When it comes to visits to the doctor, Australians are told to ‘tighten belts’ and to expect increased fees. These are laughably termed ‘price signals’ as if the spin makes it easier to accept the increased cost. Yet when it comes to union bashing, the government is happy to spend like a drunken sailor, a phrase it popularised whilst in opposition.
And when it combines its union bashing with an equally unfair and unbecoming vendetta on former PM Julia Gillard, a uniquely capable and respected politician who also just happens to be the woman who publicly called him on his misogyny, Tony Abbott is awash with funds; he has buckets of money to splurge, regardless of the outcome. With the nation’s indulgence, he has spent their money on his own blood sport.
The latest union bashing is both expensive and appears at first glance a poor investment. Abbott has spent one hundred million dollars on his Royal Commission into Trades Union Governance and Corruption without claiming the scalp of its chief target, Julia Gillard, and without finding any evidence of criminal conduct by any union representatives. Yet the dynamic of persecution continues unchecked. The show is guaranteed to continue as long, (or as short as) he is in office.
100 million is a hefty sum to squander on a wild goose chase. There is no sign, however, of any let-up in one of the most cynical witch-hunts against organised labour this nation has seen. Instead, the inquiry has been extended for another year, which, amazingly, as luck would have it for the PM, places it in the election year of 2016. And because evidence is as scarce as hobby horse manure, it has requested public servants to help it with a fishing expedition.
Remarkably, to help fish up some ‘evidence’, all federal departments and agencies are being asked to disclose every contact with any trade union for any reason over the past decade in response to a “scoping questionnaire”. Not only is this outside the commission’s terms of reference it is predicated on the assumption that any contact or association with workers’ representatives is somehow illicit.
Vividly revealed in this move are the Abbott government’s prejudices against organised labour. Unions, unionists and rank and file members are not only suddenly persona non grata, this government is willing to go to extreme lengths to bring them into disrepute.
It is a fine line it treads. Should it prove that Abbott’s cabinet ministers are behind the ‘scoping’ it is a clear-cut abuse of power. Accordingly the ACTU is currently using FOI to investigate the involvement of Abetz and Brandis. No good looking in the report, of course, for this is a report with a highly selective focus: workers and their representatives are the villains of the piece. The employer is as ever beyond reproach. And the former PM is found to be at fault for showing impatient or sounding rehearsed. With these caveats, Commissioner Justice Dyson Heydon’s report makes diverting and instructive reading.
The Commission tabled its three volume 1800 page plus report on 19 December. Already, rating itself off the charts, it is a must-have Christmas gift for those who enjoy reading crime fiction over the Christmas holidays. The plot is compelling, the characters are colourful and it is all lavishly produced, no doubt with an eye to a musical or a mini-series.
(Proposed titles so far include The Hunt for Red Julia, Ranga Banga Party (a nod to Silvio Berlusconi’s cultural gatherings) or Julia’s big fat Greek Reno.)
No expense has been spared in production and two volumes are available for download now. The third volume is embargoed because someone may kill you if you read it, according to Employment Minister Eric Abetz who was careful to make the claim when interviewed by Leigh Sales last week on ABC TV.
Sales quoted the Commissioner’s wish to protect witnesses by suppression of volume three and his fear of something larger, something undefined, elliptical, something we can only guess at.
“It reveals grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state.” Yet when pressed by Sales to elucidate, Abetz went coy. Or he didn’t know either. But the slur was all in a good cause. The cause of recruiting workers to the Coalition’s new or refurbished organisations:
Sales: What is this grave threat that he’s talking about?
Abetz: I’m not going to try to second guess His Honour. The commissioner has made these statements. One assumes that a former High Court judge would not make such a statement lightly, but it is indicative of the seriousness of the matters that are being dealt with, and that is why I call on the Labor Party to no longer run the apologies for the trade union movement, but get on board with our Registered Organisations Commission legislation and the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. We need the rule of law to apply in the trade union movement and on our building and construction sites.
The hundred million could have done a lot of good had it been invested in health, or education to name but two areas where funds have been slashed. It could have saved Commonwealth legal assistance funding from the massive cuts inflicted upon it. It could have even gone towards salaries in public service.
Indeed, those public servants just put out of work by the Abbott government’s cuts might be forgiven for feeling a little sensitive, a little vulnerable, if not downright angry at the Abbott government’s priorities; a government which has seen fit to cut one public servant in eight from the workforce.
Surely it would have made economic if not also moral sense to put some of these families first? Put the security of the worker before the need to run expensive show trials for political purposes? Or is that just too much compassion and common-sense?
Sadly, neither the cost of continuing the Royal Commission, nor its failure to produce evidence has sated the Coalitions’ appetite for extravagant union-bashing. The Abbott government will happily spend further millions to indulge itself in its own blood sport. And if it all looks a bit thin, you can always talk up the problem, as AG George, ‘soapy’ Brandis, a former QC, and member of the all-male Savage Club of Melbourne did recently.
The government, he claimed, extended its open season on the unions by another year because as the problem is just too big to deal with any sooner:
“It is very plain that the problem of criminality and the associations between certain unions, and certain union officials, and crime is a much more widespread problem than appeared to be the case when at the beginning of this year the government decided to establish the royal commission,” Senator Brandis said.
There were no specifics either in his statement or in the commission’s report, a report in which volume three was withheld from publication because it contained information too dangerous to share. This is a big problem the government tells the nation, so big and bad we can’t even tell you all the detail; so big and bad we don’t need to show you the proof. So bad you would not want to know. Just trust us on that.
But who needs proof, especially when you have got the bosses in your pocket and the Murdoch press in your corner? Slur and innuendo will do the trick. Mix in a good dollop of righteous indignation and prejudice. Let this mixture be whipped up by shock jocks, the Andrew Bolts and the many LNP MPs who go for this type of thing. It’s quickly become the government’s house style. Slur and innuendo are the Abbott government’s signature, its tried and tested fall-back strategy, always at hand just to keep things moving along.
Last week we were treated to a bravura display of smear tactics on ABC TV from Eric Abetz, a former Tasmanian lawyer in an attack on Gillard which stopped a micron away from defamation. Although there are few who take Abetz terribly seriously, especially since his claimed link between breast cancer and abortion, he has clearly been sent forth to put the team case and to keep the witch-fires well-stoked. His first comment to Leigh Sales began with a lie and ended with a nifty side-step-slur which ensured that ‘other findings’ concerning Julia Gillard were still alive, despite the disappointing finding of lack of criminality on her behalf.
This inquiry has its genesis with a lot of people coming forward saying that there was something terribly rotten with the Australian Workers Union of that period where a slush fund was established with hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have people, no less than Ian Cambridge, a Fair Work Commissioner, Robert McClelland, a former Labor Attorney-General, seeking an inquiry to get to the bottom of all the allegations that were circulating. Clearly, today the Royal commission’s report indicates that Ms Gillard was not engaged in criminality. It has made some other findings which I don’t need to amplify or comment on in relation to Ms Gillard.
The genesis of the inquiry in fact was the Abbott government’s determination to pursue Julia Gillard, whom George Brandis, under protection of parliamentary privilege had referred to as a criminal in the lodge. He declined to repeat the slur outside the house.
Conjecture about Gillard’s involvement in an AWU slush fund was kicked off by Kennett in 1995 and dogged her all her political life. She has been grilled on her relationship with former partner and AWU organiser Bruce Wilson and with her knowledge of the fund for twenty years. No-one but Abbott would have re-opened speculation and smear. Nothing to see here boys, run along sonny, might well be the advice any reasonable human being would give her current persecutors. Yet it goes deeper than that both politically and personally for Abbott.
First, the commissioner is able to proceed in a way that attacks Gillard’s reputation without the typical legal constraints of evidence. Thus despite Commissioner Dyson Heydon being unable to find wrongdoing by Gillard in her work on the fund, he can still find a “lapse of professional judgement” on her part. As if that were a crime. As if that not something she shares with millions of other professionals in the nation. As if the phrase is not a juicy titbit for tabloid radio and other mindless reputation wreckers in the land including Eric Abetz who appeared to savour the phrase in his interview with Leigh Sales last week. Then the commissioner is free to speculate on the witness’ motives in a most damaging fashion; in a way that exacts maximum revenge. His report says:
… there could be alternative explanations for Gillard’s testimony. The first was that she wanted it to be true that she had paid for all the renovations; the second was that she knew her testimony to be false.
It was very unlikely that Gillard’s testimony proceeded only from “some unconscious transmogrification of the truth proceeding from velleity”, the report says.
“Taking together the incorrectness of her evidence, the strength of her motives, and her demeanour in giving evidence, the inference is strong that she consciously chose to adopt the clean course of flat denial.”
A long-running union bashing show is handy on the IR front. Abbott may have declared Work Choices is “dead, buried and cremated” but it’s not what his party and his backers want to hear. And after all, they appreciate that it was just one of his verbal promises. No-one got it in writing. His hard right colleagues and his supporters still salivate their pockets off over getting Work Choices or key ingredients of their favourite dish back on the table. For them it was never really off the menu.
Abbott has flicked the technical fix off to a Productivity Commission his government has already started to stack with former political staffers.
As to a political fix? Well, a long-running inquiry that might weaken trade unions and dirty-up political opponents would just about be the dog’s bollocks. Working Life.
On the personal level, it is clear that by refusing to get off his hobby horse, Abbott has confirmed in spades Julia Gillard’s appraisal of his misogyny, a disorder well-represented amongst those males who bond around the cabinet table and throughout the LNP parliamentary party and its supporters. And there are no price signals for the Prime Minister: he is more than happy to spend whatever it takes on a continuing witch hunt fixture to keep bosses on top, workers under the thumb and women out of the workshop.