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Commissioner Terence Cole at the

Abbott’s Royal Commission lets dodgy bosses off the hook


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By Jim Marr

Monday, 07 April 2014

TONY Abbott’s new Royal Commission into unions is following a script that will be very familiar to anyone who paid attention to the Cole Royal Commission a dozen years ago. And once again, it looks like dodgy employers will be let off the hook, writes JIM MARR, author of First The Verdict.

SUSPECT employers who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Liberal Party coffers won’t be called to account by Tony Abbott’s corruption Royal Commission.

The Prime Minister’s terms of reference, released in February, make it clear that Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon will not be asked to examine businesses that have left workers and small businesses high and dry after tipping six figure sums into Liberal Party accounts.

This will be a relief to operators of Queensland-based Walton Construction who paid $430,000, as “rent”, to an LNP-linked trust before leaving sub-contractors millions of dollars out of pocket when it collapsed, last year.

And to those behind Steve Nolan Constructions which, Australian Electoral Commission records show, tipped at least $200,000 into NSW and federal LNP accounts in the two years before it went belly-up, owing workers and contractors more than $30 million.

As Abbott announced his latest taxpayer-funded Royal Commission, hundreds of former Steve Nolan employees picketed two Sydney sites in a bid to retrieve some of their money.

Other employers Abbott appears to have deliberately written out of his Royal Commission script include Leighton Holdings, mired in allegations of bribery and corruption on a grand scale, and Australian Water Holdings (AWH) the outfit accused of fleecing a publicly-owned utility while delivering hundreds of thousands of dollars into Liberal Party accounts.

AWH, of course, was also the company that paid Cabinet Minister and leading Liberal Party fundraiser Arthur Sinodinis a cool $200,000 for less than 50 hours’ work.

Terms of reference explicitly target unions

In an interview with ABC Radio, Abbott insisted the Royal Commission, that opens in Sydney this week, would be a fair dinkum investigation of organisational corruption and that unions would not be unfairly targeted.

“This isn’t declaring war on anyone, it’s declaring war on wrongdoing,” the Prime Minister said. “It’s declaring that there are certain standards in our society and whether you’re a company official or a union official, you’ve got to obey the law.”

Speaking the same day, Attorney General George Brandis said any suggestion of corruption in the business community would be investigated by the royal commission.

These claims are hard to square with the fact that the government has named the inquiry the Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption and Governance, and written terms of reference that order the investigation of five specific entities – The Australian Workers’ Union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union, the Transport Workers’ Union and the Health Services Union.

There is simply no mention of businesses alleged to have gouged taxpayers or ripped off workers while topping up Liberal Party funds.

That Abbott’s Royal Commission will not shine light into those dark corners is unsurprising because the Prime Minister has form. His Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry was a cynical political exercise.

Royal Commissions, by their nature, can be dodgy beasts.They carry all the trappings of the law but are not of the legal system. Spawned by the executive, their lasting attraction to politicians is that they get to write terms of reference that will determine the outcomes.

Australian Royal Commissions, in particular, are controversial because they have the power to trample basic legal protections and procedures. Hearsay, rumour and third party opinions are allowed and, often, relied on to shred reputations.

Counsel Assisting who lead all the evidence, are not bound by courtroom rules designed to ensure fair and balanced presentation.

The Cole Royal Commission took all these opportunities, and a few more, to deliver Abbott the political fix he wanted.

In 2002, the then-Workplace Relations Minister had a political problem. Construction unions were leading resistance to his government’s centrepiece Workplace Relations Act, largely through a successful pattern bargaining campaign.

The Cole Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry was a cynical political exercise.

Abbott was a vehement opponent of pattern bargaining which is based on the concept that people doing the same work, in the same industry, should get, basically, the same wages.

His difficulty was that pattern bargaining was perfectly legal.

Abbott jumped on allegations of bribery and corruption to order a report from his Employment Advocate, Jonathan Hamberger, who delivered 11 pages, light on fact and heavy on rumour. Hamberger garnished those ingredients by warning he could not support his findings with hard evidence.

But that note of caution was never going to deter Abbott from launching the most expensive Royal Commission in Australian history.

He assured voters his Cole Royal Commission would be an even-handed investigation of bribery, corruption and standover tactics across a blighted industry.

His commission employed 135 fulltime staff, many from the National Crime Authority and the Australian Federal Police. They served sweeping discovery orders, bugged phones and forced banks to hand over client records.

By the time the Sydney hearings opened on June 3, 2002, investigators had gathered 110 witness statements from across NSW.

A handful offered general overviews. All the rest alleged illegal or inappropriate dealings by trade unionists.

Commission investigators and highly-paid Counsel Assisting did not tender a single witness statement alleging wrongdoing by any employer in NSW, except where they claimed a business had been too co-operative with a union.

Based on this, Cole made 392 findings of unlawful conduct, more than 360 of them against union members. The first three, from his NSW hearings, set the tone.

Unlawful findings one and two, held that CFMEU organisers had failed to notify the occupier of a premise of their presence “as soon as was reasonably practicable”.

Cole’s third unlawful finding was that a CFMEU official had stopped work on a building site and held discussions “during work hours outside of meal-time, or other break times”.

These findings had absolutely nothing to do with the allegations of hard core criminality Abbott had used as the pretext for his Royal Commission.

Nor did they reflect untested “evidence” that had seen newspapers and electronic media full of unsubstantiated anti-union allegations, largely from self-confessed rorters, for 10 solid months.

$60 million later, not a single criminal charge

All Abbot’s men, the coercive powers and $60 million taxpayer dollars he had given them, couldn’t uncover enough evidence to sustain a single criminal charge against any Australian trade unionist.

Instead, Cole called for “structural reform” recommending, as his first priority, that “pattern bargaining in this industry should be prohibited by statute”.

He went on to make 212 recommendations designed to strip building workers of a say in  their industry.

As the result of Cole’s findings, the federal government outlawed pattern bargaining, severely restricted the ability of workers to campaign around wages and safety, and established a Building Industry Taskforce with the power to force union members to answer questions on pain of prison.

Fast forward to 2014 and the same Tony Abbott is a Prime Minister with a political problem.

He has promised voters WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated” but key colleagues, and backers with deep pockets, want significant elements of the policy resurrected.

Instead of making a call, Abbott has flicked the technical fix off to a Productivity Commission his government has already started to stack with former political staffers.

As to a political fix? Well, a long-running inquiry that might weaken trade unions and dirty-up political opponents would just about be the dog’s bollocks.

Part two: We pull back the curtains on the show trials at the heart of Tony Abbott’s first Royal Commission.

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


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We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. F Hunt
    Monday, 7 April, 2014 at 1:46 pm · Reply

    We urgently need a Royal Commision into the corrupt connections and fraudulent dealings existing between the Union for Big business and the Liberal/Country Party .. This is a continuing saga and is inflicted on every Australian consumer on a daily basis..!!

  2. Paul
    Monday, 7 April, 2014 at 8:04 pm · Reply

    being a AWU member in Newman’s Nazi controlled Queensland, was flabbergasted by Newman’s huge pay rise at a time when he is calling for a cut to penalty rates for lower paid workers. He and Big business just want to screw over the little guy , so as to pocket more money .
    Another thing that gets up my nose is the Dreaded Double dipping. Ex Politicians getting cushy jobs in the Foreign service while already getting a handsome for life pension.
    Oh and one more ; what is the position description for a politician ? Can someone tell me if they are on a committee, why they should they be entitled to be paid extra, surely this is part of what we are paying them to do !!!!

  3. George Naumovski
    Friday, 11 April, 2014 at 11:22 am · Reply

    This Royal Commission is all about blaming Labor, the unions and workers. It is about brainwashing people on how bad the majority is and how good the “minority” employers/businesses are, that employers do no wrong and it’s all the workers and unions fault.

  4. w.j. Schoondergang
    Friday, 11 April, 2014 at 11:23 am · Reply

    It is in wonderment that non of these allegations are not rehassed or brought to light once labor comes onto power .This is why the rank and file becomes cynical at the Labor government once it comes into power again and does not address these concerns but pushes them in the back ground
    Where is the right to strike for better wage and conditions if not we are no better then slaves , at least they were fed cloth and housed more we can say for our homeless and extreme poor.

  5. Margarette LAING
    Friday, 11 April, 2014 at 11:50 am · Reply

    What can we do about it? Need to do something…..need a strong discussion about tactics to present this point of view, never hear much about this other side in the media. . It’s all part of Tony Abbot and Co’s strategy for BACK DOOR WORK CHOICES.

    • Dave K.
      Friday, 11 April, 2014 at 5:20 pm · Reply

      Hear Hear,
      I couldn’t agree more.
      After being in the march in march, which was no confidence in the rabbott and his cronies in the coal-a-lick-tion, another march should be imminent in the next few months, just keep an eye on social media, definitely not the murdoch crap sheets and associated tv/radio stations, who will keep the public in the dark.
      Get-up/Avaaz/sum of us/environmental groups will all have a say, especially in the area of workers rights and conditions.
      This is very appropriate as the Trans paciifc partnership, with ISDS clauses(the actu has an article on these…..TPP), that will enable large corporations, to sue, and help strip all conditions, from workers, environmental regs/legslation if we hurt their poor profits.
      We do have a labor day march in a few weeks, I will definitely put up some interesting signs.
      But in a much larger march to come, like the march in march, that isn’t unions or political parties, but the people, so the government can’t say that we are just “rent a crowd” for labor/unions.
      So, there are many things planned, in the process, do fight all of this.
      I would not be surprised if rabbott will try and bring in “laws to ban groupings/protests like was done in victoria, and similiar acts, in QLD. Wait and see how the vlad laws act on people going to protest at the G20 -1 =19 with that psychotic dictator putin, on the nose at the moment.
      So there are things we are doing, just spread the news, and tell non-union members if they like their holidays/wh & s laws/conditions/weekends, where these came from…..unions/collectives!

  6. RGG
    Friday, 11 April, 2014 at 2:09 pm · Reply

    The royal commission intigated by Abbott is a witch hunt. Only dodgy unionists will be caught whilst dodgy employees and donor to the Coalition will not get a look in.

  7. Rob Vail
    Friday, 11 April, 2014 at 2:11 pm · Reply

    Obviously, to balance the ledger, there must be a Royal Commission into greedy businesses & corrupt bosses.

  8. Marion Ivanic
    Friday, 11 April, 2014 at 5:47 pm · Reply

    For absolute justice – all parties with any involvement whatsoever, should be called to the enquiry, otherwise it will just be a political exercise organised by the liberals towards their campaign, for the next election – this is why they are doing it – so that no-one related to the labor party or labor itself, will ever get up off the ground – Abbott unprincipled,futuristic, destructive policies – will we ever get them out?

  9. Paul B in Werribee
    Wednesday, 16 April, 2014 at 10:39 pm · Reply

    Hey Tony ,lets have a real commission , not that predetermined result crap .

    Lets not just look under the bed , lets dig up the slab in the garage , dig up all the back yard , and look in the old cess pit ,then we will find where your crooked mates are hiding .

    Don’t forget s**t always floats to the surface .

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