Tell us a little bit about the story behind this particular piece. How did you come across this one? How did it play out?
For a long time, myself and Nick McKenzie, we’re both based in Melbourne at The Age, we’ve reported a lot about the construction industry and also the role of the construction union in Victoria. Which is both well known for its ability to get pretty good conditions and wages for its members, but also it’s been tainted over a long time with allegations around corruption or links to people in the organised crime, that kind of thing.

“We had an incredibly detailed leak out of the CFMEU’s national executive with Setka defending his behaviour, and also making comments about [anti-domestic violence campaigner] Rosie Batty”

All the comments attributed to him [were] about Rosie Batty. It really became a big national story for several weeks where there was pressure really quickly to expel him from the ALP, to have the union have him kicked out of his role. Anthony Albanese was talking about it, then Daniel Andrews the Victorian Premier. Within about a week, 13 national unions, including ACTU Secretary Sally McManus called on him to resign. It became a very lengthy national debate around issues to do with what’s acceptable in terms of domestic violence and all these kinds of issues, so it became quite a big deal in the middle of last year and dragged on for much of 2019.

For you, what have been some of the most significant impacts this story and this reporting has had?
It was surprising, to be honest. You quite often write stories and you’re never quite sure how they’re going to resonate or what sort of impact they’re going to have. Sometimes you think you’ve got a really great story and it might mostly get ignored and have only a limited impact. I was surprised by how this just took off. And in particular, the focus on Rosie Batty, because we both felt like there’s some really substantial stuff here around some really appalling conduct, which kind of got, in the follow-up media and in the political debate, kind of got washed away by the focus on Rosie Batty.

The real impact was [that] I was quite surprised by the level of the intensity of the reaction to the story and the fact that became a massive national issue for several weeks. You just didn’t expect that. I think the focus on Rosie Batty, the comments about Rosie Batty, was sort of quite extraordinary, and over the top.

“The end result was it became a little bit of a circus, but it also became the important debate and national debate about domestic violence.”

John Setka at the 2018 ALP Conference. Photo by Alex Ellinghausen via SMH

“It forced people in significant positions to say where they stood, and drew a line that it’s not really acceptable anymore to have someone in a position like that who’s had convictions for domestic violence”

It’s had a long lasting impact on what’s, really, probably one of the most important unions in Australia”

“It’s really problematic in terms of scrutiny… I feel like there’s a lot of areas barely covered anymore. You kick around and have a poke around, say suburban councils in Melbourne, and you can find some eye watering stories of misconduct and corruption”

“It’s not all about the big stories and the big exclusives at the beginning of investigations. It’s about that day to day work that’s lost from the contraction to the industry, and it’s hard to kind of quantify”

Is there anything else that you’d like to add about the significance for you of receiving this award for this particular story, or anything else you’d like to add about it?

“Throughout the whole process, I received numerous emails and messages from people, in particular from women. It was really heartening and it gave me strength to keep going in what I found was quite a challenging area to write on”


Ben Schneiders is an investigative journalist at The Age with a focus on industrial relations, business and politics. He has written extensively on the underpayment of workers, political corruption and on the labour movement. Ben is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and has worked at The Age since 2006 in roles including senior writer and workplace editor.

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Watch interviews with the winners of the 2020 Mid-Year Celebration of Journalism