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.