Taxpayer legal bill for AWU raids hits $800,000
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Taxpayer legal bill for AWU raids hits $800,000

Taxpayer-funded legal bills for the Australian Workers Union raids dispute have been tallied at more than $800,000, with more expenses to be incurred as the case continues.

The Registered Organisation Commission, which is defending the AWU challenge to raids on the union's offices by the Australian Federal Police in 2017, has racked up legal costs of almost $550,000, commissioner Mark Bielecki told a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday night.

It comes on top of the $288,000 legal bill incurred by Small Business Minister Michaelia Cash, who has defended the use of taxpayers’ money for her legal representation.

Michaelia Cash has told a Senate Estimates committee she had no prior knowledge of the AWU raids.

Michaelia Cash has told a Senate Estimates committee she had no prior knowledge of the AWU raids. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Senator Cash told an estimates hearing the same day that the expenditure had been approved by the Attorney-General and was consistent with previous ministerial spending - including when Labor was in government.

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"Joe Ludwig, in one financial year alone, cost the Commonwealth almost $800,000," she said, also naming Penny Wong, Wayne Swan, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard as among those who had "received assistance under the same rules that I was approved assistance for legal fees".

Senator Cash said "proper process" had been followed and pointed out that the AWU had brought the proceedings against the commission.

"If they had the documents and handed them over to the Registered Organisations Commission - or alternatively just produced, back in August of 2017, the relevant authorisations - none of these fees would have been incurred," she said.

Mr Bielecki told the estimates hearing that the commission had spent $507,582 on fees for its legal team made up of two barristers, two instructing solicitors and a paralegal, and had received $42,903 worth of invoices that were yet to be paid, with more to come.

He said the funds came from the commission's operating budget, which was now being tightly monitored after being hit with the unanticipated expense.

"The course of the trial is not something I can control ... If it takes more days, it will cost more."

The taxpayer-funded ROC had an annual budget of $7.7 million, meaning the court case was taking a significant portion of funds away from the regulator's activities, Mr Bielecki said.

Registered Organisations commissioner Mark Bielecki has refused to comment on the AWU case before estimates.

Registered Organisations commissioner Mark Bielecki has refused to comment on the AWU case before estimates.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Senator Doug Cameron, who used the estimates hearings to repeatedly accuse the commission and Senator Cash of perpetuating a "cover up", said Labor would abolish the ROC if it won the coming election and "save the public a lot of money".

He demanded to know what extra training the commission had given staff since the raids, after the Federal Court heard that the commission's media officer had allegedly passed on information about the police raids to Senator Cash's former chief of staff Ben Davies.

Mr Davies, who worked for the senator when she was employment minister, told the court on Monday that an unsolicited tip-off about union raids had "obvious political implications" for federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

The commission was investigating the union over allegations of document destruction linked to two donations made when Mr Shorten was the AWU national secretary.

Mr Bielecki and ROC executive director Chris Enright - who is due to give evidence in court next week - repeatedly refused to answer Senator Cameron's questions, invoking the public interest exemption.

"As the committee will be aware, there is a proceeding before the Federal Court," Mr Bielecki said.

"As the matter is part heard, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the matters before the courts."

The ROC is defending the AWU claim that its investigation into donations by the union was politically motivated and improper.

Senator Cameron called the ROC "an incompetent organisation", declaring: "The cover up is still on".

"You won't answer any questions, you've made no changes to processes or procedures after what is a disgraceful breach, you're made no changes to your education program ... What do you do?" he said.

Mr Bielecki hit back, saying the commission had a dedicated staff who did important work in educating unions and ensuring they complied with the law.

Senator Cash told an earlier estimates hearing on Wednesday that she had "no prior knowledge" of the police raids - despite her former media advisor having told the Federal Court last week that he heard about the raids from Cash's then chief of staff Ben Davies.

The senator said she would not give ongoing commentary on the case or respond to media reports, saying she would need to see a "certified transcript" of her former staffers' evidence under oath.

Senator Cameron blasted Senator Cash, demanding that she "come clean" and "correct the record".

Asked about AFP evidence to estimates that she and former justice minister Michael Keenan had refused to give witness statements, Senator Cash insisted she had co-operated by sending police a letter in which she referred them to the Hansard containing her responses to estimates.

She said the federal police had never followed up or indicated they needed any more information.

Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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