Grattan on Friday: Royal commissioner finds it is not just witnesses that can have a credibility problem

Commissioner Dyson Heydon during a hearing of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in Sydney. Jeremy Piper/AAP

Bill Shorten must have been born under some particularly fortunate star.

In yet another week when “good government” was holidaying, the Coalition prolonged its agony over same-sex marriage, and royal commissioner Dyson Heydon helpfully handed Labor ammunition for its well-established campaign against his inquiry into trade union corruption.

The big, much-anticipated policy announcement of the week – release of Australia’s targets for reducing carbon emissions after 2020 – disappeared from sight.

If anyone wanted a cameo of chaos, they had only to look at the five-and-a-half hours it took Coalition MPs to decide to stand firm against a conscience vote on same-sex marriage, followed by open conflict between senior ministers about what comes next.

Abbott and his conservative warriors held the line but they are now operating on scorched earth, as he proposes some form of popular vote next term.

Social Services Minister Scott Morrison’s clever little ploy to hold a constitutional referendum – that would surely be defeated, thus preserving the status quo – has been trenchantly attacked by Attorney-General George Brandis.

The strength with which Brandis pushed back was surprising. Although you wouldn’t know it these days, Brandis used to be a prominent moderate, as was fellow cabinet minister Christopher Pyne. Pyne was also unexpectedly outspoken this week, furious about Abbott bringing in the Nationals to bolster his numbers.

As Brandis and Pyne suddenly found their independent voices Malcolm Turnbull, who never lost his, suggested an option to settle the same-sex marriage issue ASAP, via legislation that would take effect after a yes vote at a plebiscite, held preferably before the election. Don’t hold your breath for that one.

Friends and enemies, watching his mood carefully, report that this week’s events have left Turnbull very agitated; he will only be encouraged to freelance even more.

When the cabinet eventually discusses the popular vote process, Abbott could face a good deal of tough talk from his colleagues.

Apart from the ministerial divisions, a number of Liberals are threatening to cross the floor if the opportunity arises, and various tactics will be deployed in the parliament.

The public, mostly wanting the issue fixed, won’t get their wish any time soon.

Same-sex marriage had been a grenade-in-waiting for the Coalition. Labor’s stroke of luck over Heydon came from nowhere.

Shorten, who from the start condemned the commission as a political exercise by Abbott, had a difficult two days there in July, during which Heydon said he was concerned about the opposition leader’s “credibility as a witness”. Shorten later said of Heydon: “He has a job to do, I get that, it’s Tony Abbott’s royal commission”.

Now Heydon’s own credibility has been brought into question, after it was revealed that he was to deliver later this month the Sir Garfield Barwick Address, organised by the NSW Liberal Party’s lawyers branch and legal policy branch.

Much of the row that is raging revolves around whether this is a “fundraiser”. The invitation to the event, with a Liberal logo, had an $80 cost for tickets, sought a donation from those unable to attend, and said that all proceeds would be applied to state election campaigning.

Soon after a Fairfax Media story on Thursday morning about his planned attendance, a statement was issued on Heydon’s behalf saying he had withdrawn.

“As early as 9.23 this morning, and prior to any media enquiry being received, he advised the organisers that ‘if there was any possibility that the event could be described as a Liberal Party event he will be unable to give the address, at least whilst he is in the position of royal commissioner’,” the statement said.

In correspondence released later by Heydon, the event’s organiser, Gregory Burton, had written to him on Wednesday saying that while “nominally under the auspices of the Liberal Party lawyers’ professional branches, this is not a fundraiser”. The charge was to cover costs – “although of course people will disclose it if they go over the state donation limit”.

The email also said: “In the absence of hearing from you we have proceeded on the basis you are happy to go ahead even though the commission is still in hearing (not expected when originally arranged) … If however a problem emerges at the last moment then people will I’m sure understand”.

The “problem” that emerged was dramatic.

The government strongly defended Heydon but fluffed its lines on whether this was or was not “a fundraiser”.

By the end of Thursday, the meticulous NSW Liberal director Tony Nutt had totted up the likely costs and receipts, concluding the function would have raised “a couple of hundred dollars”.

“There was no business, professional or corporate sponsorship or underwriting provided for the event,” Nutt said in the second of two statements he issued during the day. “The suggestion that a memorial lecture run on this basis constitutes a significant fundraiser is ridiculous.”

Clearly Heydon should not have been planning to be part of a Liberal-sponsored function while he is royal commissioner, even if the lecture cannot be equated with what we usually understand as “fundraisers”.

Heydon may have got into this situation through inadvertence, given the nature of the address, last delivered by former chief justice Murray Gleeson, the fact that the invitation went back years, and the longer-than-expected time the commission is taking.

But perception, circumstances and political imperatives are central. Heydon tangled with Shorten, and now Shorten – under pressure from the commission over events from his union past – finds he can give back in spades. Labor is threatening to go to court if Heydon does not resign.

Heydon’s bad judgement over this event – held to honour the chief justice who advised governor-general John Kerr on the sacking of Gough Whitlam – will help Shorten counter whatever negatives come from the commission.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, here or on iTunes.

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