Workplace Relations Minister Eric Abetz

Workplace Relations Minister Eric Abetz Photo: Andrew Meares

The war of words between the Coalition and unions over the government's royal commission into union governance and corruption continues as the inquiry begins on Wednesday.

Commissioner John Dyson Heydon, a former High Court judge, will deliver an opening statement on the “broad direction” of the inquiry at a preliminary hearing in Sydney. No witnesses will be called.

Leading politicians, union leaders and business people are expected to be called to testify at the royal commission, which the union movement has branded a “political witch hunt”.

The royal commission will probe the financial governance of unions, the use of union slush funds and the payment of bribes and secret commissions.

Before last year's federal election the Coalition promised a judicial inquiry into the 20-year-old corruption scandal at the AWU that involved former prime minister Julia Gillard doing legal work for her then boyfriend, AWU official Bruce Wilson. But the scope of the inquiry was widened into a royal commission after extensive reports in Fairfax Media and the ABC.

The Royal Commission will focus on five large unions:

  • the Australian Workers Union
  • the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union
  • the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union
  • the Health Services Union
  • the Transport Workers Union

Workplace Relations Minister Eric Abetz said on Wednesday  the number of revelations of union corruption showed it was "high time" for the inquiry.

Mr Abetz said the inquiry will “cut both ways” across the business community and union movement.

“It is quite clear that you can not have corrupt union officials without their being an employer willing to pay money or goods in kind to assist in that conduct."

But ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said the inquiry's terms of reference showed it was set up purely to investigate unions and not employers.

"We know the stories of employers involved in corrupt behaviour," Mr Oliver said.

"I don't hear calls for royal commissions into the business community."

with AAP

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