Prime Minister Tony Abbott is widening the scope of the inquiry  promised before the election,  to a royal commission taking in union slush funds in general.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is widening the scope of the inquiry promised before the election, to a royal commission taking in union slush funds in general. Photo: Andrew Meares

The Abbott government will launch a royal commission into union ‘‘slush funds’’ in the coming months in a move that will place heavy scrutiny on union officials and senior Labor politicians.

The royal commission comes less than a fortnight after a Fairfax Media investigation uncovered millions of dollars in a string of secret union slush funds.

The series of Fairfax reports revealed the involvement of the NSW Right’s powerful Transport Workers Union in a $500,000 takeover of its own Queensland branch with the backing of the disgraced former HSU leader Michael Williamson.

It also reported the possible unlawful misuse of union and parliamentary staff by senior union officials and Labor figures. 

Staff from the TWU’s national and NSW offices were sent to Brisbane and for weeks were paid to oversee an elaborate campaign including use of call centres, focus groups, bulk SMS messaging, and repeated mail-outs to members.

The Fair Work Commission has started making initial inquiries into the allegations. Before the 2013 election, the Coalition had promised a judicial inquiry into an early-1990s slush fund, the AWU Workplace Reform Association.

That fund involved then union official Bruce Wilson, the former boyfriend of Julia Gillard.

The former prime minister provided legal advice to Mr Wilson in setting up the association.

She has vigorously denied wrongdoing or any knowledge of the fund’s operations. But now the Abbott government is to dramatically widen the scope of that inquiry to a royal commission. 

Attorney-General George Brandis confirmed it was ‘‘considering the scope and terms of reference’’ of its inquiry. 

Full details are yet to be released.

Last week, Employment Minister Eric Abetz said, in response to the Fairfax reports, that there was an ‘‘endemic culture of illegality and funny money’’ in the union movement.

Senator Abetz, speaking in Parliament, said workers were being ripped off by factional games in Labor.

‘‘Those [Fairfax] revelations told us about hundreds of thousands of dollars being used to fight, not for trade union members, but union leaders and their fiefdoms and ALP endorsements,’’ Senator Abetz said.

‘‘n relation to the Transport Workers Union slush fund, that’s not just a Christmas social club, that is a huge amount of money. It is serious money with serious consequences. Money held in secret funds, in buckets and in brown paper bags.

’’Senior union leaders attacked the prospect of a royal commission as a ‘‘union-bashing exercise’’ and an attempt by the government to distract attention from the closure of Holden’s manufacturing business.