When Bill Shorten was asked by the royal commission into union corruption to appear before it, he said he wouldn’t be commenting on allegations about his time as an Australian Workers Union official until he gave evidence.
The no-comment position quickly became untenable. On Sunday, Shorten was on the ABC’s Insiders talking in detail about claims that continue to emerge.
Shorten is grappling simultaneously with two issues that have the potential to inflict serious damage on him and the opposition – questions about own past, and the government’s attempt to wedge Labor on national security.
Shorten strongly defended the deal he did over the EastLink project in Melbourne, which gave the employers greater flexibility. The $A300,000 that the company is reported to have paid the union was for training union delegates and health and safety, he said, something that “is not unusual in the construction industry”.
Shorten portrayed himself a “modern bloke”, the “moderate trade union official working cooperatively between employees and employers” who in industrial negotiations had tried to get an agreement that benefited all – which that one did, according to business leader Tony Shepherd, who was involved.
The Liberals ignore the rather paradoxical position they find themselves in when they seek to condemn such an agreement – as distinct from asking about the nature of the company payments to the union.
It sits awkwardly with their usual calls for industrial flexibility to suggest Shorten ripped off the workers when he negotiated give and take deals, which is what the Liberals advocate in industrial relations.
Shorten on Sunday was less forthcoming about the case of Winslow Constructors paying the dues of some 105 unionists.
He would need to look at the documentation, he said. His preference was that employees paid their own union dues (which might be collected by the company as a payroll deduction). But it was “entirely possible” that companies paid for the memberships although “it wasn’t the practice of the union as its preferred model”.
Shorten believes, no doubt correctly, that one of the purposes of the royal commission was to chase down dirt on him, and a report that it has asked his former wife about some of her share dealings when they were married suggests it is going into every nook and cranny. He condemned the targeting of his ex-wife as disgusting and unethical.
The Shorten history will bubble along in the background in this final parliamentary week before the winter recess when the government’s controversial citizenship legislation will be centre stage.
The legislation will be based on updating Section 35 of the Citizenship Act, which automatically strips citizenship from dual nationals who fight in the army of a country at war with Australia.
The modernisation would apply the provision to members of listed terrorist organisations, covering foreign fighters and people in Australia, although it is not clear whether anything more would be required than simply membership for those affected locally. The legislation would allow for an appeal to a court.
The bill as drafted is said to accommodate the concerns of Malcolm Turnbull, who has been outspoken about the danger of the originally flagged ministerial discretion making the move unconstitutional.
Turnbull’s very public concerns have given Shorten some cover, although shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus left Labor exposed last week when he suggested foreign fighters be brought home to face the courts. This was in response to being asked how a terrorist fighting in Syria could be convicted. Tony Abbott quickly cast this as Labor wanting to “roll out the red carpet” for terrorists.
Shorten is certainly hoping that the bill to be introduced by the government on Wednesday will be a compromise Labor can accept.
Shorten referred on Sunday to the current Citizenship Act and said he supported extending it to “terrorist organisations who might not be foreign countries but they have the same taking up of arms against Australia”.
The Labor Party did not support dual citizens who were terrorists keeping their citizenship, Shorten said, but reiterated that the law had to have a role for the courts.
Shorten can’t change whatever is there in his union days – he can only explain and defend it. He does have discretion on how Labor reacts on the citizenship legislation and whatever else the government brings forward on the security front in coming months – but it’s a discretion limited to what the Labor Party will bear. Abbott is desperately trying to find the point where some in the ALP insist civil liberties must come to the fore.
Abbott this week will talk up another aspect of security in a speech that will look to the defence white paper later this year, and reaffirm the government’s commitment to increased defence spending as a proportion of GDP.
As Labor braces itself for the final episode of the ABC’s program The Killing Season on Tuesday, it’s instructive to remember that only a few months ago there was speculation the end of this parliamentary season might see Abbott’s demise.
Now he’s revived his leadership, and the backbenchers who were then so critical have become his best friends. That’s what some consultation, a soft and favourably received budget and a good dollop of scare tactics can do. The recipe for Shorten to overcome his troubles is not so clear.