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Heydon royal commission into unions aims for jackpot

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch</i>

Illustration: Simon Letch

Throughout the nation lawyers gasped as they tried to absorb the pages of print that spell out the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Rotten Unions and their Connection to the ALP.

Somewhere in Canberra someone sat down with instructions to draft terms of reference that would know no limits. The result is something that looks like the bastard child of a fishing expedition and the Spanish Inquisition.

Slowly the layers are added, starting with instructions to look at the governance arrangements of ''separate entities'' established by trade unions - financial management, accountability, the use of funds. It further directs specific attention (without limitation) into those unions where conceivably most of the skeletons are gathered. The inquiry must also probe the extent to which anyone ''represented by a union'' may have done something wrong in relation to the activities of these ''separate entities'', and whether any law, regulation or professional standard has been breached. There is to be scrutiny, too, of bribes, secret commissions and other unlawful payments or benefits that flow between unions, their officers and ''any other party''. Then there must be recommendations on tightening up the law so that it can more effectively catch and punish those who need to be caught.

Then, just in case this free-wheeling assault doesn't hit the jackpot, there is this:

''The participation of any person, associations or organisations other than registered employee associations or their officers in conduct described [in all the other main parts of the terms of reference].'' Shorthand translation for that is ''the participation of anybody in anything''.

And there's no timeframe. Conceivably investigations into beastly things could go back to 1915.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott put it all in terms of shining a spotlight into dark corners. It hardly needs to be said that this is an expensive political exercise designed to run with spotlights going night and day.

Ignored in the terms of reference are sensible inquiries into how unions might contribute more fairly and effectively to a competitive economy. None of that in this spotlight shooting fest, which is designed to be along the lines of the horror classic Wake in Fright.

The interesting disjunction is the appointment of Dyson Heydon as the royal commissioner.

Apart from being clad in suitable Tory finery, Heydon has spent his life at the pointy end of the law. As a barrister and judge he was well across the requirements when it came to pleadings in the world of litigation: particularity, specificity, exactness, clarity. People involved in the judicial process like to know exactly what they have to answer.

Here he's handed a sprawling jellyfish of looseness.

Other famous politically inspired royal commissions have been much more focused. For instance, the Petrov royal commission comprised four comparatively tight terms of reference. Imagine if the current government had set up a royal commission into ''separate entities'' created by leading listed business corporations. It is entirely probable that the fingers of Attorney-General George Brandis would seize up and he would be unable to write the instructions.

However, when it comes to skinning unions his hand is relaxed and the words flow freely from his gem-encrusted Montblanc.

Nonetheless, he would also know that royal commissions have the potential to swing around and bite the government of the day on the backside.

The Costigan royal commission, created by the Fraser government, into the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, veered into the bottom-of-the-harbour schemes of tax-evading business people and the activities of Kerry Packer.

The Heydon commission could just as readily catch prominent supporters and funders of the Coalition in its spotlight, dragging the focus from where it is meant to be - rorters in the union movement and their allies in the ALP.

Despite the perils, the royal commission will provide a much needed shot in the arm for the legal profession, principally the needy denizens of Phillip Street.

Forget the workers at SPC Ardmona or Toyota. This is the better part of $100 million to the feather-bedding experts.

What we shall certainly savour is the language of Dyson Heydon. We'll be in for lots more of the likes of ''non haec in foedera veni'', or my personal favourite from his judgment in Momcilovic v The Queen:

''The odour of human rights sanctity is sweet and addictive. It is a comforting drug stronger than poppy or mandragora or all the drowsy syrups of the world.''

Twitter: @JustinianNews

67 comments

  • I have been calling this waste, but that's only from a taxpayers perspective. From an LNP perspective this is clearly money well spent. Not only will it be an ongoing distraction from their day to day policy misfires and mistakes, their broken promises, outright lies and inability to manage the economy but it is clearly part of phase 1 of the implementation of Work Choices Mk II. And at only $100m of taxpayers money for a completely unproductive exercise, well, who are we to object?

    Commenter
    jofek
    Date and time
    February 14, 2014, 5:37AM
    • Morning jofek, couldn't you sleep after Australia ripped through the Saffers?
      Anyway, as a taxpayer, it is about time that unions were made more accountable and more transparent. This will be a win for Australia and the cost will seem cheap in the long run. Frankly, i am perplexed as to why unions aren't already subject to the same governance as corporations..............if only some self-regulation had been implemented by the unions, i doubt this Royal Commission would've been necessary but there seems to be a distinct lack of will from those who run the unions, to clean them up.

      Commenter
      liklik
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 8:26AM
    • Perhaps it's part of TA's job creation scheme - all those laid-off manufacturing workers are clearly meant to retrain as paralegals.

      Commenter
      MerriD
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 8:38AM
    • Predicting a huge rise in tattoo parlours removing Eureka Flag tattoos from big burly men arriving on Harleys.....

      Commenter
      Smack
      Location
      City of the Fallen
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 8:45AM
    • Yes, it's good to see Tony's got his priorities straight and isn't just spending his time and our money in office chasing old bug bears from his time trailing around after Bob Santamaria in the '70's. Someone should explain to Tony that, in the throes of a meaty game of chess, you're not supposed to wipe your own pawns off the board along with your opponent's. Apparently the working class are the enemy here in Australia, what with their completely unreasonable demands to be paid reasonably? God help us if they actually get paid enough to spend money on goods and services. We should get them all sacked by their unprofitable employers, put them on the dole, then force them off of the dole and into grossly underpaid work with no conditions. There was, after all, some truly fabulous stuff going on in Victorian England before Dickens ruined it for everyone.

      Commenter
      Mrs Kensington
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 8:45AM
    • It will be money well spent if the Royal Commission leads to the end of union participation in industry superannuation funds. Imagine those rivers of gold being opened to their rightful managers:l the rent-seekers and fee parasites of the financial industry and retail funds, and all in the name of reform, fairness, etc.

      Commenter
      Diana
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 9:06AM
    • The taxpayers don't pay a cent towards union activities so why would taxpayers care less?

      Commenter
      Noel
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 9:18AM
    • Mrs Kensington, there is no need to sack anyone when the businesses are closing up shop, and i imagine even less goods and services will be bought now, by those in the working class affected by this situation.

      Commenter
      liklik
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 9:19AM
    • Liklik, as a taxpayer it was about time the Government was made more accountable. We don't pay the wages of unions; we do pay for the Government.

      Listening to Abbott and co in Question Time yesterday showing contempt not just for legitimate questions but for the Australian public in the way they answered questions, it is clear that this Government believes it is above accountability. And this lawyer-fest is specifically designed to distract the public's attention from what matters, which is what this Government is doing.

      I have never seen a government so contemptuous of its responsibility to account to the public. Some people are cynical of the public's attention span, but my real world experience is that the mass of swinging voters are not as stupid and gullible as the government thinks.

      Commenter
      Whyalla Wipeout
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 10:28AM
    • liklik.....unions are not subject to the same regulations as corporations because they are not for profit.

      And there is no way the libs are going to change the regulations for governing not for profit, because that would also effect their employer unions.

      And we wouldn't want an investigation into dodgy dealings in employer unions would we?

      Commenter
      Miss Meek
      Date and time
      February 14, 2014, 11:04AM

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