On 10 February 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott issued a joint media statement signifying his intention to recommend to the Governor-General the establishment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the alleged financial irregularities associated with the affairs of trade unions.

The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was established on 13 March 2014 by the former Governor-General, Her Excellency the Honourable Quentin Bryce AC CVO.

The Honourable John Dyson Heydon AC QC was appointed to lead the Royal Commission in accordance with the Terms of Reference.

Terms of Reference

The Terms of Reference which inform the Commission as to the scope of the inquiry are broad. The focus is to investigate financial irregularities within trade unions and registered employee associations, but it is not limited to particular organisations, allegations or industries.

The inquiry is to be conducted to gather the facts using three methods; oral testimony, documentary evidence, and circumstantial reasoning. The Commission has already held public hearings to gather evidence of this nature.

Significant Evidence

The Commission began the hearing process on 9 April 2014 and has heard evidence from over 120 witnesses during muchreported on public hearings.

The Australian Workers Union (AWU),the Communications, Electrical, Electronic, Energy, Information, Postal, Plumbing and Allied Services Union of Australia (CEPU), the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Health Services Union (HSU), the National Union of Workers (NUW), the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) have all been the subject of these hearings and related evidence has been submitted to the Commission.

Out of these hearings, some notable evidence has been provided relating to alleged misuse of funds, threatening conduct, and criminal activity.

Misuse of Funds

A significant line of inquiry for the Commission was the financial irregularities in union affairs and potential misuse of funds by union members and officials. One of the more high-profile witnesses was former Prime Minister Julia Gillard who gave evidence after the Commission had received evidence from an AWU official that funds linked to an association established to raise funds for union elections were used to pay a deposit on a property in Victoria in 1993. Both Ms Gillard and her former boyfriend, AWU official Bruce Wilson, have denied receiving any financial benefit for the union slush fund.

Threatening Conduct

Evidence has been given by an owner of a crane company, Albert Smith, which accuses the CFMEU of attempting to financially cripple his business. Mr Smith gave evidence that the CFMEU had threatened to end his company and remove the business from Townsville. Michael Ravbar, the CFMEU Divisional Branch Secretary for Queensland and the Northern Territory, has refuted these allegations saying there were heated discussions with Mr Smith, but no threat to ban his company.

Criminal Activity

As recently as mid-September, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner, Stephen Fontana, gave evidence at the Royal Commission of the involvement of organised crime in the building industry, naming the CFMEU as a particular concern.

Mr Fontana’s evidence detailed examples of criminal activity including threats of violence relating to debts on behalf of, or directly by, union officials, and the involvement of out-law motorcycle gang members in the intimidation of those involved in union affairs. While being unable to name particular union officials linked directly to organised crime, Mr Fontana clearly held concern for witnesses to organised crime in the building industry and called for their protection.

Future Direction

The Royal Commission has held public hearings as recently as late October 2014 Written submissions by Counsel assisting the Commission will be published online on 31 October 2014, and submissions by those who have appeared before the Commission must be lodged by 14 November 2014, also to be published online. Anyone affected by these submissions will have until 21 November 2014 to respond.

Following the conclusion of the lodgement of submissions by relevant parties, the Commissioner will deliver an interim report to the Governor General on 15 December 2014 which may detail the evidence received, the interim conclusions which have been drawn, and the likely recommendations that the Commissioner wishes to make.