NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Craig Thomson affair discredits Labor government
, April 28, 2012
Allegations that the federal MP for Dobell, Craig Thomson, a former federal secretary of the Health Services Union, and the union’s suspended federal president, Michael Williamson, misused union funds to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, have damaged the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the federal Labor Government because the Prime Minister has stood by Mr Thomson.
The allegations against Craig Thomson go back to 2008, not long after he was elected to federal parliament as part of the “Kevin 07” bandwagon which defeated John Howard.
Thomson’s successor as federal secretary of the HSU, Kathy Jackson, initiated an inquiry into the financial administration of the union’s federal office in 2008. Jackson had previously been the Victorian-based secretary of the No. 3 branch of the union.
The inquiry found that there had been widespread rorting of union-supplied credit cards, and a report was subsequently published in the Sydney Morning Herald in April 2009.
Craig Thomson sued the Sydney Morning Herald for defamation. Shortly before the matter was due to go to trial in 2011, he dropped the case.
Opposition calls for Mr Thomson to step down from federal parliament were rejected by the government. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, repeatedly said she had “full confidence” in Mr Thomson, and one of Ms Gillard’s strongest supporters, Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten, said Mr Thomson was a hard-working backbencher. “I’ve got complete confidence in Craig Thomson,” he told Sky News (The Australian, August 18, 2011).
The fact that the government has a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives supposedly had nothing to do with it!
In the meantime, the allegations against Craig Thomson and the union’s federal president were being investigated by the federal government’s industrial regulator, Fair Work Australia, itself a creation of the Labor Government.
Fair Work Australia has had the matter under investigation for the past three years, despite repeated calls to bring it to a conclusion. In desperation at the failure of the Fair Work inquiry, Ms Jackson referred the matters to police last year; but Fair Work declined to co-operate with them, on legal advice, and the police investigation languished.
A month ago, Fair Work announced that its investigator had prepared a report into the allegations.
Fair Work Australia’s general manager, Bernadette O’Neill, said that the report was over 1,100 pages in length, and, on legal advice, she had decided to refer the entire report to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for action in relation to possible criminal offences.
Fair Work said the report alleged over 180 breaches of the relevant Act and of the union’s rules, and involved three former or current officials of the union, all of whom were unnamed. Fair Work declined to release the report.
Former Labor Senator, Graham Richardson, accurately described the sense of dismay felt by many over the Thomson affair: “That Fair Work Australia could take three years to prepare a report that for all intents and purposes is utterly useless is yet another bizarre twist in this sordid affair.”
This strange turn of events then became even stranger. The Director of Public Prosecutions announced that it was not an investigative agency, and that it could not launch criminal proceedings on the basis of the report, as it required a brief of evidence which was not contained in the report.
As had happened so often previously, the federal government declined to intervene, repeating that Fair Work Australia was an independent organisation.
It took the shadow attorney-general, Senator Brandis, to point out that if Fair Work Australia did not have the technical expertise to produce a brief of evidence, it should hire a firm of lawyers who could.
Nearly four years after the allegations first came to light, still nothing has been done about them, leaving the federal government in the weak position where it claims to be powerless, but is perceived to have no interest in a resolution which could threaten its hold on power.
In the meantime, the affair is not only damaging the government, but the Health Services Union as well.
Kathy Jackson’s nemesis, Michael Williamson, has been forced to step aside on paid leave as federal president of the union.
Jackson’s enemies in the Health Services Union have counter-challenged with allegations of misconduct in the Victorian branch of the union.
In addition, Jackson has called for the entire federal executive to step down, and face fresh elections, a call which has been ridiculed by the acting federal president, Chris Brady. Jackson herself is facing a no-confidence motion at the forthcoming meeting of the union’s national executive.
The ACTU has suspended the Health Services Union from membership of the peak body, and Williamson has been forced to resign from positions on Unions NSW.
The main loser in this messy affair is the Prime Minister, who has unstintingly supported one of her backbenchers involved in this protracted public scandal.