Two years ago Fairfax Media threw the lid off Bill Shorten’s political and union past.
The impact of the stories was magnified by the parallel running of Tony Abbott’s royal commission on trade unions.
Most disturbing of the Fairfax revelations were deals done by Shorten’s Australian Workers Union involving large employer payments to the union coinciding with inferior workplace deals for members.
The revelations pointed to a culture in the AWU of prioritising Labor factional battles over members’ interests.
Lesser among the revelations was the AWU’s $25,000 donation to Shorten’s campaign for the seat of Maribyrnong in Melbourne’s inner west at the 2007 federal election.
It is the union’s handling of this donation, plus a $100,000 gift to help establish activist group GetUp! that were the ostensible reasons for Tuesday’s extraordinary Australian Federal Police raids on the AWU offices in Melbourne and Sydney.
Many across the political spectrum acknowledge that the royal commission was in large part aimed at discrediting the Labor leader by raking through the worst of his union wheeling and dealing.
For all its faults, however, the royal commission did appropriately focus on AWU deals that seemed to sell out members – the biggest of union sins.
But, after almost two years of probing and grilling, the royal commission failed to nail Shorten on anything. He walked away bruised but far from beaten. The one time union chief is well placed to be Australia’s next prime minister.
Which may help explain Tuesday’s theatrical, media-conscious raids, which seemed way out of proportion to the matters under investigation.
The raids are about relatively modest donations to Labor candidates, including Shorten, and to a community activist group.
In reality union contributions to Labor and other campaigns are legal and commonplace. Countless such gifts have been made by unions in the past decade. The AWU was key to the founding of the ALP; it has been contributing to Labor for more than 100 years.
In the case of the Maribyrnong donation the union appears to have breached its own rules by delegating campaign donation decisions to then national secretary, Bill Shorten. The national executive should have made such decisions.
And in the case of the GetUp! donation it appears both the national and Victorian AWU branches did not keep proper records.
Yes there may have been technical breaches of rules 10 years ago, but there is no question about the union executive’s support for both Shorten’s parliamentary push and the founding of GetUp!
In August Employment Minister Senator Michaelia Cash told parliament that Shorten’s spending of union money may face similar scrutiny to that applied to disgraced former Health Services Union secretary and MP Craig Thomson.
In late 2015, the Federal Court ordered Thomson to pay fines and compensation of more than $300,000 over misuse of his union’s funds.
Much of that finding related to whether the HSU properly authorised Mr Thomson to spend union resources on his campaign for the seat of Dobell in 2007.
Workplace law expert Professor Andrew Stewart told Fairfax on Tuesday it appeared the current investigation into the AWU donations was also about whether the spending was authorised.
“What puzzles me is if that’s what they’re on about how come that it didn’t come out in the royal commission?”
Professor Stewart said it was clearly within the remit of the AWU to support political candidates and campaigns.
Thomson’s case was made especially explosive by the controversy surrounding the HSU and his use of at least some of the funds on sex workers.
The AWU matters now under investigation are not in the same league.
It is hard not to conclude that the AFP raids, instigated by the Registered Organisations Commission after referrals from the Turnbull government, are a misjudged and disproportionate overreach.