A Hanging Judge For Labor's Pink Batts Scheme?


Former Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd were reportedly summonsed yesterday to appear at the Abbott Government's Royal Commission into the home insulation scheme. Former ministers Wayne Swan, Peter Garrett, Mark Arbib and Lindsay Tanner have also been contacted and told to prepare to surrender documents.

Heading up the inquiry is commissioner Ian Hanger QC, but who exactly is he? Put plainly, he's a safe pair of hands, and a conservative and humane lawyer and mediator. Will he wield the powers of the Royal Commission against Labor in the way some Coalition supporters will be hoping? It's not a sure bet — he has let down down governments running hard-right agendas in the past.

Hanger is an industrial relations scion, the son of Sir Mostyn Hanger, the controversial former QLD Chief Justice and President of the Queensland Industrial Relations Court. He was active during the end times of Joe Bjelke-Petersen and Mike Ahern's Queensland National Party in the 1980s, appearing both for the government in IR matters during the biggest anti-union stoushes, and also at the judicial anti-corruption inquiry prompted by Fitzgerald, when it all came crashing down.

Canberra Times veteran Jack Waterford described Hanger as an "old regular at inquiries" in a perceptive column he wrote in January. Governments don't establish Royal Commissions unless they already know the outcomes, Waterford opined, before predicting that the pink batts inquiry will likely conclude that:

"…the Commonwealth should never establish any program whatever without surrounding it with great quantities of red tape, rules, regulations, prescriptions, proscriptions, manuals and warnings. Bureaucrats and ministers — even the prime minister — should anticipate, warn against and effectively prevent every imaginable silly thing a builder — or, in due course, any entrepreneurial chancer — could do."

As we've constantly noted at NM, Tony Abbott is hardly a free-market ideologue, preferring the state to pick winners as political expediency demands. Hanger would likely be more comfortable in his camp than with Mathias Cormann, Eric Abetz or the other members of the Coalition's IR club, most of whom have done stints at the rabid HR Nicholls society. To see how Hanger might approach his new role, it's worth looking at his last major foray into Industrial Relations, when in 1987 he headed the Queensland National Party's inquiry into the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

The Hanger inquiry was organised by a government that was utterly hostile to organised labour. The Queensland National Government had fought the unions in a number of high profile disputes, most notably the South-East Queensland Electricity Board strike. This particular campaign threw up some of the most draconian anti-union legislation seen in the developed world — including the Electricity (Continuation of Supply) Act 1985, which the Human Rights Commission decried as amounting to forced labour. Union organisers who were on the picket at the time still complain of having baton marks imprinted on their bodies.

The Nationals wanted to curtail the role of the Queensland Arbitration and Conciliation Commission to independently deal with industrial matters and wage-fixing, and accordingly the Hanger report was "intended to legitimise further anti-union legislation", according to QLD Industrial Relations scholar Paul Boreham.

But the National Party didn't get what they hoped for. Hanger's report was comparatively moderate, and gave in-principle support to unions and the commission in arbitration — in part because, Hanger wrote, "the State industrial system does not operate in a vacuum and must operate closely in conjunction with the Federal industrial system". The Voluntary Employment Agreements, the precursors of the Australian Workplace Agreements introduced by John Howard, also came under scrutiny.

The Nationals rejected Hanger's report out of hand, so the Labor Party took it to the 1989 election, in which they were victorious. In the parliamentary debate over the Industrial Relations Act, which it became, Labor MP Don Livingstone described Hanger and his report generously:

"Ian Hanger, QC, was appointed by the former National Party Government. He was not a union official appointed by a Labor Government. A fair-minded man came up with logical answers and the National Party, being the irrational animal it was — and, I must say, a much smaller irrational animal today — said, "No." The Government did not have the guts to implement the findings of its own report, for fear that the white-shoe brigade would withdraw financial support."

The then National shadow attorney-general, Neville Harper, was less generous:

"This Bill is not the implementation of the Hanger report. This Bill is truly the wolf of the Red Riding Hood legend. It is a document purporting to be dressed in the respectability and acceptability of Hanger, but is in fact designed as a determined bid to take away the rights of the individual, the rights of the people of Queensland. And why? To appease a few trade unionists and their militant leadership."

According to David Russell QC, writing for the HR Nicholls society, the sworn enemies of organised labour, no other outcome was possible.

"None of the major users of the system submitted that the present system should be dismantled," the Hanger report said, which in Russell's estimation was the result of the closeness of Hanger and his other commissioners to the existing system:

"In retrospect, it is easy to see that a Committee comprised of such persons would be predisposed to the view that the industrial relations club needed an interior designer with a slightly more modern approach rather than a receiver."

Hanger has described the Commission's role bluntly, insisting that it's not a trial:

"Put simply, what really went wrong, what made [the pink batts scheme]go wrong, and how can this commission assist government and industry to ensure circumstances like the ones we face here don't happen again."

Will Hanger use the inquiry to strike at the ALP? Unlikely. It's more probable that he will affirm existing findings by the Queensland Coroner, which recommended the referral of a few shonky operators to the Attorney-General for breaches of the Electrical Safety Act. Will a few Labor MPs be shown to have rushed the scheme off the ground? Perhaps. But it's also likely that, as Ian McAuley rightly said last year, the deskilling, discrediting and dismantling of the Commonwealth Public Service, largely done under the Coalition's watch, might have contributed to basic safety oversights.

What is sure is that Hanger isn't the ideologue many Coalition backers will be hoping for, especially the free market believers. Hanger has been reluctant to use the power of inquiries too broadly in the past, and is unlikely to do so again. 

This story is part of our series on Tony's Cronies, on the Abbott Government's appointments. Read the rest here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.