Speaking to a class of schoolkids in June, Malcolm Turnbull was asked if he was friends with Bill Shorten. “Yes. We’re rivals … When we’re not fighting away in the parliament, we get on well.”
Luckily for the prime minister, this affection was not unrequited. In December last year, Bill Shorten told Leigh Sales, “I personally like Malcolm Turnbull.” Keen to make sure the full force of his love was understood, he repeated the point: “So do I like him personally? Yes.”
If you believe either of them, firstly, do I have a bridge to sell to you, and secondly, prepare to be crushed by today’s developments. What love was ever there has gone. And it’s not coming back.
Shorten this morning took aim at “an increasingly grubby effort, by a grubby government and quite frankly a grubby prime minister”. In the political insult stakes, “grubby” ranks pretty high (or low, as the case may be). Turnbull returned to his own greatest hits, calling Shorten “Melbourne’s greatest sycophant” and one of Labor’s “hereditary union princelings”. “Not everybody has a privileged ride to power through a union job,” he said.
Think this is all par for the course? Water off a duck’s back? It’s not, and you can tell this by the vehemence with which both men defended themselves. Here’s Shorten: “I am proud of having spent my adult life working and standing up for working people and the less disadvantaged [sic] of our society”. And here’s Turnbull: “Throughout my life, my wife and I have started one business after another. We created jobs. We’ve invested. We know what creates enterprise and jobs … [F]or those who have done so well from the union movement and ridden on the backs of the workers into parliament, think a little about how the jobs those workers have were created.”
These are not just one-day put-downs. This is, increasingly, the tenor of the battle between the two leaders. Both have backgrounds they would have considered to be strengths but which have to date been weaknesses. Turnbull the successful businessman has been painted as a toff. Shorten the campaigning unionist came to power at a time when unions were on the nose. Both are trying to turn those perceptions around by leaning into the charges against them. Partly this is strategy, and partly they have no choice.
So things are getting very bitter indeed. When things get bitter and personal in politics, two things tend to happen. Sometimes politicians rise to the challenge, and give their best performances. Sometimes politicians overbalance, unable to judge in the heat of personal attack precisely how far to go. Sometimes it is the same MPs who do both. It is too early to say what will happen here.
But to the question many of you will be muttering: what’s it all about, Alfie?
The basic facts are that the prime minister went to a double-dissolution election partly to introduce the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), a body that can look into organisations like unions. The employment minister, Michaelia Cash, then referred some matters involving Bill Shorten to the ROC. At some point very recently, the ROC, which decided it would look into those matters, applied to court for a warrant to search the Australian Workers Union (AWU) offices for documents it thought were relevant, and which it said it suspected might have been tampered with. The court granted the warrant, and as a result the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the offices of the AWU yesterday. When the police got to the offices, there was already a swarm of media waiting outside, presumably tipped off by somebody.
Right, that’s what actually, definitely happened. So what is the ROC investigating? Between 2005 and 2008, during the period when Bill Shorten was head of the AWU, the union made a donation of $100,000 to campaigning outfit GetUp!, and a few large donations to Labor candidates, including Bill Shorten himself. The question being raised is whether or not the donations were properly authorised by the national executive of the union, as they have to be under section 57 of the union rules. The current head of the AWU, Daniel Walton, says yes, they were.
Those are the key facts, but off the back of the federal police raids, a million tops have been set spinning. The government is asking why the union donated money to GetUp! at all. (I think it’s hardly surprising that one left-wing campaigning outfit donated to another left-wing campaigning outfit.) Labor wants to know who tipped off the media. (Fair question, but unlikely to go anywhere.) Labor says the PM is treating the police as his personal plaything (a bit of overreach), and also says the government set up the ROC, and referred the matter, and so is effectively responsible for wasting police time on a political attack (a more logical argument).
There are other bits and pieces you will have noticed if you’ve been paying close attention. Yesterday, separately, it emerged that the AFP’s resources were stretched thin, partly by having to guard the PM’s Sydney residence. Labor is therefore asking: and now you want to stretch them further with this witch-hunt? GetUp! is in a bit of a war with the Australian Electoral Commission over its status, which does relate to financial disclosure, but has nothing to do with the 2005 controversy. Tanya Plibersek has contrasted the PM’s desire for transparency on union donations with his own months-long refusal to disclose his own donation to his election campaign last year. The Greens have asked why the government is willing to go after unions but not allegations of corruption in casinos.
In other words, this battle is generating an enormous amount of heat. But so far, as the saying goes, we’ve had precious little light. My suspicion is that things will stay that way. For all of the thousands of arguments being made, there are really two questions. The first is whether the government has had any kind of improper involvement with the AFP or the ROC. The second is whether the payments from the AWU were properly authorised. I’ll be very surprised if enough evidence comes to light on either charge to create trouble for anyone.
I want to end by sounding a note of caution. Labor is doing everything it can to attack the government’s motives, which is a way of protecting its leader: the best defence is offence and so on. But that’s not to say Labor doesn’t have a point. The prime minister set up the ROC. The head of the AWU says it’s unlikely to be coincidental that the ROC is looking into the period of time when Shorten was at the union. The Coalition government, under Tony Abbott, also set up the Trade Union Royal Commission, and the Royal Commission that looked into the home-insulation program. This government has repeatedly set up bodies to bring down its opponents. It should stop. Equally, when Labor comes to power, it must resist the temptation to enact revenge. Protecting democracy and its ideals must take precedence; malice and political victory at any cost should take a backseat.
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