Trade Unions, Corruption, and Royal Commissions: A Reflection

Photo: Zenza Flarini/Shutterstock

I came to the ordained ministry of the Uniting Church in Australia from a background in the trade union movement.  At the time of writing (Sept 2015), a Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is underway.  As a consequence, I have been asked more than once in recent weeks: Is there corruption in the union movement? Is the Royal Commission a political witch hunt?

My answer to both questions is: Yes.


Let’s take the issue of corruption within trade unions.  I don’t need screaming headlines about the likes of Kathy Jackson or Craig Thompson to know there’s corruption within the union movement.  I walked out of my first job as a union organiser because I suspected the Secretary heading that union was corrupt.  I had no evidence: only anecdotal experience and a strong gut feeling. But I walked anyway.  And my gut feeling was subsequently proven correct.

But here’s the thing: like most forms of criminality, this kind of “spectacular” corruption is committed by a small core of people who neither represent the majority of union officials, nor even form a significant minority of people working for unions.  They are a tiny minority – and claims of “systemic” corruption belie the fact that 95% of union officials are not corrupt.  Indeed, and despite the fact that the effects and implications of this corruption spread wide and far, the bottom line remains that the union movement is not corrupt in the sense that a criminal organisation is corrupt: no amount of “reform” will cleanse a criminal organisation, it needs to be destroyed altogether.  Reform and change within the union movement, on the other hand, are needed and are possible.

Because the form of corruption that is endemic within the union movement is moral corruption.  The kind of “money-in-brown-paper-bags” corruption undertaken by the likes of Jackson and Thompson arises from an engrained sense of their own entitlement: they have come to see the union as “theirs”, as a resource (or a power base) that belongs to them and with which they can do as they please.  And this sense of entitlement in turn springs from what is actually the source of corruption within Australian trade unionism: a culture that has reduced the union movement itself to a means to an end.

This reduction is symbolised by the relationship between the union movement and the Australian Labor Party (ALP).   It needs to be remembered – because it is almost always forgotten – that the ALP was formed by the union movement in order to represent the needs and aspirations of working people.  In other words, it was the ALP and not the union movement that was to be the means to an end: the end being the effective political representation of ordinary Australians in a sphere that had traditionally (and arguably remains) dominated by an elite “political class”.  Today, however, that relationship has been entirely reversed.  Instead of the ALP serving as a means toward the empowerment of working people, the union movement has been reduced to a means to the end of empowering the ALP: of getting it into, and helping it keep, political power.

In other words, the union movement has been reduced to a “resource base” to help ALP candidates get elected and re-elected.  And the primary means through which this has occurred – which has enabled the ALP to get its hands on the union movement’s financial and human resources – has been for the union movement to become little more than a career path for the ALPs self-governing and self-perpetuating “aristocracy”.

To an extent, this has always been the case; indeed, it made a certain sense for union officials to transfer from the movement into politics in order to ensure the parliamentary ALP upheld its mandate of effectively representing working people.  But as politics became increasingly “professionalised” through the 20th century, and as the financial and other rewards – both during and after a parliamentary career – became more lucrative, the incentive to go into politics changed: it was no longer about making sure the ALP did its job properly so much as getting a cut of the fruits of political office.

This process of corruption became entrenched during the 1980s with the victory of “consensus” or “pragmatic” politics within the ALP.  Under the Hawke-Keating regime, the ALP abandoned social democracy and embraced neo-liberalism with all its attendant evils; and the “consensus” formula destroyed the factions as both clearing houses for the creation, and arenas for the arguing out, of rival perspectives within the party: rather, “politics” within the ALP simply became a matter of ensuring the power positions and parliamentary seats were shared out per an agreed formula (based on who had the “numbers”) between the representatives of the various factions.

In other words, a process of reductionism had occurred within the ALP.  The Right faction, with its “pragmatic” emphasis on the gaining and keeping of political power, became not only dominant within, but also became the dominant organisational ideology of, the ALP. Other factions simply became power-bases upon which various members of the ALP “aristocracy” secured their election to parliament and/or their prominence within party affairs.  And promotion and appointment became a matter of Mafioso-style relationships: only those deemed to have the right attitude (ie: loyalty to the prevailing power structure) were advanced into positions of organisational power and/or parliamentary representation.

Alongside this reductionism came a similar reductionism within the union movement: the “politicisation” of the movement which saw the culture of “pragmatism” spread into and infect the political culture of the movement itself.  Given its association with the ALP and its involvement in the political life of the nation, the Australian union movement has always had a highly politicised culture: power struggles and conflicts of interest were nothing new.  But what altered in the 1980s were the dynamics of this political culture: along the lines of the “pragmatism” playing itself out within the parliamentary ALP, disputes within the union movement were no longer contests of ideas or worldviews but of self-interested advantage and self-promotion.  The “career path” that had started out as a means for ensuring the compliance of the ALP to its political mandate as the “people’s representative” had become corrupted into a personal war-chest for ambitious factional warlords and their like-minded spear-carriers.

And the result was, frankly, catastrophic.  Aside from the obvious, money-grabbing corruption of the likes of Jackson and Thompson, came the moral corruption of entitlement, of seeing the union as “mine” (or “ours”) which was little more than a plaything for personal ambition.  Being in leadership within the union movement came to be less and less about representing the needs of members, and more and more about shoring up one’s own position within the leadership and/or of ensuring the succession of “anointed” protégés. In other words, the leadership of the union movement these days spends more time on the internal politics of the movement (as this has become corrupted by the internal politics of the ALP) than it does on actually doing the job for which the movement’s members pay their union dues.

So it is this moral – and political – corruption of the union movement that is the actual issue at hand, not the “spectacular” incidents of corruption upon which the Royal Commission is allegedly focused.  And this moral/political corruption is the actual substantive issue precisely because it co-opts honest union officials – not by requiring them to do anything unethical or illegal, but because it becomes the “compulsory” culture within which they are forced to operate.  You cannot “opt out” of this culture, even if you refuse to become involved in the political shenanigans; it becomes the very frame of reference through which you have to operate, and against which you must negotiate, in order for you to just do your job.

Which is why claims that the ALP must de-couple itself from the union movement miss the mark – rather, it is the union movement which must de-couple itself from the ALP.  The corruption of “consensus” and “pragmatic” politics with which the ALP has infected the union movement, and the consequent reductionism within the political culture of the union movement which this infection has entailed, necessitates radical surgery if the union movement is to be saved.  In short, nothing less than amputation.  It is only when the union movement ceases being nothing more than a career path for ambitious individuals into politics – or, as is increasingly the case these days, into lucrative corporate placements and “consultancies” – will the movement regain the integrity to recapture and re-create its own internal culture: one that serves the interests of ordinary Australians increasingly squeezed by the corporatism of neo-liberal economics.

Political Witch Hunt

Having dealt with the issue of union “corruption”, let’s now turn to the Royal Commission and the question: is it a political witch hunt? My answer is an unequivocal yes!

Let me first be clear on one issue: I do not for a minute propose that corrupt union officials like Kathy Jackson or Craig Thompson ought to be spared exposure by enquiries such as the Royal Commission or through individual court cases.  Jackson and Thompson and anyone else – whether exposed by this Royal Commission or otherwise – who engage in such behaviour are simply criminals and ought to be dealt with accordingly.  So the Royal Commission is not a political witch hunt simply because it exposes corrupt union officials and holds them up for public exposure (with the concomitant damage to the union movement’s reputation).

Rather, the status of the Royal Commission as a political witch hunt lies within the motivations for its establishment; for it is within these motivations that are revealed the inherently political nature of this Commission and its objectives.

The first clue resides in the name of the Commission itself: The Royal Commission Into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.  Did you notice that phrase “Governance and…“? No, of course you didn’t.  And neither did anyone else.  In fact, if you Google “royal commission into union corruption” you retrieve the Royal Commission’s home page as the first entry! What’s more, the media – in both Australia and overseas – routinely report the enquiry as the “Royal Commission Into Trade Union Corruption”.  So you have a Commission of enquiry, which is ostensibly looking into how unions govern themselves and arrange their affairs, as well as any issues of corruption arising from these arrangements, simply being known as the “Commission into Union Corruption”.

Why does this make the Commission a political witch hunt? Precisely because the people who caused the Commission to come into being – the Abbott Federal Coalition Government – knew that this was how the Commission would be reported and publicised.  In other words, by giving the Commission the title it has, a title based on its own terms of reference, the Abbott Government has colluded in a process of smearing and prejudicing the very people who are to appear before that Commission.  The term “Commission into Union Corruption” assumes and presupposes that unions (and being in plural, the word “unions” here means “all unions and everyone in them”) are corrupt.  In other words, the critical legal principle of “no prejudice” to an accused is here being undermined as an exercise in political opportunism.

Remember: many members of the Abbott Government – including the Prime Minister himself – are veterans of the Howard Government’s war on unions: these are the “mean and tricky” people who are experts in manipulating language for their own purposes.  Remember the Industrial Relations Reform (More Jobs, Better Pay) Bill which was introduced under Howard – the first time political propaganda had been inserted into the title of prospective legislation? Remember how the word “reform” itself was used to suggest that stripping employees of their industrial rights and entitlements was a good thing? Remember how John Howard himself complained that there had been a “pall of censorship” imposed on the Australian public by leftie “elites” – and how he then proceeded to censor Australian workers by stripping their industrial Awards to a restricted number of “allowable matters”?

It’s the same people up to the same tricks: using and manipulating language in order to obtain a political advantage; and, in this case, to undermine an important legal principle into the bargain.

The second hint that this Commission is a political witch hunt lies in its unidirectionalism.  Why afterall, is the Commission only enquiring into trade unions’ governance and corruption? Why isn’t it – or a separate Commission – enquiring into the governance and corruption of the major corporations operating in Australia?

No, this is not an attempt to  suggest “they’re as bad as us, so it’s not fair we’re being picked on”.  Neither is it an attempt to suggest that corrupt union officials ought not be exposed.  Rather, it merely points to the reality that any corruption within trade unions does not occur in a vacuum: it runs alongside of, interacts with, and reflects the corruption of and within the business and corporate sector.

Again, remember: the Costigan Royal Commission – another ostensibly politically motivated Royal Commission – started life investigating the criminality of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, and ended up exposing the criminality occurring within some of the most powerful corporate boardrooms of the time.  Again, there’s a link to the present Abbott Government: Malcolm Turnbull, one-time Liberal Leader and now Communications Minister, was the then counsel for Kerry Packer, who, through his national magazine The Bulletin, had lobbied for the establishment of the Commission of Enquiry into the SPDU – but who ended up being implicated by the findings of the Costigan Commission into the “bottom of the harbour” tax avoidance schemes.  On behalf of his employer, Turnbull accused Costigan of abuse of power and demanded the Commission be shut down.

Of course, the Abbott Government has been careful to ensure the terms of the present Royal Commission – as set out in its Letters Patent – don’t end up straying into politically uncomfortable waters – waters populated by its backers in the corporate sector.  Indeed, the Letters Patent, in paragraph (b) specifies the particular unions the Abbott Government most wants investigated – not surprisingly, unions like the CFMEU and the MUA, who have been the Coalition’s biggest obstacle to achieving workplace “reform”.

What’s more, the experience in NSW has shown that many employers, businesses, entrepreneurs, and corporate entities in the building, construction, and property industries are up to their necks in corruption and graft, bribing politicians from both sides of politics to do their corrupt bidding. Moreover, as the ABC’s “Four Corners” program has twice demonstrated in 2015, corporate corruption in the form of the exploitation of convenience store workers and produce sector employees is rampant.  These are not “isolated” incidents, or restricted to a few “rogue operators”: they are examples of some of the largest and most powerful companies in Australia using the exploitation of vulnerable people to also effect tax fraud, industrial slavery (with its concomitant evils of the sexual and physical abuse of defenceless individuals), and a whole host of other criminal activities.  Why, then, is there not a Royal Commission into these practices?

Quite simply because the Abbott Government doesn’t want there to be one.  Instead, it wants to ensure that the present Royal Commission achieves what the Howard Government’s workplace “reforms” and illegal connivance with Patricks Stevedores failed to achieve: the annihilation of the union movement.

And, of course, we’ve had the recent farcical situation with the Royal Commissioner, Dyson Heydon AC QC, finding himself in hot water after having accepted an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraising event.  Make of this what you will; in light of recent events, I think it speaks both to the biased nature of this Commission and of the catastrophic bad judgement that surrounds this $56 million tax payer funded exercise in political aggression and opportunism.


So, in answer to the questions “Is there corruption within the unioin movement?” and “Is the Royal Commission a political witch hunt?” I say “Yes”.  Except the corruption I say exists is not what most people think it is; and that the politically biased nature of the Royal Commission is not merely a matter of political partiality or favouritism.  Rather, it is part of a wider determination by the hard right neo-cons who now rule the corporate world – and the conservative side of politics – to destroy the very institutions that prevent their uncontested control of our social and economic apparatus.  At the moment, this control is hotly contested; but only a truly reformed union movement, free from the corrupting influence of the ALP’s “pragmatism”, can successfully continue this contest.   And only a politically informed public, aware of what the Abbott Government is really trying to achieve, will prevent the disastrous annihilation of trade unions from occurring.

Because there is much, much more at stake than who wins the next election.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.