Dyson Heydon’s deliberations on whether or not he should stay at the helm of the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) after claims of apprehended bias are over. The former High Court Justice has dismissed the application from union lawyers and will continue in the role the Abbott Government appointed him to.
But the story it would seem is not yet over. The unions will consider a court appeal. The ALP, who stand to lose some political skin from the TURC, though probably not enough to lose the 2016 election, have decided that asking the Governor-General to remove Heydon is the way to go. It has been foreshadowed that the Australian Labor Party will couple this with attacks on the Liberal Party for their part in this situation, when parliament resumes from September 7.
In terms of principles of natural justice it is quite clear what should have happened in this instance. It is clear to almost anyone, except for the most wilfully blind supporters of the right side of politics that former Justice Heydon should have recused himself from further hearings of this commission. This would have blunted any attacks from Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. That Commissioner Heydon cancelled his appearance at the fundraiser at a later stage is irrelevant. The decision to say yes to attending the function in the first place says more than enough.
However, there is absolutely no case to say that the Royal Commission should not go ahead altogether. This is particularly the case now that the inquiry has been running for a number of months and is doing vital work, uncovering just how murky the world of industrial relations can be. Renewed calls from Labor for a police taskforce instead of the Royal Commission are a bit rich, considering they announced a commission of inquiry the topic of which similarly could have been examined by a special police body.
Back on the justice side of the equation, the Abbott Government could have used this opportunity to widen the terms of reference to include all forms of corrupt practices across institutions in the industrial relations space. If this had been done, then any squealing from the unions or the ALP about the continuation of the royal commission could have been met with derisory laughter, from both the Coalition and the electorate.
With an election less than a year away, it is worth a brief look at what the current state of affairs means for both the Coalition and Bill Shorten’s ALP.
The Coalition may gain a small amount of much needed political traction from the findings of the Royal Commission, particularly if there are further discoveries made about union activities during Bill Shorten’s time as a union representative. But it will not prove an electoral game-changer. A shift in electoral fortunes could only come from more substantive policy and political narrative changes made by the Abbott Government. That would have had to begin well before the people stopped listening. This critical point was likely reached more than 6 months ago.
The ALP is likely to suffer mildly as a result of future TURC hearings. There will be some more unease about the leadership of Bill Shorten, but the polls and the new rules around leadership challenges will make a change on that front almost an impossibility.
The Trade Union Royal Commission will not feature high on the list of reasons the Abbott Government will probably lose power in 2016. In fact to say it will be a feature at all is nonsense. This area of politics is generally one where most have a worldview firmly locked in on one side of the debate or the other.
There will be some more noise on this issue over the coming weeks, but it will likely not last. It is hard to sustain attacks on things which do not have wide appeal.
Australian politics will meander toward the next misstep or missteps. With every day we will get closer to the 2016 election. And the show that is the Trade Union Royal Commission will continue, with Dyson Heydon likely to remain in the chair.