EDITORIAL: Union inquiry goes on

Dyson Heydon TRADE unions, not surprisingly, are unhappy that royal commissioner Dyson Heydon has dismissed their bid to have the former High Court judge step aside from his probe into corruption among their ranks.
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It had been alleged that, because the commissioner had agreed to deliver an address to a Liberal Party fundraising event, the public might perceive him to be biased towards the Abbott government’s anti-union agenda.

The commissioner withdrew from his speaking engagement after the controversy erupted in the press, explaining that he had ‘‘overlooked’’ links between the annual Garfield Barwick address and the Liberal Party. He has, however, stated that he would be willing to deliver the Barwick address at some time in the future, when he was no longer presiding over this royal commission.

Ruling on his own case, Mr Heydon has declared himself unbiased and ready to keep the corruption inquiry rolling ahead. ‘‘It could not rationally be concluded that a person who merely agrees to give a legal address at such an event, albeit organised by the lawyer branches of the Liberal Party, believes in, supports or has any relevant association with the Liberal Party,’’ the commissioner stated in his decision.

Whether many members of the public care much either way is a matter for conjecture. It appears to be a commonly held belief that the Abbott government started the commission for political reasons. Many people appear to agree with the contention that numerous other matters might be examined by a royal commission with greater prospect of real benefit to the nation than can be expected from this trade union inquiry.

But even if that view is accepted, not many Australians seem to have much sympathy for the union movement in this particular situation. Union membership has been dropping for years, and many remaining members often complain that their unions have become bureaucratic behemoths with only sporadic focus on workplace problems.

Indeed, the royal commission has revealed many shocking facts about the way some unions have operated, about their relationships with some employers and their influence on national politics through the Australian Labor Party.

Despite all that, one suspects that, on balance, many people probably regard the controversy as yet another partisan sideshow occurring during a highly charged period in Australian political life. Some might relish the discomfiture of the unions and the ALP, while others may equally have enjoyed the spectacle of some seemingly awkward moments for the commissioner and the government that appointed him.

The unions’ failed attempt to remove the commissioner may ensure, however, that more people pay attention to the commission’s future proceedings.

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