Shorten on the spot over failure to disclose company campaign funding

Bill Shorten is shown on a screen giving evidence at the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption in Sydney. AAP/David Moir

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten failed until the last few days to declare that a labour hire company paid for his full-time campaign director in the run-up to his election to parliament in 2007.

Appearing before the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, Shorten said he had become aware “weeks, maybe months” ago, when he was preparing for the commission, that the proper declaration had not been made.

But Shorten strenuously denied he had waited to see whether the matter would emerge in the commission before updating his declaration in a letter dated Monday.

Shorten’s commission appearance – which continues on Thursday – is a critical test for his leadership. The revelation about the non-disclosure made for a difficult first day.

The company, Unibuilt, employed Lance Wilson in early 2007. It designated him a research officer, although he had been recruited by Shorten – then national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) – specifically to work on his campaign for the Victorian seat of Maribyrnong.

Later, Wilson’s formal employer became the AWU, which billed Unibuilt for his salary. In total, the company paid some A$40,000 for Wilson’s wages, with the union taking his remuneration to about $52,000.

Shorten’s updated disclosure letter shows more than $63,000 from the company for a “campaign manager”. The discrepancy is explained by Labor as Shorten being conservative because of a lack of information. In the letter, Shorten wrote: “As it has been difficult to obtain precise information on benefits received, I have relied on the higher quantums in the information provided to me”.

Shorten admitted at the commission that the funding should have been completely disclosed at the time, while pointing out that periodically people and parties update their information when they realise full details had not been given.

The update had been sent to the Labor Party for passing on to the Australian Electoral Commission “within the last 144 hours, or last Friday or Monday or Tuesday”, he told the commission. The update apparently came as a surprise to counsel assisting the commission Jeremy Stoljar, who had been asking about the funding.

Shorten explained the delay between discovering the omission and correcting the record by saying it took his lawyers time to get precise information, such as Wilson’s group certificates and the union invoices.

The letter sent by Shorten to the ALP dated July 6 said the disclosure information provided by his former staff for the 2007 election was incomplete, and gave a list of donations to be declared.

1 July 2006 to 30 June 2007:

$12,587.00 (Campaign Manager) plus laptop – provided and paid for by Unibuilt Pty Ltd.

$8,222.44 (Campaign Manager) plus laptop – provided by Unibuilt Pty Ltd (paid via the Australian Workers’ Union – Victorian Office).

Please note I also received a benefit from the AWU – National Office for campaign support but less than the $10,500 disclosure amount.

1 July 2007 – 30 June 2008:

$42,968.88 (Campaign Manager) plus laptop – provided by Unibuilt Pty Ltd (paid via the Australian Workers’ Union – Victorian Office).

$11,774.67 (campaign support) – provided by the Australian Workers’ Union National Office plus home laptop.

Shorten rejected the suggestion from Stoljar that he had used his position as AWU national secretary “to gain an advantage for yourself, namely a full-time campaign worker”, replying emphatically “absolutely not”.

At the time, Unibuilt had coming discussions with the union about a new enterprise bargaining agreement – although Shorten said he was not involved.

Shorten said the idea that it was untoward to raise money for election campaigns and do anything else was to assume “that whenever there is a donation in our electoral system, by anyone, that all other relationships and transactions must immediately be cast into doubt.

"That is not right, and that is not how I operated at the union.”

Unibuilt had not asked for anything in return for the donation, Shorten said.

Former Labor minister Greg Combet, who was at the hearing and spoke to reporters afterwards, stressed the political nature of the inquiry. “This is the third Labor leader within a year to be dragged before a royal commission – this is a political exercise.”

Labor frontbencher Gary Gray said a failure to disclose was never a good look, but mistakes were frequent. Fellow frontbencher Anthony Albanese said that “Tony Abbott has been someone who has put in late declarations over various issues over the years”.

Employment Minister Eric Abetz invoked the name of disgraced former Labor MP Craig Thomson who had used “union money to fund political activities personally beneficial” to get into parliament.