Federal Politics

License article

Union watchdog charges taxpayers $500k to fight claims of political interference

Show comments

The Turnbull government's union watchdog is charging taxpayers nearly half a million dollars to defend itself against claims its controversial raids on the Australian Workers Union were politically motivated.

The Registered Organisations Commission is paying multinational law firm Ashurst Australia at least $463,089 to defend it in the ongoing Federal Court case launched by the AWU, government tender documents show.

Up Next

ASEAN summit protests: 'Shame on Aung San Suu Kyi'

Video duration

More National News Videos

PM defends his Minister

Malcolm Turnbull is standing by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash over accusations she misled a Senate committee.

The commission originally estimated the case would cost it $240,000, according to contract notices on the Austender website. However the size of the contract almost doubled in January, with the commission blaming the blowout on "the scope of the legal proceedings and how they have advanced".

"The Registered Organisations Commission procured the contract initially anticipating that proceedings would be concluded in December 2017," a spokesman said. "The AWU has sought and obtained adjournments and the hearing is presently listed to take place at the end of this month."

The AWU is seeking to quash the commission's investigation into donations it made to the activist group GetUp! in 2006 - when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was the union's boss - amid claims it did not follow proper procedures.

The union is seeking to prove there was an "improper political purpose" behind the investigation.


Jobs Minister Michaelia Cash referred the allegations to the Registered Organisations Commission after a media report about the Labor leader's role. The commission subsequently obtained search warrants for raids on AWU offices in Sydney and Melbourne in October last year.

However the Australian Federal Police raids backfired spectacularly for Senator Cash after it emerged that one of her staffers - media adviser David de Garis - tipped off the media that they were about to occur.

He quit his job but did not publicly disclose who leaked the information to him, saying only it was a "media source". The AFP subsequently launched an investigation into the source of the leak, which still has not concluded.

The AWU's case is due to go to trial on March 28.

However it could be delayed - raising the prospect of further cost blowouts for taxpayers - while the AFP investigation continues. The AFP has agreed not to hand over any of the AWU documents it seized until the Federal Court case concludes.

The union wants the court to declare that the commission's investigation and search warrants were invalid. If the court rules in the union's favour it will be another embarrassing blow for Senator Cash and badly damage the commission's credibility.

Labor's workplace spokesman, Brendan O'Connor, said the government "must be transparent about how much taxpayer money has been spent on legal costs defending their botched handling of this entire matter".

Fairfax Media revealed this week that another key official connected to the leak controversy, Mark Lee, had quit his job. As media director for the Fair Work Ombudsman, Mr Lee knew before the raids that search warrants had been sought. He had close connections to Senator Cash's office but has denied being the source of the leak.

Taxpayers were also slugged $418,000 to fund the legal fees of former building industry watchdog Nigel Hadgkiss.

Mr Hadgkiss resigned as boss of the government's Australian Building and Construction Commission last year after the Federal Court found he had breached the Fair Work Act he was supposed to administer.

The cost of his legal representation was originally estimated to be less than $50,000 but it rapidly ballooned to nearly half a million.