The former high court judge in charge of the royal commission into trade unions has challenged Bill Shorten over answers given to the inquiry, warning the Labor leader’s credibility as a witness is at risk.
A day after it emerged that a $40,000 donation to his 2007 election campaign was only declared this week, the former union boss’s credibility as a witness was on Thursday directly called into question by commissioner Dyson Heydon.
Mr Shorten, speaking outside the hearing, later said he understood commissioner Heydon had a job to do, but that “it’s Tony Abbott’s royal commission”.
The Labor leader had earlier been grilled about payments totalling more than $300,000, made by construction company Thiess John Holland to the Australian Workers Union, when Mr Shorten was in charge.
The deal came on top of an enterprise bargaining agreement relating to Melbourne’s EastLink road project, approved in March 2005, that Mr Shorten, as Victorian AWU secretary, negotiated with Thiess.
Mr Shorten’s response prompted counsel assisting the inquiry, Jeremy Stoljar, to suggest he was being evasive.
Mr Shorten was then warned by commissioner Dyson Heydon.
“A lot of your answers are non-responsive, some are responsive but then add something that isn’t responsive,” commissioner Heydon said.
“You, if I can be frank about it, have been criticised in the newspapers in the last few weeks, and I think it’s generally believed that you have come here in the hope you will be able to rebut that criticism or a lot of it.
“I’m not very troubled about that though I can understand that you are, and it’s legitimate for you to use this occasion to achieve your ends in that regard. What I’m concerned about more is your credibility as a witness.”
Mr Shorten, outside the commission headquarters in Sydney, said he was satisfied with the opportunity to “put forward the case for Labor and the case for standing up for workers”.
“What happened in the royal commission is that I answered hundreds of questions on my record standing up for Australian workers in Tony Abbott’s royal commission and, indeed, I answered enough questions until the commission finished earlier than expected,” he said.
Labor’s spokesman on workplace relations Brendan O’Connor said “it was a remarkable intervention” on the part of commissioner Heydon, adding that the comments were “prejudicial”.
“I’ve said all along this is a witch-hunt,” Mr O’Connor said.
But Liberal frontbencher Eric Abetz said it was the Labor Party that had been running a campaign to smear the commission.
“The evidence speaks for itself and all I would invite you to do is have a look at the comments of Bob Hogg … and there’s no need for me to amplify that.”
Mr Hogg, the former ALP national secretary, said Mr Shorten should resign after the revelation he had failed to declare the $40,000 donation.
The commission on Thursday also examined a deal between the AWU and glassmaker ACI, and $480,000 paid over a two-year period for education and training.
Mr Stoljar put it to Mr Shorten that it was a “serious conflict of interest” that an EBA was being negotiated with ACI “at the same time some side deal has been entered into”.
“Isn’t this really the position that the paid education income simply went into the consolidated revenue … of the union and used whatever way the union thought fit?” Mr Stoljar asked.
Mr Shorten responded that it was a good idea to provide training.
“I don’t regard it as a conflict of interest,” he said.