Tony Abbott has stood by Dyson Heydon as Labor and unions called for the royal commissioner to be sacked for perceived bias over agreeing to speak at a Liberal event.
On Thursday morning, Mr Heydon – who is heading the Abbott government’s unions royal commission – advised the organisers of the Sir Garfield Barwick address dinner he would not be delivering the speech on August 26.
His decision followed an email sent to him by organiser, Liberal Party-associated lawyer Gregory Burton, on Wednesday which described the dinner as “nominally under the auspices of the Liberal Party lawyers’ professional branches”.
Mr Burton insisted in the email it was “not a fundraiser”, despite the invitation for the $80-a-head dinner noting cheques should be payable to “Liberal Party of Australia (NSW Division)”.
“A receipt will be issued,” the invitation said. “All proceeds from this event will be applied to state election campaigning.”
Mr Burton appeared to be aware of the possibility Mr Heydon may find himself compromised, writing in the email to the former judge: “If however a problem emerges at the last moment then people will I’m sure understand.”
The commissioner’s associate Barbara Price wrote back to Mr Burton on Thursday morning: “If there is any possibility that the event could be described as a Liberal Party event he will be unable to give the address, at least whilst he is in the position of royal commissioner.”
When news broke on Thursday of Mr Heydon speaking at the Liberal event, he issued a statement saying he would no longer deliver the address.
Mr Abbott told parliament he accepted it would have been inappropriate for Mr Heydon to attend a Liberal event.
“Plainly the royal commissioner himself believed that it was inappropriate to give the address at a Liberal Party fundraiser,” Mr Abbott said.
But he said the commissioner’s behaviour had been “absolutely beyond reproach”. Senator Brandis said there was no more eminent lawyer in the country than Mr Heydon.
“Any suggestion that Mr Heydon would be lending his political support to one side of politics over the other is absurd,” Senator Brandis said. NSW Liberals director Tony Nutt said any suggestion the dinner was a “significant fundraising event” was “ridiculous”.
The invitation had included the “usual information” in order to meet electoral disclosure laws, he said. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten – who appeared on the witness stand for two days this year – said the issue was “incredibly serious”.
ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said unions could boycott the royal commission or take legal action. “I’m not ruling anything in or out at this stage,” he said.
“We want it shut down.”
Manager of opposition business Tony Burke, who unsuccessfully tried to censure the prime minister in parliament, said it should have been clear “a royal commissioner cannot be a guest at a Liberal Party fundraiser”.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus told parliament the royal commissioner should resign “because by his own actions he has created the appearance of bias and discredited and compromised every single further action by this royal commission”.
Mr Dreyfus said Mr Heydon had been a “captain’s pick” by Mr Abbott. Senator Brandis, when he was shadow attorney-general, delivered the inaugural Sir Garfield Barwick address in 2010, the funds from which also went to the Liberal Party.
He claimed over $1000 in taxpayer expenses to attend the event.