The Australian - Unions royal commission: senators get secret union report

January, 2016

The Turnbull government will take the extraordinary step of giving crossbench senators ­access to secret volumes of the Heydon royal commission report on trade unions in a desperate bid to end the stalemate with the independents over its industrial relations reforms.

The Weekend Australian can reveal the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is arranging a viewing of the confidential parts of the report after crossbenchers Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus demanded to see the full report before deciding on key industrial relations bills stalled in the Senate.

In a nod to the extreme sensitivity of the contents of the two volumes, kept secret from the public when the report was ­tabled on December 30, the government does not plan to distribute hard copies.

In his interim report released in December 2014, royal commissioner Dyson Heydon urged a volume be kept confidential owing to threats to 29 witnesses — “in order to protect the physical wellbeing” of those persons and their families.

“This is unfortunate, because the confidential volume reveals grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state,” he reported.

In his final report last month, he recommend a sixth volume also remain confidential.

The government confirmed that Mr Heydon’s recommendation in the final report was also based on “serious risks” to the safety of witnesses who had given evidence and could “prejudice criminal investigations currently under way”.

While a Coalition spokeswoman declined to confirm whether the names of witnesses would be redacted when crossbench senators viewed the report, she said: “The government understands the importance of protecting the identity of those referred to in the confidential volumes.”

Senator Lazarus, who spoke to Malcolm Turnbull on Thursday, told the Prime Minister he was prepared to sign a letter of confidentiality in order to see volume six. “Malcolm was very helpful and keen to support my role in representing Queensland and achieving the best outcome for Queensland workers,” he said.

He also wrote to Mr Heydon yesterday formally requesting the commissioner publicly release a redacted version of the final report’s confidential sixth volume so senators and members of the public could “thoroughly examine the need for the government’s ­proposed changes to industrial ­relations law”.

“Having access to the confidential volume places me in a better position to fully understand the IR issues and consider the legislation with that knowledge,” Senator Lazarus said.

Senators Lambie and Lazarus have previously voted with Labor, the Greens and some crossbench senators to reject the Coalition’s measures to restore the powerful construction industry watchdog the Australian Building and Construction Commission and pass registered organisations legislation to improve governance of union officials.

Mr Turnbull brandished the Heydon report last month as he vowed to reintroduce the ABCC Bill and unveil a revamped Registered Organisations Bill, pledging to “fight an election” on industrial relation reform. His plans to show the crossbenchers the full report reveal the lengths to which he is prepared to go to avoid another defeat on IR in the Senate and comes after former prime minister Tony Abbott last year offered Senator Lambie a confidential briefing on the interim report’s secret volume, but not access to documents.

It will be left to Employment Minister Michaelia Cash to decide when and how the viewing can take place with the independents. “The government will continue to engage with crossbench senators on its legislative priorities, including those matters relevant to the findings of the royal commission into trade union governance and corruption,” she said yesterday.

Senator Cash and Mr Turnbull are preparing for another round of meetings with the independents when parliament resumes on February 2, hoping the commission’s findings will help build support for the bill.

Senator Lambie has said her support for both the ABCC and the Registered Organisations Bill depends on access to the commission’s confidential volumes and deregistration of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union.

The ABCC bill was voted down 34-33 in August. The Registered Organisations Bill has been rejected twice in the upper house and is a double-dissolution trigger, but the Prime Minister has told colleagues his priority is to get the reform legislated rather than rush to the polls. While some crossbenchers have urged Mr Turnbull to go to a double-dissolution election if the Senate does not pass the union corruption reforms, Senator Lazarus said he would not be “blackmailed” by such a threat.

Additional reporting: Elizabeth Colman