Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has promised to shine a ''great big spotlight'' on union corruption and accused Opposition Leader Bill Shorten of protecting his allies in the trade union movement, rather than taking the side of honest workers.
Federal cabinet is expected on Monday to rubber-stamp the terms of reference for a wide-ranging royal commission into union slush funds, malfeasance and the behaviour of corrupt officials.
The move comes as Federal Parliament on Tuesday sits for the first time in 2014 and as the government steps up public pressure on Labor and the Greens to pass laws in the Senate to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission.
On Sunday, Mr Shorten and Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney attacked the imminent royal commission as a witch-hunt and a political stunt and called for police agencies to take the lead in investigating allegations of corruption and malfeasance in the construction union, first revealed by Fairfax Media two weeks ago.
On Sunday Mr Abbott said the Coalition had moved to broaden the inquiry beyond its pre-election commitment for a judicial inquiry into the Australian Workers Union slush fund scandal because ‘‘since then there have been very credible allegations, including from senior officials in the union movement, of widespread corruption, standover tactics, even organised crime penetration’’.
''We are on the side of the honest worker, we are on the side of the honest unionist, the question is whose side is Bill Shorten on?'' he said.
''Bill Shorten is a former union official himself and, as things stand, it looks like Bill Shorten wants to run a protection racket for a protection racket.
''Sometimes you need to shine a big spotlight, a great big spotlight, into the dark corners of our national life.
''It is only then . . . that we can see the law-enforcement agencies doing their job properly.''
It's understood the royal commission will be led by former High Court judge John Dyson Heydon.
The expected cost of the inquiry has not been finalised. It will examine the allegations against the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Health Services Union scandal linked to former Labor MP Craig Thomson and former ALP president Michael Williamson, and the AWU slush fund affair from the 1990s but will have the freedom to range beyond.
The CFMEU released a statement on Monday saying the royal commission was ''a political stunt''.
National construction secretary Dave Oliver said Mr Abbott could not ''come clean about his real plans for workers before the election''.
On Sunday, Mr Shorten proposed a taskforce led by the Australian Federal Police and including state police forces to investigate the corruption allegations.
He said his party had no tolerance for bribery, extortion or criminal behaviour.
''No one is welcome in the labour movement if they are engaging in any form of criminal behaviour,'' he said.
''Labor is asking the government to set up a police-led taskforce to deal with these issues. We believe a $100-million-plus royal commission is a political stunt that doesn’t do anything to assist with law and order. This is a job for police, not politicians.
''This nation does not have time to waste, or taxpayer dollars to waste, with the government pursuing political stunts, when in fact we’ve got police forces, the Australian Crime Commission, who already have those powers.''
Ms Kearney said a royal commission suited the government’s political purposes and Australians would be cynical about the move.
With Josh Gordon