Tony Abbott has made appearing at a royal commission a “rite of passage” for Labor leaders, says Bill Shorten.
Mr Shorten, a former Australian Workers Union secretary, told reporters at the end of two days of giving evidence at the union royal commission he had answered hundreds of questions and there had been no evidence of any conflict of interest.
“I think it’s part of the rite of passage for a Labor leader that in Mr Abbott’s government you get called before a royal commission,” he said in Sydney on Thursday.
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.
The remarks were seized on by Labor spokesman on workplace relations Brendan O’Connor who said “it was a remarkable intervention” on the part of commissioner Heydon.
The commission had already heard that payments totalling more than $300,000 were made by Thiess 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.
But Mr Shorten’s response to questions about the deal prompted counsel assisting the inquiry, Jeremy Stoljar, to suggest he was being evasive. Mr Shorten was then also 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 O’Connor said the comments were “prejudicial” and called into question the motives of the establishment of the commission.
“I’ve said all along this is a witch-hunt,” Mr O’Connor said. 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.
Mr Shorten was also grilled about a deal he help negotiate with Australia’s biggest mushroom farm, Chiquita Mushrooms, in which the company paid $4000 a month from September 2003 to February 2004 for “paid education leave”.
It’s been alleged the company saved money in the deal but workers were worse off.