The view from Billinudgel

Nobody’s business but the TURC’s
Malcolm Turnbull should stop using trade unions for political theatre

If the government is serious about reconstituting the Australian Building and Construction Commission – the tough cop on the beat to combat the “louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts” whom Judge Dyson Heydon believes infest the whole of the union movement, but the building industry in particular – it is pursuing its aim with peculiar ineptitude.

Tony Abbott’s first go was simply to ram the legislation through; unsurprisingly a majority of the senate declined to be heavied, so Abbott set up his royal commission into the unions, the ALP and its leaders, and assumed, correctly, that it would provide him with a blueprint to make his case to a supportive media, and through them to the political recalcitrants.

This probably wouldn’t have worked, either, but in the meantime Abbott was tossed out, so Malcolm Turnbull picked up the ball, determined that he could be as macho as anyone when it came to the unions.

But Turnbull, as is his wont, tried a little more finesse – a mixture of bluff and chicanery. He gave them the one about a double-dissolution option – the implication being that if the senators did not go along, he would pull the constitutional trigger that would empty their seats into an oblivion from which they would never return. Annoyingly, they refused to be cowed; instead, they simply shuffled his bill off to a committee, not to be returned until a couple of days before parliament rises for a break before the budget.

Turnbull’s troops complained, with some justice, that this was hardy necessary; exactly the same words had been through a committee of enquiry previously. But this was not the point; if there was muscle-flexing to be done, the senators intended to do their bit in the process. 

There would still be time for a vote before the session ended – if there are not further delays, which there easily may be. If he can get the numbers, Turnbull can claim a significant victory; but what if he can’t? What if the majority still say no? There would be time to call the double dissolution before the budget – just. But it would be rushed and messy, smacking of desperation. Much better to somehow wangle the numbers through; hence the chicanery.

Certain favoured crossbenchers have been offered a sneak peek at the sexier bits of the hidden volume of Heydon’s ruminations, the one that the judge said had to be kept confidential to secure the safety of witnesses. This extraordinary privilege was belatedly extended to just one member each of the Labor party and the Greens, an offer which was rightly rejected.

And it is an outrage – beyond nimble and agile, beyond mean and tricky. In laymen’s terms it borders on the corrupt. Either the volume is confidential or it is not. There is an argument that it should be completely public, but if it is to be restricted, the restrictions must cover everyone except the government – the  appointed executive. They are not an opportunity for captain’s picks – a chance to duchess potential waverers in the hope of garnering political advantage. To do so is a contempt of the royal commissioner and the judge, and of the parliament system. It probably won’t work. It certainly shouldn’t.

The prime minister has demeaned himself, but more importantly he has demeaned us and the whole process of representative democracy. Shame, Malcolm, shame.

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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