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Headed by Frank Costigan QC, the Commission was established by the Australian government in 1980 to investigate criminal activities, including violence, associated with the Painters and Dockers Union.
However, its enquiries led away from union activities towards investigation of so-called "bottom of the harbour" tax evasion schemes. This involved the asset-stripping of companies to avoid tax liabilities and was facilitated by criminals among the Painters and Dockers but benefited wealthy individuals.
The Royal Commission's investigations soon revealed that many members of the union were involved in a wide range of criminal activities. Costigan observed that "The Union has attracted to its ranks in large numbers men who have been convicted of, and who continue to commit, serious crimes." and that "Violence is the means by which they control the members of their group. They do not hesitate to kill." Included in the crimes of Union members were "taxation fraud, social security fraud, ghosting, compensation fraud, theft on a grand scale, extortion , the handling of massive importations of drugs, the shipments of armaments, all manner of violence and murder." Despite the union's members being "careless of their reputation, glorying in its infamy" that very reputation attracted "employment by wealthy people outside their ranks who stoop to use their criminal prowess to achieve their own questionable ends."
Among the recommendations of the Royal Commission was dissolution of the union.
In 1984 Fairfax newspaper The National Times published leaked extracts of the Commission's draft report which implicated a prominent Australian businessman codenamed the "Goanna" in tax evasion and organised crime, including drug trafficking, pornography, and murder. Australia's richest man, media magnate Kerry Packer revealed himself to be the subject of these allegations which he strenuously denied.
Ironically it was Packer's own Bulletin magazine that had been instrumental in the calls for a Royal Commission into the union. Packer's counterattack was led by his counsel Malcolm Turnbull (later a prominent politician) and accused the Commission of a misuse of power. No charges were laid against Packer, and in 1987 Australia's Attorney-General Lionel Bowen formally dismissed the allegations. Mystery still surrounds, however, his receipt of a supposed "loan" of A$225,000 in cash from a bankrupt Queensland businessman. When questioned by the Commission, Packer testified, "I wanted it in cash because I like cash. I have a squirrel-like mentality." Packer was therefore codenamed the "Squirrel" in the Commission's case studies, but the National Times changed this to "Goanna" to preserve anonymity.
The Commission concluded in 1984 and the revelations of organised crime led to the establishment of the National Crime Authority. It also recommended changes to criminal law to deprive criminals of the profit from their crimes.
At Kerry Packer's state funeral in February 2006, his son James stated that the Packers had never forgiven Costigan for what they took to be a smear. Costigan publicly responded that as Royal Commissioner he simply investigated, and did not make allegations or prosecute. 
- Costigan, Francis Xavier (1984). Royal Commission on the Activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union, Final Report Volume 3. Australian Government Publishing Service. pp. 119–120.