Illustration: Joe Benke

Illustration: Joe Benke.

One thing is certain: there is a group of hard-as-nails workers who are privately applauding Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision to hold a royal commission into union corruption.

And they would be the brave folk who six days a week rise before dawn to take to the dangerous seas off Apollo Bay in search of the great southern rock lobster.

For there is nothing more certain than with a benchful of barristers about to charge around $4000 a day to rock up to the commission, lobster is back on the menu at the legal end of town.

Indeed the newly appointed commissioner, former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, should give serious thought to holding hearings in the private room at the Flower Drum so the lobster with XO sauce can be served straight from the shell as soon as the grilling turns from union bosses to sea creatures.

Mr Abbott says he hopes the commission will be in a position to report by the end of the year. This either indicates a delightful sense of optimism or a disturbingly delayed brain concussion from his Oxford boxing days.

The truth is a royal commission, like a bad wedding speech, goes three times as long as it should and leaves those present with a desire to run screaming into the night.

Now let us just think this through for a tick. The commission, which hasn't received its terms of reference, will need offices, phones, computers, clerical staff, lawyers, analysts, intelligence from existing law enforcement holdings, witnesses, hearing rooms, a bar for Friday night drinks, a song list for karaoke nights, and office stubby holders before it gets out of first gear.

This is a specialist area and initially many of the staff will have no experience in organised crime investigations. Indeed, they may start with the belief the Kray brothers ran a seafood shop at the Victoria Market.

This inquiry, Mr Abbott tells us, ''is designed to shine a great, big spotlight into the dark corners of our community to ensure that honest workers and honest businesses get a fair go''.

That is a brief as wide as a blue whale's gob. It will begin looking at the activities of five controversial unions, the Australian Workers, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy, Electrical Trades, Health Services and Transport Workers.

It will canvass everything from kickbacks, secret commissions, theft and intimidation to the use of bikies and other gangsters as industrial muscle. An obvious example would be the payments of bribes to win lucrative road construction contracts (a case, dare we say, of slings and roundabouts).

It is a fair bet that Mr Abbott is motivated by a desire to clean up endemic corruption. It is also a fair bet he would not be unhappy if the ALP were linked to the type of union official who believes the distribution of wealth should first be channelled through their bank accounts.

Yet it is a gamble, for as Employment Minister Eric Abetz (who could double as the race caller at the Sandown greyhounds) says, employers who engage in corrupt practices will also be investigated. ''This is a sword that will cut both ways,'' he declares.

Those with long memories will recall that in 1980 then prime minister Malcolm Fraser announced a royal commission into the illegal activities of the notorious Painters and Dockers union, which included murders, kickbacks, ghosted wages and bribes.

Just like the latest inquiry, it was a political response to a series of media revelations and just like the latest inquiry it was supposed to be short, sharp and damaging to the labour movement.

But the commissioner, Frank Costigan, QC, had other ideas. Soon he found the Painters and Dockers were used by baddies at the big end of town as part of the massive ''Bottom of the Harbour'' tax frauds.

The commission lasted four years and was wound up under the Hawke government with work still unfinished.

At the same time there was another royal commission headed by justice Don Stewart into the Mr Asia drug syndicate and the notorious Nugan Hand merchant bank.

Eventually, the work of both inquiries was rolled into a newly formed National Crime Authority, touted as a standing crimes commission.

The plan was to avoid setting up ad-hoc royal commissions into crime and corruption (at least nine in 14 years) by establishing one body with similar powers to shine that spotlight in those dark corners.

The NCA lasted 19 years before it was replaced by the new and supposedly improved Australian Crime Commission, which was to investigate, monitor, prosecute and expose organised crime.

Traditionally, a royal commission can subpoena witnesses, take sworn testimony and demand answers. The disadvantage is while witnesses can be forced to incriminate themselves, the testimony can't be used to prosecute them.

The ACC has the power to compel witnesses to testify and while self-incriminating evidence can't be used in court against them, it can point investigators in the right direction.

The ACC's role is to reduce the ''serious and organised crime threats of most harm to Australians and the national interest'', and to ''disrupt, disable and dismantle criminal enterprises through enforcement, regulation, policy and legislation''.

Such as, you would think, the dual threat of organised crime infiltration of unions and entrenched corruption linked to construction contracts.

Now the cost of the new royal commission (*LNI - Lobsters Not Included) is anyone's guess. The last one (the 2001-03 royal commission into the building industry headed by Terry Cole, QC) is said to have cost around $100 million.

Let's say the new one comes in at half that - a lazy $50 million. Well, the ACC has a budget of around $93 million so you would think that if the government had funnelled some of the money needed for the royal commission to the existing agency, it could have taken on the investigation without having to start from scratch.

After all, they have the computers, the staff, the intelligence holdings and the existing links to all law enforcement agencies. They also have their own stubby holders.

In fact, the ACC and police should have been investigating this area constantly as labour racketeering is just another arm of organised crime, along with drug trafficking, weapons movement, murder, film piracy and cyber crime.

So we are left with three possibilities:

1. The Australian Crime Commission doesn't believe union corruption is as big as we are being told.

2. The ACC, along with state and federal police, have stuffed up big time.

3. Or the ACC is so chronically under-funded that it couldn't find a gangster wearing a hard hat and a fluoro vest if he stood outside the office with a stop sign and a pirated series of Breaking Bad.

It would be no surprise if Melbourne mediator Mick Gatto was called to the new inquiry as Gatto is to royal commissions what Marina Prior is to Carols by Candlelight. The show seemingly can't go on without them.

One of the challenges for the royal commission will be to discover work practices, traditional habits and infiltration methods used to build an environment that cultivates corruption.

Surely a qualified work-practice academic armed with a fawn corduroy jacket and a second-hand Citroen could point out the blinding obvious - that any company that offers a bribe should be banned from tendering for government projects, any union official convicted of taking or soliciting money banned from office and debt collectors need to be registered to curtail bikie influence in the trade.

Royal commissions can shine a light in dark places, but often the problem re-emerges depressingly quickly. A few years after the Costigan commission, organised crime was back strong as ever in the docklands. Corruption thrived because it was seen as part of the landscape. Thefts, frauds, kickbacks were accepted and drug syndicates corrupted officials and workers to tip them off on police investigations.

Then in 2012 the Trident taskforce, made up of investigators from Victoria Police, Australian Federal Police, Customs, the Australian Tax Office, Australian Crime Commission and money-laundering experts from Austrac, was set up.

It was as much about changing the thinking on the wharves as locking up crooks. Bosses who previously didn't want industrial unrest and workers who had been taught to look the other way were persuaded to help, not for the greater good but because it made business sense.

For the truth is corruption costs jobs and strips profit.

''We are getting the industry on board to be our eyes and ears,'' says the head of Trident, Victorian Detective Inspector Tony Silver.

And it requires not a short royal commission but a long-term commitment to make real change. ''We are here to clean up the industry. This will be a permanent and enduring taskforce and we are determined to clean out the crooks,'' claims AFP Detective Superintendent Des Appleby.

Politicians from both sides put on their Eliot Ness faces when demanding zero tolerance on industrial corruption and union double-dealing.

The single biggest case of cheating in Australia was the Visy $700 million price-fixing scandal. After an exhaustive investigation, chairman Richard Pratt and the company he built were fined $36 million. The billionaire philanthropist was also dogged by claims he used bikies to intimidate workers in union disputes and paid bribes to win lucrative contracts.

When Mr Pratt died in 2009, politicians gave him a state funeral.