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Senate hears "Just a few days till Trade Union Royal Commission kick-off, we need everyone to make this a priority"

This was Senator McGrath in the Senate last Wednesday:

"We are just days away from the Royal Commission kicking off and there is a LOT going on, we need everyone to make this a priority please." 


Senator McGRATH (Queensland) (13:15): Today I rise to speak on matters that concern the links between the New South Wales CFMEU and controversial businessman George Alex, and between Mr Alex and two Islamic State terrorists. George Alex is a controversial Sydney businessman and an undischarged bankrupt. Known for his connections with the criminal underworld, he recently pleaded guilty to making threats to kill a woman and her family over a business debt. He is being investigated by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

Khaled Sharrouf is a convicted terrorist who is now fighting with Islamic State in the Middle East. He was jailed for his involvement in plots to blow up the MCG on AFL grand final day in 2005, Sydney's Lucas Heights nuclear reactor, and Crown Casino during grand prix weekend. He was arrested in what was then Australia's largest counter-terrorism operation, and pleaded guilty to possessing goods in preparation for a terrorist act. After serving only four years in jail, in exchange for agreeing to mental health treatment, news reports state that he was picked up and hired as a debt collector for George Alex. The royal commission also heard evidence from Sharrouf's mother-in-law, Karen Nettleton—a bookkeeper for George Alex—that Sharrouf spent a lot of time at Alex's place and that she guessed he was his debt collector.

On 3 November 2014, the ABC's Four Corners program screened its investigative story on the links between Sharrouf and figures in the building industry. It reported that Sharrouf came to the attention of authorities after an alleged extortion threat. It involved a dispute between Tony Di Carlo and Australia's biggest residential builder, Meriton. Di Carlo alleged that Meriton owes him millions of dollars. Four Corners reported a confrontation in which Meriton's employees were approached and threatened. Meriton took the alleged extortion threat to the police. The Four Corners report explains how the dispute escalated and how Sharrouf was involved and became violent and brandished a gun. Soon after, Sharrouf's associate was gunned down at his door. A New South Wales police investigation into these incidents is still underway.

In a highly concerning incident, Sharrouf was again linked with George Alex in 2014, when the ABC reported, on 3 November, that he was taken on a shooting trip along with another terrorist convicted in the 2005 anti-terror raids, Mohamed Elomar. Alex's lawyers claimed the trip was a pick-me-up for Alex's depression and that the parties 'did very little shooting but had a big barbecue'. But police were reportedly called out after they received a complaint of excessive gunfire, and found Sharrouf with a rifle to his shoulder, pointing straight ahead, and large amounts of ammunition on the ground. He had no gun licence and refused to be interviewed.

The ABC reports that Sharrouf was summoned to the court the following month. But the court never got to hear his case. Within weeks, he and Elomar had eluded authorities and joined Islamic State forces in the Middle East. This man was the infamous father who posed with his seven-year-old son holding the head of a decapitated victim. These matters raise grave concerns about the types of individuals who have been involved in parts of the construction industry. 

I also want to raise concerns about the connection between George Alex, whose purported debt collector was this convicted terrorist who is now fighting for Islamic State, and the New South Wales branch of the CFMEU. The royal commission heard evidence that the New South Wales CFMEU has been receiving kickbacks in return for favouring construction firms controlled by, or associated with, Alex. The commission's investigation is ongoing and I would not want to pre-empt its conclusions. However, there is some very important evidence already on the record that is important to identify and consider.

Evidence to the commission shows that companies controlled by, or associated with, George Alex were formed and entered enterprise bargaining agreements with the CFMEU. Some of these went into liquidation with large sums of money owed to their workers. The evidence also shows that at least one senior CFMEU member was violently threatened after raising concerns about links between the union and Alex companies. The submissions from counsel assisting the royal commission, Jeremy Stoljar QC, state that 19-year CFMEU delegate Jose (Mario) Barrios had been subjected to 'utterly inappropriate and disparaging comments' by Brian Parker, New South Wales state secretary of the CFMEU. Although Parker denied it in his evidence, transcripts and recordings showed that he called Barrios a dog, wanted to bash him, and otherwise referred to him abusively. The evidence also showed that Barrios was contacted by Mr Alex, who said he was running out of patience with him, asked where he worked, and closed by saying, 'See you tomorrow.' Mr Barrios reported these matters to the police and they continue to be investigated by the royal commission.

Rather than taking every step to assist with this investigation and indeed pursuing these matters internally as well, the CFMEU destroyed documents and has, whether intentionally or not, obscured the commission's investigation. On 6 September 2014, the Daily Telegraph reported how the royal commission issued a notice for the union to supply it with emails about its relationship with Mr Alex's companies. Weeks later, the union found it had a problem with 'disk space' on union computers, which was preventing emails arriving, and that that would require the union to delete years of emails. In an email to staff, the report states that the branch's general manager Kylie Wray said: 

We are just days away from the Royal Commission kicking off and there is a LOT going on, we need everyone to make this a priority please. 

She and a team of nine people spent three days deleting emails. Ms Wray said that she had deleted Mr Parker's emails and was positive there was nothing there that would have interested the commission.

The royal commission also found that another senior CFMEU member who raised concerns about links between the union and Mr Alex companies, Brian Fitzpatrick, received death threats in response, from New South Wales branch organiser Darren Greenfield, and was frozen out of the union.

Another witness to the royal commission was too afraid to give evidence about the alleged kickbacks or his associates in the unions. He was forced to explain to Commissioner Heydon that he was being as honest as he could be, given that he had a wife and three children waiting outside for him. These matters are deeply concerning.

The crossovers between two Islamic State terrorists and an underworld figure, and between this figure and the CFMEU, are a reminder of the importance of maintaining a strong cop on the beat in the building and construction industry.