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Issue #1638      May 14, 2014


Corruption – different forms, same source

The Royal Commission into “union corruption” has kicked off in spectacular fashion with former Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) official Ralph Blewitt telling the inquiry he put $90,000 of union members’ money towards buying a Melbourne home. Mr Blewitt previously claimed that he and fellow AWU official and boyfriend of Julia Gillard at the time, Bruce Wilson, had set up a slush fund to elect favoured candidates to trade union posts. Sensationalising tabloids and smugly conservative broadsheets will have a field day.

Many doubt the credibility of the witness, including his own sister who has labelled him has a “crook and rotten to the core.” But the damage to the reputation of unions in the mind of the public will be done. There are five unions being lined up for special treatment before the Royal Commission: the AWU, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Communications, Electrical, Electronic, Energy, Information, Postal, Plumbing and Allied Services Union of Australia (CEPU), the Health Services Union (HSU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU). ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons has warned all affiliates to be ready to be dragged before the inquisition.

The HSU will give up another rich supply of dirt. National secretary Kathy Jackson established a slush fund with the cynical name of the National Health Development Account for electing right-wing candidates to union posts inside and outside the HSU. Contributions came from far and wide.

The big end of town has some nasty experience of seemingly helpful inquiries getting out of hand. The Costigan Royal Commission into the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union promised to lift the lid on all sorts of criminality and dodgy practices to the embarrassment of the union movement. As the inquiry unfolded, however, the sources of the corruption and the fact that rogue elements within the Painters and Dockers were very small players, indeed, started to become clear.

Clues to the origins of questionable practices pointed to the very top of “respectable” society. Stores of print media ink previously reserved for attacking the union were suddenly deployed in a call for the winding up of the Royal Commission before any more reputations were destroyed by this “kangaroo court”. It is fine and proper if the law can be used to bludgeon the labour movement but quite another thing if members of the establishment get drawn into harm’s way.

The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption kicked off an inquiry into whether AWH, a water company linked to disgraced former Labor parliamentarian Eddie Obeid, used corrupt influence to overcharge the public water authority and position itself for a lucrative public private partnership. Initial Liberal Party glee evaporated as the workings of its own fund-raising machine and its own luminaries’ connections to questionable financial dealings became public knowledge. Liberal Premier of NSW Barry O’Farrell was the first Coalition casualty, followed by Upper House MP Marie Ficarra and other Libs Senator Arthur Sinodinis was forced to step down as Federal Assistant Treasurer while investigations proceed.

What a fine old mess! Is there a common thread to all these traumatic investigations and lurid revelations? Big private interests and the system that sustains them. Private interests that will do anything to get the drop on their competitors; that seek to milk the public coffers as greedily as possible; that pursue the greatest profits possible from the labour they exploit by neutralising trade unions’ ability to organise. That system will survive these latest scandals in the same stage managed way it always has up until now.

The greatest danger is to the trade unions – the working class’ main instrument for self-defence at present. The practices of a small number of right-wing movers and shakers will be used to tar the whole movement. The actions of genuine, militant trade unionists will be depicted as “thuggery” and/or “extortion”. Though unions set out to defend workers against the workings of the corrupt capitalist system, it is the trade unions that the media will seek to make synonymous with corruption. Look how it has made the emotive expression “union boss” part of everyday language.

Right now it is time to stand up for strong, independent trade unions committed to defending and advancing workers’ interests; to stand by those principled individuals who will be targeted by the Royal Commission and against the opportunists who ride high on the workers’ backs.

Next article – Cuban 5 support

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