Bill Shorten’s union payments may ‘offend parts of the Fair Work Act’

Labor leader Bill Shorten is due to appear before the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption early next month to address claims that the AWU engaged in corruption under his leadership.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has been summoned to appear before the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

Shorten faces questioning over the deals he reached with companies during his time as leader of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU).

Faifax Media reported that between 2005 and 2007, Thiess John Holland paid the AWU almost $300,000 – it was suggested that the company’s workers’ conditions had been cut under the workplace deal overseen by Shorten.

Senior industrial relations lawyer Jeffrey Phillips SC questioned the legality of a 2005 payment made by Thiess to the AWU under Shorten's leadership when he was negotiating the $2.5-billion East Link toll road in Melbourne.

In 2006-2007, a total of $190,875 was paid to the Victorian and National branches of the AWU. The following year, a further $20,917 was paid to the state branch.

"There's a very large payment to the union one would have hoped that was fully disclosed to the union members," Jeffrey Phillips SC told the ABC. "Otherwise it just does raise very serious questions in relation to the propriety or the appropriateness of such a thing, also whether there was a serious conflict of interest."

He added that the payments could have potentially "offended parts of the Fair Work Act".

“[They] may even offend, at its very worst, aspects of the Crimes Act with respect to matters such as misleading statements of a dishonest kind — if these weren't matters told to members," he said. "Or indeed it might even amount to a secret commission. And a secret commission is a matter which is very much under the province of the criminal law."

However, former audit commission chief Tony Shepherd – who was chairman of Connect East, the company that subcontracted Thiess, told the Australian Financial Review that the whole situation was “a great agreement”.

Labor frontbencher Richard Marles also defended Shorten, saying it was “an absolutely impeccable agreement which paid record rates to the people involved for an urban civil construction project in this country”.

Shorten’s lawyer, Leon Zwier, has reportedly advised him not to comment on the issues before the hearing takes place.

Commissioner Dyson Heydon confirmed yesterday that the hearing will take place on July 8, after a request from Shorten to bring its date forward was granted.

Shorten was national secretary of the AWU from 2001 to 2007, and state secretary of the Victorian branch from 1998 to 2006.

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