View from The Hill

Abbott’s royal commission may be inspired by politics, but the unions provided the grist

Tony Abbott is aware how difficult the next few months will be for the government. Daniel Munoz/AAP

The result in Saturday’s Griffith byelection has something for both sides: Labor has saved the seat and the Liberals have got a swing towards them.

It is more than usually complicated to identify the role of various factors in the result.

The government and the ALP have tried to portray it as, respectively, a rebuff to opposition leader Bill Shorten or a warning salvo to Tony Abbott. But if there were messages, they were mixed up with the influence of highly popular Liberal candidate Bill Glasson, people’s annoyance at having to vote again, lower turnout than at the general election and the like.

The Liberals looked ridiculous by not conceding defeat on the night and Attorney-General and senior Queensland Liberal senator George Brandis over-claimed about the history of swings against oppositions in byelections. The value of a touch of grace in politics is underrated by politicians – one of the reasons Glasson is so liked is that he displays that unusual quality.

Tony Abbott was more measured in his statement than some Liberals. “The Griffith by-election was a fine result for Bill Glasson and a poor result for Bill Shorten. It was a clear rejection of the negative scare campaign undertaken by the Labor Party, with the LNP recording a swing towards it.”

It was vital for Shorten to hold the seat – a loss would have been a serious setback early in his leadership. But the modest swing to the Liberals (on the latest figures, 1.4% on primary votes and 0.7% two party preferred) is useful for Abbott, most immediately as the government prepares to announce on Monday a royal commission into union corruption and in the medium term as it works up to what will be a difficult budget containing unpopular cuts.

Whatever the weighting of reasons for the swing, if it had been the other way, it could have unsettled some in the Coalition ranks.

The royal commission will be difficult for Labor, which opposes it and says a police taskforce would be the better alternative. Given the Health Services Union scandal and now fresh claims of bribes, threats and criminal associations in the construction industry, Shorten’s case against a royal commission is hard to run. The government’s actions may indeed by inspired by politics but the union movement has provided the grist that allows a political assault.

The allegations in the construction industry, however, obviously involve employers too, so some in business will be vulnerable in this inquiry. The precise terms of reference, including “off the books” transactions, will be significant both to what comes out and to whether it is perceived as fair and reasonable.

The government has chosen former High Court judge Dyson Heydon, who was appointed to the court in the Howard years. Heydon is a conservative who opposes judicial activism and often dissented while on the court. After he retired he was described in one report “the most solitary figure on the bench in recent years”.

Cabinet on Monday will give the tick to the royal commission’s detail before it is formally announced.

In a Sunday interview with Sky Abbott was honing the political lines that Shorten will have to deal with.

“Sometimes you need to shine … a great big spotlight in the dark corners of our national life,” he said.

“We’re on the side of the honest unionist, we’re on the side of the honest worker against the dodgy official,” while “Bill Shorten wants to run, to coin a phrase, a protection racket for a protection racket.”

If the royal commission takes Labor into fraught territory, Abbott is sharply aware how difficult the next few months will be for him and the government, with many tough decisions to come.

He stressed the government “motif” of 2014 is keeping its commitments. “Some people are scared that we will go further than our commitments. Some people are scared that we won’t go further than our commitments. I say to all of those people: don’t be scared – we will keep our commitments.”

As to how he personally is finding things: asked whether he was concerned about his lack of popularity he said, “well I wasn’t too displeased with the fact that there was a swing towards us in the Griffith byelection”. Is he enjoying the prime ministerial job? “Mostly. There’s a bit of pressure, I’ve got to say.”