Sentencing: A Heavy Penalty Befits Craig Thomson

FOLLOWING PRE-SENTENCE SUBMISSIONS in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court today, former Health Services Union head and disgraced Labor MP Craig Thomson is to be sentenced next Tuesday, having been convicted recently on 65 theft and dishonesty charges stemming from his time in charge of the union. The cavalier Thomson — who has shown no remorse, and thumbed his nose at attempts to bring him to justice — deserves a heavy penalty.

For fairly obvious reasons, I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of next week’s sentencing hearing, nor particularise what I think an appropriate penalty for the criminal sins of Craig Robert Thomson, other than to say that in the circumstances I think it fair that Magistrate Charlie Rozencwajg would be justified in throwing the proverbial book at the bastard, and should indeed do precisely that.

I do think Thomson should be jailed, if only to make an example of him as a warning to others in public life. But beyond that, it would not be proper to speculate or postulate further as to the sentence Thomson should be given.

Even so, I want to run through some of the points listed in an article that appeared across the Murdoch titles today; these relate to sentencing submissions from the prosecution and the defence that are in the public domain, and as such can be regarded as fair game to tear them to shreds.

Some of this stuff is “cuckoo-land” stuff, and so tear it apart I will.

I must say I have enormous sympathy with the Crown prosecutor, Lesley Taylor SC, who in noting that Thomson had not shown a shred of remorse and blamed others consistently for his deeds, described Thomson and his denials as “arrogant in the extreme.” Her account of his behaviour aligns perfectly with his conduct during his embattled time as the member for Dobell, smugly and unswervingly sheltered by the assiduous protection of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The submissions on Thomson’s behalf from his defence counsel, however — barrister Greg James QC — defy credulity.

James claims that in committing the offences for which he will shortly be punished that Thomson was confronted by “moments of need or desire” during his time as HSU national secretary, when his relationship with his then wife was breaking down.

Perhaps this was so, and perhaps these were difficult personal times for Thomson. But they do not justify ripping the Health Services Union off to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

James says that Thomson’s actions were “a response by him to his own impulses on a more or less opportunistic basis,” and that his client — in his time of darkness — “sought comfort somewhere else;” I’ll leave it to readers to make their own individual judgements on whether the procurement of prostitutes fits within their own code of ethics, but I would say very forcefully that it clearly did in Thomson’s case — and that having elected to go down such a path, he should have paid for their services from his own pocket.

The Australian quotes James as saying that “the climate (at the HSU) appeared to be that if he hadn’t spent the money on prostitutes and pornographic movies then there was unlikely to have been concern,” to which I would simply say such a speculative contention is invalid: Thomson spent money on airfares, cigarettes and accommodation, too, among other things, and the HSU wasn’t happy with those purchases, either.

Apparently, Thomson has “already agreed” to repay the HSU the sum of $24,538.42 “in compensation” for his actions, and James told the Court Thomson had taken out a mortgage and intended to pay these monies within three months.

Should that ameliorate whatever penalty he receives next week? Hardly. Such a repayment should form part of that penalty, not be made in an attempt to evade it.

James said — again, to quote The Australian — that Thomson had lost every prospect of a career in politics or public life, and suffered from anxiety as a result of his humiliating downfall. “From the very moment of his arrest on, he was very publicly pilloried,” Mr James said.

From the very moment…what melodramatic, jumped-up pseudo-emotive poppycock.

Perhaps if Thomson has suffered ridicule, it is because his actions have made him a public laughing stock; any rational and intelligent individual — which, by almost every account, Thomson is — would foresee the great shame and ostracisation his actions would bring if they were ever publicly revealed, and prosecuted as they deserved to be.

If Thomson is now unemployable and/or unelectable, he can only blame himself. Such a reality does not merit sympathy or leniency in the circumstances.

And in further reporting by sister publication the Daily Telegraph of Sydney, it is noted that James even canvassed “alternative options” with which to sentence his client, suggesting Thomson “would be happy to travel from his NSW home to undertake community work in Victoria.”

Which — let’s face it — would be awfully big of him; a miscreant criminal prepared to submit to the indignity of an occasional aeroplane ride as a price to pay for keeping himself out of prison.

James’ assertion that Thomson was “suffering a major depressive illness and had been punished by widespread media attention since his arrest in September 2011” is — again — something I would simply shrug my shoulders and say “who cares?” in response to; once again (as noted four paragraphs above this one) actions such as Thomson’s bring adverse consequences when revealed and prosecuted.

The whole idea of alleged criminals having their day in Court is to establish their innocence or guilt in relation to the matters with which they have been charged, and — where guilt is found — to punish those offences proportionately.

To accept any or all of the recommendations put by Thomson’s barrister is to accept that despite committing the crimes, Thomson should effectively get off scot-free.

Prosecutor Taylor’s submission — that anything less than an immediate jail term would be “manifestly inadequate” — is, to my mind, much nearer the mark.

After all, this is a bloke who breached the trust of tens of thousands of low-paid union members in a self-indulgent romp at their expense, and then went to elaborately intricate lengths to either escape prosecution for his offences and/or to deflect blame for them to others.

Taylor is right: Thomson has never uttered so much as a syllable publicly by way of remorse.

We’ll look at how this plays out next week, but it is to be hoped Magistrate Rozencwajg makes an example of Thomson, and throws the book at him.

 

 

Crossroads: Many Careers On The Line As Craig Thomson Charged With Fraud

NEWS that Dobell MP Craig Thomson has been charged with fraud — over the alleged misuse of credit cards whilst the head of the Health Services Union — brings to a head a saga that has dragged on for years; it raises questions, and imperils the careers of many others beside the disgraced former Labor MP.

As these matters are now before the Court, I am not going to offer any comment on the charges, their merits or veracity, or an opinion on Thomson’s innocence or guilt.

I do, however, propose to look at the potential fallout from a conviction — should one eventuate — and its likely impact and risks on other key figures in this tawdry labyrinth of accusation and alleged immorality.

Thomson is the subject of 150 fraud charges brought against him by Victoria Police, following their investigation into allegations of improper financial transactions during periods Thomson spent in Victoria; these will be heard in Melbourne at a date to be fixed.

Thomson is also faced with a litany of civil charges brought against him by Fair Work Australia, relating to that agency’s investigation into the HSU, and he also remains a “person of interest” in a current NSW Police investigation which mirrors and complements that undertaken by their southern counterparts.

The first thing I considered on learning that Thomson had been arrested this afternoon was whether Prime Minister Julia Gillard knew that the arrest was imminent when she announced a 14 September election yesterday.

(The issue of Gillard’s election announcement will be covered by this column, although due to my other commitments this may not occur until the weekend. We will definitely look at it: that ill-advised event really does need to be picked apart).

Certainly, there has been a whisper around the traps today to that effect; Gillard herself has denied knowledge, although Thomson has intimated that he knew in advance that he would be arrested.

Indeed, there is some dispute over whether he was “invited” to surrender himself to Victoria Police prior to Christmas in relation to these matters; Thomson’s lawyer claims it was simply an invitation to an interview, whilst VicPol maintains it was to face charges.

Either way, it’s clear that advance knowledge of something is, at the very least, acknowledged to varying degrees by the parties directly involved.

Did Gillard also know? I would be staggered if she didn’t, despite her denial. If she did, then the election announcement was even more of a cynical stunt than I thought yesterday.

Whether she did or not, the charging of Thomson has the potential to ruin many careers aside from his own — even if he is acquitted on all charges.

For starters, Gillard will be sweating on the timing of the eventual hearing of charges; whilst it’s possible these matters will not reach Court until after the federal election, the greater probability is that they will.

And if they do, there is no “ideal” time — for the ALP politically — for it to occur; but a nightmare scenario for the government would be a steady stream of sensational headlines emanating from Thomson’s criminal trial in the final weeks of what was always going to be an extremely difficult election campaign.

I think it is fair to assert that readers are, by now, well aware that if Thomson is convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of one year or more, he will be automatically disqualified from Parliament, meaning his seat of Dobell will require a by-election to be held.

However, this would also be the case if Thomson were to become bankrupt — either by declaring himself so, or involuntarily — and to my mind this is the greater immediate risk to the government’s numbers.

It is also a risk to the careers of many other people in the present Parliament.

It is common knowledge that the ALP covered expenses for Thomson to the tune of some $350,000 prior to suspending his membership; this was in large part to offset legal expenses and a settlement over a defamation action involving Fairfax Media.

Much was made at the time of the fact that it kept Thomson from going bankrupt in 2011 and disqualifying him from Parliament then; it is unknown whether the Labor Party would bail him out again now, in light of the political risks involved in doing so and with an eye on the fact it has already distanced itself from him by suspending him.

Clearly, Thomson faces massive costs in defending both the civil and criminal charges brought against him.

I want to outline a scenario — hypothetical for now, but deadly serious in its potential to eventuate — to explain my point tonight to readers.

Let us suppose that in, say, three months’ time — in late April — Thomson is forced into bankruptcy under the weight of his legal bills.

At that time, his eligibility to sit in the House of Representatives would automatically be terminated.

There has been some discussion today, in the lightning analysis of the Thomson charges, of what would happen in such a scenario; indeed, the consensus in the mainstream media seems to be that the (Labor) Speaker, Anna Burke, would decline to issue the writs for a by-election in Dobell on the basis a federal election date has already been set.

At the risk of stealing my own thunder from my pending article on the 14 September date, I must emphasise to readers that what Gillard did yesterday has no legal standing, or binding validity, whatsoever: she has simply, literally, named a date.

The actual “calling” of an election is a complex process involving a dissolution of Parliament and the issue of writs — and these things and other necessary legal steps cannot be taken in relation to a 14 September election until much, much closer to the date.

As half the Senate must also be voted upon, they can’t be taken until July at the earliest, owing to constitutional considerations.

So back to our scenario: Thomson, April, bankrupt. What happens?

In the proper performance of her duties, the Speaker would be required to issue a writ for a by-election in Dobell; indeed, I believe that is exactly what should occur.

To refuse to call a by-election so far out from an intended federal election date would be a flagrant abuse of power and an endeavour to rig the House of Representatives to improperly maintain the Gillard government’s numbers in the House.

There is a precedent; in late 1989, a vacant National Party electorate in Queensland was left vacant for a couple of months ahead of that state’s election. Even so — despite the Nationals hurtling toward their first election loss since 1956 — the seat made no difference to the Nationals’ majority in state Parliament, even if it were lost in a by-election.

So I don’t see that either the 14 September consideration, nor a modern precedent in Queensland, could excuse such an outrageous disregard for democratic process.

Were Burke to take that path, her prospects in her own electorate of Chisholm — held by a reasonable but not invulnerable 6.1% margin — would become that little bit more tenuous.

And if such a course were pursued by the Gillard government, the certain outcome would be to render it unelectable at a general election, and seal the fate of dozens of its MPs.

It would also guarantee that Labor would suffer a bloodbath when the general election finally occurred.

Replacing Burke with another candidate seems implausible; none of the Independents is likely to touch the Speakership, and it would be unlikely that a rebel Liberal or National would do so to prop up a dying government committing undemocratic acts.

So that would seem to close off the option of adding another Labor vote to the mix of 149 in total on the floor of the House by selecting a new Speaker.

Yet even without losing Dobell outright at a by-election, a disqualified Thomson and a vacated seat would still take the minority Gillard government a step closer to the precipice if the Opposition refused to grant a pair for Dobell; in such circumstances, it seems an unbelievable proposition that Abbott and his colleagues would grant a pair.

This would make the mix on the floor of the House 70 ALP to 72 Coalition, and it would bring the Independents into play for the inevitable vote of no-confidence the Opposition would move in the government in an attempt to force it to an election, with the refusal to conduct a by-election in Dobell the pretext — and a resonant pretext at that.

Communist Greens MP Adam Bandt would side with Labor, and Bob Katter with the Coalition; the numbers become 71 to 73.

Andrew Wilkie and Peter Slipper are the unknowns; having been comprehensively shafted by the Gillard government, it is difficult to see Wilkie supporting it in a no-confidence vote.

Slipper, despite having enjoyed the favour of the government, is a conservative Liberal turncoat who would seem disinclined to preserve a Labor government in office in such circumstances.

And then there’s Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.

Windsor has signalled his intention to stand again in his ultra-conservative seat of New England; Oakeshott has equivocated, but I suspect he, too, will renominate. Like Windsor’s, his electorate of Lyne is one of the most conservative in the country.

Both are likely to struggle to win anyway, given their support of a Labor government, but a failure to act — in this scenario — to terminate that government, when it is refusing to allow a by-election that could result in its downfall anyway, would guarantee their own demise as well.

In such a situation, their votes would get the opposition the 75 votes on the floor of the House required, and a no-confidence vote to succeed.

And that’s before the votes of Wilkie and Slipper — and who carried them — are resolved.

But which way would they all jump?

It may well be that on that question, the careers of dozens of our politicians could rest.

And thus, there is a great deal at stake as a result of Thomson being charged this afternoon; the potential ramifications are vast, but not necessarily due to the scenario most people — the imprisonment of Thomson if convicted — are primarily focused on.

BREAKING: Labor MP Craig Thomson Arrested

This is a very quick lunchtime post, and primarily with a link to the news report carried in the Fairfax press; but after years of investigation, Dobell MP Craig Thomson has been arrested on fraud charges emanating from his days at the helm of the Health Services Union.

Readers will know we have followed this issue as it has intermittently surfaced; indeed, in the next day or so — when I have some time — I will post again at greater length.

I will simply say that this development comes as a surprise to nobody, although what happens from here is to some extent fluid.

And it raises additional questions over yesterday’s election “announcement” — something else I will be returning to in the next day or so, and probably this evening.

 

For now (as I literally have 10 minutes at present), I simply share a link to the article carried in The Age to break the story.

And I will return to both the election date and this latest turn of events in the Thomson matter very soon.

 

Dobell Disgrace: Circus Heads To The House Of Representatives

Disgraced Labor MP Craig Thomson will today address the House of Representatives with what he says is a full account that will establish his innocence in the HSU scandal; whilst I am open to being convinced, anything he says should be taken with a large dose of salt.

The fact this is happening at all is a further blight on the Parliament and on the present government, whose leader either couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with the member for Dobell and the allegations against him at a time far, far earlier than this.

And — hiding behind the coward’s cloak of parliamentary privilege — Craig Thomson can say, literally, anything he likes.

This is a monumental cause for concern.

Readers of this column will understand my cynicism: we have talked about this matter many times since The Red And The Blue began last year; Thomson — in one way or another — has consistently refused to give an account of himself since well before this column started, and I’m very sceptical of the value of today’s exercise.

The opposition has already signalled its extreme wariness of any documents Thomson might seek to table; the great fear is that he may table documents that are self-incriminating, which — subjected to privilege — would then be inadmissible in any legal or civil proceedings against him.

It is to be hoped that deputy Speaker Anna Burke, who will be presiding, will refuse to grant leave to table any document she reasonably believes would compromise subsequent investigations if so presented.

And from the opposition to the cross-benches and in the press, Thomson has been repeatedly warned ahead of today’s address that it is incumbent upon him to tell the truth; should he mislead Parliament, it may provide grounds for a suspension from the House of Representatives — and with numbers so finely balanced, such an absence could be sufficient for a motion of no-confidence in the government to be passed.

So there are consequences. Yet there is no indication Thomson has regard to the consequences in this matter except for those that affect himself.

He has indicated that he will name people who have allegedly framed him and dumped him in this mess; indeed, the Murdoch press today publishes that he will name Health Services Union deputy secretary Marco Bolano as the individual who threatened to set him up with prostitutes in a bid to ruin his career.

Bolano has already responded to the claim, saying the allegation is “crap,” and adding that “I’ve never threatened anyone with setting him up with hookers.”

Other allegations to be made by Thomson have been speculated upon, but I think we will wait until the speech has been made before we examine what he has had to say.

Indeed, Thomson’s former colleagues at the HSU are already lining up to attempt to claim a right of response before the House of Representatives if named; and to be frank, that simply illustrates the farce that this government and this member are prepared to turn Parliament into in order to evade scrutiny in a court of law.

What a mess.

It promises to be an interesting day in federal Parliament.

I will post again tonight with an analysis of the day’s events in Canberra, including Thomson’s speech.

But one detail I will leave you with is the claim widely published in this morning’s media that Thomson will ask Police to view CCTV footage at brothels the nights he is alleged to have attended for the purpose of sexual relations in a bid to clear his name.

As tawdry as this is, what he obviously hasn’t realised is that if any of the escort agencies involved in this episode — and not least, considering Thomson’s hotel rooms have featured prominently in the allegations — if any of them offer “outcall” services, then the tapes Thomson seeks aren’t going to clear anyone of anything.

This is the sort of half-baked defence, based in smart answers and clever semantics, that I would expect today.

See you all later tonight, folks…

 

 

Those Evil, Nasty Bastards Tried To Nobble Me: Craig Thomson

Besieged Labor MP Craig Thomson has come up with a novel new explanation of allegations against him, despite years of inquiries eliciting no hint of it until now: he was framed. His story is ridiculous; its credibility zero, and its believability somewhat less than that.

We all know the story by now: ex-Health Services Union chief Craig Thomson gets elected to Parliament for the ALP; in his wake are serious allegations of the misappropriation of over half a million dollars in HSU funds including to cover the hiring of call girls, inappropriate use of credit cards, and diverting funds to bankroll his election campaigns; after several years of investigation, Fair Work Australia releases a 1100 page report of damning findings that Thomson has done precisely that.

And throughout, he has protested his innocence.

But he has done more than simply that: until now, he has never uttered a word by way of explanation; he has refused to co-operate with Police investigations into the same matters; he has accepted monies on his behalf from the ALP to pay his legal bills and keep him from bankruptcy, thus maintaining eligibility to remain a member of Parliament; and he has been content to sit in Parliament, the scandal detonating around his ears a millstone around the Gillard government’s neck, apparently oblivious to just how poisoned a political commodity — innocent or not — he has become.

Yes, he recently and voluntarily suspended his membership of the ALP; yet he continues to sit in Parliament, he continues to openly declare himself “a Labor man,” and he continues to insist that once cleared of wrongdoing, he will officially rejoin the ALP caucus and resume his Labor membership.

In other words, it wasn’t much of a decisive action.

Now, Thomson has produced what reasonably seems an implausible and impossible defence: his enemies have framed him.

I’m not going to prejudge Thomson’s innocence or guilt, but we can reveal some of the gaping holes in his newest story.

The first thing I would say — before we even get to the detail of Thomson’s latest rationale — is that on one level, why is he bothering? After all, he has stayed in Parliament all this time and tainted the government in the same way a fish stinks when it rots, so why tell a story like this at this exact juncture?

Don’t anyone mention the word “standards” — this tawdry saga is entirely innocent of those.

And further, the court proceedings Thomson faces at this point are civil, not criminal; given a civil suit cannot lead to disqualification from Parliament, and as Thomson does not — as yet — face criminal proceedings, why go down this track now?

One wonders if he’s been tipped off that something might come out of the Police investigations he refused to co-operate with. Who would know?

Either way, the new defence of being placed in the frame that Thomson put about on Friday is laughably grotesque, and totally unbelievable.

As Thomson tells it, when he took on his role at the HSU, he discovered it to be “dysfunctional;” determined to clean it up and to impose financial accountability on it, he made enemies within the organisation, or — in his own words — his efforts “created resentment.”

According to Thomson, “political enemies” repeatedly and systemically engineered false records to show he hired prostitutes; his allegations include “enemies” making telephone calls from Thomson’s own mobile phone to escort agencies in his name, using his driver’s licence to validate payments, and using his union credit cards to pay for the bookings.

Thomson claims that as long ago as 2004 elements within the union whom he had alienated and enraged, through his drive to impose discipline and accountability on the HSU, had openly stated that they would “ruin my political career by setting me up with hookers.”

Naturally enough, Thomson has proven unwilling or unable to name the person or persons responsible for making these threats.

He has, as part of the explanation proffered on Friday, taken a swipe at the woman who replaced him at the HSU — national secretary Kathy Jackson — by saying he had strongly recommended against her being placed in the role he was vacating, and that he had made this sentiment widely known at the time.

Perhaps, then, whether by coincidence or otherwise, it’s no surprise that Jackson was a key whistleblower on accusations of corruption and misconduct at the HSU.

Readers will excuse my extreme cynicism, I’m sure. To go along with Thomson’s account of the background to all of this, just for starters, is to accept that he, Craig Thomson — alone of his peers, and in the splendid isolation of the crusader doing good and right — was a shining knight of virtuous rectitude in an otherwise murky cesspool of sleaze, corruption, moral decay and vice.

To add salt to the sandwich, Thomson takes aim at Fair Work Australia investigator Terry Nassios, who — leaving aside the inordinate amount of time the FWA probe dragged on for — examined every shred of evidence that Thomson had checked into hotels, made calls to escort agencies on his mobile phone that were recorded in his phone records, used his driver’s licence for identification, and used two separate credit cards to pay for the prostitutes who attended at the liaisons that were booked.

Effectively accusing Nassios of extreme naivety, gullibility and even stupidity, Thomson claimed in an interview with Laurie Oakes that Nassios was “led down a path” by two unnamed union officials who were rivals and enemies.

Thomson claimed that all senior people at the HSU knew his credit card numbers and had access to his driver’s licence, and that he had approved his credit card statements “without knowledge” that they contained records of transactions for escort services.

Doesn’t this man understand that the cardholder is responsible for verifying the credit card transactions shown on a statement?

To miss one bill here and there could be put down to oversight, or carelessness; but to miss these items on regular bills over a period of years? I don’t think so, unless he’s just dumb. Really dumb. Just a great, big dolt.

And I know this might be a bit crass, but work with me: if Thomson wanted to engage prostitutes — and by all accounts, expenditure on them covered a mere fraction of the total amount he is accused of misappropriating — why didn’t he simply pay for their services himself?

To do so out of his own pocket is a private matter; to do so in the circumstances in which he is accused could yet lead to criminal charges, to say nothing of the depths of betrayal it represents to the rank-and-file HSU membership.

I make two further points on the events under investigation in establishing the background: some $100,000 of the monies allegedly misappropriated by Thomson from the HSU were cash advances from union credit cards; Thomson says that these amounts were accounted for by receipts presented to the HSU’s financial controller, and that any unused cash was handed directly to the financial controller — despite Nassios stating that after questioning the financial controller, he found that she could not remember Thomson ever doing so.

And in what would appear a textbook example of what is wrong with trade unions and their political activities, Thomson simply dismisses the $250,000 spent by the HSU on his campaign for the seat of Dobell, saying, and I quote from The Australian:

“(His) poorly-paid members, who often relied on penalty rates which were under threat from a Coalition government, would have expected nothing less from the union than for it to fund campaigns…to avoid the danger of a Howard government re-election.”

Were “his” poorly paid members given a say in that expenditure? “The danger” of a Howard government re-election? What a load of rubbish. And what about the 44% of the country who voted for the Coalition? They didn’t have unions sluicing quarter of a million dollars into individual marginal seats, so why should Labor?

But coming to the central point, for Thomson’s “I was framed” defence to hold water, it would need to be related to a completely different set of events than those for which he is under investigation.

Indeed, as shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey observed of the FWA report, it was a “damning indictment” of Thomson and others at the HSU, and that — given FWA is a statutory authority — its report represented findings, and not allegations.

Even Paul Howes — an arch unionist and savagely loyal ALP man — indicated Thomson’s story was difficult to believe.

I’d like to leave readers with some questions; they are, in fact, questions for Craig Thomson, and were there answers to hand then they might clarify a whole lot of things.

  • If Thomson was receiving threats of harassment, intimidation and bastardry — which is what his claims amount to — as far back as 2004, why were these never actioned or pursued?
  • The counter-allegations Thomson makes in his defence involve criminal misconduct, fraud, conspiracy, falsification of financial records and misuse of a telecommunications device under relevant Commonwealth legislation; failure to act on these raises questions of interference with or potential obstruction of the process of justice;
  • Why has this story never surfaced until two days ago, when these matters have been under investigation for several years?
  • If Thomson were genuinely innocent of all accusations, why would he allow his own name, and the name of the ALP (which he professes enduring commitment to), to be tarnished and besmirched in such a way?
  • As the responsible member of the HSU executive, why did Thomson sign off on expenses claims and expenditure without checking them?
  • Despite effective claims of a forgery, how was Thomson’s union mobile phone available to others — as indicated in phone records — to place calls to brothels during business hours in which Thomson required his phone at all times, and how is this not an explicit dereliction of his duties as a union official?
  • Why does almost every element of the new Thomson story directly contradict the official findings of the FWA investigation, including where statements and evidence were collected on a one-on-one basis between the inspector and witnesses?

I would also challenge Thomson to explain who is now paying his legal bills to keep him out of bankruptcy; what the circumstances are that place him at risk of such a bankruptcy; and whether any public monies, directly or indirectly, have been diverted either to Thomson’s defence or to the squalid activities that have been the focus of the FWA investigation, and which remain the subject of Police investigations in NSW and Victoria in which findings — and potential further action — are yet to be made or taken.

ALP figures outside federal Parliament are abandoning Thomson; journalists such as The Age‘s Mischa Schubert write of “an incredible tale” and The Australian‘s Chris Kenny of “a fanciful scenario;” and it is undeniable that as convenient as the prospect of a by-election in Dobell (or a general election) might be for the Liberals, Thomson’s continuing presence in Parliament is rotting the supports from under the Gillard government as key Independents indicate, for the first time, that they may yet call time on the ALP as a consequence of this disgusting saga.

But Thomson’s story is just that — a story; one which (if the hard details of it are stated without the coward’s veil of parliamentary privilege) may very well do Thomson more harm than good.

And unless it is 100% true, it is a story Thomson would be well advised never to utter in the vicinity of a Police inquiry, a courtroom, or any other instrument of justice.

Because if this apparently cock-and-bull story is the sack of hot air it seems to be, a perjury charge might be the next thing to appear on Thompson’s litany list of woes; and whilst perjury doesn’t physically harm anyone, the law tends to fall on it like a ton of bricks — and quite rightly so.

What do people think?

Please keep comments relevant to the issue; no partisan rants, and nothing defamatory — such postings will be deleted as soon as I spot them.

I Was Wrong: Incompetence, Or Something More Sinister?

I wish to apologise to all readers of The Red And The Blue; there appeared in this column an article yesterday concerning the Fair Work Australia report into the Health Services Union which contained a number of errors of fact. For this, I apologise unreservedly.

The problem, simply stated, is that after my article was posted late yesterday morning, it was revealed that the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, Chris Craigie SC, said the report was useless to him insofar as bringing criminal charges against any of the individuals named was concerned.

It was also revealed that as a consequence, the said report rendered yesterday’s column incorrect and irrelevant, and I’m very sorry.

Seriously — dry old jokes aside — this isn’t a laughing matter, and it goes to the heart of exactly how the business of government under the ALP is conducted.

And it raises a fundamental question: has Fair Work Australia exhibited incompetence, or are there other factors at work here?

I should have known better than to believe Fair Work Australia had delivered a report  of any meaningful or useful substance, but there you go; in the meantime, the fiasco of the Health Services Union, the inquiry into it, and putative action against any of the individuals concerned will likely now drag on.

After more than three years, the apparent waste of millions of dollars in resources, and increasingly relevant questions of a cover-up, Fair Work Australia has produced an 1180-page report that, as things stand, is an expensive white elephant.

The CDPP has stated that the report does not constitute a brief of evidence that could be actioned for the purposes of criminal prosecution; indeed — given FWA now appears to have dumped the entire file on Craigie as a work in progress — he pointedly observed yesterday afternoon that the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is not an “investigating agency.”

Craigie suggested referring the material to Police for further investigation.

The federal Opposition suggested Fair Work Australia engage a firm of solicitors to prepare a brief of evidence for the CDPP.

Fair Work Australia, in turn, has claimed legislative and other legal considerations prevent it from the co-operation with Police inquiries; thus far, it has refused requests for information to assist separate investigations into the HSU and allegations involving Craig Thomson and others undertaken by Police in NSW and Victoria.

Has Fair Work Australia acted incompetently?

Its general manager, Bernadette O’Neill, remains adamant that she has operated in full accordance with the requirements of the Fair Work Act, guided by specific legal advice.

Whether or not this is the case remains to be seen, but if O’Neill is correct, then questions need to be asked about the Labor Party’s fitness to govern if marquee legislation like the Fair Work Act is so dysfunctional as to allow a quagmire such as this increasingly seems to be to develop.

After all, if Ms O’Neill’s assertions are correct, then legislation enacted by the current government is directly to blame for the situation.

The much-trumpeted replacement of the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation was a showcase item for the ALP; and the minister responsible at the time for the introduction of the Fair Work Australia laws was none other than — you guessed it — one Julia Gillard.

If this set of laws is so dysfunctional, then one wonders: what else is lying in wait, undiscovered, in the hundreds of thousands of other pages of legislation this government has passed?

What a mess.

And if this situation is not the result of incompetence — at whatever level — then the alternative is rather more sinister.

That alternative brings sharply into focus accusations of bias, interference and cover-up that have been levelled at the Fair Work Australia probe; at the very minimum, it raises the question of what the hell three and a bit years have been wasted doing if the end result is a useless pile of paper.

Whichever way you cut it (incompetence or corrupt abrogation of duty) this sorry mess makes demands by Tony Abbott and his colleagues for a royal commission into Fair Work Australia — until now correctly dismissed as opportunistic hyperbole, including by this column — seem reasonable, even necessary.

It seems clear to anyone who has followed this matter that at the simplest of levels, a series of wrongs have been perpetrated at the HSU during the past ten years; it is what, and by whom, that must be established beyond doubt, and further action pursued as mandated.

Craig Thomson is not the only HSU figure under question, but his status as the holder of a marginal seat in a minority government means he is most illuminated in the public spotlight — which simply draws more public scrutiny the longer this goes unresolved.

Clearly, this matter cannot simply be abandoned; to do so would be a travesty of justice, to say nothing of the weight it would further lend the notion of a cover-up.

One way or another, the series of investigations into the HSU matters must be resolved with great urgency and expedition.

Perhaps one way to proceed would be for Gillard to rush enabling legislation through the Parliament to clear the hurdles in the Fair Work Act — if any, in fact, exist — which O’Neill claims prevent FWA from co-operating with Police investigations.

That way, NSW and Victorian Police (and, presumably, the Federal Police) could conclude their outstanding inquiries, with the preparation of briefs of evidence following should there be grounds to charge individuals with criminal offences.

It would give Gillard the opportunity to demonstrate her willingness to resolve these matters with transparency and probity; it would also give Tony Abbott the opportunity to demonstrate he is prepared to do anything he has to in order to facilitate the resolution of these matters through the proper mechanisms.

And it would shut down the sort of drivel we heard yesterday from the likes of Workplace Relations minister Bill Shorten, whose contribution to the discussion was to blame Tony Abbott on the basis of legislation enacted when the latter was Workplace Relations minister under John Howard ten years ago.

Indeed, Shorten’s utterances merely serve to underline the botch Labor made of its overhaul of industrial laws in 2008-09.

Either way, the indications that Abbott could use this saga as the pretext for a no-confidence motion in the Gillard government are clear; and unless the ALP acts quickly to fix what has become a festering sore, then at some point Messrs Katter, Windsor, Wilkie and Crook may well offer a sympathetic ear when he visits them to present his case.

Finally…Fair Work Australia Concludes Investigation Into Health Services Union

News yesterday that Fair Work Australia has ended its investigation into the HSU — and, by extension, its former head and now embattled ALP MP Craig Thomson — after three years is welcome. The development should be kept in perspective; it raises more questions than answers.

After what is, by any reasonable measure, a ridiculous amount of time — indeed, a common public comment has been that the inquiry into the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US only took 14 months to resolve — the fact this investigation has now concluded is pleasing.

Yet the saga of the HSU is not over yet; nor is it clear that anything has actually been resolved.

In its 1180-page report, Fair Work Australia identifies 181 breaches of the Fair Work Act; it has widely been reported that 105 of these may be subject to civil penalties, with the remainder attracting no penalty at all.

Yet FWA has referred the entire matter to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to possible criminal charges arising from its findings.

There is no indication as to what these prospective charges might be, or what they relate to.

And whilst the report suggests three individuals associated with the HSU might be the subject of any criminal proceedings, it does not identify who these people are, but a clear inference that one is the embattled Member for Dobell — Craig Thomson — can be drawn.

Thomson, for his part, continues to deny any wrongdoing.

The length of the inquiry notwithstanding, it has also been confirmed that Fair Work Australia has refused to provide material to Police inquiries being conducted in NSW and Victoria on the basis of “legal advice;” apparently, the agency’s advice it that the requirements of the Fair Work Act do not compel it to co-operate with Police operations of this kind.

Well…

There have been suggestions levelled at Fair Work Australia of political interference and bias; the three-and-a-bit years it has taken to reach this point is manifestly excessive.

And a refusal to co-operate with Police investigations is hardly grounds for public confidence in FWA, nor substantive evidence of its impartiality.

The matters arising from the HSU, the way in which sections of it have been run, and allegations of potentially criminal misconduct against several past and current officials at that union are all matters that have attracted great public interest.

Surely, in the public interest — to say nothing of ensuring the most rigorous standards of probity and transparency — Fair Work Australia must now, having concluded its own investigations, provide whatever additional information is required to other statutory agencies such as Police so their own inquiries can be completed accurately, thoroughly and expeditiously.

The FWA report — referred to the Commonwealth DPP and selectively quoted to media — has not been publicly released and again, it is not unreasonable to expect that agency to do so.

Indeed, shadow Attorney-General George Brandis, SC — a legal practitioner of great professional integrity — has examined the case and stated publicly that there is no legal impediment to the public release of the report.

Matters concerning the HSU — directly and indirectly — have generated enormous public interest, and with it, a widespread sentiment that, to use the vernacular, something “funny” is going on.

Allegations of the misappropriation of public funds, other potentially criminally corrupt conduct, and titillating and salacious suggestions that improperly obtained funds have been used to pay for dozens of encounters with prostitutes are just the sort of thing to get the Australian public engaged and, indeed, outraged.

It should not be the purvey, therefore, of a publicly funded statutory agency such as FWA to obfuscate on these matters for years, or to fail to make its findings public, or to frustrate other investigations of potentially criminal conduct.

It should release its report, and co-operate with Police.

Having said all of that, the role Craig Thomson in the immediate to medium-term warrants some comment.

The man is entitled to the presumption of innocence prior to any formal finding of guilt; indeed, he has reiterated — yet again — claims of innocence relating to any matters currently under investigation which arise from his tenure as the head of the HSU between 2002 and 2007.

And it must be remembered that the wheels of the law turn slowly; even were he to be charged with an offence, the likelihood is that such matters would remain unresolved at the time of the next Federal election due in August or September next year.

Suggestions he will be thrown out of Parliament, and the ALP subjected to a consequent by-election that will sweep it from office, should now be viewed from that perspective.

Yet a suggestion by Brandis and the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, that Thomson sit on the cross-bench in Parliament if charged does have merit.

It would send a clear signal that Thomson and the government were taking the process seriously, and until the matter was resolved, it would not preclude Thomson from continuing to support the Gillard government on the floor of the House of Representatives, thus maintaining the status quo in terms of the finely balanced numbers in Parliament.

And of course, if found to not be guilty — as Thomson claims and protests — he would subsequently be free to rejoin his party to serve out the remainder of his parliamentary term.

Sources within the NSW branch of the ALP have already indicated Thomson is likely to lose his endorsement for Dobell for the 2013 election in any case; given any charges laid are unlikely to be finalised by then, the point about parliamentary numbers is moot.

That won’t, however, stop the public outrage over these issues from simmering and boiling away; and whilst Gillard may yet get to an election at the expiry of a full term of the current Parliament, the political damage this may cause her government could well be significant.

In closing, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from the developments of the past 24 hours.

The conclusion of one inquiry is welcome, but the need for further disclosure, co-operation with other official inquiries by FWA, and the lack of any solid timeframe for advancing these issues toward resolution remains pitifully, and disgracefully, unresolved.