Between a ROC and a desperate government

Suddenly, newsfeeds were full of clips of federal police marching into union offices in Melbourne and Sydney. In the full glare of the media – tipped off by a staffer in employment minister Michaelia Cash’s office – the police re-emerged with computers and boxes of files. It was, as labour lawyer Josh Bornstein said, “an outrageous abuse of power”.

Why the urgency? What required such measures? The targets of the newly formed Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) were documents relating to 10-year-old, publicly declared donations by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) to GetUp! and ALP candidates in three Melbourne seats.

The urgency apparently came from a tip-off that the files were being concealed or destroyed, although copies had been deposited with the Heydon Royal Commission three years earlier. ROC commissioner Mark Bielecki initially claimed the AWU had refused to release the documents, only to retract, saying he’d confused the AWU with another organisation!

What unfolded over the next few days showed a government desperate for distraction, desperate to divert from the unfolding policy and party train wreck of High Court decisions, education, welfare and NDIS meltdown, climate and energy indecision, the NBN fiasco, a vengeful internal right wing and a growing electoral threat from One Nation.

In one sense the raid was a stunt: theatrics to take attention away from the government’s woes and turn the focus to what they see as Labor’s weak points – industrial relations and Bill Shorten. But it backfired badly. Michaelia Cash is now in the limelight. Cash, though damaged by the fallout from the raid, and several earlier overreaches, will not be sacked. Nor will she resign. She has proved far too useful for the Turnbull government, successfully ushering in laws that Abbott was unable to get passed.

Cash is an essential part of the class war that is fundamental to the Coalition's make-up, going all the way back to Menzies through Fraser and then Howard. Since Malcolm Turnbull scraped into parliament in July 2016, the Coalition has put up no fewer than six bills and additional amendments to the country’s labour laws. It’s also supported cuts to penalty rates and is seeking to remove all trace of union participation in superannuation governance.

A direct result of the Heydon Royal Commission and one trigger for the 2016 double dissolution election, the ROC has been in existence for only six months and is already having its powers and scope increased.

Supposedly countering “union corruption”, the ROC acts as another level of policing of all unions, focusing on governance, finances, administrative procedures, accountability, rules and regulations and union amalgamations. It can determine whether an official is “fit for office” based on such “transgressions” as suspension of right of entry permit, the critical right of union organisers to go onto the job.

The behaviour of past officials or members will also be considered. It can exclude groups of members, it can deregister a union, it can send in administrators who can determine the day-to-day workings of a union and control its finances. It has powers beyond normal processes and can refer cases to the federal and criminal courts.

With the Fair Work Act and its latest amendments, “Corrupting Benefits”, “Proper Use of Worker Benefits” and “Protecting Vulnerable Workers”, which attack rather than protect workers, the ROC, the ABCC and associated building code are all moves by the Coalition to criminalise much of ordinary union activity.

All this is not to let the ALP off the hook. When the Guardian’s First Dog on the Moon calls Bill Shorten “Bol Shevik”, that is purely irony. The ALP under his leadership is far from leading the workers’ struggle. The opposition supported the government’s aims for the ROC, though it argued for ASIC supervision rather than a new commission.

The unions have condemned the raid, but there’s been no industrial response. Instead of protest strikes, the unions have gone to the courts and let the ALP fight in parliament. ACTU secretary Sally McManus may well argue that bad laws must be broken, but so far her strategy has been to build union electoral support for an ALP government to “change the rules”, rather than to build a fighting union movement.

What we need now is a serious fight back against this government – and in the process to send an explicit message to the ALP that its support for anti-union laws will get the same treatment.