Lawyers for the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) have accused a senior executive of the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) of “accommodating” the political interests of then federal jobs minister Michaelia Cash when the regulator started an investigation into the union in October, 2017.
- Union lawyers questioned why the head of the ROC made inquiries about the AWU matters himself
- The regulator’s lawyer said there was “nothing improper” about the chief executive’s actions
- The investigation was into AWU donations made when opposition leader Bill Shorten ran the union
Closing submissions have been made in the civil trial brought by the AWU against the ROC, aimed at halting an investigation into union donations to activist group GetUp! in 2006, when Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was head of the union.
The investigation came to prominence on the afternoon of October 24, 2017 when media outlets were tipped off to imminent Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on the union’s offices in Melbourne and Sydney.
The next day, it was revealed the media leak came from the office of Senator Cash, who had referred the investigation to the ROC in early August that year.
Lawyers for the AWU have focused on the course of action taken by ROC executive director Chris Enright between August and October, 2017.
“He wants to hide the fact he’s [been] accommodating the Minister,” the AWU’s lawyer, Herman Borenstein QC, told the court today.
The civil trial has heard that on August 12, 2017 Mr Enright read a weekend newspaper report about a letter Senator Cash had written to the ROC referring her concerns about possible breaches of union rules when the AWU gave $100,000 to GetUp as it was starting up.
At work the next Monday he immediately followed up, trying to determine whether relevant documents had been lodged with the Fair Work Commission, which handled those sort of inquiries before the ROC was operating.
Mr Enright also contacted the Department of Employment and Senator Cash’s Parliament House office to find out if there was a letter, and when it might arrive.
Documents seized during raids remain sealed
The court heard the letter was sent via ordinary mail and arrived 10 days later.
“Why should Mr Enright be more concerned about the urgency of the arrival of the letter … [than the Minister],” Mr Borenstein said.
“He has a particular view of his relationship and obligations when the Minister is involved.”
Within a matter of days Senator Cash sent another letter about further union donations in 2007 to ALP election campaigns — including Mr Shorten’s run for the seat of Maribyrnong.
The ROC sought a warrant for the raids because a union whistleblower had said the union was planning to destroy documents, the court has heard.
The union denies this and the documents seized during the raids remain sealed up, because the AWU launched this case the very next day.
The AWU has argued the referral by Senator Cash, the investigation by the ROC and the raids by the AFP were all politically motivated to portray Mr Shorten in a bad light.
AWU lawyers questioned why Mr Enright made contact himself and did not delegate to other officers.
“We say that’s a curious course of conduct for a person in charge,” Mr Borenstein said.
The court heard Mr Enright called Senator Cash’s office as the raids were taking place, to alert them to the media interest.
‘Nothing improper or inappropriate’ in ROC boss’s actions
But the ROC’s lawyer, Frank Parry QC, told the court there was nothing wrong with Mr Enright’s actions.
“There’s nothing improper or inappropriate for a public servant like Mr Enright to inform the Minister that we [the ROC] are conducting the execution of the warrants as it’s becoming a public affair,” Mr Parry said.
Lawyers for the union have argued the ROC should have been independent and that Mr Enright did not understand the relationship between ROC and the Minister.
“It might not be sinister, but our submission is he misunderstood it,” Mr Borenstein told the court.
But Mr Parry said it was unfair not to directly put these claims to Mr Enright during the trial.
“It is not now the time to come up with some different explanation for why Mr Enright was doing what he was doing,” Mr Parry told the court.
In his evidence on February 28, Mr Enright said he was aware of the political sensitivities of the investigation but denied he was assisting a political agenda.
He told the court he had a responsibility to keep the Minister informed of issues within her portfolio.
When she was in the witness box three weeks ago, Senator Cash also denied her actions were designed to politically damage Mr Shorten.
During the trial, the court heard the AWU investigation is the only probe to have been referred to the ROC by a minister.
Justice Mordecai Bromberg will hand down his decision on a date to be set.
Topics: courts-and-trials, unions, government-and-politics, liberals, alp, melbourne-3000, canberra-2600, australia
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