If Tony Abbott announcing a royal commission into trade unions feels like deja vu, don't worry.

The prime minister has been there, done that.

The Heydon commission, announced on Monday, has many similarities with the Cole royal commission into the building industry set up by an ambitious workplace relations minister in the Howard government.

Mr Abbott established that commission in 2001 following allegations of criminal activity by the construction and building union.

Terence Cole detailed 392 instances of unlawful activity by individuals, unions and employers, recommending 31 people face criminal charges.

But, as Labor and the union movement point out repeatedly, the commission produced no criminal prosecutions.

From its 212 recommendations, the most important was the establishment of a tough industry watchdog – the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

Fast-forward to 2014, and the government is again tackling what it claims is thuggery and corruption in the building and construction industry amid fresh allegations of bribery, kickbacks and links to organised crime.

It is also attempting to re-establish the ABCC after it was disbanded by the Gillard government.

Labor and the Greens are thwarting that move in the Senate.

While Mr Abbott, in opposition, promised a judicial inquiry into an Australian Workers Union slush fund linked to former prime minister Julia Gillard, the latest allegations against the CFMEU, along with the Health Services Union scandal, have given him sufficient ammunition to raise the level of investigation to a royal commission.

It will act as justification for the coalition’s long-promised crackdown on unions and their influence in Australian workplaces.

“Sometimes you need to shine a big spotlight, a great big spotlight, into the dark corners of our national life,” Mr Abbott says.

“We’re on the side of the honest unionist, we’re on the side of the honest worker against the dodgy official.”

While the Cole inquiry gave former prime minister John Howard good reasons to reform the industry, there are no guarantees Mr Abbott will get a similar result.

Thirty years ago the Costigan royal commission into the notorious Painters and Dockers Union blew up in the faces of the Fraser government, when it uncovered elaborate “bottom of the harbour” tax-evasion schemes that benefited the wealthy.

High-profile businessman Kerry Packer was famously and erroneously linked to tax evasion and organised crime, including drug trafficking, pornography and murder.

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox acknowledges the possibility of a similar outcome.

“The thing about royal commissions is once you light the match, you don’t quite know where it’s going to go.”

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, a former national secretary of the AWU, is quick to remind Mr Abbott of the difficulty in containing royal commissions.

He argues that police, not royal commissions, catch criminals.

“What they don’t need is a bunch of politicians pontificating for weeks and years and months and a lawyers picnic.”

Mr Shorten also wants dodgy employers to face investigation and business groups are readying themselves for that prospect.

“Collusion takes two parties,” Master Builders chief Wilhelm Harnisch says.

The Gyles royal commission exposed that when it looked at the NSW building industry in 1992.

The coalition-initiated inquiry found evidence of widespread lack of integrity and probity amongst the management of contractors and others involved in the industry.

Dishonest inducements were offered to union officials, workers, council inspectors and WorkCover inspectors.

There was also evidence of collusive and anticompetitive behaviour, including surreptitious receipt and payment of special and unsuccessful tenders’ fees.

Persons of ill repute were engaged to solve industrial or commercial problems by actual or threatened violence or other illegal means.

Some of the behaviour was explained by, if not excused by, the activities of trade unions, commissioner Roger Gyles found.

Observance of the law and law enforcement in general play very little part in the industry, he said in his final report.

“The law of the jungle prevails. The culture is pragmatic and unprincipled. The ethos is to catch and to kill your own.”

Further proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.


By Adam Bennett