Oppositions have a standard tool in their kitbag: it’s the call for an inquiry. Any sniff of scandal triggers a demand for a judicial investigation, or even the full monty, a royal commission. It sounds serious, and is less politically risky than calling for resignations.
So there was no surprise when, in the last days of the parliamentary sitting, Tony Abbott said the government should set up an inquiry into that old smelly AWU affair. He even produced terms of reference.
But then the Opposition Leader went a whole lot further, promising that if the Coalition wins next year’s election, he will order an inquiry. The Coalition feels that if its urging the government to act is to have credibility it has to promise to walk its own talk.
This is ill-judged. It is not the best use of taxpayers’ money to probe these matters of the early 1990s in what would be seen as a political pursuit. The alleged theft of large sums is a matter for the police.
The opposition says such an inquiry would not just be into what Julia Gillard did or did not know and do, but clearly that would be a part of it. It would be questionable and rather bizarre for a subsequent government to use public funds to investigate how a former prime minister behaved well before she even entered Parliament.
(It is certainly not a precise parallel, and there were much bigger issues at stake, but it is instructive to recall the attitude then PM Malcolm Fraser took in relation to a case against Gough Whitlam and three of his former ministers in the wake of the Labor government’s loans scandal, which involved cutting corners and a dodgy international financier. The action was brought by a solicitor, Danny Sankey; the defendants were accused of breaking the Crimes Act. Fraser would not have a bar of encouraging the case. Cabinet wanted attorney-general Bob Ellicott to take over and terminate the proceedings; Ellicott insisted the facts should be ascertained. Fraser prevailed but Ellicott resigned as AG.)
While Abbott is not committed to anything other than the AWU inquiry, some Liberals, including former workplace relations minister Peter Reith and a parliamentary secretary, Jamie Briggs, are urging that a Coalition government should set up a much broader inquiry into union behaviour and governance.
At least a stronger argument could be made out for this than for the Abbott plan. The appalling saga of the Health Services Union dramatically focused attention on corruption. There have been some other allegations of rorting. Union members have the right to know that their money is protected.
Liberal advocates say such an inquiry should also look at industry superannuation funds, which Abbott has described as ‘‘too often ... gravy trains for unions officials with no corporate governance experience’’.
Abbott has put forward a private member’s bill – which would be his policy in government – to subject officers in unions and other registered organisations (which include some employer bodies) to fines of up to $220,000 and/or five years’ jail if they are found guilty of using their position dishonestly and recklessly for personal advantage. The aim is to align the law with that for companies.
Reacting to the HSU scandal, the government has already this year brought in a new civil law for greater transparency. But the opposition says it is not tough enough (its penalties are $33,000 for an organisation and $6600 for an individual). One provision (not yet operating) is for the disclosure of officers’ remuneration as well as their pecuniary and financial interests, which presumably would pick up the ‘‘gravy’’.
Even some employer sources argue there is a case for seeing how the Labor legislation works before imposing a new set of rules.
If those who want a broad investigation into the unions were to prevail, it surely would need to come before the Coalition’s proposed governance legislation was passed.
But would the inquiry be such a good idea? The HSU has already been extensively investigated. Proceedings are under way against suspended Labor MP Craig Thomson; on Friday subpoenas were served, including on brothels and escort agencies. Charges have been laid against another former official, Michael Williamson. The AWU affair has been well aired. The other evidence of bad or corrupt practice is limited.
An inquiry would surely have to cover all registered organisations, not just unions, and that could stir some friction with employer groups. The unions would see it as a witch-hunt, and go even harder against Abbott.
Abbott would need – because he would be questioned – to be upfront before the election about plans for a general inquiry, which would just fuel Labor’s scare campaign. No wonder he is not rushing to include it in his workplace relations policy.
But if he doesn’t have an inquiry into union behaviour, what about looking at the general operation of the industrial relations system (well beyond Labor’s recent once over lightly)? Abbott, again with an eye to countering scares, has said that the opposition will propose its specific changes within the framework of Labor’s Fair Work legislation. At some point in a Coalition government, however, there would be pressure for a broad review. Will Abbott rule out undertaking that any time in his first term, even though there could be a case for it?
It would be a triumph of politics over policy if he was willing to embrace the AWU-scandal inquiry for the sake of elevating the issue while eschewing a thorough examination of how the IR system is working.