heydon likes his answers not too short, not too long, but just right. About an hour into day two, Dyson Heydon, generally a man of few words, made an extraordinary intervention to warn Shorten that too many of his answers were “non-responsive” and too waffly, which may damage his credibility as a witness. But one word isn’t enough either, the former High Court judge said: “A witness who answers each question “yes”, “no”, “I don’t remember” or clarifies the question and so on, gives the cross-examiner very little to work with. It is your interest to curb these, to some extent, extraneous answers. Mr Stoljar has a plan. Plans may succeed or they may fail but he is entitled to pursue it.”

4. That rebuke isn’t good for Shorten. The commissioner’s intervention was probably the hardest blow landed on the opposition leader in two days while he batted away Stoljar’s questions. “A lot of your answers are non-responsive,” the Commissioner said, making Shorten look evasive. By raising questioning of his credibility, Heydon is offered an insight into how the ALP leader may be viewed when the royal commission’s findings are handed down, and it’s not a good sign.

5. Labor’s old habit of tearing itself apart returned. Former ALP national secretary Bob Hogg jumped on Facebook to give Shorten a serve and called on him to step down. “Is the concept of conflict of interest beyond your understanding?” Hogg wrote. “Bill do something for the ALP. It is simple. Just go”. Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally, who’s been railing against the royal commission on Twitter, also copped it for an “asinine” tweet. Hogg argued that the ALP should be setting the ethical standards on campaign funding, rather that engaging in “relativism” by pointing to the Liberals. Almost immediately the ALP ranks began dumping on Hogg, dragging out 24-year-old stories of his mistakes. Stay classy Labor.

6. Cutting a deal with business is fraught. Unions are often hammered for ruining business. But the line of attack Jeremy Stoljar took against Shorten was that the AWU didn’t get the best deals for its members. So Thiess John Holland built Melbourne’s East Link toll road, under budget and ahead of time, but the implication is the AWU must have failed in its negotiations. Of course the other implication is that the unions sell out the workers to featherbed their own nests. Shorten denied repeated claims to that effect.

Edible Agaricus lanipes variety of mushroom. Sean Gallup/Getty

7. Shorten’s time as a union organiser made him an expert on mushroom farming. Chiquita Mushrooms is a Victorian business that struck an EBA with the AWU in 2004. The commission has been told the union discussed a monthly $4,000 payment as compensation for union dues. Apparently there were very high injury rates among the workforce, which led to workers comp premiums at nearly half the cost of the wages bill. As part of the deal with the union, the workers were engaged via a labour hire company, Oneforce. Shorten said outsourcing the workforce was the way of the world, and was happy to provide the commission with a detailed description of how mushrooms are grown.

8. He’s effective when he fires up. Shorten’s often seen as lacking the fire and mongrel Abbott displayed in opposition, but there were some moments when he flared up against counsel assisting’s line of questioning and in those moments, delivered an impressive and passionate defence of his principles and beliefs. No doubt ALP supporters would like to see more of that outside a major inquiry.

9. This investigation still has a long way to go, but Shorten’s leadership will be the short-term focus. Julia Gillard made an appearance, now Shorten. You can be sure that the government, after two days to relative quiet to ensure all focus was on the ALP leader’s appearance, will now go hammer and tongs to maximise the damage and perceptions that Shorten is the Lord Voldemort of unionism.

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