Shorten says it was ‘entirely possible’ businesses paid members’ union fees

Nanjing Night Net

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has broken his silence on controversial deals struck when he was a trade union leader, saying it was “entirely possible” businesses had paid members’ union fees when he ran the Australian Workers Union.

Mr Shorten had previously declined to answer specific questions about agreements reached with businesses during his time as state and national secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) until his appearance at the Royal Commission into trade union governance.

But after a week in which his record as a union leader came under intense media and parliamentary scrutiny, Mr Shorten on Sunday publicly addressed claims he oversaw deals that advantaged businesses and the AWU at the expense of workers.

In a strident defence of his time at the AWU, Mr Shorten said his record as a “modern” and “pragmatic” union leader shows he has a “better vision” for Australia than Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Commenting on a controversial deal with Melbourne builder Winslow Constructors, Mr Shorten said it was “entirely possible” businesses had paid the union fees of AWU members during his time at the union, even though this was not his preferred way of operating.

“My preference is employees pay their union dues but what I also get is that someone be in the union than not in the union,” he said. “When we get further into the detail of particular transactions, it would be foolish of me to simply say yes or no to every question.”

Fairfax Media reported this month that Mr Shorten’s AWU Victorian branch invoiced Melbourne building firm Winslow Constructors $38,000 to pay for 105 union memberships.

Current AWU state secretary Ben Davis has said the deal “profoundly” weakened the union’s industrial position in the workplace.

Mr Shorten told the ABC’s Insiders program he was “100 per cent relaxed” about his record as a trade union leader. 

“I’m proud of being a moderate trade union official, working cooperatively between employees and employers,” Mr Shorten said. “I’m interested in better wages for workers, better safety, job security, and profitable companies because I understand that if you get cooperation in the workplace everyone wins.”

Mr Abbott has said some of the deals allegedly overseen by Mr Shorten verged on “identity theft” and that the Labor party was in “crisis” over the issue. 

Mr Shorten said on Sunday the attacks on him had been “hysterical” and that Mr Abbott was in fact paying him a “perverse compliment” by accusing him of working too co-operatively with business.

“I think sometimes some of the critics say this is all bad for myself and for Labor,” he said. “You know, I think it demonstrates why the Labor Party’s got a better vision for the future because we’re not into dividing the joint, we’re not into dividing worker versus employer.”

Asked about $300,000 worth of payments made from Theiss John Holland to the AWU, Mr Shorten said the payments were made for health and safety training.

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