ANTI-UNION activist Andrew Zaf stabbed himself with a Stanley knife and loosened wheel nuts on his own vehicle in a bid to frame the CFMEU, Tony Abbott’s trade union royal commission has heard.
The sensational testimony of Zaf’s former friend and business partner, Gary Cheetham, strikes at the core anti-union message Abbott and hardline Liberal Party politicians have been running for 15 years.
It also reinforces doubts about the way this royal commission has gone about its work and swings the spotlight squarely back onto controversial commissioner, John Dyson Heydon.
As well, it sharpens focus on the roles key media outlets are playing in helping drive the Coalition’s anti-CFMEU agenda.
Cheetham, who worked with Zaf between 2011 and last year, said Zaf told him he had sat in his car, stabbed himself, then smeared blood over the tray of his ute to make it look like he had been beaten up.
He had been “angry and surprised” when a female police officer questioned him over the possibility his wounds had been self-inflicted.
Cheetham said Zaf had admitted inventing corruption allegations against CFMEU Victorian branch secretary, John Setka, which had been aired on the ABC’s 7.30 program then repeated, with embellishments, for the royal commission.
During their time working together, he said, Zaf seemed obsessed with attacking the CFMEU and Setka. It appeared to stem from a belief that a former Setka girlfriend had been responsible for one of his bankruptcies
Cheetham also alleged Zaf had illegally dumped asbestos, vandalised his own machinery to get a $60,000 insurance payout, and attempted to defraud developer Stocklands.
He said Stocklands had rejected an $81,000 Zaf invoice on the strength of information he had provided.
Zaf rejected much of Cheetham’s testimony as “lies and rubbish”. However, he did admit submitting a false invoice to Stocklands, and receiving at least one stolen CFMEU phone which, he said, he then delivered to his “friend” Nick McKenzie at Fairfax Media.
Zaf said a person he knew as “The Devil” had offered to get him a phone once owned by Setka. He gave it to McKenzie to see if he could extract data from it, and to pass on to his police and royal commission contacts.
Zaf gave this evidence only minutes after denying he planned to hurt Setka and the CFMEU as much as he could. “Absolutely not,” Zaf insisted.
Zaf also told the commission he and McKenzie had used secret agent-style dead drops to pass information to one another during their campaign against the construction union.
Commission senior counsel Sarah McNaughton conceded Victoria Police had started investigating the possibility Zaf’s wounds had been self-inflicted even before Cheetham had come forward and asked to make a statement.
She said a note from a senior police officer stated evidence relating to the incident indicated “a false report had been made” and that a medical report cast further doubt over Zaf’s claims.
The police forensic medical report revealed “no record of blunt trauma injury” in Zaf’s hospital assessment.
It added, it was “so unlikely as to be improbable” there would have been no visible injury from a blow to the head severe enough to have caused his “reported blackout”.
Heydon heard all this in relative silence, more than 15 months after he had helped generate wall-to-wall media coverage for Zaf’s original stories.
It was Zaf, first time around, who prompted Heydon’s notorious query about his residential address – “it’s not like Toorak, but it’s a sort of law-abiding suburb?”
That intervention, and the remarks that followed, marked Heydon down as more than a snob. They raised serious concerns over the processes he was presiding over and the first mutterings about bias.
Zaf’s original story verged on the incredulous and the fact the commission chose to put in on the record and broadcast it live, without any apparent effort to weight its merits, seemed incredible.
Essentially, it asked Zaf to repeat the televised claim he had made for McKenzie that, 20 years earlier, he had bribed Setka, then a junior union organiser, with a free roof.
There was no record of Zaf having ever raised this allegation at any stage in the intervening decades and there was no supporting evidence of any type. But those facts appeared to bother the commission no more than they had concerned McKenzie.
And Zaf went further for the commission, much further.
He alleged his television appearance had led to a relentless campaign of violence and intimidation.
He said that, in short order, he had been assaulted by a man he knew to be a CFMEU organiser in a hotel, the wheel nuts on his car had been loosened and he had been followed home, beaten, and knocked unconscious in broad daylight by a number of assailants whom he had been unable to identify.
He did, however, recall that, before he lost consciousness, one of them warned – “you’re dead”.
This was serious stuff and, critics insisted, a quasi-judicial body with a mandate to get to the truth should have subjected it to some level of scrutiny.
Again, there were no witnesses to any of Zaf’s alleged misfortunes.
The commission did not tender medical records of any kind.
It didn’t appear to bother the commission, or the commissioner, that Setka had publicly rejected the allegations. Nor did it seem to worry them that Zaf had significantly altered his story to omit the stabbing at the heart of its original media outings.
Quite the opposite, in fact. In an extraordinary intervention from the bench the commissioner gently led Zaf back through the “highlights” of his testimony. Testing a witness
THE COMMISSIONER: As I understand it … isn’t the chronology this: In January 2014 you were involved in a 7.30 Report broadcast on the ABC in which criticisms were made of the CFMEU. Right?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Then a few weeks later you were having a drink in a bar and you saw a CFMEU organiser there, whom you knew. Correct?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. And he told you to “fuck off”?
Q. And you went up to him and said, “Let’s sit down and have a drink and talk about it”, right?
Q. Then he told you to “fuck off” again, and then you went to walk through a doorway carrying your drinks. Right?
Q. And then he slammed the door and your drinks went onto the floor?
A. Well, they splashed over the floor, sir.
Q. Then two days after that, or a day or two after that, you were driving your car from home to the local shops?
Q. And you felt it shaking?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. And you stopped and found that the nuts in the front left wheel had been loosened?
A. That’s right.
Q: Then a little after that, perhaps a few days, a short time after that, you arrived home from work at 1 or 1.30, and you were hit on the head to the point of unconsciousness?
Q. Do you have any personal enemies?
A. No, sir.
With that, at 12.30pm on July 9 2014, the commissioner abruptly shut proceedings down.
He had made it clear where his sympathies lay and journalists around the land had only one story to work with.
Within a week, however, the man with “no personal enemies” was back in the news after being bailed-up on a building site by baseball bat-wielding bikies trying to collect what newspapers described as an “industry debt”.
And, when Zaf finally put a name to his hotel assault allegation, it belonged to a 72-year-old union activist who was not a CFMEU organiser at all.
Worse though, for Zaf’s credibility, this alleged assault should have occurred right in front of the hotel’s security cameras and footage seized by the police revealed no such incident.
But wait, potentially, there is even more to this story.
Heydon has provided the federal government with a secret third volume of his interim report.
It has been kept from the eyes of the public and their elected representatives because, Heydon said, its contents posed “grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state”.
In efforts to get Independent Senator Jacqui Lambie over the line on Liberal Government demands for sweeping coercive powers for its Fair Work Building Commission, Abbott hinted darkly about the contents of Heydon’s “secret” report.
“As you know, the Hon John Dyson Heydon AC QC recommended that this volume be kept confidential in order to protect the physical well-being of Royal Commission witnesses and their families,” the then-Prime Minister wrote to Lambie on August 12.
“At this time, I can advise that the confidential volume reports on threats of violence, and an act of violence, against witnesses called or likely to be called to give evidence before the Royal Commission…
“This is the context for Commissioner Heydon’s statement in his report concerning grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state. They are indeed serious matters.”
You would hope this royal commissioner, and the government he serves, aren’t fretting about “grave threats to the power and authority of the Australian state” on the word of Andrew Zaf.
For the record
A COMPANY operated by star royal commission witness Andrew Zaf was convicted and fined for illegally dumping cancer-causing asbestos.
In 1999, Zaf company, Esselyn, was convicted in the Williamstown Magistrate’s Court of obstruction, then failure to comply with an Environmental Protection Notice, after it was found to have dumped contaminated soil and asbestos at a site in West Footscray.
Esselyn was fined $10,000 and aggravating factors saw company directors fined individually.
Critics of the trade union royal commission say it appears no serious effort was ever made to weigh Zaf’s credibility before he was invited to make sensational allegations against CFMEU Victorian branch secretary John Setka and the union as a whole. How we called it last year
The Esselyn prosecution was just one of the warning signs royal commission investigators would have found on the public record if they had bothered to look.
A quick check would have tipped them off to similarities between Zaf’s business record and behaviours typically exhibited by phoenix operators who, according to the Australia Taxation Office, unlawfully strip billions of dollars out of state and federal coffers.
Company records show Zaf was a director of 11 separate businesses that opened and closed their doors in the years leading up to 2003. And, that a number of different Zaf enterprises traded under very similar names.
A moderately competent investigator would have learned that Zaf had gone bankrupt at least twice.
The record suggests he started out operating businesses with his father and that, in the late-1990s, BHP won a $1.75m Federal Court order against one of their companies, with the judge describing his father’s evidence as “contradictory and unreliable”.
In 2001, Supreme Court of Victoria records recount a complex case with echoes of allegations Zaf would later make against Setka over the supply of roofing iron.
Zaf company, TZ Metroof, eventually found itself in the Court of Appeal over a contractual wrangle, hopelessly complicated by his unorthodox business practices, including alleged contra deals worth more than $50,000, a time.
None of the many contested deals in this case appeared to have gone through company books.
The judge was mystified, according to court records, by Zaf having dealt with the respondent company as himself and, at various other times, he claimed on oath, as a director of TZ Consolidated Industry Pty Ltd, TZ Metal Building Products Australia Ltd, Metroof Pty Ltd, Metroof Industries Pty Ltd, TZ Metroof Pty Ltd, and a family company called Silverene.
“It would appear,” the judgement reads, “that Mr Zaf was playing the defendant and plaintiff off against one another.”
Eventually, the judge called the contest a draw, conceding that, at times, he couldn’t be certain which Zaf company was involved or, whether or not at different relevant times, named Zaf entities had still been in existence.
Court records show that Zaf companies appeared in a string of actions in a host of jurisdictions between 1985 and 2001.
These cases ranged through the Federal Court and Victorian County, Magistrates, Supreme and Appeal Courts and mainly seem to have centred around allegations over unpaid bills and contract disputes.
At the time of his first royal commission appearance, company records suggested Zaf was operating three related businesses – Omicron Building and Earthmoving, Omicron Resources Management and Omicron Resources.
And, if commission investigators had really wanted to know about their star witness and his attitudes to trade unionists, they might have tracked down a 1994 Victorian Trades Hall minute that records Zaf apologising for pulling a gun on a union organiser and agreeing not to threaten union officials in the future.
For more stories about Tony Abbott’s royal commission, check out Separating facts from fiction