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TURC theatrics are only half the story


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By Andrew Casey

Asia/Pacific Editor for LabourStart

Monday, 15 September 2014

LIGHTS. Camera. Action. Drama. Theatrics. Spotlight.

Finally, last Wednesday, Julia Gillard arrived at the 55 Market Street, Sydney hearing rooms of the Royal Commission into Trade Unions (known in the twittersphere as #turc and elsewhere as TURC). It was, for many, the make or break moment for  retired High Court Judge Dyson Heydon’s Royal Commission.

The stage for the former PM was the Royal Commission witness box. Ms Gillard spent more than an extraordinary four hours there, without raising a sweat under the glare.

No Gotcha moment

Afterwards the theatre critics panned the show. They expected more. But there was no Gotcha moment.

The upset conspiracy theorists, who put so much energy into the creation of TURC, reckon either (1) counsel assisting Jeremy Stoljar SC deliberately pulled his punches; or (2) bikie elements got to key witnesses to change their testimony; or, (3) rather hopefully, they still wait more dirt to surface from a Victoria Police effort.

However colourful some of the smears being aired, you miss the point if you are only interested in the theatrics going on in the box.

The real stuff informing the final TURC report are the four under-publicised, under-reported issues papers.

This is the real action. It is happening well away from the theatrics of the witness box. You can get a sense of what TURC is all about by closely looking at these four issues papers.

The issues papers look at :

•  Protecting union whistleblowers;
•  The duties of union officials;
•  The funding of trade union elections;
•  Relevant entities.

The first three issues papers were released at the start of June. Then the TURC put out a fourth issues paper near the end of July to look at the operation of a variety of union-associated funds – not just election ‘slush funds’ but also worker entitlement funds for training, long service leave and retrenchment.

The Commission gave 11 July as the deadline close date for submissions for the first three – and the fourth by 20 August.

Help! We need submissions

But – without notice or fanfare – the TURC website, very quietly, added words under the issues paper section telling people that though submissions have formally closed, late submissions are still being accepted!!!

It is now more than two months since the original deadline. The gossip around TURC is that the small change on their website was very important to note – it was allegedly caused by the fact not many people have responded.

It is known that the ACTU and its affiliates have decided not to participate, not to put in any submissions.

TURC also request submissions from interested individuals and organisations. They are keen to get information from union people – especially ex-union people with a gripe or an axe to grind.

“Submissions from employees, officers, or members of an organisation, who have been involved in trade union activities as a whistleblower, or as a witness to whistleblowing, are particularly welcome,” the TURC website pleads.

I have asked TURC now a number of times for information about the issues papers process – but been stonewalled. The three or four times I’ve asked over the last two months I’ve basically been told (ever so politely) to bugger off .

Among the questions I wanted answers for were:

•  How many submissions were received for the original three papers before 11 July?
•  The names of groups and individuals who put in submissions to the issues papers before 11 July?
•  How many submissions were received after 11 July? And from whom?
•  Will all the submissions informing the issues papers be available on their website for public perusal?
•  Will they inform Australians how many submissions they received which will not be made public – and give a reason for the secrecy?

A key issue for TURC is union transparency and accountability.

So I would have thought TURC would set a high standard in their own transparency and accountability. But so far my questions – first raised nearly two months ago – have not been answered.

Yes, Julia Gillard did a star turn at TURC but don’t be taken in by the glare and glitter.

At least one employer group seems to have gone rogue on the TURC.

The Australian Industry Group gave (leaked) to The Australian their own submission to the TURC issues papers. The page one treatment of this ‘exclusive’ is obviously meant to publicly pressure Commissioner Dyson Heydon.

The AiG is attacking important workplace entitlements won by unions  – suggesting that normal commercial arrangements between a union and fund entitlements providers are corrupt.

Employer associations (read boss unions) who also receive monies out of these commercial arrangements will suffer collateral damage as a result of the AiG push. But unlike the worker unions, at the moment, the employer association profits from these same commercial agreements are not in the spotlight, are not being queried.

It will be interesting to watch if any other individuals, employers or associations now follow the AiG.

Will they decide they too need to pressure TURC by getting their own submissions into the media domain?

Certainly there is an alternative view. Some employers may have informally joined the unions in not participating in the TURC process.

The evident politicisation of Royal Commissions – much discussed in the mainstream media – may worry more level-headed employers and groups.

They’re keenly aware that the short-termism behind the election cycle priorities of politicians can actually damage their businesses. They prefer the long game.

In our democracy the ALP, as the political wing of the industrial movement, will, inevitably, be back on the government benches some time down the track .

Why antagonise the ALP by participating in a debatable, politicised TURC?

The credibility of TURC’s final report will be undermined if they are not prepared to be more open.

How many groups or individuals have provided information and data which will inform Justice Heydon’s recommendations on the issues raised in the four papers?

Is it just a handful? Are they core mainstream groups? Or fringe players on the political extremes of our society?

The final TURC recommendations, to come down at the end of December, will – if acted upon – have a major impact on Australian democracy.

It is now more than two months since the original closing date for the issues papers. To count up the number of submissions made, and list exactly who made the submissions is not a hard job.

The public has a right to know

On its website TURC itself clearly states that ‘‘submissions will be made public unless the person making the submission requests that it not be made public and the Royal Commission considers it should not be made public.

‘‘That will usually only occur for reasons associated with fairness or where there is a possibility of harm being suffered by the person who made the submission.”

Decisions about why some papers will not be made available for public scrutiny – and the reason for the secrecy could have been made in the last two months. The community has a right to know – and a right to be given a reasoned argument for non-publication of any submissions.

So yes, Julia Gillard did a star turn at TURC – and most commentators have praised her style – but don’t be taken in by the glare and glitter.

What is occurring on stage is not the most important thing. It is the mechanics behind the curtain, the unseen part of the production process putting on any show, which will really make or break TURC.

Andrew Casey is covering the Royal Commission into Trade Unions as an independent freelance journalist, and has observed every hearing day either in the hearing room or from the live stream.

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.


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