Transport union's evidence to royal commission raises eyebrows

Anyone with even a vapour of awareness of public events knows by now that the main construction union in Australia, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, has many hard-working members but has also become an operational base for blackmailers and enforcers on a large scale, sometimes sub-contracting bikie gangs and career criminals when extra intimidation is needed.

So tainted has the CFMEU become by violence, blackmail and collusion that its enforcers inhabit the same milieu as several Muslim crime gangs in Sydney. The psychopath Khaled Sharrouf, currently murdering and decapitating people in Syria in the name of Islam, was known to pick up work as an enforcer in the construction industry in Sydney.

When Julia Gillard was Prime Minister, she shut down the industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, after fierce agitation by the CFMEU and the Greens. Now Bill Shorten is leading a rearguard action against re-establishing the ABCC, even after intimidation flourished after its demise. Shorten has also repeatedly denigrated the royal commission into union governance and corruption.

Which brings us to the most recent hearings of the commission. Last week the hearings featured another union with much to hide, the Transport Workers Union. On Thursday, the national secretary of the TWU, Tony Sheldon, did a dramatic job distracting journalists outside the commission from what went on inside by delivering an attack on the shocking waste of the commission and the "trivial" matters it was examining.

Let's see. On March 24 this year, the NSW secretary of the TWU made a statutory declaration that the NSW branch had 43,835 members. The declaration was filed with the Fair Work Commission.

The royal commission into unions began making inquiries. On July 22, the NSW branch announced an "amendment" to its membership roll. It said it now had 17,800 members. As amendments go, this was spectacular.

Given this chasm between reality and what the union had claimed, the commission has executed a search warrant and took possession of the TWU's membership rolls. Unions which grossly inflate their membership do so for obvious reasons. It increases their power at Labor conferences. It can also enable union officials to stay in power indefinitely by creating ghost majorities. 

It has long been a signpost to corrupt unions. The old Painters and Dockers Union, which was a criminal enterprise, used to have many members living at 91 Mort St, Balmain. It was then the address of The Star Hotel. 

If the TWU was willing and able to fabricate its rolls on such a brazen scale what else is it willing to do? The royal commission has heard that the giant logistics company, Toll Holdings, had paid $350,000 into a TWU "training" fund, a standard bribe, to buy industrial peace. 

On July 3 the commission heard evidence that Toll has also been paying $50,000 a year to the TWU to harass its competitors. The commission has also heard that Toll was obliged to have its staff use TWU Super as their superannuation fund. 

Super has proved to be a lucrative source of funding for the TWU. The commission has discovered the union is milking at least $1 million a year from TWU Super, via $200,000 in directors' fees, $500,000 in salaries for super "liaison officers", and $100,000 in sponsorship and special payments such as the $93,400 bill TWU Super paid for a TWU official to give a two-day seminar to members in Tasmania about TWU Super. 

The commission has also turned over an election slush fund known as the McLean Forum Ltd. It has been used well beyond the TWU. In 2010, the fund spent $200,000 on the election for the TWU's Queensland branch. It also spent $50,000 on a campaign in the corruption-plagued Health Services Union. It has spent $70,000 on election campaigns of the Flight Attendants Association of Australia. 

It is illegal for a union to secretly bankroll an election campaign in another union, but another $20,000 was funnelled from the TWU to the Electrical Trades Union Officers' Fund and the commission has heard evidence that TWU officials would be placed on fake leave so they could work on union election campaigns. 

What links these unions is that they are integral to the power base of the Labor right faction, led by Sheldon, and others, including Senator Stephen Conroy. 

On Thursday, Sheldon was the star witness at the royal commission. Although he has a gift for drama he has also the capacity to be the clown prince of the union movement. 

Asked if $7036 from the McLean Forum was used as a personal benefit, because it went straight to his campaign to become national president of the Labor Party, he replied: "I wouldn't see it as a benefit. I'd see it actually as a public service". He maintained a straight face. 

Asked if he had disclosed this personal benefit, he replied, brilliantly: "It is within the remit of what people would expect us to do". A simpler mind might have just said "no". 

Asked if he knew anything about the absurdly inflated and fabricated membership roll of the NSW branch, he replied that he did not know about such things. He was the national secretary, not state secretary. Sheldon merely shares an office with the NSW branch in Sussex Street. 

There are so many gems within the several hundred pages of transcript of last week's hearing. The richness of the material demands further scrutiny. At the end of Sheldon's testimony, the commissioner, former high court judge Dyson Heydon, who is famously dry (some might say infamously), smiled faintly, excused the witness, then added, "Your evidence has been very interesting".




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