Grattan on Friday: Tough terrain ahead for Bill Shorten

Bill Shorten has questions to answer over his time as the head of the AWU, according to Tony Abbott. AAP/Lukas Coch

The government has always seen Bill Shorten’s union past as a prime target, and now it is starting to take serious aim.

A main motive in Tony Abbott’s setting up the royal commission into trade union corruption was political – to find ammunition to deploy against Labor and its leader.

This week the commission claimed a political scalp, when Victorian Labor MP Cesar Melhem stood down as government whip in the state upper house. This followed an allegation that as Australian Workers Union Victorian secretary, Melham had done down workers in a wage deal in exchange for money being paid to the union.

Shorten is close to Melhem and preceded him as Victorian AWU secretary.

The government has seized on information from the inquiry that in 2005 – Shorten’s time – the union invoiced Winslow Constructors for more than A$38,000 to cover dues for 105 AWU members.

Declaring Shorten had questions to answer, Abbott said there had been “pretty startling revelations” at the commission about the AWU “which Mr Shorten used to head up”.

“What has been happening in that union is that companies have been dudding their workers as part of a sweetheart deal … The union has been padding its membership, it has been boosting its power at Labor Party conferences at the expense of workers.

"I think this is pretty scandalous. We have got one Labor member of parliament in Victoria who has had to stand down from his position and he was Bill Shorten’s successor.”

Shorten, whose Thursday news conference was dominated by the issue, said he had “zero tolerance” for any form of corruption, and that an EBA concluded under him with Winslow had brought pay rises (4% rise in each of two years, the latter in two lots of 2%).

Asked whether there was a conflict of interest in having employers pay union dues, Shorten said that “if employers and employees work out matters that is up to them”.

“What I do know is that in Tony Abbott’s royal commission into trade unions I always expected there’d be some political smear and unfairness.”

Only time will tell whether the commission will throw up major problems for Shorten personally – and whether he will end up appearing before it.

But given his union roots, the commission’s general revelations of bad behaviour in sections of the movement – already seen in its first report – will add to what appear to be Shorten’s increasing problems.

These problems mean Shorten could go into election year poorly placed, even though the government will likely continue to struggle with its own ineptness – on show this week with Joe Hockey’s comments on housing affordability – and with a still slow economy.

The Coalition has taken a beating over the cabinet leak from its citizenship debate, but probably more important is this week’s Essential poll finding that 81% approve of its decision to remove citizenship of dual nationals engaged in terrorism or supporting terror groups.

Abbott is banging the security drum ferociously, playing the fear card. In a remarkable sentence, he told the regional summit Australia is hosting on violent extremism that “Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: submit or die”.

Abbott is likely to step up efforts to attempt to wedge Shorten on national security, while Shorten will battle to stay closely bipartisan, a task which can only get more difficult.

In the polls Labor remains ahead on a two-party basis but its earlier advantage has weakened. Shorten personally has been going backwards vis-a-vis Abbott. Essential showed Abbott widening the gap as better prime minister from 35-32% in May to 38-33%, his best result since October. As part of the modern continuous election campaign, Shorten is in the media daily. But even many Labor people worry he is lacking connection and cut-through.

The months ahead are full of challenges for Shorten. He has to navigate the July ALP national conference, where the most testing issue may be not whether Labor should “bind” MPs on same-sex marriage, but whether the party gives room for a Labor government to turn back boats. If it doesn’t, that could be disastrous for Shorten.

Shorten also needs to show more progress on his commitment to make this the ALP’s “year of ideas”. But Labor has already found, for example on superannuation, that while it is under pressure to produce initiatives, doing so can make it the issue.

The opposition must develop both hip-pocket policies that attract people (and this when there’s no money around, so requiring substantial and potentially controversial savings) and some loftier ones to inspire. Addressing a dinner on Thursday, Shorten talked up the republican cause. But worthy as this might be, it doesn’t seem something to grab the general public right now.

Immediately ahead, another aspect of his past looms awkwardly for Shorten, in episodes two and three of the ABC’s The Killing Season.

This week’s first instalment was notable for the on-camera detestation between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. The next episode is said to be explosive.

Shorten, who was a central player in the two coups, did not agree to be interviewed for the programs. But they will have fallout for him, reminding people of Labor’s divisions and including his crucial role. And they’ll air in the final two parliamentary weeks before the winter break.

As he faces likely tough months, Shorten enjoys one substantial advantage. Thanks to the change of rules driven by Rudd he has, barring something extraordinary, safe tenure until the election. Labor coups are very yesterday.