Union stoush fallout to hit both parties

Tip-offs are the bread and butter of journalism.


The usual suspects are police, making sure that crims are not only arrested but publicly humiliated.

It’s arguable that it serves a higher purpose – justice should not only be done, but seen to be done.

TV news viewers get to watch as the door is broken down, the drugs, guns and money seized, and the sheepish crooks are dragged out in handcuffs.

But the downside is having a media pack camped outside your house or office smacks of a witch-hunt.

This brings us to the events of this week, when the Sydney and Melbourne offices of the Australian Workers Union were raided in front of the cameras.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash’s senior media adviser David de Garis took the fall on Wednesday for tipping off a number of journalists, but there is no doubt he wasn’t the only source.

The problem for Cash is she repeatedly denied her office had any involvement.

Labor says the minister should be sacked for misleading a Senate committee looking at the AWU issue, while independent Nick Xenophon says there needs to be an inquiry.

The raids were already going to be controversial, even without a scandal over the tip-off.

Bill Shorten opened question time on Wednesday by asking the prime minister about the AFP operation.

The Labor leader wanted to know how federal police could be concerned about a shortage of resources to investigate things such as drug smuggling, while at least 25 AFP officers were made available to search union offices looking for information on a decade-old donation to the activist group GetUp!

Malcolm Turnbull accused Shorten of questioning the integrity of police, and not wanting breaches of union rules during his time as AWU boss to be properly investigated.

“The question for the leader of the opposition is not just why the AWU gave $100,000 to an organisation whose principal objective seems to be shutting down industries in which members of the AWU work, but also why he has not apologised for … the outrageous attacks on the independence and the integrity of the men and women that keep us safe,” he said.

The parliamentary exchange set the scene for days of intrigue, claim and counter-claim.

And it’s likely both sides of politics will take a hit.

Shorten already has a problem with voters consistently rating him significantly lower as preferred prime minister than Turnbull.

When compared with Turnbull, polls taken this year have shown he is considered less honest and trustworthy.

Turnbull has used question time and media conferences to reinforce this message, pointing to Shorten’s union past and predilection for knifing sitting Labor prime ministers.

Having the Registered Organisations Commission sniff around old donations by the AWU can only help the government, whatever comes of the investigation.

On the other side, there is no guarantee minister Cash will survive the scandal.

Labor plays hardball when it comes to ministers passing the buck.

Both Turnbull and Tony Abbott before him have held on to scandal-hit Liberals for too long, as the public mood turns from tut-tut to lynch mob.

It is understood the prime minister is, in any case, in a mood to reshuffle his cabinet later this year or early in the new year.

Labor already had a strong case against the establishment of the ROC, which Turnbull considered so important he took it to a double-dissolution election.

The commission effectively lays out a complex web of trip-wires and booby-traps for unions, penalising them for everything from errors in membership figures to breaches of internal rules.

ROC executive manager Chris Enright told a Senate committee on Wednesday breaches such as inflated membership numbers allowed union bosses to “shore up their leadership” and get more delegates on the floor of party conferences than they were entitled to.

Labor wonders whether $19.5 million could be better spent.

Turnbull and Cash argue it is an important part of accountability, especially as unions are a $1.5 billion-a-year business, and many of their members are some of the lowest-paid workers in the nation and want their membership fees used wisely.

The scene is set for a messy end to the political year.