Australian union probe finds misconduct 'widespread, deep-seated'

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said a Bill to set up an independent watchdog for unions would be strengthened,
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said a Bill to set up an independent watchdog for unions would be strengthened, PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - An Australian inquiry into trade union corruption on Wednesday (Dec 30) reported "widespread" and "deep-seated" misconduct, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling for reform and the establishment of an independent regulator.

The conservative Liberal-National Coalition launched the royal commission to investigate alleged corruption among leading trade unions almost two years ago, despite criticism it was being used to conduct a witch-hunt.

High-profile politicians from the opposition Labor party were grilled, including former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and current Labor leader Bill Shorten, a former union chief.

"This is not a case of a few rotten apples spoiling the whole barrel," Mr Turnbull told reporters after the report was released on Wednesday, adding that his government had an "absolutely unwavering" commitment to reform.

"There are many union officials and widespread cultures of impropriety and malpractice as set out in the report."

Mr Turnbull said a Bill to set up an independent watchdog for unions would be strengthened, while a police task force attached to the inquiry would be given more funding.

Former High Court judge and commission chair Dyson Heydon said he found "widespread misconduct" during the inquiry and that it would be "utterly naive to think that what has been uncovered is anything other than the small tip of an enormous iceberg".

He recommended an independent watchdog be established to look into union administration and finances and referred several former officials - but not Mr Shorten or Ms Gillard, who provided legal advice to a union when she was a lawyer - to the authorities over allegations that they may have broken the law.

"These aberrations cannot be regarded as isolated. They are not the work of a few rogue unions, or a few rogue officials," wrote Mr Heydon, who faced pressure to step down as chair on accusations of bias.

"The misconduct exhibits great variety. It is widespread. It is deep-seated.

"(I)t is clear that in many parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts."

The Labor party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions on Wednesday both slammed the commission's report and recommendations as politically motivated - comments rejected by Mr Turnbull.

"This report, if it is heeded, if its recommendations are implemented... then the trade union movement will be stronger," Mr Turnbull said. "It is a real watershed moment."

Trade union membership in Australia fell to some 15 per cent in 2014, according to the most recent figures published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, from about 40 per cent in 1990.