John Setka CFMMEU
John Setka and Victorian CFMMEU officials outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court in May (Image: AAP/Joe Castro)

Hey, remember Twister? Who wants to play? Right now. Call the office, leave a message. I’ll come ’round. Where was I? Ah yeah, Twister. This article is going to be a lot like that fabled game because of reporting restrictions, but let’s have a go.

Labor has got itself into a huge tangle over John Setka, he of the CFMMEU, but coming a close second is the mainstream media who are either unable or unwilling to talk about its myriad complexities and paradoxes.

Setka was pinged in late May in the first of a confusing set of accusations. He had pleaded guilty to one charge of harassing a woman, with a series of other charges of the harassment type not proceeded with. The woman’s identity can’t be revealed.

Setka was charged on a series of matters last year, but one can’t talk about any identities involved in that either. In the reporting of that story, The Age also reported that Setka had been accused by a Fair Work commissioner of harassing and intimidating a woman.

Soon after the harassment charge was pleaded to, Setka was anonymously accused of making critical remarks about anti-violence campaigner Rosie Batty, who had just received a gong in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Setka was alleged to have said, at a CFMMEU internal meeting, that Batty’s campaigning had damaged mens’ rights.

That’s when things started to get a bit weird. After Setka had announced that he was pleading guilty to one charge — a court judgement on harassment of a woman — Labor and the ACTU refused to condemn him, and kept a firm solidaristic silence. When the Batty allegations came out that turned, and both Sally McManus and Anthony Albanese issued calls for Setka to resign.

This was, or should be, extraordinary.

Setka was accused, by persons unknown, of making a private remark, non-broadcast, in a trade union’s internal meeting, critical of a public figure. The fact that this was even notable was a product of the special cultural status of Rosie Batty, and the added complication that former Labor figure Mark Latham had been caught trolling Batty several years ago.

But Setka wasn’t accused of anything like that. He was accused of expressing an opinion about Batty’s activism, and its political content, to a handful of people. Setka denied he had made the comments and — to add to the confusion — Sally McManus later told ABC Radio that she now believed Setka hadn’t made such comments, after other people at the meeting had approached her.

This confusion didn’t stop the calls to resign. Quite the contrary. Other unions began to pile on, with the Australian Workers’ Union the first to do so. And here, for the alert, it might start to be obvious that this has little to do with Rosie Batty at all, but with bitter internal warfare in the wake of losing the unlosable election.

Within the Victorian CFMMEU, there’s a fairly brutal factional war going on, related in part to the union’s key role in the new Industrial Left faction, which quit the Victorian Socialist Left a couple of years back. The Industrial Left has been in an alliance with right-wing unions which is not to all tastes inside the Left.

The right sub-faction the Industrial Left is in alliance with is the “Short” side of the old Short-Cons — the Shorten-Conroy alliance — which took over the mainstream Right two decades ago. But Conroy has departed, and the Shorts are short one Shorten. Billy Bob has lost the unlosable election and all bets are off (until recently Bill was in Japan, presumably swapping notes with other hari-kiri experts).

The keystone of the “Shorts” — and thus of the broader “Centre Alliance” which kept Shorten in place — is, erm, the Australian Workers’ Union. While the Industrial Left-Centre Alliance pact was a thing, the CFMMEU and AWU had a deal on who covered what construction sites. The CFMMEU reward for that was that they’d be the factional base of the next prime minister. Didn’t happen, so now both the factional and demarcation deals are coming apart.

Right hand on red, left foot on blue, now twist left hand to…

Y’see, if we knew more about the harassment proceedings, things may become more clear: a factional realignment, and struggles for internal control, being played out by proxy in culture wars.

Being Labor, the war of choice was inevitably violence against women; it is becoming all-consuming for Labor, especially Victorian Labor. The Andrews government — having committed to seriously reduce such violence, after the release of the Neave report (a commitment it will almost certainly fail at) — has not been above using the issue as a political weapon, most notably against the Greens.

Labor has, or had, an advantage here. Greens members take accusations of sexual harassment and “shakedowns” seriously. Inside Labor, there’s a culture of staying silent about such things. That came apart this year, when Melbourne division candidate Luke Creasey’s dank social media history got him disendorsed (I didn’t think anything he’d posted warranted that, for the record). That probably killed Labor’s last chance of getting that seat back into a competitive zone, and well deserved that was.

Now, it should be obvious, Labor has taken a tiger by the tail. The Batty accusations against Setka were taken up by those trying to nobble him — one suspects that his internal union enemies, having seen that the harassment charge didn’t kill him, decided to up the ante with some hearsay about him speaking about Batty — and those, like Sally McManus, who aren’t out to nobble him, had no choice but to follow along, because after all it’s Rosie Batty.

Thus twisted around, Labor did anti-Labo(u)r’s bidding for it: it tried to destroy a union leader based on something he may or may not have said, to a private union meeting — and which was nothing more than the expression of a reasonable enough opinion (right or wrong).

This is an attack on the most basic principles of freedom of workers’ association, coming from inside the movement. All out of a mix of culture war panic repurposed for factional argy-bargy.

Left foot to green, right foot to mouth, sing solidarity forever, all fall down.

Peter Fray

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