A royal commission into trade union governance, slush funds and corruption is nothing more than a witch-hunt and taxpayers will be better served if more money went to enforcing existing laws, unions say.
The royal commission into trade union governance started in Sydney on Wednesday, with commissioner Dyson Heydon saying the inquiry’s both broad and restrictive terms of reference will probe the facts behind a range of union practices.
Justice Heydon says the commission does not want to see unions abolished or curbed into insignificance.
But Australia’s leading union body has branded the move a witch-hunt, and accused Prime Minister Tony Abbott of delivering on a political agenda to damage and weaken the union movement’s role in Australian society.
“The Royal Commission has been designed to tie unions up in a long and expensive inquiry that will ultimately make it harder for them to represent their members,” ACTU Secretary Dave Oliver said in a statement.
“The terms of reference released by Prime Minister Tony Abbott show the narrow focus of the Royal Commission is to smear and damage unions rather than get to the bottom of any genuine issues of corruption.”
Justice Heydon said the inquiry rests on assumptions which are not hostile to trade unions.
“The terms of reference do not assume that it is desirable to abolish trade unions,” the former High Court justice said in his opening remarks at Wednesday’s preliminary hearing.
“They do not assume that it is desirable to curb their role to the point of insignificance.
“Instead, they assume it is worth inquiring into how well and how lawfully that role is performed.”
The Communications, Electrical, Electronic, Energy, Information, Postal, Plumbing and Allied Services Union of Australia (CEPU) has pledged to cooperate fully with the Royal Commission.
But the union says taxpayer dollars would be better spent on enforcing existing laws.
“Our members are concerned that the current Royal Commission is driven by politics, rather than a genuine desire to assist working people to eradicate criminal elements from Australian workplaces,” the CEPU said in a statement.
“The CEPU believes there are already appropriate laws in place, and that state and federal police are the appropriate agencies for identifying and prosecuting cases of criminal behaviour.”
The Health Services Union (HSU), Australian Workers Union and the Transport Workers Union will also be the focus of the inquiry.
Master Builders Association chief executive Wilhelm Harnisch says he hopes the inquiry will lead to changes in union practices and worker productivity, as occurred following the 2001 Cole royal commission.
Former federal Labor ministers Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson, one-time presidents of the ACTU, have also called for sections of the union movement to get their house in order.
Counsel assisting the commission Jeremy Stoljar SC said the inquiry would look into slush funds, the legal structures of which could be “infinitely various”.
The inquiry’s final report is due by December 31.