Public inquiry 'a smear campaign'

Labor leader Bill Shorten had been criticised for giving "non- responsive answers".
Labor leader Bill Shorten had been criticised for giving "non-responsive answers".PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SYDNEY • An ongoing royal commission into unions in Australia has taken a heavy toll on the "alternative prime minister", Mr Bill Shorten, who was forced to spend hours as a witness giving testimony about his days as a former union boss.

The public inquiry, set up last year by the ruling coalition, has been criticised by the opposition and some analysts as a "smear campaign" designed to damage the Labor Party, which is closely aligned with the union movement. 

The commission proved embarrassing for former prime minister Julia Gillard, who gave testimony last year about her role as a lawyer decades ago working for a union.

She was cleared of fraud or criminality in setting up a union "slush fund" - which was used for fraudulent purposes - but was criticised for her "lapse in professional judgment".

The commission also looked at other allegations of union impropriety and examined the work of Mr Shorten, who was national secretary of the Australian Workers Union before his election to Parliament in 2007. The current Labor leader was grilled for two days on political donations and deals he set up with employers.

It was a deeply embarrassing ordeal for Mr Shorten, who made a swift political rise after becoming popular as a union leader when he became the face of a mine collapse that left workers trapped for days underground in 2006. Following his appearance at the commission, he faced calls to quit and his approval ratings plunged.

His credibility as a witness was questioned by the royal commissioner,  Mr Dyson Heydon,  who said Mr Shorten had been giving "non-responsive answers".

An opinion poll by Essential showed his approval rating had dropped from 32 to 27 per cent since last month and his disapproval rating rose from 45 to 52 per cent, with the rest uncommitted. But Labor remains ahead of the coalition in surveys of party support.

Mr Shorten accused Prime Minister Tony Abbott of using the "low rent" royal commission to target his opponents, inviting Mr Abbott to a public debate on industrial relations.

"I answered over 900 questions in Tony Abbott's royal commission," he told reporters. "It is A$80 million (S$80.8 million) spent to smear its political opponents. If Mr Abbott has the courage of his convictions, he shouldn't be hiding behind a royal commission to do his political dirty work."

Many analysts agreed that the commission was largely a political exercise to target Labor. So far it appears to have succeeded.

Jonathan Pearlman

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'Public inquiry 'a smear campaign''. Print Edition | Subscribe