Unions Royal Commission: Bill Shorten angrily denies using his position to beef up his campaign team

Labor leader Bill Shorten fronts the Royal Commission into the building industry. Source: screenshot.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is in the witness box at Justice Dyson Heydon’s royal commission into trade union governance and corruption in Sydney today.

He has angrily denied a suggestion that he used his position as national secretary of the Australian Workers Union to launch his campaign to become a federal MP.

The ALP leader is appearing because of his former role as a trade union boss. He was Victorian secretary of the AWU, 1998-2006, and national secretary, 2001-2007.

The commission has heard allegations that unions struck deals with businesses that disadvantaged workers, including some at the AWU.

Shorten has been answering questions from counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar SC, centring around 2007, when the MP for Maribyrnong first stood as a candidate.

Stoljar began by quizzing Shorten about the employment of his campaign director, Lance Wilson, in early 2007. Wilson was a member of Young Labor and paid $50,000 to do the job by a labour hire company, Unibilt, run by Ted Lockyer. The opposition leader described the role as a “donation” from Unibilt towards his campaign.

But just before the commission took a break, it emerged that Shorten had failed to declare it as a donation on his 2007 campaign return.

The opposition leader admitted that he discovered the oversight while preparing to appear before the royal commission and subsequently updated the return in the last few days.

Earlier on, Stoljar pressed Shorten on the Wilson’s employment contract, which described him as a “research officer” rather than Shorten’s campaign director.

“I can not explain why that title was used. He was used as a campaign resource, a campaign director to me,” Shorten responded, adding that he did not “micro-manage” all the campaign details, including the drafting of the employment contract.

But at the heart of counsel assisting’s question was the fact that Unibilt was planning to finalise an enterprise bargaining agreement with the AWU later in the year. He was probing the opposition leader for links between the two issues, but Shorten said he was not involved in the negotiations and did not mention the EBA while in discussions with Unibilt about its donation of a campaign director.

Another woman worked part-time on the campaign, paid for by the AWU’s national office. Shorten said she had asked that she not be named.

The theme emerging thus far from counsel assisting’s enquiries centres around political donations from corporations, a vexed issue for all sides of politics, and Stoljar’s questions at one stage provoked the opposition leader’s anger, accusing Shorten of exploiting his position to elicit campaign donations.

“Let me put this to you, isn’t that a situation in which you’re using your position as national secretary to gain an advantage for yourself, namely a full-time campaign manager?” Stoljar asked.

Shorten bristled in response, saying “Absolutely not. You have made a pretty significant statement and I wouldn’t mind having the courtesy to finish that because I completely disagree with what you just said then.

“What I have done in previous answers, I have explained that the previous EBA was a good EBA. These are good industrial conditions, excellent industrial conditions.

“You say there is further negotiations to happen. I say of course there are, but the idea that somehow having a discussion with an employer on two different topics, even if not at the same time, and somehow that it is untoward to raise money for election campaigns and do anything else.

“To me what that does is that assumes that whenever there is a donation in our electoral system, by anyone, that all other relationships and transactions must immediately be cast into doubt.

“That is not right. That is not how I operated at the union.”

Bill Shorten’s time in the witness box will continue this afternoon after a break so counsel assisting can examine the opposition leader’s recently updated donations declaration. The Labor leader can expect some heat over this slip up, especially because his signature appeared on the original 2007 document and a false declaration carries heavy penalties.

More to come.

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