FWA urges civil suit against Thomson: experts respond

The pressure continues to intensify on embattled MP Craig Thomson. AAP/Lukas Coch

Fair Work Australia (FWA) has recommended civil court action be taken against MP and former Health Services Union (HSU) national secretary Craig Thomson. The regulator says the union committed 105 breaches of the Registered Organisations Act - all civil penalties punishable by fine. Here, the experts respond to the latest development in this long-running saga.

Zareh Ghazarian, Lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University

Fair Work Australia has finally ended years of uncertainty by publicly releasing its recommendations on the embattled Health Services Union. Unfortunately, for the government, it has recommended civil court action against the union’s former secretary, now Labor MP, Craig Thomson.

Mr Thomson, who was recently suspended from the Labor Party by the prime minister, continues to fight for his political survival. Fair Work Australia’s findings that union funds were spent on items such as escort services and hospitality conjure notions of sleazy political machinations and do not bode well for those implicated in the report.

The so-called “Thomson affair” proved to be a significant problem for the Gillard government and his suspension can be seen as an attempt by the prime minister to insulate her government from the negative political fall-out. The question now becomes whether Ms Gillard will welcome Thomson back to the party.

In a pragmatic sense, the PM doesn’t need to expend further political capital. Thomson is on the cross-benches and he has promised to support the Labor Party. Furthermore, if he was to be taken back in the midst of continuing allegations, the government would be opening itself to further questions about whether it can make sound political judgement.

For the time being, the Fair Work Australia report has opened up new political challenges that the government must now confront.

Dominic O'Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Charles Sturt University

In the sense that, rightly or wrongly, the public has presumed Thomson guilty, it doesn’t add to the pressure on the Government, but it certainly keeps the pressure there, and it highlights that the Government made a fundamental mistake in not distancing itself from Thomson earlier.

The comparison with Peter Slipper is an instructive one. While Slipper, like Thomson, is entitled to the presumption of innocence, the difference is that Slipper was stood aside immediately. It took Thomson some time to stand aside from the parliamentary position he held early on in the term - the chair of a parliamentary committee. The allegations are extraordinarily serious. The fact that the Government is now supported by two members who are under this kind of cloud doesn’t look good, even if it’s found that they don’t have a case to answer.

The act under which the FWA investigates provides only for civil penalties, but the police enquiry that’s underway at the moment could well result in criminal charges, depending on what they find. The presumption of innocence is a principle that ought to be safeguarded, so I wouldn’t want to comment on that. If criminal charges were brought, the fact that Gillard did not acted sooner could be that much more serious politically.

If [Thomson had been made to quit the ALP] when the allegations were first raised, then it would have had no bearing in terms of the Government’s support on the floor of the House of Representatives, but it would have been seen by the public as a principled stand. In missing that opportunity, Gillard has showed a characteristic lack of political judgement.

The Slipper and Thomson affairs have very long histories. And what we’re seeing today is the outcome of poor judgement earlier on. Not just a one-off, but continuous poor judgement. It shows detachment from the electorate. Michelle Grattan suggested Gillard should step aside, and I think she’s absolutely right. Rudd’s not going to mount another challenge, because he doesn’t have the numbers. But I think if Gillard’s prepared to accept that the party is bigger than she is, she might like to reflect on the idea that there’s somebody else in the caucus better placed than she is to lead the Government and take the ALP into the next election.

Allegations that the Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper, sexually harassed a male staffer and misused Cabcharges have added to Labor’s woes. AAP/Penny Bradfield

Geoffrey Robinson, Senior Lecturer in Politics and History at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Of itself the saga of Craig Thompson is a minor political scandal that has attracted attention largely because of the government’s perilous parliamentary position, but it has more serious longer term implications for FWA and the trade union movement.

The lengthy time that FWA has taken to complete its investigations into the HSU has seriously weakened the political position of the organisation. Without prejudging the outcome of the current review of FWA procedures we can observe that with the decline of union membership in recent decades, both FWA and its predecessor the Australian Industrial Relations Commission have been required to monitor employers’ compliance with industrial laws to a far greater extent than before the 1990s.

In the 1980s high union membership (and more generous union entry rights to workplaces) meant that the industrial regulator played little role in the direct enforcement of industrial awards. FWA has found its resources thinly spread. A future Coalition government is unlikely to be sympathetic to any requests by FWA for improved funding.

The chaotic internal affairs of the HSU have been serious embarrassment for the union movement and an insult to HSU members. Formal democratic procedures have failed to protect the interests of union members. This is not surprising democracy depends on effective competition; political battles within the HSU although chronic appear to have been entirely unrelated to any substantive debates around the union’s direction or that of the health industry generally.

The HSU is affiliated to the Labor Party but there is little evidence the union has ever acted as a means for ordinary workers in the health sector to influence the policies of Labor governments. The downfall of Labor governments in Queensland and to a lesser extent NSW owed much to failures of public health administration. Perhaps if the voice of workers had been heard some disasters may have been averted.

The membership of the HSU has been effectively disempowered. Few, if any, of the HSU’s leadership cadre are from the union’s rank and file. The fate of the HSU’s membership reveals the broader collapse of the labour movement as an effective force in the community. A future Coalition government may employ the HSU scandal as a tool against unions generally but the scandal also demonstrates the need for union leaderships to develop new strategies to involve their membership and to make the idea of a “labour movement” more than hollow rhetoric.

Trevor Cook, PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and former ministerial staffer in the offices of John Dawkins and Simon Crean

The latest development in the HSU saga emphasises three points. First, unions need to have processes that are far more transparent and accountable. Unions can no longer use the fig leaf of class war, or the pretence that these private matters that will be settled internally.

Second, the FWA needs to have better powers of investigation and prosecution in respect to unions and business organisations (similar to those that operate in respect of ASIC and companies).

Third, reform of the relationship between unions and the ALP is long overdue. With the decline in union and party memberships, the relationship has become too narrowly based and operates too much like a closed network. A more open relationship is required, one that is more inclusive of a broader range of representative, community based organisations, is the long-term lesson of the HSU fiasco.

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