The Australian Federal Police raided the offices of the Australian Workers Union late yesterday as part of an investigation by the union watchdog into Labor leader Bill Shorten’s donations when he was AWU secretary a decade ago.
Dozens of AFP officers executed search warrants at the union’s offices in Melbourne and Sydney on Tuesday afternoon in support of the Registered Organisations Commission investigation and following suspicions that relevant documents were being “concealed or destroyed”.
The ROC, set up by the Turnbull government this year, is investigating the AWU over whether its donations to left-leaning lobby group GetUp in 2006 and donations to Mr Shorten’s election campaign in 2007 were properly authorised under union rules.
The raids were attacked by the unions and Labor who said they were politically motivated and an abuse of police resources but a Turnbull government spokesman said it was “absurd” to suggest the AFP was politicised.
In a statement, the ROC said it had received information which “raised reasonable grounds” for suspecting that documents relevant to the investigation were at the AWU’s Sydney national office and Victorian office, and “that those documents may be being interfered with (by being concealed or destroyed)”.
It said it had put the information to a magistrate, who issued warrants for police to seize the documents as per provisions under the Registered Organisations Act.
The AWU’s lawyers were at the Victorian magistrate’s court last night to object to the warrants.
AWU national secretary Dan Walton slammed the raids as “an extraordinary abuse of police resources and taxpayer funds by a desperate government”. “It is extraordinary that we have ended up here,” he told reporters. “We had no indication this was going to happen.”
He said the AWU was only notified of the ROC’s investigation on Friday and had met its lawyers for the first time on Tuesday to consider “how to properly respond” to the matter.
“We’ve co-operated since the beginning,” he said. He said the union had approved the donations in question and that “it was extremely supportive of [GetUp] then and we are extremely supportive of it now”.
“It is clear the ROC has been established not to promote good governance, but to use taxpayer and police resources to muckrake through historic documents in an attempt to find anything that might smear a future Labor PM.
“This is a shameful new low for a government already scraping the bottom of the political barrell.”
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash referred the claims to the ROC following media reports.
The raids of two offices came on the same day that the AFP told Senate estimates it did not have the resources to investigate serious drug smuggling.
Opposition employment spokesman Brendan O’Connor accused the Turnbull government of using police as “a play thing” to target its political opponents rather than fight serious crime.
“At the very best this is a civil or administrative breach that may have happened or not happened 10 years ago … and yet we have crime fighters raiding offices because of role of civil regulator.”
He accused the ROC, the AFP and the Turnbull government of collusion after noting that television cameras were present at the union offices before the raids.
“In its first public foray we see the ROC has been used in a manner to attack the federal labor leader Bill Shorten. We said it was going to be used for base political purposes. It’s clearly been compromised by the actions today,” he said.
He accused the Turnbull government of being “entirely responsible for this turn of events – it’s an alarming misuse of ministerial power.”
A spokesman for the government said “it is absurd and false to suggest the AFP is in any way politicised”.
“Labor is attacking the independence, integrity and professionalism of the AFP and its officers. This is an offensive slur and a disgraceful distraction.”
He said “it is important [the ROC] is allowed to investigate without hysterical smears from Labor”.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus said it was a “sad day for democracy” and “this is an out of control dangerous government that calls the police over small donations”.
“Using the police in such a way, while refusing to do anything to prevent money laundering by terrorists and drug dealers by the big banks, demonstrates the government’s appalling priorities.”
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