June 03, 2018

BARRIE CASSIDY: Brendan O'Connor, welcome.


CASSIDY: What is the answer to that question? There is no dispute under Bill Shorten's leadership the AWU gave GetUp! $100,000, but was it authorised?

O’CONNOR: The AWU has said so, and the AWU is now fighting the abuse of power by a government agency and by the Minister in the way they went about raiding their offices. That’s before the court now.

CASSIDY: Then AWU says that but they haven’t demonstrated it, they haven't proven it. They haven't shown documents to show it was authorised?

O’CONNOR: They've asserted that and that's up to the courts to decide. The AWU has a recent history of complying with orders to produce. In fact, they complied with every one of the 40 orders to produce during the politicised Trade Union Royal Commission. There has been no history of them resisting. What happened here though, Barrie, as we've made very clear, is the Government was involved in ordering the Registered Organisation Commission to investigate a matter 13 years ago of a $1,000 donation, and of course the Minister's office then committed a criminal offence by-

CASSIDY: It was a $100,000 donation.

O’CONNOR: $100,000, and then the Minister's office committed a criminal offence by leaking those raids to the media and we are still waiting on the Minister to answer questions about the extent and nature of her role in that leaking of information.

CASSIDY: But we're waiting on two things: We're waiting on that and we are also waiting on documents. Even a former President of the ACTU Jenny George has said it would be useful to release documents.

O’CONNOR: And as I say, the AWU has been under investigation now since the election of the Abbott Government because of the efforts by this Government and indeed now the Turnbull Government, to attack organised labour.
They had to two-year Royal Commission. They had Bill Shorten in the stand for two days, asking him 900 questions, where there were no findings against the Leader of the Opposition. Now we have, of course, the complicit nature of this arrangement where the Minister's office was ordering the commission to investigate a further matter that really goes to administrative arrangements of authorising a donation of 13 years ago.
And the Minister has spent now $600,000 of taxpayers' money avoiding the courts, and argues she can't answer questions in the Senate because of a police investigation. Well, if she is under investigation by the police, then she should go to court and answer the questions subject to the subpoena, not to fight that. Or if she is not under investigation, Barrie, she should answer questions in the Senate, but she has not answered in the parliament or in the courts, and this cannot continue to go on, this obfuscation by the Minister and the Government, and the Prime Minister must act, and intervene and either sack the Minister or force her to answer these questions.

CASSIDY: But sack her for what? Surely she is entitled to ask to have this subpoena set aside?

O’CONNOR: Well firstly she has already failed to set aside the subpoena. The subpoena was successful in producing documents. The only reason that has been deferred, Barrie, is because there was a criminal investigation into the Minister's office and that of other Minister’s, including the Prime Minister. This is a criminal offence that allows for jail time for up to two years and the fact is that we’re supposed to believe -

CASSIDY: But there is no evidence that she was in any way involved so why are you suggesting she should be sacked?

O’CONNOR: Firstly, let's be very clear here, Barrie, her staffer has already made admissions that he broke the law, and the police are investigating this crime because that's what it is. And this has gone on now for years. The Government using taxpayers' money and the power of the State to attack and slur the Opposition and the Leader of the Opposition and the union movement. That's all it's done. It did so with the politically charged Trade Union Royal Commission, a witch-hunt. It is now doing it, of course, with the Registered Organisations Commission, an utterly discredited agency now, completely shredded of credibility as a result of its own conduct and we're supposed to believe that Michaelia Cash doesn't have to answer questions of the Senate and of a court and to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money refusing to answer those questions? She will have her reckoning in the court or in the Parliament, but she cannot continue to do her job if she doesn't front up and answer these questions.

CASSIDY: It sounds to me the Registered Organisations Commission under a Labor Government would be history, right?

O’CONNOR: Barrie, we made it very clear we did not support this organisation. We said before it was created it was going to be created to attack the opponents of the Government, and what have we found since that has occurred? We've had a situation where a Minister ordered an independent body to investigate a matter of 13 years' standing and then leaked the information of a raid by police into two AWU offices, and that has led to the dismissal of that staffer and we are supposed to believe that staffer was some lone wolf, risking his career to attack the Opposition and attack the union? Quite frankly, there are more questions to answer. Minister Cash is in an absolutely untenable position, she should resign, or she should answer questions that have been put to her in the Senate, or she should front up to court and stop spending hundreds of thousands of dollars refusing to go to court.

CASSIDY: How do you feel about the by-election polls. Behind in both of them, and given that the Government has only picked up a seat from the Opposition in a by-election once in history, you would have to be nervous?

O’CONNOR: Well, look, it is a very long campaign. Malcolm Turnbull has ensured that, he likes long campaigns. We had an eight-week election campaign which of course he nearly lost, what should have been an unlosable election for Turnbull, and now we've got an eight-week campaign for these by-elections. Labor will put its front foot forward. We will argue we are there for education and health and providing tax relief for 10 million workers, and I think we will do very well.
But it is a contest. These are marginal seats in anyone's language, they are not easy. Of course, the Liberals are not contesting in Western Australia, but we will certainly fight as hard as we can in Tasmania and Queensland and present our case as to why people should vote Labor in those by-elections.

CASSIDY: But the circumstances that I describe, it has only ever happened once, the Opposition loses a by-election to the Government. Would that then become a leadership issue?

O’CONNOR: Well, I think that firstly, Bill is absolutely secure in his position, he is doing a great job-

CASSIDY: No matter what happens in the by-elections?

O’CONNOR: Well, I can assure you that the Caucus is fully behind Bill Shorten as leader. He brought us very close to an election win when everyone had written us off at the last election, almost in one term, and we are a united, focused Opposition, putting forward plans for Australia's future, whether it be investing in health, whether it's ensuring that we have a first-class education system, providing tax relief for 10 million workers, looking after aged care. I think our policies, as presented, make us very competitive at the next general election. We take nothing for granted but Bill Shorten is our leader and doing a very good job.

CASSIDY: What do you make of the story about Lucy Gichuhi, the Liberal Senator from South Australia? Do you think on the available evidence that she has a case to answer?

O’CONNOR: Look, it's just, I guess, an ongoing saga here. It would appear on the face of it that if the legislation has to be read with the Constitution, she may well be in some difficulty, and that's, I guess, now a problem for the Liberal Party given that she is now another crossbencher who has chosen to leave the party of origin and join another party.
I mean, it is a very unstable crossbench that never seems to stay where they originally started. I think that's six or seven Senators have moved since the election. I mean, this is a very unusual time in the Parliament, very unprecedented, of course, given the citizenship saga. But at the moment we are dealing with a lot of issues and the Government is like a three-ringed circus. Last week we had three sitting days, it was Barnaby, Cash and Hunt, the three clowns, I guess, but the fact is Labor will keep putting forward policies for the Australian people to make a decision when the election comes, whenever that is.
CASSIDY: One of the big issues now is superannuation. The Productivity Commission has made certain recommendations. It seems that workers are being forced into multiple funds is central to this and this comes about because of enterprise bargaining arrangements. Is it time to decouple superannuation from industrial relations agreements?

O’CONNOR: Look, the Productivity Commission made clear that industry funds, systematically outperform for-profit funds, that's the first thing it said, even though Minister O'Dwyer, when she was asked seven times did she agree with that finding when she was asked by David Speers refused to answer that question. The fact is that it was unequivocal, they have been out outperforming those funds.
But there are problems with the current arrangement in terms of the proliferation of accounts and underperforming funds, but I don't think you focus on the strongest funds and look to undermine them when you're looking at improving the system. We've not really seen the actual default mechanism work in practice, Barrie, because for four years, the Government, that is Minister Abetz and now Minister Cash has refused to appoint panel members to that default fund mechanism that works in the Fair Work Commission. Even the Productivity Commission report says if they allowed that to continue, if that was active, we may have seen underperforming funds disappear or be taken out of the system.
But we do have to, of course, ensure that people have high-performing funds and indeed that we do reduce the proliferation of accounts, and that's why the Shadow Treasurer and I recently indicated that federal Labor will be looking at the recommendations of the PC report, and ensuring that we do the best for members of the super schemes.

CASSIDY: So you're still open-minded about decoupling from industrial relations agreements?

O’CONNOR: Well, we're just not going to respond to all of these matters, but I make the point, we've had a Minister who has a palpable loathing for the highest performing industry funds, so when you've got such an ideological predisposition against the best-performing funds, no wonder we can't get clarity from the Government in relation to what they want to do. So I guess we want to know what the Government is seeking to do.
And I make the point, the Fair Work Commission mechanism was never allowed to operate, and even the PC draft report says if it had been allowed to operate, we might have seen some of the underperforming funds and other problems washed out of the system. So it was never allowed to operate. So I think we have to take that into account when we examine the problems with super.
But we're not anti industry super, we support industry super, and Labor, of course, being the authors and architects of having a superannuation scheme in this country, are very sceptical of the motives of the Government. I mean, we've got the former banking executive, Minister O'Dwyer and a former merchant banker, Prime Minister, oversighting this arrangement. We don't trust their motives, quite frankly, given their conduct in recent years as Ministers

CASSIDY: Last weekend, in your home state, the Victorian State Conference was discussing asylum seeker policy and the debate was shut down. What were you afraid of? Were you afraid of a motion that would conflict with federal policy?

O’CONNOR: I wasn't at the state conference on the Sunday. They moved about six or seven matters to the administrative committee on the last day of conference. Quite frankly, those matters can be debated at any of our conferences but they matter most at the national conference. The national conference, when we last held it, made it clear our position on asylum seekers, and border protection and those arrangements, and if we're going to have a debate about that, to even consider any changes to that, it will happen at national conference, but I'm confident that the national conference we hold will re-affirm the position that was determined in 2015.

CASSIDY: Well, we're almost out of time, but the Channel 7 interview tonight, will you be watching?

O’CONNOR: I just think I would have to look away, Barrie. I just don't think I can do it.

CASSIDY: Alright. Well, look away. Thanks for that. Talk to you later.

O’CONNOR: Thank you. Thanks, Barrie.