The royal commission pulled up Bill Shorten, warning his 'credibility as a witness' was at stake

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

Commissioner Dyson Heydon, a former High Court judge, is overseeing the Abbott government’s royal commission into trade union governance and corruption (TURC).

Today ALP leader Bill Shorten is in the witness box for a second day, being questioned by counsel assisting, Jeremy Stoljar SC, about payments made to AWU, the union Shorten led, by companies dealing with the union, including Thiess John Holland, which built Melbourne’s East Link toll road, ACI Glass and Chiquita Mushrooms.

Theiss paid the AWU $100,000 annually over the project’s three-year life and Stoljar is pushing Shorten over the propriety of the deals and payments to the union and whether there was a conflict of interest. The company payments ranged for things like training, ads in the AWU journal and education. He is exploring whether the benefit it to the workers or the union.

Shorten has repeatedly denied there was any conflict of interest in the payments, which Stoljar called “side deals”.

Counsel assisting kept presenting the ALP leader with union invoices from the time and Shorten has delivered long explanations of the circumstances surrounding them.

It’s been slow going, a little like a chess game moving towards a stalemate, but Stoljar’s frustration with Shorten’s long answers reached a zenith while quizzing him about the EBA negotiations between the union and Thiess and whether the $100,000 annual payment was discussed.

Shorten discussed the negotiation process in detail and the exasperated barrister said “I’m asking about one particular point, now can you just answer my question?” before exclaiming: “Are you evading my question?”

That’s when commissioner Heydon intervened to express his concern that some of the opposition leader’s answers were “non-responsive” adding that was was concerned about Shorten’s credibility as a witness.

“If I can be frank about it, you have been criticised in the newspapers in the last few weeks and I think it’s generally believed that you have come here in the hope you will be able to rebut that criticism or a lot of it. I’m not very troubled about that, though I can understand that you are, and it’s legitimate for you to use this occasion to achieve your ends in that regard,” the commissioner said.

“What I’m concerned about more is your credibility as a witness … and perhaps your self-interest as a witness as well.

“It’s in your interest to curb these, to some extent, extraneous answers.”

While Shorten was “obviously an extremely busy person”, the commissioner apportioned some blame to the opposition leader for the slow headway of proceedings during his testimony.

Heydon said “you don’t have to accept what I am saying to you. It is offered, as it were, ex gratia” adding that nonetheless “I do think some concentration on your part on giving a proper answer… is in your self-interest.

It’s rare for commissioner Heydon to intervene in proceedings, and when he does, it’s generally short and sharp, so his long address was a stinging rebuke to the witness.

A chastened Labor leader attempted to be more succinct and “mindful of the commissioner’s suggestion”, although .

But it wasn’t long before Shorten sought to explain the sequence of events leading up to paid education leave for workers in an agreement and sought the commissioner’s indulgence.

Heydon said it would be “at your peril” if the details were irrelevant.

“I’ll take your gentle guidance and wait,” Shorten said, with a smile.

Shorten’s testimony continues this afternoon.

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