In his opening statement to a Senate estimates committee on Wednesday night, Mark Bielecki, the head of the Registered Organisations Commission, which is investigating the Australian Workers Union’s A$100,000 donation to GetUp, declared he wanted to correct a “misapprehension”.
“This investigation is not into Mr Shorten. It is into the AWU and it is into the AWU’s processes for approving donations, including political donations,” Bielecki said.
Whatever the Registered Organisations Commission might think or say, there’s been no doubt in the minds of the government what the inquiry is about. When Employment Minister Michaelia Cash referred the donation to the commission in August, she and her colleagues knew it was all about Bill Shorten.
The 2005 donation was made when Shorten, a founding director of GetUp, was AWU secretary.
Once again the government was trying to put Shorten in the frame over his behaviour in his union days. Previous attempts have fallen short of hopes.
It would always be a toss-up whether the Registered Organisations Commission investigation would yield dust or a trace of political gold. But no-one could have predicted it would blow up spectacularly in the face of the minister who sent the reference to the newly created watchdog.
Cash is still in place but it was excruciating to watch her performance when, as chance had it, she was appearing in Senate estimates this week and had to face forensic grilling – laced with sarcastic comments – from Labor senators.
The events are now well-known. The media were tipped off so the cameras could be present for Monday’s police raids on the AWU offices.
In front of the Senate committee, Cash denied through Wednesday that her office had anything to do with alerting the media. But around 6PM BuzzFeed reported journalists had said Cash’s office was responsible for the tip-off. When the committee resumed after the dinner break, Cash announced her senior media adviser had just fessed up and resigned.
It seemed extraordinary that Cash could have been left in ignorance all day. Even more odd was that she (and the staffer in question, David De Garis) attended Malcolm Turnbull’s pre-Question Time briefing on Wednesday, when she assured him she had not given the tip-off, but neither he nor others present asked the obvious question: “what about your office?”
When media are being alerted, it is rarely by a call from the minister – it’s done by the media adviser. Everyone at the briefing would have known that. Assuming we’re hearing the truth, failing to ask was sloppy at best.
Not that the answer would necessarily have elicited the facts – because Cash says she’d already inquired of her staff and at that stage no-one admitted putting out the word.
Until recently Cash was receiving good reviews, as a hard worker, an effective negotiator on legislation, and skilled at carrying a brief.
But even before this week, her reputation had started to tarnish, when the head of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), Nigel Hadgkiss, had to resign after admitting to breaching the Fair Work Act while in his previous position. Cash was aware of the civil proceedings against him when he took over the ABCC.
The GetUp affair revolves around whether the donation went through the proper process under the AWU rules – as distinct from being generally known about and accepted by the union hierarchy at the time.
The government – which, incidentally, is on a jihad against GetUp, a campaigning body far too effective for its liking – would point out it is important to ensure unions are accountable and transparent when giving away members’ money. No-one could reasonably disagree with such a proposition.
But the government’s obvious attempt to use the recently established Registered Organisations Commission for political purposes is an abuse of power – and potentially damaging to the fledgling organisation.
Cash points out that she can’t direct the Registered Organisations Commission but when the minister refers something to it, that will obviously be taken up. And, as has been widely asked, would this matter, more than a decade old, have been referred if it hadn’t involved Shorten?
De Garis’ action in tipping off the media also shows the political prism through which the government sees these issues. Turnbull on Thursday described what De Garis did as “wrong” and “improper”. But if the affair had not backfired on the government, would it have been unhappy with the TV pictures of the raid?
Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt wrote this week that the raids “seem part of a disturbing pattern of the Liberals using state power to persecute a political enemy”.
Bolt is a perennial critic of Turnbull but in this case he highlighted what had happened from the start of the Coalition government, referring to “the Liberals’ astonishing record of dragging Labor leaders before commissions and royal commissions created – at least in part – to humiliate them”.
In parliament on Thursday Turnbull kept firing at Shorten, mustering what chutzpah he could. But the bullets looked rubbery, after those days in which one of the more competent ministers was winged and the new Registered Organisations Commission found itself in rather too much spotlight. To say nothing of the fact that Shorten once again remained one step ahead of his pursuers.
There has been some debate among journalists about whether BuzzFeed should have reported that the media tip-off came from Cash’s office.
For what it’s worth, my view is that it’s fine to report what happened if you didn’t get the tip-off – rather like Laurie Oakes reporting what Turnbull said at the press gallery ball that Oakes didn’t attend. It’s not OK to reveal your source if you get a tip-off and it’s on a confidential basis.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra