Taxpayers Have Forked Out More Than Half A Million Dollars For Legal Defence In The AWU Raid Court Case
And it's not over yet.
Taxpayers have been charged more than $614,000 to defend government agencies against claims the controversial police raids on the Australian Workers' Union (AWU) were politically motivated.
The AWU launched its court challenge following revelations from BuzzFeed News that jobs and innovation minister Michaelia Cash's office tipped off the media about the October 24 raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on the Sydney and Melbourne offices.
BuzzFeed News has also spoken to a journalist who claims they received a tip-off from then justice minister Michael Keenan's office ahead of the raids.
The union aims to probe the validity of the raids, which were part of an investigation by the Turnbull government–established watchdog, the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), into donations made by the AWU over a decade ago when it was run by current Labor leader Bill Shorten.
ROC commissioner Mark Bielecki told Senate Estimates on Wednesday the agency had spent $434,646 (including GST) to date on external law firm Ashurst Australia and two further barristers to represent the agency in the AWU matter.
One internal lawyer has also been working on the ROC's defence, but the agency refused to provide details and said it didn't keep internal costs.
"Do you think it's appropriate for taxpayers to spend nearly half a million dollars in lawyers' fees on a witch-hunt into a $100,000 donation made more than a decade ago?" Labor senator Doug Cameron asked.
"What would you have me do, senator?" Bielecki replied. "Would you have me not defend the ROC? The view I take is the ROC is entitled to defend a case based on allegations it denies and wants tried as soon as possible. That leads to expenditure of money to run that defence.”
The commission originally estimated the case would cost $240,000, but the size of the contract doubled in January and has subsequently increased again, as the court case continues to be delayed.
Bielecki blamed the AWU for the size of the legal bill and expressed his frustration that the matter had not yet been resolved. He said he doesn't have a projection of what the total cost of the case might be.
The watchdog boss rejected allegations that the decision to commence the AWU investigation "was somehow tainted by the political process".
But Bielecki did confirm previous statements regarding the timeline of events that led to the raids.
"She [Cash] wrote to the ROC, attaching copies of media articles ... that related to the allegations that were going to be, or she wanted us to look at," he said.
Within 24 hours of receiving the letter, the ROC had commenced an investigation into the AWU.
Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) Natalie James said her agency has spent around $180,000 in external legal fees to challenge and comply with an AWU subpoena.
This is despite the agency having more than 50 in-house lawyers.
James couldn't answer how many FWO employees were working on the case, or how much had been spent internally.
FWO is the workplace regulator. It was issued with a subpoena to produce documents but succeeded in having aspects set aside. The scope of the subpoena was narrowed to only include documents from 27 employees who had been in communication with the ROC at the time of the raids.
The regulator refused to answer further questions about the case, claiming public interest immunity, but did tell Senate Estimates that it had been instructed by the AFP to redact the documents supplied under subpoena for the AWU case.
The Federal Court has adjourned the AWU's challenge into the "improper political purpose" of the raids until an AFP investigation has been finalised.
The union successfully argued the trial should be delayed until it can be granted access to three confidential AFP affidavits relating to the raids, which have only been seen by the police and a judge.
The case is due back in court for an update on the AFP's progress on June 8.
However, it is likely to be delayed – further raising the cost to taxpayers – as the AFP's investigation remains unresolved seven months after the raid. AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin refused to give a timeline for when the investigation will be concluded when he appeared before Senate Estimates last week.
Last month BuzzFeed News published internal AFP documents that revealed the investigation into the media tip-off had the same priority for police as the inquiry into the "liking" of a porn tweet by health minister Greg Hunt's Twitter account.
The AFP has agreed not to hand over any of the AWU documents it seized in the October raids until the Federal Court case is completed.
Cash and ROC executive director Chris Enright were reissued subpoenas to produce documents and appear to give evidence by the Federal Court earlier this week. Cash's former senior media adviser David De Garis and former Fair Work Ombudsman official Mark Lee were also subpoenaed.
These four have previously been issued subpoenas by the AWU in December, and again in March.
Cash told a press conference this week that she will comply with the legal process and issued instructions to her lawyers to have the subpoena set aside.
Unless the subpoena is set aside by June 20, the jobs minister will have to produce documents about the raid, including communications with her staff, and appear at a Federal Court hearing on August 1, if the case resumes.
Cash has continually refused to answer whether taxpayer money is being used to assist her subpoena challenge, or whether she is receiving legal representation from either government or nongovernment solicitors.