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Abbott Government Establishes Royal Commission Into Union Corruption

The Abbott government has established a Royal Commission into union governance and corruption.

The announcement, anticipated over recent weeks, was made by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Employment Minister Senator Eric Abetz and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis at a press conference in Canberra.


The Royal Commission will be headed by former High Court Justice John Dyson Heydon.

Abbott said the Royal Commission stemmed from the government’s commitment to the rule of law and compared it to the government’s policy on border protection. The Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, said: “This is a matter of widespread culture.” Abbott described it as “a culture of cover-up”. They argued there was no reason why a Royal Commission could not run concurrently with police investigations.

The ministers attacked Opposition Leader Bill Shorten for his opposition to the Royal Commission.

The announcement comes a day before the return of parliament for 2014. Abbott denied there was a political motive in the timing, alluding to the likely dominance of the Schapelle Corby and bushfire stories in the evening media.

The commission’s terms of reference specifically mention “separate entities” relating to the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), the Health Services Union (HSU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU).

Joint press release from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Employment Minister Senator Eric Abetz and Attorney-General Senator George Brandis.


I will be recommending to the Governor-General, Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO, the establishment of a Royal Commission to inquire into alleged financial irregularities associated with the affairs of trade unions.

It will inquire into the activities relating to ‘slush funds’ and other similar funds and entities established by, or related to, the affairs of these organisations.

This will not be an inquiry into trade unionism or the day to day activities of honest trade union officials.

Instead, it will address increasing concern arising from a wide range of revelations and allegations involving officials of unions establishing and benefiting from funds which have been set up for purposes which are often unknown and frequently unrelated to the needs of their members.

We don’t want honest workers to be ripped off by dishonest union bosses.

Before the election the Coalition promised to establish a judicial inquiry into the Australian Workers’ Union slush fund scandal. This announcement honours that promise.

A number of similar allegations have also been raised in relation to many other funds established by officials of other unions. These strongly indicate there are systemic issues involving secret funds, commissions and kickbacks that need to be considered.

In addition, recent allegations of corrupt behaviour, unlawful kickbacks and standover tactics in the construction industry have made it clear that there is a need for serious scrutiny of allegedly corrupt conduct, wherever it may occur.

As a result, the terms of reference are not limited to any particular organisations, particular allegations or particular industries. The inquiry will be able to go wherever the evidence leads it. This means that union officials, employers and any other persons who are involved in such conduct will be subject to equal scrutiny.

In order to make this a truly national inquiry, I also intend to ask each of the State Premiers to arrange for their State to issue letters patent in the same terms to confer equivalent State commissions on the Royal Commissioner.

The Government will submit the proposed terms of reference to Her Excellency at the next available opportunity, pursuant to the Royal Commissions Act 1902.

The Government will also recommend that The Honourable John Dyson Heydon AC QC be appointed as Commissioner to lead this inquiry. A former High Court Judge, His Honour has a distinguished legal career and I am pleased to confirm his willingness to accept this appointment.

The Attorney-General and the Minister for Employment will co-ordinate any Government work associated with this inquiry.

Terms of Reference for the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.


The Royal Commissioner will inquire into and report on:

1. The governance arrangements of any separate entities established by registered employee associations or their officers, purportedly for industrial purposes or for the welfare of their members, with particular regard to:

(a) the financial management of such entities;

(b) the adequacy of existing laws as they relate to such entities with respect to:

(i) the integrity of financial management; and
(ii) the accountability of officers of registered employee associations to their members in respect of the use of funds and other assets in relation to such entities;

(c) whether such entities are used, or have been used for any form of unlawful purpose;

(d) the use of funds solicited in the name of any such entities, for the purpose of furthering the interests of:

(i) a registered employee association;
(ii) officers of a registered employee association;
(iii) members of a registered employee association; or
(iv) any other person, association or organisation.

2. Without limiting the matters in paragraph 1, alleged activities relating to the establishment or operation of any such entities as they relate to the various registered branches of the following employee associations:

(a) the Australian Workers Union;
(b) the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union;
(c) the Electrical Trades Union;
(d) the Health Services Union;
(e) the Transport Workers Union; and
(f) any other person, association or organisation in which in respect of which credible allegations of involvement in such activities are made.

3. The circumstances in which funds are sought from any third parties and paid to such entities.

4. Where such entities and activities related thereto exist, the extent to which persons represented by registered employee association:

(a) are protected from any adverse effects or negative consequences arising from their existence; or
(b) are informed of their existence; or
(c) are able to have influence or control of their operation; or
(d) have the opportunity to hold officers of such associations accountable for any alleged wrongdoing.

5. Any conduct which may amount to a breach of any applicable law, regulation or professional standard by any officer of a registered employee association in order to:

(a) procure an advantage for themselves or another person, association or organisation; or
(b) cause a detriment to a person, association or organisation.

6. Any conduct in relation to such entities which may amount to a breach of any applicable law, regulation or professional standard by officers of registered industrial employee associations who hold, by virtue of their position, a position of responsibility in relation to any such entities.

7. Any bribes, secret commissions or other unlawful payments or benefits arising from contracts, arrangements or understandings between registered employee associations or their officers and any other party.

8. The participation of any persons, associations or organisations other than registered employee associations or their officers in conduct of the type described in paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7.

9. The adequacy and effectiveness of existing systems of regulation and law enforcement in dealing with any conduct of the type described in paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 6, 7 or 8, and in particular, the means of redress available to registered employee associations and their members who have suffered a detriment as a result of such conduct.

10. Any issue or matter reasonably incidental to the above.


registered employee association means an organisation registered under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009, its predecessor legislation or equivalent State legislation, and as defined by section 12 of the Fair Work Act 2009.

law means a law of the Commonwealth or of a State or Territory.

officer of a registered employee association means any employee or elected officer holder of such an organisation.

Organisation includes any registered industrial organisation, corporate entity or association, whether incorporated or not.

separate entity means a fund, organisation, account or other financial arrangement that is either a separate legal entity to a registered industrial organisation and/or is not covered by the statutory financial reporting obligations that the organisation is subject to under the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009, its predecessor legislation or equivalent State legislation.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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