I've been sitting here quietly for a while now to think about Craig Thomson, Michael Williamson, the Labor Party and trade unions.
Thomson was the head of a large union, the HSU. Now he is a convicted criminal awaiting sentence after being found guilty of stealing his members money. As part of the sentencing hearing yesterday, Thomson's barrister told the court Thomson will be denied the "career" path he had pursued for almost all of his working life. Thomson's "career" was spoken about at length - the "career" that starts with a job as a union official, then as a union leader, then stepping up to a parliamentary seat and then perhaps a role as a Minister in a Labor Government.
I was there in the court room as that story just rolled out from Mr Thomson's barrister. It was so normal, familiar and natural to him and apparently to many others in the courtroom. I saw lots of heads in the court room nodding. But as an outsider it struck me as a bizarre way to speak about the real job of a person who goes to work every day to represent the interests of his work mates, the members of his union.
I'd grown up thinking that a union official was elected by his or her mates to do things on their behalf; to do things for them and in their interests. I always thought it was a real job, with important things to do like negotiating pay deals and the like with the bosses. I'd thought of it as say a job for a copper who wanted to look after other coppers, or a nurse, or teacher or aeroplane engineer like Steve Purvinas. In my mind it was a proud and noble job held by the sort of person that a man's workmates could trust and depend on 100% when the chips were down.
But that wasn't the job I heard discussed in the court yesterday. I didn't hear much about representing workers at all. There was no talk about the role of a union leader elected by mates who are in pretty much the same sort of job as each other - that is the job I thought Mr Thomson held during the offending on which he has been convicted. There were no questions about his skills in representing workers, no discussion about how he might have to take a few steps down as a result of his conviction and pursue say a closely supervised job with a council crew where his leadership skills might prove useful. The only "career" the court heard about was the "career" Thomson has now been denied - and that involves being a union official, union leader, holder of a Labor seat in a Parliament and potentially a Cabinet Ministry.
So I've gone back over a few articles written by leaders from the Labor Party to see how they spoke about the Thomson and Williamson revelations as they were unfolding. It's been a sickening exercise.
Here's some of what Mark Latham matter-of-factly wrote in an article published on 11 April, 2012 in the Australian Financial Review. Mark Latham was the leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition (or alternative Prime Minister) in the Federal Parliament from late 2003 until January 2005.
ALP, unions must cut ties
PUBLISHED: 11 APR 2012 00:03:00 | UPDATED: 11 APR 2012 13:32:39
For many years, the union’s funds were used improperly in giving contracts and jobs to the boys of the NSW Right, plus funnelling resources into Craig Thomson’s election campaigns. No rational person would want to belong to the HSU knowing that their membership fees have been wasted this way or, even worse, squandered in the steamy bordellos of east Sydney.
Thomson is a devastating advertisement for the things that have gone wrong with Australian Labor.
In theory, the work of a union official should be a humbling task, representing the interests of employees who are powerless to represent themselves. In practice, however, union chiefs are arrogant types, perceiving themselves as above the laws of the industrial system.
This conceitedness is a product of their dual role within the labour movement. Not only do they run union offices, they also control factional numbers inside the ALP.
This is an intoxicating power, determining the selection of Labor candidates and even the nation’s leadership. On the night of the coup against Kevin Rudd in 2010, for instance, the head of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, rushed into the ABC studios to declare that his union and its bloc of caucus votes had abandoned the prime minister.
Howes saw himself as one of the country’s most powerful figures, exercising the type of unchecked authority which, more often than not, turns into institutionalised arrogance. For too long, the ALP’s powerbrokers have thought they could do whatever it takes, and get away with it.
The tragedy for progressive politics is that there are scores of Craig Thomsons across the labour movement. He is the cultural norm, not an isolated peccadillo. In truth, Labor’s leadership has known about this problem since the 1990s but done nothing about it, deferring party reform as too difficult internally and too disruptive electorally.
I recall sitting in the office of a veteran federal MP a decade ago as he took a call from a senior HSU official. The MP himself was highly skilled in manipulating parliamentary entitlements, with a long list of overseas trips and allowances to his name.
As he put down the phone, he said to me, “That bloke [from the HSU] is a world-class rorter; there is nothing he won’t do and nothing he misses out on.”
I thought, within the rorting genre, this was high praise indeed – one expert marvelling at the skills of another. At the time, Thomson was a factional protege of the union official. He learnt too well from his mentor, it seems, never missing a trick in the busy art of “working the system”.
For all the theatre and bluster of the ACTU last week in suspending the HSU, it has known about these issues for at least 10 years. This is also true of Unions NSW in its belated action against HSU president and former ALP national president, Michael Williamson. Both peak bodies are playing a game of political catch-up and disassociation.
Julia Gillard must now do the same. As the leader of the labour movement, not only is she in charge of Thomson as a member of her caucus, she is also responsible for the systemic corruption of the factional system and its trade union affiliates.
She should call an emergency meeting of her cabinet and the ACTU executive and end this sham as quickly as possible.
The only feasible way for the Labor Party and the union movement to revitalise themselves is to cut their organisational ties to each other. Ignoring the crisis will not make it go away.
Latham's words bear a little repetition. He wrote about sitting in a veteran rorter's office - the time was about a decade before he wrote the article, in other words about the time, or just before he was the Leader of the Federal Labor Party. He wrote about watching one veteran rorter "marvelling" at the rorting expertise of another. The Oxford dictionary defines a "rort" as a fraudulent or dishonest act or practice.
And Latham, as leader, watched as the veteran practitioners compared notes and marvelled at each other's expertise in the conduct of fraudulent or dishonest acts or practices. Which involved money that came from other people who would in all likelihood not consent to being "rorted". Stolen from might be a better way to put it.
Which brings me to significant Labor figure and very available commentator the former Senator Graham Richardson.
Graham Richardson wrote this article which The Australian published on 25 May, 2012. Fair Work Australia's report into Thomson had been publicly available for more than a fortnight, detailing page after page of the evidence against Thomson. Thomson had just delivered the one hour speech to the Parliament naming Marco Bolano and others as having threatened to "set him up with hookers" etc.
But Richardson doesn't talk about the people whose interests Thomson was paid to protect. He doesn't talk about the union members whose money was stolen. Richardson talks about trying to help Thomson to keep the details of what had gone on away from the prying eyes of the media - and presumably the members of the union whose money was the subject of Fair Work Australia's investigation.
Here's Richardson in his own words (from May 2012):
No matter how many times the (Gillard) government talks about the presumption of innocence, the great majority of voters have made up their minds. To them Thomson is guilty and shouldn't sit in the place that makes laws.
Thomson is not the only one in denial. I was staggered to learn that some Labor MPs actually thought the speech had been just what the doctor ordered. I guess if you're desperate enough, hope can overwhelm judgment. Tuesday's newspaper headlines put paid to any last vestige of hope. The speech just made a terrible mess even worse. I am able, however, to offer some praise for Thomson. Not many people ever have the blowtorch applied to their bellies in the manner we have all seen over the past 12 months. The embattled MP has limitless courage. How he can continue day after day is beyond me completely. He bats on undaunted. No report, no amount of conclusive evidence, no denial from a party he has accused of wrongdoing, shakes him off his chosen path. The implausibility of his case and the massive rejection the nation has handed to him, has little effect.
Thomson did not quite get around to naming me but he made it clear to whom he was referring when he talked of commentators who never revealed they had been players in this saga. I met Thomson in March 2010. I told him that I was aware that if he continued on with his defamation case against Fairfax he would be destroyed and inevitably he would be bankrupted. He denied everything about the Woolloomooloo brothel. I told him about the driver's licence. He said that details of his driver's licence had been copied by parties unknown. The only time he hesitated in his denials was when I told him that calls had been made on his mobile phone between the central coast and the city to the brothel in question. He could only say he had no explanation. That may be the only time in the past couple of years he has told the complete truth.
I told him that saying all these things had been stolen were ridiculous given that the phones, credit cards etc were used by him the very next day. He undertook to seek a settlement with Fairfax immediately. That was yet another lie. The case went on for more than a year after this and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees which had to be paid by the NSW ALP to prevent his bankruptcy.
At the time the case had not received much publicity. The alleged misuse of union funds by Michael Williamson had not even been discovered and the extent of Thomson's involvement had not even been imagined. I tried to help a young man I thought might be destroying his parliamentary career almost before it began. If he had settled with Fairfax then it is probable that both sides would have walked away paying their own costs. This saga may never have become the greatest soap opera in our recent political history.
Richardson tried to help a young man who he thought might be destroying his parliamentary career? What of the people whose money he took? What of his lies and the cover up? What does it say about us that anyone could try to help keep that man in a parliamentary career?
We desperately need a circuit breaker. For years now we have heard from people who ought to command our respect but who have abused it by drumming into us the rotten falsehood that it's a sign of great moral strength to "tough it out" by not telling the truth. "She's tough as nails", "he's got the skin of an armadillo" and words to that effect have become badges of honour worn by cheats and liars.
Cheating and stealing is not the sole preserve of officials within the trade union movement - ask any policeman. But that section of our community does at least appear to operate with a different moral code from the way most of us relate to each other. Justice Heydon and his Commission of Enquiry have a huge job ahead of them in first finding out and then letting us know about Labor's "scores of Craig Thomsons across the labour movement. He is the cultural norm, not an isolated peccadillo" to quote former Labor leader Mark Latham, who should be in a position to know.
I'll leave the last word to Graham Richardson. Labor seems to highly value and to celebrate the legacy of its leaders. It's very good at rehabilitating reputations and arranging for ovations to be delivered for former leaders - people like Gough.
Right about now, Labor should start to think very seriously about how it handles the narrative of Bill Ludwig's prize prime-ministerial trophy, the former AWU lawyer and slush fund mastermind Julia Gillard. The Chief Magistrate of Victoria has ruled that documents involving her former de-facto Bruce Wilson which were seized by police with a warrant to search Ms Gillard's former offices at Slater and Gordon were documents that were created in the furtherance of fraud. The chief magistrate's ruling is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court of Victoria where it is due to come before a judge in June.
Police are on Ms Gillard's tail. She is named in the search warrant that directed police to search and to seize documents. Police have given sworn evidence that their investigation of The AWU Scandal has disclosed offences against the Crimes Act including conspiracy to cheat and defraud, making and using false documents and other serious indictable offences.
On that score, Graham Richardson delivered some improbable advice for Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier this year. It's in the post-script to Richardson's column published in The Australian on 31 January.
The article is a very good read. Richardson asks the right questions - what sort of party does Labor want to be? But it was Richardson's PS that caught my attention. I don't think police or the Royal Commission are likely to see things Graham's way.
Here are Graham's last few words.
P.S. You will note I have not referred to what happened in the AWU almost 20 years ago. Any attempt to pursue Julia Gillard over what her ex-boyfriend may have done would be tawdry politics. It is to be hoped that the Prime Minister is able to resist this temptation.
He won't have to Graham. Ms Gillard won't have to worry about politicians, or even the press pursuing her. That will fall to the Victoria Police whose interest in what happened in the AWU almost 20 years ago is growing by the day.