CFMEU boss John Setka in the firing line

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CFMEU boss John Setka (Screenshot via YouTube)

Something is not quite right in the John Setka matter, writes Frank O'Shea.

Journalist and op-ed writer John Waters is not well known outside Ireland. His columns have given him a dedicated following, almost all of them carrying tweeter bats seeded with f-words. The best equivalent in this country would be to imagine some combination of Greg Sheridan and Alan Jones.

In 2015, Waters was interviewed about a 7000-word article he had written about his long-running dispute with a television program. As the interview came to an end, the interviewer asked Waters, “Are you depressed? Are you suicidal?” He replied, “It’s bullshit. There’s no such thing, it’s a cop-out.”

In the newspaper article the next morning, Ireland was told that John Waters believed depression to be a cop-out. There was no reference to what had happened in the earlier three hours of the interview.

This comes to mind with the current John Setka situation. There is, apparently, no shortage of evidence that he has high regard for Rosie Batty and her work and advocacy, and he has himself said that he has “always been a huge supporter”. Strangely, his alleged statement that the work of Ms Batty had led to men having few rights was missed by another union leader sitting four seats away at the meeting where the comment was reported to have been made. Others who were present have said the same.

The context for the original statement was a meeting with union leaders, which included discussion of a charge that Setka has admitted about harassing a woman. His wife was with him as Setka addressed the media on this.

The comparison with John Waters’ words about depression and how a throwaway comment can be exaggerated, came to mind.

In any event, Setka has said he will not resign for his reported comments and suggested that the source was someone who was angling for his job. Can we expect the AFP to turn up, thumbscrews at the ready, at the door of the person who wrote the original story to find out the source? After all, if the reward for the leaker was to replace Setka, it would be a well-paid position, about one-third of what the Prime Minister is paid.

Mention of the PM is a reminder of how quick he was off the mark, determined to reintroduce legislation that would allow unions to be deregistered if they were found to be run by someone who was not "fit and proper".  This is a legal nicety that would have barristers rubbing their manicured hands in anticipation, hands that likely knew little about the kind of work that Mr Setka’s union members perform. Indeed, the PM has already emboldened one of his favoured attack dogs, Senator Eric Abetz, to put the case for coming down on trade unions.

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese has not distinguished himself in the matter, with a statement that seemed to be made without full knowledge of the facts. His suggestion for expulsion from the ALP was supported by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews. And ACTU Secretary Sally McManus who, we are told, ‘flew home early from Switzerland’ to have an urgent meeting with Mr Setka, has not been much help either, joining ACTU President Michele O’Neil and Senator Penny Wong.

And that is when we should ask ourselves if this was all too neat, too well packaged. It seems people from all sides are out to get Setka. The attitude of the Government is understandable since he does a good job for ordinary workers. But it is difficult to understand why the ALP and the ACTU have joined the attack. Shouldn’t we be told what is really going on?

The Guardian today quotes the World Economic Forum that 'Australia ranks 22nd – fifth last in the OECD – on labour rights'. That is a situation which would have raised alarm bells among those who brought the ALP into existence in the first place — well might they wonder what happened to their successors.

Frank O'Shea is a retired teacher of quadratic equations.

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