The Politics    Wednesday, July 8, 2015


By Sean Kelly

Bill Shorten showed some unexpected fight today

Today, as Bill Shorten fronted the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, we learned five things: two about Shorten, one about donation laws that we should already have known, and two about the Royal Commission itself.

I am writing this near the end of the first day of hearings, and it seems as though there may be several to come. We’ll know more when the hearings conclude.

  1. Bill Shorten waited until two days ago to declare the fact that a business had effectively donated the salary of his 2007 campaign manager – a business that negotiated agreements with the union he had then recently been in charge of. This is not a good look for Shorten. Clearly it should have been declared some time ago, and at least when he first had all the relevant details to hand. That may have been two days ago, but the Counsel Assisting the Commission was being reasonable in questioning that coincidence.
  2. That’s no smoking gun, because there are a host of politicians on both sides of politics who have waited until looooonngggg after the fact to declare electoral donations, or changes to their interests (including the prime minister). It’s never a good look, but it doesn’t come close to being illegal. As Bernard Keane pointed out today, most of the time they get away with it because all the media attention is focused on the earliest declaration of donations – not later ones. (Extract here.) That brings us to the second thing the Commission taught us today, which is that our electoral donations laws need to be changed. I’ve argued before that we should ban all donations from unions and businesses – the potential for conflict is just too high – but at the very least we need some way of compelling accurate and timely declarations.
  3. Shorten has some fight in him. Many people have been underwhelmed by Shorten’s public persona as opposition leader. Today, under pressure, and on familiar ground, he looked as strong as I’ve seen him. He bit back when he needed to, looked genuinely angry at times, but managed to explain complicated matters calmly. Labor supporters will be hoping to see more of that – though not at the Royal Commission, obviously.
  4. The Commission seems a bit torn between its role in searching for systemic problems in the union movement, including corruption, and the political witchhunts that might publicly justify its existence. There was a lot of time today spent on vague implications that a union or company donating a worker to a campaign is a rare event – it’s not. The day spent on Julia Gillard’s testimony way back when was a complete waste of time, eventually finding only that she might have acted better as a lawyer. I accept that these may be within the terms of the inquiry, but that’s the problem. There are serious deficiencies in some parts of the union movement, but political demands mean time and money is being wasted on comparatively trivial matters because they involve large potential scalps.
  5. A fair bit of time today was spent trying to show Shorten’s union, the AWU, didn’t get the best deals for workers. This is an incredibly difficult thing to show, because of course the absolute best deal for workers is different from what is actually possible in negotiations. That in turn means a union that works well with business might easily end up looking like it is working too well with business. The delicious irony here being that unions are under attack for working too closely with business in a Commission established by a party that wishes unions would get out of the way of business altogether. 


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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