Power is the reason for this fight
Ian Widdup is dying - he has advanced leukaemia - and for some people he cannot die soon enough. The NSW government, the construction group Multiplex, and the building union the CFMEU, would all be better off if Widdup expired tomorrow.
Widdup used to be a director of Multiplex, but he has been in the NSW Supreme Court giving evidence that Multiplex had paid him $750,000 in hush money in 2001 to bury an alleged conspiracy between the company and the CFMEU. The union allegedly wanted to ruin an independent small company that had defied its demands.
The evidence from Widdup included lurid details such as making monthly pay-offs to a named union official, giving him brown paper bags stuffed with $10,000. The bribes, he claimed, were from Multiplex to the CFMEU to buy industrial peace, and the money was laundered via a bottle shop in St Ives.
It's good noir drama, especially as one of the defendants named in Widdup's lawsuit is the former state secretary of the CFMEU, Andrew Ferguson, now a candidate for the NSW Legislative Assembly. (Ferguson hopes to become the fourth Labor MP in his family, after his late father, Jack, and brothers Laurie and Martin, who are both in federal parliament.)
Widdup's claims have been dismissed as ''unbelievable'' by the defence counsel.
This case will be determined by the quality of the evidence matched against the credibility of the principal witness. My understanding is that the paper trail in this case is significant.
The context of this case is the much larger and more insidious issue of hidden union power in NSW, which brings us to the recent actions of Premier Kristina Keneally. She is now in open conflict with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and other state Labor governments, over the implementation of a uniform national code of workplace safety rules. This may sound dull, but the reasons for this brawl are anything but dull.
Yesterday the Premier received support from Paul Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union, who wrote in a Sunday paper: ''In NSW we are fortunate to have the strongest occupational health and safety laws in the nation. That's why I was pleased to see Premier Kristina Keneally say last week that she will defend those laws tooth and nail, to ensure that NSW workers are not left worse off in the move to a harmonised national health and safety framework . . . NSW should be proud of the stance Premier Keneally has taken. She has stood up to the big end of town and to her own party . . .''
What sanctimonious claptrap. Keneally and Howe have a genuine commitment to worker safety but so do most people, including Gillard. What this fight is really about is power.
Why does NSW Labor want to defy a federal Labor government over this issue? If you listen to the independent contractors, such as the one that Multiplex and the CFMEU allegedly tried to destroy, you hear a very different reason for this inter-Labor brawl.
Ken Phillips, the executive director of the Independent Contractors of Australia, the industry group for self-employed small-business operators, says: ''The industrial relations laws and institutions in NSW are unique, and they stand above and beyond the normal rules of law operating elsewhere in NSW and in the rest of Australia. In effect, there are two separate and competing legal streams in NSW.
''The first stream is the normal and familiar rule of law. There is a presumption of innocence, trial by jury, full rights to appeal and commercial processes controlled through the law of contract. These are conducted through the magistrates and supreme courts.
''The second stream is the strange and unfamiliar one that exists within the NSW industrial relations laws. In this realm, the 'employer' is presumed guilty . . . Full appeal rights to the normal stream of the law are prohibited. Trial before jury is prohibited. The authority of commercial contract law is overridden . . .'' This, he says, ''is the starting point for the corruption and maladministration problem we have seen in NSW. There is a link between the industrial relations system and laws in NSW and systemic corruption and maladministration.''
The status quo in NSW over occupational health and safety laws delivers extraordinary prosecutorial powers to unions. Decisions of the NSW Industrial Relations Court cannot be appealed to either the Supreme Court of NSW or the High Court of Australia.
The Industrial Relations Court has powers over criminal matters in the occupational safety area. NSW unions have almost unrestrained power to search and seize documents. They can instigate prosecutions, and then receive a percentage of fines imposed. Their power in this area exceeds that of the police.
The actions of the Keneally government in fighting a rearguard action against the Gillard reforms, together with the accusations being aired in the case against Multiplex and the CFMEU, are two very different strands of the same overall problem: the pervasive self-interest and parasitism of the NSW Labor-union patronage machine.
The Keneally government wants two big concessions from Canberra. It wants unions to retain the power to initiate prosecutions over work safety issues. And it wants the burden of proof to rest on the defendant, not the plaintiff.
Keneally has started this fight to protect the one power base she has left, the unions, and the protection of a power that has been routinely abused to intimidate businesses large and small, in the name of ''safety''. With little more than four months before the state election, she is spitting into the wind, and the wind is a hurricane.
Correction: "Power is the reason for this fight", should have said former Multiplex director Ian Widdup is a witness in proceedings in the NSW Supreme Court."