Inquiries and witch hunts

| March 11, 2014

Tony Abbott has announced a Royal Commission into union corruption. Sheenal Singh says it’s not the first time the far-reaching powers of a Royal Commission have touched the union movement.

The Royal Commission into union corruption  announced by the Abbott government is underway in Australia. While there is nothing particularly breathtaking or compelling about this moment, our democracy has a peculiar fascination with this incredibly powerful modern form of inquisition.

Since the 1970s, Australia’s fetish for the exhausting theatre, drama and intellect of public inquiries and Royal Commissions has grown. As the state expanded, so did the need for governments to painstakingly investigate, analyse and know the population in order to govern it. Inquiries have become a go-to mechanism for leaders determined to allay public fears with the promise of catharsis, information and action.

While Parliamentary and Senate committees continue to churn out findings, figures and reports into all manner of contemporary problems, they bypass largely unnoticed. Commissions of inquiry on the other hand, are revered for bringing an impartial, independent, powerful and coercive approach to dealing with systemic social and cultural issues. In this lengthy process, individuals, institutions and issues turn into a series of problems to be explored, quantified and narrativised; the public appetite for scandal, secrets, opinions, information, and justice is satiated.

The tag of independence, however, does nothing to dampen murmurs of political debate or the intense scepticism about the political origins and motivations behind each inquiry. In 2011, conversations around the Labor government’s media inquiry reached almost fever pitch when John Hartigan, the former CEO of News Ltd, accused Labor of instituting a “witch-hunt”  against the organisation. ACTU president Ged Kearney has echoed the sentiment with respect to the Coalition’s Royal Commission. The witch-hunting rhetoric stirs memories of the violence and administrative power of an era bygone, not to mention the way the phrase is consistently used to position the speaker as a vulnerable, feminised subject at the mercy of an arbitrary enforcer.

But despite the political hype surrounding this latest regal examination, this is certainly not the first time the far-reaching (and costly) powers of a Royal Commission have touched the union movement.

At least three Royal Commissions since the 1980s have dealt directly with unions, each one called by a Coalition government: the widely publicised Royal Commission on the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union (1980-84), the Royal Commission into the Activities of the Australian Building Construction Employees’ and Builders Labourers’ Federation (1981-82), and the more recent  Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry  (2001-03).

Ironically, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was established as a response to this final inquiry. Labor dismantled the institution, and Abbott now wants it reinstated. Supported again of course, with all the moral force, scrutiny and legitimacy a Royal Commission can provide.