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Trade unions royal commission: Turnbull prepared to take union shake-up all the way to election

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis address the media after the release of the final report from the trade union royal commission. Photo: Janie BarrettThe royal commission into trade unions was always Tony Abbott’s baby.

It had two political goals. The first was to go after Labor leader Bill Shorten, one-time leader of the Australian Workers Union. The second was to expose the union movement for what Abbott thought it was: a movement run by corrupt officials.

It failed on the first point but succeeded on the second. Shorten escaped an adverse finding, but the commission uncovered despicable behaviour by union officials across the country.

We should thank Abbott for that.

According to royal commission head Dyson Heydon in his final report: “It would be utterly naive to think that what has been uncovered is anything other than the small tip of an enormous iceberg.

“It is clear that in many parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts.”

The commission has presented the Federal Parliament with a genuine opportunity for reform.

Where do we go from here? Next year’s politics have become clear.

The Turnbull government will keep the issue simmering by extending Taskforce Heracles, a joint state-territory union-corruption taskforce that was set up to examine allegations referred to it by the royal commission.

Its life has been extended until December 31, 2016, to pursue further lines of inquiry.

The longer it keeps working, the greater the chance to uncover more wrongdoing. It will help to keep the heat on Bill Shorten, because every time something is found, someone from the Coalition will remind voters that Shorten was leading the AWU when dodgy behaviour was taking place (but they will not be able to point to a specific example of corruption on Shorten’s part, because the commission didn’t find any).

The government will also establish a specialised cross-agency working group of 11 Commonwealth departments and agencies, led by the Department of Employment and including such agencies as Austrak, the Australian Crime Commission, ASIC and the Australian Tax Office.

It will investigate the 45 significant breaches of civil law by union officials identified by the commission that could attract civil penalties.

Turnbull says he wants to push legislation through Parliament that will affect how unions are registered and run.

If he can’t get the legislation passed, he’ll make it an election issue.

And this is how he will prosecute the case: Unions are a vital part of the economy. It is in everyone’s interest that they are open and transparent. The Coalition wants to make that happen. And please remember, the Coalition is not anti-union; it is anti-corruption among the union leadership. The Coalition is fighting for everyday union members against their corrupt leaders. Anyone who doesn’t support the Coalition’s attempt to clean out the corrupt union leaders obviously wants their corruption to continue.

This is where Labor comes in.

Turnbull says this is a chance for Shorten and his deputy, Tanya Plibersek, to show some leadership. They can either support the Coalition’s legislation through Parliament or they can opt to fight it as an election issue. Does Labor really want that?

“This is not a battle between workers and the bosses,” Turnbull said on Wednesday. “It’s a battle between workers and union bosses, and Mr Shorten’s got to decide whose side he’s on.”

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