Blackmail charges withdrawn: another flop for Coalition’s union witch-hunt 

Once again the government’s anti-union witch-hunt has come undone. The latest debacle for the Coalition is the spectacular abandonment of blackmail charges against the Victorian CFMMEU’s John Setka and Shaun Reardon. The charges were laid over a health and safety dispute with notorious Melbourne-based building firm Grocon that flowed through to Boral. 

The Coalition looks, writes Jenna Price in the Fairfax press, “like liars, cheats and fakers, orchestrating one disaster after another”. Millions of dollars have been squandered on a series of witch-hunts arising from the many lurid and unsubstantiated claims aired in the 2014 Heydon Royal Commission. 

Before Setka and Reardon’s victory in the courts, similar charges against ACT CFMMEU organiser John Lomax came crashing down. In 2015, during the Canberra Royal Commission hearings and in the full glare of the media (remember the press tip-off in the 2017 Australian Workers’ Union raid), the union’s ACT office was raided by heavily armed police and ABCC (Australian Building and Construction Commission) officials. 

Lomax was arrested and charged with blackmail over an industrial dispute about wage rates. The case was dropped in October 2015. All of the union documents were returned, and the police were forced to pay all of the union’s costs over the raid. In the same week that Setka and Reardon won, John Lomax won a court order requiring the Federal Police to pay him compensation for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution

Criminal investigations over a possible 11 charges against former AWU secretary and now Labor MP Cesar Melham were also dropped on 17 May. Victoria Police’s $6 million “Taskforce Heracles” investigation into Melham, Setka, Reardon and other trade unionists was quietly folded last year.

In Setka and Reardon’s case, once again the police went outrageously over the top in dealing with the union officials. After tailing John Setka for hours on a Sunday, police pulled his car over and bailed him up on the street, with his two kids still in the back. Setka was dragged down to the station and slapped with the charges, while a media release about his arrest was being circulated. 

The criminal allegations against Setka and Reardon stemmed from a meeting between the union officials and Boral executives in 2013. The trumped-up charges didn’t surface until 2015 after Boral chief Mike Kane suggested to a sympathetic Dyson Heydon that union activity should be hemmed in by “anti-racketeering” laws.

The arrests and charges represented a potentially very dangerous phase of legal assault on unions. Industrial relations academic Andrew Stewart commented that the case would “take the law back a couple of centuries where industrial action and trade union activities were essentially controlled through the criminal law”. 

We should celebrate that they have been dropped. The victory, in part, is because the CFMMEU and supporters have continued to rally and “break the law” to protest and protect union rights on the job.

But this government has relentlessly pursued unions, using all available weapons in its arsenal to criminalise and fine them. It has created new weapons where needed, with more on the way. Making it illegal for unions to do their job, as John Setka said after the charges were withdrawn, is designed to put unions “on the wrong side of the law” – to criminalise and delegitimise them.

We have to challenge these laws, stand up to anti-union organisations like the ABCC and fight the government’s agenda. Winning this battle is a small step towards that. But with Labor leader Bill Shorten pointedly declaring that he won’t “protect anyone breaking the law” at the same time as ALP sources tell the media that Labor has no plans to ease strike restrictions if elected,  it’s clear that the fight isn’t just with Turnbull and Co.