The TURC story the media didn’t tell you
THE royal commission into trade unions is a tabloid dream.
Every day, the commission’s media staff dish up juicy allegations of slush funds, threats of violence, organised crime links, and the like, and every day, the journos lap it up, churning out lurid yarns for the nightly television news and the next day’s paper.
It’s money for jam for lazy journalists: sensational yarns served up on a platter. Whether the allegations are true or not rarely enters the picture – it’s all about the attention-grabbing headline.
Our attitude at Working Life has generally been to ignore the day-to-day theatrics, and treat the royal commission – known colloquially as TURC – for what it is: a politically motivated sideshow established by Tony Abbott to smear and weaken unions and workers.
But we are breaking that rule today because part of last Thursday’s hearing in Melbourne revealed so much about the anti-union mindset of both the media and the royal commission itself, that we feel we have a duty to inform our readers about it.
It also shows the value of cross-examination – a right rarely and begrudgingly granted to the unions under scrutiny – in properly testing the many unfounded allegations that have been allowed to be aired by the royal commission.
More Keystone Kops than CSI
The star turn was Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana, a tough veteran crime fighter, who came armed with a written statement containing broad allegations against the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union of violence, corruption and links to organised crime and outlaw motorcycle gangs.
The media lapped it up, dutifully preparing reports that highlighted the allegations under headlines like “Threats from outlaw bikie unionists”.
But the real story mostly didn’t make the news reports, mainly because it didn’t fit with the anti-union narrative.
In an extraordinary 38 minutes of cross-examination on Thursday afternoon, Fontana’s story fell apart.
Under questioning from counsel for the CFMEU, John Agius SC, Fontana:
• Admitted he had never attempted to contact the CFMEU to discuss concerns about organised crime links or to jointly attempt “cultural change”.
• Was unaware that the CFMEU had a policy against the use of outlaw motorcycle gangs to collect debts.
• Had decided building unions needed a “complete overhaul” without ever speaking to them.
• Revealed that there has never been a CFMEU official charged, or even arrested, in relation to corruption, blackmail or extortion.
• Admitted he had exaggerated the number of union officials alleged to have been involved in criminal activities – and later admitted he was wrong in claiming that the man, a member of the Comancheros bikie gang, worked for the CFMEU (the man is in fact not even a current financial member of the union).
• Conceded that the only real evidence police had of bikie gang connections to the CFMEU was one photo of a member of the Comancheros at a public meeting attended by union officials.
• Admitted having no concrete evidence that bikie gangs had engaged in debt collecting on behalf of the union, and that most allegations brought to police about the CFMEU are anecdotal and end up going nowhere.
• Admitted that police are as concerned about crime links to directors of labour hire and building companies as they are about the union – but omitted to mention that in his written statement.
When asked to provide more evidence to back some of his allegations, Fontana insisted he could not do so because matters were under investigation.
An exasperating performance
Fontana stoically attempted to maintain a façade – even when Agius accused him of engaging in “cultural warfare” against the union – but by the end of his period in the witness box, his credibility had been shredded.
It was an exasperating performance by one of Victoria’s top law enforcement officers – perhaps he was let down by his staff – and raises questions about why the police have allowed themselves to become so politicised.
The full transcript is now online and worth a read (the cross-examination begins on page 202), but here is one choice extract which conveys how it went:
Agius: You said earlier that there were union officials who were members of outlaw motorcycle gangs?
A. Who are they?
F: From my knowledge, Norm Meyer.
A: Is that it?
F: Probably one that I know of, yes.
A: You used the plural, you said “union officials”, are you saying that there is one?
F: There may be more, I don’t know. I’m just giving you an example of one in the statement.
A: In terms of what you do know, I can’t ask you about what you don’t know. It was your evidence that there was union officials plural?
A: That’s not right, is it?
F: It might be “union official”.
A: “A” union official to your knowledge?
F: To my knowledge, yes.
A: What is your knowledge that Mr Meyer is a union official as opposed to a union member?
F: My knowledge is, he holds a position within the union.
A: What position?
F: I’d have to go back and have a look at that, I can’t recall, but certainly that’s the advice I’ve been given in relation to him.
A: Who gave you that advice?
F: My people.
A: Who are your people?
F: From the intel area.
A: The police intelligence is that Mr Meyer is a union official?
F: I believe so, yes.
A: Would it surprise you to know that Mr Meyer is a member of the union but is not a union official?
F: If that’s the case, I’ll acknowledge that.
A: Would it surprise you to know that he has not paid any union dues in relation to his membership since October 2012?
F: I don’t know what his a status is in terms of payments.
And after a few more questions comes Fontana’s crucial concession:
A: So there’s no intelligence or evidence that any union officials of the CFMEU are members of an outlaw motorcycle gang?
F: Not to my knowledge.
You get the drift.
Outside the royal commission that afternoon, CFMEU National Secretary Dave Noonan said Fontana had been unable to provide any evidence to back up his allegations.
“The Victorian Police have a very important job to do in tackling organised crime and have the full support of the CFMEU,” Noonan said in a statement.
“The CFMEU’s clear position is that we have zero tolerance for corruption or criminal activity in the union.
“I again today repeated to the Assistant Commissioner our commitment and willingness to assist where the police have any evidence of corruption or criminal behaviour by union officials.”
It’s a pity most media outlets didn’t report that.
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