The federal government’s attack on Labor leader Bill Shorten has backfired and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash faces calls for her resignation after she was forced to sack a staffer for tipping off the media about Tuesday’s union raids.
After denying all day that either she or any one in her office had any prior knowledge of the raids by the Registered Organisations Commission on the Australian Workers’ Union offices in Melbourne and Sydney, Senator Cash admitted late Wednesday that one of her staffers had helped alert the media to the raids which helped maximise their political effect.
The dismissal came after news outlet Buzzfeed claimed late Wednesday Senator Cash’s office tipped off the media, contradicting multiple denials by Senator Cash that either she or her office had any knowledge.
Late Tuesday, the ROC, backed by more than two dozen Australian Federal Police Officers, raided the AWU offices in Sydney and Melbourne after Senator Cash asked the ROC to investigate whether two political donations made by the AWU more than a decade ago, when Mr Shorten was the union’s national secretary, accorded with union rules.
One was a $100,000 donation to activist group GetUp!, and the other a $25,000 donation to Mr Shorten’s successful campaign to enter Parliament.
Documents produced Wednesday showed the donations were disclosed at the time to the Australian Electoral Commission and subsequently given to the Royal Commission.
But a senior government source said “the volume of documents tabled as part of (the Royal Commission) was so great that even with the resources they had, they could not consider every payment in detail”. This is despite the Royal Commission costing taxpayers $80 million.
In addition, the ROC is also seeking relevant minutes of meetings of the AWU’s national executive to ensure the donations were approved by the ruling body at the time.
Fuelling the political witch hunt allegations by Labor was the fact the media was tipped off about the raids to maximise the political impact.
Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese said “we know Senator Cash’s office was ringing around media organisations yesterday afternoon telling them that this was going to occur”.
BuzzFeed said it had spoken to journalists who claim they received a phone call from Senator Cash’s office an hour before the raids, to make sure there would be cameras outside the AWU offices in both cities.
Senator Cash explained to a Senate Estimates Committee that her staff member was tipped off by the media and in turn tipped off other media outlets.
Late Wednesday night, Labor MPs were demanding Senator Cash’s resignation.
The raids failed to rattle Labor with Mr Shorten going on the front foot to label them an abuse of power and, like the Royal Commission, another fruitless attempt to smear him.
“Why hasn’t the Prime Minister asked government agencies to undertake any investigations into Australians caught up in the Panama Papers scandal? Why does the Prime Minister continue to protect the banks from a Royal Commission despite reports that the Commonwealth Bank allowed money to be laundered by terrorists?
“Why won’t this born-to-rule Prime Minister do something about misconduct at the top end of town, and stop abusing his power to attack people and organisations who highlight his failings?”
AWU national secretary Dan Walton said both donations were in accordance with union laws in that they were approved by the National Executive.
He rejected claims by the ROC that the raids were necessary because it had “reasonable grounds” to believe documents related to its inquiry could be “concealed or destroyed”.
He said the union had been cooperating with the ROC and was happy to hand over the paperwork it was seeking.
“I’m quite comfortable to stand up here today to be able to say everything was above board,” he said.
The AWU launched a Federal Court challenge to the raids and the donation investigations and is seeking the return of the documents seized in the raids.
The court set down a hearing for Friday and in the interim, the AFP agreed not to hand the ROC the documents it seized.
It is understood the union is challenging the minister’s referral, and so the basis for the investigation, on grounds that the government can’t be seen in any way to instruct or direct the ROC.
Mr Shorten said nothing untoward would be discovered.
“I know that this government will keep digging and digging and digging, and wasting taxpayers’ money right up until the next election,” Mr Shorten said.
“The Royal Commission had many more resources than this latest pitiful attempt, and the fact of the matter is that this government has run out of anything positive to say, so all they can do is attack their opponents.”
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