The Australian Workers Union (AWU) yesterday had its offices in Sydney and Melbourne raided in relation to donations made by the union over a decade ago when it was led by current Labor leader Bill Shorten.
The drama that played out in Sydney and Melbourne yesterday reverberated all the way to Canberra, and followed months of allegations in parliament that the AWU hadn't followed the donation rules.
The origins of the dispute go back to before the 2016 election, and involve the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), a little-known regulator established to oversee employer organisations and unions.
The creation of the ROC was one of the recommendations from the 2014 Heydon Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, and the government went to a double dissolution election last year in order to pass legislation to set it up.
Labor is opposed to the ROC.
In August, the government indicated it wanted the ROC to investigate a $100,000 donation made by the AWU to help establish left wing activist group GetUp in 2006. Opposition leader Bill Shorten was in charge of the AWU until he ran for parliament at the 2007 election.
"Under the leadership of the leader of the opposition, he paid $100,000 to GetUp," prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said in August. "There is no evidence that it was authorised. We would love to see the minute. It would be good to see the minute, but it hasn't been produced — $100,000 to GetUp," prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said in August.
The Australian reported this week that ROC investigations had commenced into the Victorian and federal branches of the AWU over whether more than $100,000 in donations made to both GetUp and Labor election campaigns in 2006 and 2007 were within union rules.
Yesterday afternoon media began setting up outside the Sydney and Melbourne offices of the AWU, secretary Daniel Walton said on Sky News, and informed the AWU that a warrant was about to be served on it by the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
The warrant was issued by the ROC and executed by AFP officers, who took documents related to the donations.
Walton said the AWU would cooperate with the investigation, but the ROC said in a statement released to media yesterday that it needed to obtain the documents via a warrant because there was a suspicion the documents might end up being concealed or destroyed.
Labor is accusing the government of a witch-hunt and misusing AFP resources by conducting a high profile raid, and the AWU has raised questions as to how the media was tipped off.
Labor's shadow employment minister Brendan O'Connor said the Turnbull government had "openly directed" the ROC to start "this witch-hunt" and that blame lay with Turnbull and employment minister Michaelia Cash.
"What we know is clearly as a result of a referral by [Cash] to the Registered Organisation Commission, they have sought to use their coercive powers to deploy police to raid the offices to deal with what could be a civil matter at best," he said.
"To raid the union offices of the AWU [was] an attempt to attack them, and ... an attempt to smear Federal Labor and its leader."
The government is accusing Labor of attempting to smear the AFP.
"They are accusing the Australian Federal Police of being politically-motivated," Turnbull said on Wednesday. "That is a disgrace. Bill Shorten knows that is a lie, and he should apologise for it."
Walton insisted that the officers who raided the AWU offices were polite, and Shorten said the AFP was just doing what the ROC had tasked it to do.
"I have the greatest respect for the Australian Federal Police and its serving officers," he said. "What I don't respect is that the regulator, at the behest of the government, is conducting a political witch-hunt designed to throw mud in the hope that some will stick.
"[The ROC] ... was set up ... by the government, to do exactly what we predicted they'd do — hunt down and smear the reputation of the opponents of the government."
The AFP told a Senate Estimates committee yesterday that a lack of resources had forced it to divert some staff from drug seizures to other activites, including securing the prime minister's Point Piper home.
The AWU questions the validity of the investigation and the warrants issued, and is seeking in the Federal Court today to have the documents returned. Walton says the AWU will release the documents publicly when the case is over, stating the union has nothing to hide.