By pre-empting the possible questioning of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at the Trade Unions Royal Commission (TURC), Christopher Pyne has undermined the legitimacy of the Commission – and potentially commit-ted a criminal act.
The politics of the Royal Commission were on display for all to see last week when Christopher Pyne used the Commission’s deliberations as a weapon of political attack in Parliament and in the media.
Pyne effectively appointed himself a defacto Counsel Assisting by posing a host of questions about Mr Shorten’s time as a union leader. The theatrics of Mr Pyne are, of course, the latest episode in a long-running political soap opera.
Having tried and failed to pin any wrongdoing on former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the TURC has now turned its sights to Opposition Leader and former AWU National Secretary Bill Shorten.
The Australian union movement is over 150 years old, and an integral part of our national social fabric. I, like other proud unionists, want the grubs weeded out. But the debate over Bill Shorten’s supposed “sweetheart deals” with employers as leader of the AWU has, frankly, reached peak absurdity.
The Liberals have carried on about unions driving up wages and condi-tions for years, but now they are suddenly claiming that we should go harder.
Heavens above. The day that the Tories launch a political attack on a un-ion leader for not being militant enough is the day that political debate in this country has officially lost the plot.
Many union leaders, including me, are frankly frustrated by the winner-takes-all culture that permeates our industrial system. It is surely in the national interest for employers and union to work co-operatively and to try and find win-win outcomes that benefit industry, workers and the community at large.
But how will anyone – from the union movement or business - be able to argue for moderation and common sense when they are at risk of being put before a Royal Commission and subjected to a political character as-sassination?
Bill Shorten will answer his critics at the right time and in the right forum. But this much I do know. I had cause to work closely with Bill during his time as Minister and in the middle of several protracted enterprise agreement negotiations in the rail freight industry which could have caused irreparable damage to the economy.
During that time he proved to be an impressive mediator. Unlike some who currently occupy the government benches and seek to pour oil on the fire, Bill left stubbornness and ideology at the door, put-ting purpose and pragmatism on the table. He was unwilling to sit on the sidelines and watch us walk the path to mutual self-destruction. Nor was he willing to discuss ambit claims that were without substance.
He dealt with facts, looked for common interests and mercilessly sought an outcome that ensured jobs were well paid and sustainable. He was tough when he needed to be, and hence he commanded respect from both bosses and unionists. If that is the charge levelled at him by his political opponents, he ought to wear it as a badge of honour.
Of course, politics is not a vocation for the faint-hearted and we expect politicians to test each other out. But the behaviour of Pyne and his colleagues in relation to the Royal Commission is beyond the normal cut and thrust of politics. It is undermining the foundation of some of our key legal and political institutions.
Australia's judicial and inquisitorial bodies, like Royal Commissions, have historically been at pains to not appear biased. They strive not only to be independent, but to be perceived as independent. This is why the public trusts judges, but not politicians.
For law graduates like me, current and former High Court judges are like our rock superstars – the brightest, most outstanding, and most scrupulously independent legal practitioners of them all.
This status demands that those judges can never be dragged into politi-\cal sideshows, or made to appear like partisan operatives. In this context, it must be remembered that the TURC is a child of the Prime Minister’s Office not the Parliament.
It was set up by one side of politics, and without the moral authority of a bi-partisan parliamentary mandate – unlike for example, the Royal Commission in Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This should make the TURC even more protective of its independence.
In the hotbed of our current political climate, and slippery slope of entering into the political arena and next federal election - Commissioner Heydon must obviously be concerned about perceptions being created by the ongoing political interference from Canberra.
In their interests of his own commission, and of future Royal Commissions, Commissioner Heydon would be more than entitled to investigate whether the behaviour of Mr Abbott, Mr Pyne or others would constitute contempt under the Royal Commissions Act 1902. This Act makes it s criminal offence to use “speech which is any manner guilty of any intentional contempt of a Royal Commission”.
At the very least, Commissioner Heydon would be entitled to demand that all federal politicians, as law-makers, act not only within the law, but within the spirit and intent of the law.
We should not stand by and watch any of our proud and enduring insti-tutions attacked and weakened in the cause of short-term political ad-vantage.
Bob Nanva is the National Secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union.