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Shorten lacks power to stand up to unions: Martin Ferguson -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: A former Labor cabinet minister has questioned Bill Shorten's ability to curb union influence among the party's parliamentary members.

The Opposition Leader's union past is the subject of tonight's Four Corners Program.

Martin Ferguson, a senior minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments, has told Four Corners that many Labor politicians still answer to their Union masters and Bill Shorten is powerless to change this.

Mr Ferguson's comments come as unions try to shut down the Trade Union Royal Commission after it was revealed Commissioner Dyson Heydon accepted an invitation to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

Michael Edwards reports.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: The focus of the Royal Commission's examination of Bill Shorten was a number of deals the now-Opposition leader made during his time as a secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Workers' Union.

In 2004 the AWU negotiated a deal with the country's largest mushroom producer, Chiquita, designed to cut its huge workers' compensation bill caused by high injuries among its workers.

Four Corners has spoken to Josie Hodgkinson, a former Chiquita worker and AWU member.

JOSIE HODGKINSON: My personal opinion is that they were selling us out. They, they wanted to get rid of us and that's what they were going to do.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Mr Shorten had a tough time in the witness box. At one point Commissioner Dyson Heydon questioned his credibility as a witness.

But not long after that the heat was off Bill Shorten and on Commissioner Heydon after revelations he was set to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

Labor and the unions want Dyson Heydon to step down and they have questioned the credibility of the Royal Commission.

But one former Labor heavyweight has broken ranks with the Party and come out in support of the inquiry.

Martin Ferguson was a cabinet minister for six years under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

He's told Four Corners that the Royal Commission could help reform the union movement.

MARTIN FERGUSON: I just don't see the Royal Commission as a political play thing. I actually think it's potentially going to be very important in reforming the trade union movement and the Labor party and I will not damn it.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Martin Ferguson's comments could re-ignite calls by some in Labor for him to be expelled from the party.

And the former ACTU president has gone further, also telling Four Corners that as it stands Bill Shorten lacks the power to stand up to the unions.

MARTIN FERGUSON: Too many of that shadow ministry and the caucus are almost as if they're prisoners of the union movement. They wait for the phone call from the trade union heavy to tell them what to do.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Another former unionist who made a controversial appearance at the Royal Commission has also spoken to Four Corners.

Cesar Melhem was Bill Shorten's successor at the Victorian AWU and then entered Victoria's Upper House but resigned from that post after giving evidence at the Royal Commission in June.

He's told Four Corners that he doesn't want to be seen as the union movement's sacrificial lamb.

CESAR MELHAM: If I'm going to be the sacrificial lamb and save everyone else, well so be it, but I don't believe so. I think, as I said, the decision when I made to step down was my decision after discussion with my family for the reason I've outlined, and I'll be back.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Victorian Parliamentarian Cesar Melhem ending Michael Edwards's report. Machine Man screens tonight at 8.30.