It is ironic that an article attempting to explain Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten’s perceived unpopularity has appeared in a Newscorp media outlet1, when it is Newscorp which has been at the forefront of the attempt to damage Shorten’s ‘image’ among its readers ever since he became opposition leader. The only conclusion that the article came to, was that, as Shorten himself said: “When you’re the Opposition Leader, the only time you get on the media is by opposing. When you’re prime minister, you can be constructive.” This may be part of the problem, but it goes much deeper than this. It goes back to his connection with the union movement.
Conservative governments, with a great deal of help from Newscorp, as well as big business and their lobby groups, have been waging a propaganda war against unions for almost as long as I can remember. This went into overdrive under the prime ministership of John Howard2 and all came to a head with Prime Minister Tony Abbott instituting the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption under the clearly biased lead of Dyson Heydon. Even the name of the Royal Commission (…and corruption) suggests prejudice, and it was clear that this was mostly a fishing expedition. Indeed, Heydon’s report said: “It is clear that in many parts of the world constituted by Australian trade union officials, there is room for louts, thugs, bullies, thieves, perjurers, those who threaten violence, errant fiduciaries and organisers of boycotts.” But despite the best efforts of Abbott and Heydon, who referred just over 40 individuals and organisations to various authorities, including the police, the various directors of public prosecutions, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Fair Work Commission, very few people have been convicted of any criminal activity3. Subsequently, whenever the Morrison government refers to members of unions, they tend to associate it with the epithet ‘thugs’ just so the populace are constantly reminded who the baddies are. Contrast this with the abbreviated Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry which, despite its limited timeframe, uncovered malfeasance on an industrial scale. Unions do corruption; bankers only do misconduct. It pays to wear a tie to work, so that despite your criminal activity you’ll never be called a thug.
Bill Shorten and Julia Gillard were both called before the Union Royal Commission in an unsuccessful attempt to smear them4. Subsequently, the raid on the Australian Workers Union offices by the Australian Federal Police, seemingly at the instigation of the Registered Organisations Commission5, also drew a blank for the federal government. This turned out to be such a disaster for the government, that it seems crimes may have been committed by members of the federal government, or their staffers, in covering up their activities in relation to this raid6.
I was a member of a union for almost all my working life, as were many of my colleagues. Our union negotiated our workplace agreement, and despite the best efforts of assorted federal governments, they were reasonably successful. I was happy with the union that represented me and did not see a thug among them; just fairly adept negotiators.
I have never met Bill Shorten, so I don’t know him or what he is like. Like most people, I have only seen him on television and, in politics, this is always stage-managed, so you do not get to see what the person is like. Some time before Shorten entered politics, there was a cave in at the gold mine at Beaconsfield on April 25th, 2006, which killed Larry Knight and trapped Todd Russell and Brant Webb underground for 14 days7. Shorten was there almost all the time and was often the go-to person for the media when they needed information. This was, in part because, as he said: “The reality is, unions often know what’s going on before other people because these are our members”8. No ministers from the Howard government ever came down to Beaconsfield.
This anti-union propaganda has been constant for decades and continues today. There is no doubt it has infested every part of Australian society, much to the glee of conservative political parties. And it has been one of the tools used by them to attempt to smear Shorten. So, I doubt that it is only being opposition leader that has led to Shorten being ‘unpopular’. It is the association with the union movement which has been demonised by conservative governments ably abetted by Newscorp and other media, and big business’ lobbying organisations. However, the tide is beginning to turn, and despite the intention of the government in setting up both the Union Royal Commission and the AWU raid, the failure of both may hasten the process.