The view from Billinudgel

Another Royal Commission?

Tony Abbott is taking his time before announcing his next campaign, which is to be a fully-fledged Royal Commission into the trades unions – their corruption, their violence, their bad table manners and their general Un-Australianness.

We know this for certain because we were told it last week in the Australian by Dennis Shanahan, whose attachment to Abbott long ago ceased to be merely emotional and had now become positively symbiotic.

Before the election Abbott had limited his ambitions to a judicial inquiry, but following the revelations about the awfulness of the building industry by the almost equally Un-Australian ABC, our Prime Minister has decided to up the ante.

According to Shanahan he is only postponing pressing the trigger because he wants the stories to have time to sink in and fester, until the unions have become thoroughly demonised in the public mind, rather like asylum seekers. But there could also be another reason for the delay: Abbott wants to make quite sure he gets his Royal Commission right. Because he is quite old enough to remember how a similarly cynical and opportunistic exercise by one of his predecessors went disastrously wrong.

In 1980 Malcolm Fraser set up a Royal Commission into the activities of the Painters and Dockers Union, then notorious for violence, thuggery and outright criminality – officials frequently went missing believed dead, or just plain dead. One survivor boasted openly: “We catch and kill our own.” Fraser’s ministers, one of whom was John Howard, were quite open about their real motives: shock horror revelations about the Painters and Dockers could be used to smear the union movement as a whole, and thus as an excuse to introduce crushing anti-union legislation, which would wedge the Labor opposition through its union links.

A neat enough strategy, one might have thought; but inexplicably, Fraser picked the wrong man as his Royal Commissioner. Frank Costigan’s legal credentials were impeccable, but in the past he had been a member of the ALP, working with Gough Whitlam to reform the Victorian branch some ten years earlier. He was now considered apolitical, but he was definitely not a Liberal stooge. He was in fact a forensic and fearless investigator, doggedly following the evidence no matter where it might lead.

The activities of the Painters and Dockers led him to organised crime in general, which was linked to massive money laundering and tax evasion rackets, including the “Bottom of the Harbour” scams, which were operated for the benefit of some very important people, many of whom were connected to the Liberal party and, more importantly, were among its biggest donors. The resultant furore became a far bigger story than union corruption and in the end Howard, as Treasurer, was forced to bring in retrospective legislation to reform the tax system, for which many Liberal heavies never forgave him.

Abbott, then, is unlikely to make the same mistake: his Royal Commissioner is will undoubtedly have an unsullied conservative past. But he will be acutely aware of the political adage: never set up any kind of government inquiry unless you are absolutely sure you know what the results are going to be. Hence the pause while he runs his final security checks. This one has to work; after all, very little else has.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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