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Craig Thomson shoots from the hip in speech to parliament

Craig Thomson’s address to parliament today promised to either clear the air or dig a deeper hole for the embattled MP. It would be an understatement to say that the Craig Thomson affair has been an unwelcome…

Thomson became emotional as he described the toll media scrutiny had taken on his family. AAP/Alan Porritt

Craig Thomson’s address to parliament today promised to either clear the air or dig a deeper hole for the embattled MP.

It would be an understatement to say that the Craig Thomson affair has been an unwelcome distraction for the Gillard government. Fair Work Australia (FWA) took more than three years to finish a report that examined Thomson’s time in the Health Services Union. During this period, the Labor government has had to endure accusations that it was harbouring a corrupt former union official as well as interfering in the authority’s processes.

The government, and the prime minister, often struggled to shift the attention back to the political debate as the FWA took place. And Gillard has been heavily criticised for not dealing with Thomson quickly enough. Indeed, Gillard moved to suspend Thomson just days before the FWA report was released, sparking debate about her political judgement.

The uncomfortable minority

While allegations of misusing union money were levelled at Thomson for more than three years, it has been the closeness of the numbers in parliament that has really put the spotlight on the member for Dobell.

Indeed, Tony Abbott and the opposition’s attacks on Thomson would not be as potent had the government won a comfortable majority at the 2010 election.

Labor could have cut him adrift if they had five, ten or 15 seats to play with. But the minority government situation has meant that every seat is crucial to ensuring Labor remains in power.

The blame game

Thomson has been on the front foot since the FWA report was released. In a recent interview with Laurie Oakes on Channel 9 (which Thomson today revealed was “very hard”), he argued that he was set up by unscrupulous individuals who were intent on destabilising his political career.

As expected, he used his speech to name names. He accused Michael Lawler, the partner of HSU national secretary Kathy Jackson, of interfering in the long running investigation in his capacity as “the second in charge” of FWA. He also accused former deputy secretary of the HSU, Marco Bolano, as the individual who allegedly threatened to derail his political ambitions by setting him up with prostitutes. He then alleged that the stood-aside HSU president Michael Williamson had threatened to besmirch his reputation.

The media did not escape blame in Thomson’s speech. He argued that some in the press gallery were running a campaign which complimented the opposition’s attacks on his integrity. He said the media and opposition had “unleashed the lynch mob” and became emotional when he recounted a time when Channel 7 reporters “hovered beneath the bathroom window” while his “pregnant wife took a shower”. Channel 7 has since denied this claim.

The seat of power

It was fitting for Thomson to counter the allegations he has faced in parliament, where the nation’s political gaze was fixed during his lengthy speech. By speaking in parliament today, Thomson was also protected under parliamentary privilege which gives MPs immunity from defamation and libel laws.

An important point to remember is that Thomson’s alleged activities occurred while he was in the Health Services Union before he entered parliament. There are no allegations that he misappropriated parliamentary resources, a point Mr Thomson made early in his speech.

Calls from some to somehow suspend Thomson, or throw him out of parliament for alleged misconduct while he was not an MP are somewhat premature. Being a foreign citizen or being sentenced to prison for a year or more are some of the reasons why an MP may be disqualified by the Australian Constitution. The allegations against Thomson do not compare with this.

Furthermore, Mr Thomson was elected by the citizens of Dobell in 2007 and again in 2010. They are best placed to pass judgement on his performance as an MP at the next election.

The struggling party

Mr Thomson maintained his innocence by reiterating points he had previously made through public statements. In a sometimes impassioned speech, Thomson attacked the nature of the allegations and painted himself as an individual who sought to enhance the operation of the Health Services Union. The implication was that those who opposed his quest for greater transparency in the union sought to undermine his political career.

Today’s speech would also be welcomed by the Gillard government. It may serve to more clearly define Mr Thomson as a separate entity to Labor.

This speech went well beyond the expected 15 minutes it was reported to take. It appeared to serve as a cathartic exercise for Mr Thomson. His speech, however, has raised further questions that will no doubt be answered by commentators and those involved in the alleged activities, especially concerning how the Health Services Union has operated in the past.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    It illustrates that the toxic culture at the HSU was by no means limited to Craig Thomson.

    I have found it difficult to view Kathy Jackson as a whistle-blower when I found she had granted herself a salary of 270,000 and also that she was up to her eyebrows in trying to get pre-selections herself. Lets hope the police investigations can provide us with absolute clarity on what occurred.
    Perhaps if Fairfax was a bit more open about who has been leaking documents we might have more understanding about the internal politics underlying it.

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  2. Troy Barry

    Mechanical Engineer

    I am less sure that the Gillard government will welcome the speech. Thomson alleged high level corruption in a union closely linked at the time to the ALP, and conspiracy and corruption in the FWA body established and staffed by the Gillard government. They can either accept that or accept that a deeply corrupt and dishonest person himself was able to rise to high prominence in the union and then gain preselection to represent the Labor party.

    I don't see any good news in that for the government.

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    1. Bob Weis

      Film maker

      In reply to Troy Barry

      Troy

      there you go doing an Abbot and Pyne. How do you or we know what he has done or had done to him. Don't we live in a democratic environment or are you part of the lynch mob? If you have some information that is relevant and testable go to court like Thomson and don't hide .

      As to todays speech I can only agree with Mr Thomson that the whole sorry affair has brought shame on the Parliament for the opportunistic tactics of the bully boys (and girl) on the RIGHT.

      Let the Parliament get on with the business of government and being concerned with the present and future of all Australians. And meanwhile let other issues take their proper course.

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    2. Troy Barry

      Mechanical Engineer

      In reply to Bob Weis

      If Thomson's claims are true the "bully boys" of the right have brought to light corruption at the highest levels of a government agency, which would otherwise have passed uninvestigated. I don't think that is something responsible citizens or governments are happy to see swept under the carpet or resolved behind closed doors. It is exactly the role of the media, the parliament and public scrutiny to bring such things to light.

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    3. Michael Burrows

      Mr

      In reply to Troy Barry

      Troy I believe the role of the media is to report the facts NOT to used as a political circus.Whilst Craig Thomson has been asked and stated his case, the presumption of innocence should be a given.
      The cowardice of Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party in cowering behind this witch-hunt reinforces their lack of suitability to govern.
      He has not and may never be charged with anything. Will the media, Opposition MP's, other "bully boys", hate mailers and the like profusely APOLOGIZE to Craig Thomson…

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    4. Bob Weis

      Film maker

      In reply to Michael Burrows

      Michael, you are in an old fashioned minority, with me, that believe in due process and don't subscribe to trial by media or the fanatical excesses of the mad monk and his drooling coterie. We know who said, "tell a lie often enough ...." but sadly we are also living with the modern embodiment. Mind you when you are in the company of Bernardi, Pyne, Bishop etal you might as well exalt in the mediocrity of your team and call it something else.
      Trash democracy, process, separation of powers? It's ok if you are pursuing the keys to the lodge. B.A. can be heard laughing with Mannix

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    5. Michael Burrows

      Mr

      In reply to Bob Weis

      Off with their heads!

      It'll be okay

      Refrain:
      Oh. It'll be okay, be okay, be okay,
      Hang the aristocrats from on high!
      Oh. It'll be okay, be okay, be okay,
      The aristocrats, we'll hang 'em all.

      Despotism will breathe its last,
      Liberty will take the day,
      Oh. It'll be okay, be okay, be okay,
      We don't have any more nobles or priests,
      Oh. It'll be okay, be okay, be okay,
      Equality will reign everywhere,
      The Austrian slave will follow him,
      To the Devil will they fly.
      Oh. It'll be okay, be okay, be okay,
      To the Devil will they fly.

      Refrain

      Shall we all follow them (baa) into this guttural abyss of paid (taxpayer funded) privilege abuse like our fellow man in Europe with riots, fires and the like?
      Perhaps the mimicking of Europe's VAT with the GST is where we are heading regardless!

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  3. Greg Canning

    General Practitioner

    What Mr Thompson has failed to explain all along is how a union official with access to credit expenses could have been unaware of items appearing on his account, and not identified and acted on them before they reached the hundreds of thousands. Having had access to corporate and government credit expense accounts myself, every item needed to be accounted for and reconciled each month. There has been a huge failing of good corporate governance by the HSU and more so by Thompson in his disregard of accountability for union funds. So even if what he says is true that he was not personally responsible for the charges to his union card , he has obviously failed in his duty of financial responsibility. Such traits are no compatible with a being high ranked union official or a member of parliament.

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  4. John Clark

    Manager

    More and more puzzling. If as stated, the scrutiny is due only to minority government, does this mean that if that were not the case, the issues would not have been reported, investigated or publicised? Is the corruption more widespread throughout union administrations, and undetected? What salaries and expenses are the norm?

    And again, if "innocent till proven guilty" is the defence, which if any agency will apply the test, and what is the impediment to this actionoccurring?

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    1. Michael Burrows

      Mr

      In reply to John Clark

      One may postulate that the impediment for this action occurring is a policyless Liberal Party calling in all favours, to drag this out as long as possible; having no other work to go with. Taxpayers funds and votes wasted.
      As for unscrupulous behaviour just look at the performance of the Opposition, media leaks, phone hacking; this, unfortunately, you don't need to go far to find and is tantamount to impeding an entire generation.

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  5. David Howard

    Home Duties

    Thomson's case highlights a need for an alternative mechanism to address situations not anticipated in the constitution. It is easy to anticipate a range of behaviour whether misconduct or madness that would call into question a member continuing.

    Clearly, it should not be a simple majority vote on the floor or else any majority party could remove a member. The need is to set the standard at a much higher level.

    Perhaps something like a motion passed by 2/3rds of each house can
    -force a byelection for the reps
    -allow for replacement in line with a casual vacancy in the senate (provided the party can re-appoint the member if they wish).

    This would mean to remove a member from the house would require
    2/3rds of each house AND their electorate and from the senate 2/3rds of both houses AND their own party.

    In practicle terms, it would require support of all major parties to even initiate the question.

    where a

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    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Howard

      The constitution makes it very difficult to remove a member, and quite rightly so. I have reservations about whether a member who has been convicted of a criminal offence should be allowed to remain, but the constitution allows it under some circumstances.

      Making it too easy to remove a member increases the risk of the system being gamed. Abbott has done his worst, but the system has proved robust enough to resist his efforts. As confidence in major parties erodes, we can expect more minority governments. A more easily gamed system is unlikely to result in more stable minority governments.

      Perhaps it's best left as is.

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    2. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to David Boxall

      I think the standards that apply to me should apply to them.

      First there is the misleading and deceptive conduct clause in Trade practices they exempt themselves from.

      Second is if I get thrown out of a meeting in my professional association I get rubbed out for a month or two. If I do it again then I need a very good reason why they would not rub me out for life.

      An example is if I refer to our treasurer as a scumbag as Mr Pyne did in March this year then I would be gone forever. My Pyne on the other hand comes back and infers the speaker got it wrong.

      I think stability will always be there if people have to deal in the truth.

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    3. Peter Wood

      Research Fellow, Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program at Australian National University

      In reply to David Howard

      Introducing new mechanisms for removing members from Parliament could undermine democratic processes and undermine legal processes, Firstly, it would undermine the right that people have to be represented by their elected representatives. Secondly, the issue of whether someone is guilty of a crime is best decided by the court system. The court system is by no means perfect, but it has evolved over many years for the purpose of deciding whether someone has broken the law, and so has developed safeguards. An extra-judicial process would not have these safeguards. If an MP such as Craig Thomson was thrown out of Parliament for some sort of wrongdoing, and then found, in a court, to be not guilty of that wrongdoing, it would be an extremely anti-democratic outcome.

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    4. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Rob Crowther

      Rob Crowther: "I think the standards that apply to me should apply to them."
      There's a substantial difference: you don't represent anyone else. Ejecting a member disenfranchises an electorate. That's probably why the constitution makes it so hard.

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  6. Michael Burrows

    Mr

    Sadly Richard I don't think it would take much, to pay someone, to come forward; and ensure that he is well and truly (shall we say) 'fornicated'

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  7. Peter Redshaw

    Retired

    The problem in all of debate about Thompson and/or Slipper has been the damage done to our democracy and I do not mean by either Thompson or Slipper. Once we breach our separation of powers between Parliament and our judicial system we are damaging our democracy.

    Once the media and members of Parliament start to believe that they can bypass the processes of the Police, prosecution and the Court system to pronounce the guilt or not of someone our democracy is in trouble. And once we the public…

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    1. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      I've often thought that politicians should lose a body part, each time they're caught lying or failing to tell the whole truth. The sight of people disappearing piece by piece would teach salutary lessons.

      A vigorous and ethical media is the best watchdog. That's possibly Australia's worst problem. Unfortunately, I can't think of any way to reduce the gross abuses we see today that don't risk worse problems.

      Abbott's repeated demands for penalties on accusation, without conviction, are immoral and undemocratic. Gillard's abandonment of Thomson by having him expelled from the Labor party is little better.

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    2. Peter Redshaw

      Retired

      In reply to David Boxall

      Thanks for your comments David. Whether we agree with Gillard and labor for the reasons for expelling Thompson, or not, a party has the right to expell any member although I do believe that that member should have the right to challenge that expulsion.

      What any Prime Minister, or any party leader does not have, is the right to ask a member of parliament to resign from parliament. That has been what Tony Abbott has been saying Julia Gillard should do with Thompson. This is a ridiculous request…

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    3. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Redshaw

      Peter Redshaw: "... a party has the right to expell any member ...".
      Does having a right to do something necessarily make that something a right thing to do? In this case, it seems, Thomson was expelled on the accusation. Unless I've missed his conviction, somewhere along the line. Abbott pulled the strings and Gillard danced.

      Abbott has proved to be diabolically effective. Is that the sort of person we want to lead the country? Is that the sort of person we want in parliament? Is that the sort of person we want in Australian politics?

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