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Has anybody here seen Labor’s Bobby?

When it comes to tackling union corruption, Bill Shorten should take a leaf out of the Kennedy playbook

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

Seven weeks after the release of the final report of the Royal Commission Into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, there is no evidence that the Labor Party is about to see the light. That report gave the lie to the claim that corruption within Australia’s union movement is limited to ‘a few bad apples’. Indeed, if there is not already an apposite collective noun for ‘bad apples’, then ‘union’ might be a worthy contender.

Yet, the belief among many conservatives that the Royal Commission’s findings will finally shame Bill Shorten and his colleagues into doing something about union corruption fundamentally misreads the prevailing Labor mindset. The modern Labor Party cannot be shamed. It does not apologise. It does not find fault with itself. It does not question its own performance. It does not take difficult decisions. Most of all, Labor does not do atonement. If it did, it would have accepted the Coalition’s mandate following the 2013 election and worked constructively on repairing the fiscal damage that will prove the only lasting legacy of the Rudd-Gillard era.

Although a great many Australians would have been shocked by the scale and scope of wrongdoing revealed by the Heydon Royal Commission, the depressing reality is that virtually no one within the ranks of the Labor Party would have been. From officials using union funds to purchase $150,000 vehicles for personal use, to the virtual extortion of political donations from shipping companies, to falsifying membership records, taking bribes and issuing death threats, the level of perfidy in some instances is staggering.

Yet, what has been the response of Australia’s oldest political party?

A stubborn refusal to concede there is a case for reform. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, it seems tribal loyalty is more important than doing the right thing by Australian workers.

In a highly competitive field, the prize for pure brazenness must go to Labor’s Shadow Minister for Industrial Relations, Brendan O’Connor. Unable to credibly take issue with the facts, he instead zeroed in on the literary merits of the report, claiming it had been ‘written by a B-grade editor of a sleazy tabloid’.This is indeed a bold claim – especially given the literary effusions of a David Marr or an Anne Summers are enough to provoke fits of rapture in Labor circles.

The fact that stylistic concerns were seemingly the central plank of Labor’s attack on the Royal Commission’s findings demonstrate how little room Labor actually has to move. Yet embarrassment alone will not be enough to spur the party into action. This is quite bizarre, given that moving against corrupt segments of the union movement carries little political risk for Bill Shorten. No matter how upset unions may be with a Labor leader who dared to reform the seamier aspects of the movement’s culture, they are unlikely to be so enraged they would shift their political support to the Coalition.

Put bluntly, in a compulsory voting system, Shorten has no legitimate reason to fear the wrath of the unions.

Labor figures to whom the term ‘statesman’ is routinely applied understand this. That’s why Shorten has been urged by two former Labor leaders – Bob Hawke and Simon Crean – to support efforts to tackle the union movement’s corrupt culture. One major reason Bob Hawke remains the only federal Labor leader to win more than one election in the lifetime of anyone aged under 40 was his ability to descry the waste-matter-of-a-cow’s-husband.

Clearly unimpressed with Labor’s response thus far, Hawke opened the new year by encouraging Bill Shorten to act on union corruption, saying ‘I wouldn’t tolerate it. You know what I did with the BLF — I would throw them out’. Likewise, Simon Crean said unions need to ‘get their house in order’ in the face of ‘substantial evidence of wrongdoing’.

Mr Shorten remains deaf to the sagacious words offered by his two predecessors – both of whom, incidentally, also served as President of the ACTU. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Labor leader’s entire approach to politics was inculcated through the union movement. It’s possible the reason he hasn’t signalled a changed approach is because he can’t conceive of one.

However, there is no reason for Shorten’s paucity of imagination to infect the entire Labor caucus. Since it is manifestly a waste of time appealing to Labor’s sense of moral rectitude, it may prove more efficient to appeal to the naked political ambition of its MPs. It is worth remembering that before his assassination and subsequent canonisation by the political left, Robert F. Kennedy achieved national recognition as a hard-edged, ruthless lawyer to the Senate Labor Rackets Committee, which spent the late 1950s investigating corruption within US labour unions. In so doing, he was shrewdly serving the interests of his brother, then-Senator John F. Kennedy, ahead of the 1960 presidential election.

As members of the Democratic Party, the easy path for the brothers Kennedy would have been to protect corrupt union figures, either by leaving the investigative work to the Republicans on the committee, or by actively running interference to protect such corruption. Not only did Bobby Kennedy pursue union corruption with all the prosecutorial zeal he later brought to social causes for which he is best remembered, but in so doing he defied threats of retribution that would destroy his brother’s viability as a presidential candidate. Through the force of his interrogations, Kennedy exposed the infiltration of organised crime within labour unions, through more than 500 hearings and the testimony of over 1,500 witnesses. This included exposing the largest union in the nation – the Teamsters – for its ties to the Mob.

His performance ultimately proved so politically effective that it drew the ire of a Republican on the committee, Senator Barry Goldwater.

Defying predictions within the Democratic establishment that exposing union corruption would destroy the Kennedy brand electorally, John F. Kennedy was elected President just seven months after the Senate Rackets Committee wound up.

As both the Hawke and the Kennedy examples show, crusading against union corruption is actually smart politics for politicians that fashion themselves as champions of the working class. Ultimately, voters want politicians who look after workers ahead of union bosses.

If anyone in today’s ALP dares to be a Bobby, they will dare to stand alone.

Simon Morgan is on the board of the HR Nicholls Society

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