Union’s Penalty Rates Deal A Smoke And Mirrors Trick

THE DEAL ON PENALTY RATES announced yesterday between Business SA and the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association may be a rare and welcome shred of labour market flexibility, and it may even constitute a step in the right direction. But robbing Peter to pay Paul is a fraught pursuit, and this smoke and mirrors trick simply cloaks the underlying burden of wage costs to businesses in a veil of “consultation” and “consensus.”

I have been reading about the “historic” template agreement signed yesterday between the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDAEA) and Business SA — which is said to “slash” penalty rates — and I have to wonder if I’m the only one who hasn’t been conned by what can only be described as a hoax; The Australian‘s Grace Collier tears strips from it in a complementary argument to mine, although stablemate Judith Sloan takes a gentler view of it.

The whole point to any debate over penalty rates (at least, where the poor bastards in small business lumbered with paying them is concerned) is that these archaic, obsolete relics from a bygone era as “compensation” for “unsociable hours of work” have in fact become a millstone around the figurative necks of many small and medium-sized enterprises, forcing them to restrict the times they trade, the number of staff they can hire, or both.

But this deal is simply a conjuring trick; everyone with a stake in it professes to have had “a win” — even the employers, their industry representatives, and the supposedly pro-business Liberal government — yet the only winner out of this is the union involved, which has hoodwinked the business interests concerned by a breathtaking sleight of hand.

First, the positives as I see them.

One, the abandoning of penalty rates on a Saturday is an absolute no-brainer, and this indefensible impost on businesses ought to be removed across the board: Saturday has become a day just like any other over the past few decades, and there is nothing unsociable about working on it.

Two, and similarly, the reduction of penalty rates from 100% to 50% on Sundays and from 150% to 100% on public holidays is at least a step in the right direction, reducing at face value as it does further imposts on small enterprises that — with a tiny number of exceptions, such as Christmas — simply fail to stack up against the ancient criteria still wheeled out by Labor and the unions to justify them.

The “right” — set to be enshrined as part of the agreement at hand — not to work on Sundays and/or public holidays is one I can find no fault with; after all, if people don’t want to work on given days they shouldn’t be forced to do so, although I reiterate that with a very small number of exceptions they shouldn’t have their hand out for multiples of their ordinary time earnings if they do work at those times.

And anything that helps flatten out and simplify a ridiculously complex regime of penalty allowances, loadings, and other wage components for hourly employees can only be a good thing.

But the positives are instantly neutralised with one very big negative: the 8% increase in base pay rates the agreement enshrines for its workers in return for surrendering a portion (not all, mind, just a portion) of their entitlement to be paid penalty rates at certain times, and the guaranteed 3% annual increases it includes will simply compound this.

On the one hand, this agreement takes some penalty rates away — some — from the hourly employees it will cover.

But on the other, it will mostly give them straight back in the form of a higher hourly rate.

The proof is that the template calls for the workers it covers for it to be no worse off under its terms for the agreement to be binding.

And the employers, desperate for relief from the punitive burden of paying penalty rates, will still pay out the same amount of money in wages — but broken down and accounted for a little differently.

The higher hourly rates will mean the employer effectively pays current penalty rates at any time of the day or night on any day an employee is working in their business.

What an absolute farce.

It’s unsurprising Labor and the unions are gushing over this; the SDAEA has probably uncovered an exciting new mechanism, compliant with the Fair Work Act, with which to continue to shaft small businesses whilst preserving their self-designated status as the “champions” of Australian workers.

It’s unsurprising the union, even a right-wing union like the Shoppies, would strike such a deal (despite any illusion otherwise) because it enables it to diminish a contentious area of industrial policy — penalty rates — by hiding part of it in an area of wage entitlements that it will never be held to account or challenged over; the penalty rate problem becomes smaller, more manageable and easier to fend off, whilst the unmitigated overall pressures on business are maintained.

But it is a surprise, distastefully enough, that various employer and industry bodies are hailing this as some kind of breakthrough when it is nothing of the sort; a red herring like this should have been easy to spot, and apparently it wasn’t.

And it’s just obscene that various figures in the Abbott government have seen fit to crow about this deal as “a constructive approach” and a “vindication” of its thoroughly gutless position that setting penalty rates should be left to the Fair Work Commission — which Labor in government set up as part of its sop to unions for their role in destroying the Howard government over its WorkChoices legislation.

About the only one of the key players quoted in the articles I’ve included today who has it right is Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm, who described South Australia as an “economic basket case” and correctly observed that those who want to work on weekends had been priced out of the market by penalty rates.

And crucially, when the dust settles and the businesses affected reconcile their outgoings on labour — and find nothing has changed — this deal will not make it easier for a single new job to be created, despite the loose rhetoric being tossed around to that effect.

In the final analysis, the union has insulated the earnings of its members by permanently entrenching the cost burden of penalty rates on the affected employers under a different guise.

It can hardly be described as a reform. The parties to this silly agreement might as well have not bothered in the first place.

Political Stink Bomb: Gillard To (Attempt To) Legislate Penalty Rates

PERHAPS eyeing the likely Liberal landslide at the coming election, or perhaps to shore up support for her leadership of the ALP among the unions that effectively control it, Julia Gillard today pledged to legislate penalty rates. It is economic vandalism, and a flagrant act of political hypocrisy.

The Prime Minister has seemingly capitulated to the union thugs at the helm of the Labor Party; the Murdoch press reports today that as recently as last month, there was little support within the ALP for this change to be made.

Yet being a leader under siege, and at risk of the metaphorical bullet, can sharpen and focus a politician’s mind to an astonishing degree; for this reason it comes as little surprise that Gillard is giving the union movement a prize item from its wish list.

There is a direct correlation between Labor-affiliated unions and Labor Party leadership votes, and when the message to the poll-obsessed ALP is that seven in ten voters want somebody else* to lead it, and if you’re Gillard, there’s probably a need to keep all the friends you can on side.

But I think there’s something a bit more basic — and nastier — behind this too: just as Wayne Swan has tried to do with the issue of election costings (the self-important one thinking he is far cleverer than he actually is), Gillard too is laying in a stink bomb she thinks will explode in the face of Tony Abbott and his Liberal government.

It has nothing to do with “workers’ rights,” either. God forbid.

The purpose of the legislative change is to guarantee higher pay for penalty rates, overtime, shift work loading and public holiday pay, enshrining these into the Fair Work Act to effectively make them a right for anyone working long or irregular hours.

The problem (and this is an old story) is that the small businesses who would mostly be required to pay them are financially strained enough as it is; the rate of business closures since Labor came to power in 2007 has skyrocketed, and many of those still in business might still be standing, but only just.

I have to ask a very simple question: where do Gillard, and her union buddies, think the money is coming from?

Not so long ago, prominent restaurateur George Calombaris campaigned to have penalty rates abolished; his rationale was that to open his upmarket restaurant on a Sunday, for example — paying staff double the rate it would cost on a Saturday or a Monday — was simply not commercially viable.

It’s a fair point, and one I’d add to by simply pointing out that your average diner at Calombaris’ trendy Melbourne restaurant might be willing to pay $135 for one of his eight course degustation dinners, but would they pay $270?

And the reason it’s a fair question is because unless someone like a Calombaris can double the asking price for their goods or services, their business cannot operate at a profit whilst attempting to absorb double the costs.

(Especially not in restaurants — trust me. I spent a few years operating restaurants in the early 1990s, the margins are a lot tighter than you might think).

This is an isolated example, but similar stories can be found in hundreds of thousands of small businesses across Australia who already struggle with the cost imposition of penalty rates and the like.

It’s certainly true that Gillard isn’t seeking to legislate something that doesn’t already exist.

But it is also true that real wages in Australia have grown strongly and almost without interruption for several decades now, and under governments run by both of the major political parties.

And for that reason, if there is to be any movement on the issue of penalty rates it ought to be toward getting rid of them, not trying to extend them in perpetuity.

One of the reasons jobs in so many industries in Australia are disappearing to places like India, or Thailand, or the Philippines, is precisely because of the high real wages in this country: in many areas, our labour costs price us out of the market.

Now, I don’t advocate a wholesale slashing of real wages (which is what I will nonetheless be accused of in some quarters).

But the fact is that penalty rates (of whichever variety) are an archaic relic from times when wages across the board were far lower, poverty was widespread, and checks that now exist on unscrupulous employers did not exist.

They were the times of mainstream union relevance, indeed!

So in case anyone think I’m making light of the issue, I’m not; but what I am saying is that whilst real wages in Australia may have rocketed over the past 40 years, the profits of small business as a whole certainly haven’t.

If there are no businesses to employ people, there are no jobs. It’s really very simple.

And the unions would do well to keep that in mind, as their ongoing struggle to bend the hated employer over a barrel eventually prices the worker out of a job, and the employer out of existence.

Like I said, there is no concern for workers’ rights and entitlements underpinning this latest policy of Gillard’s: they won’t have any rights or entitlements if they don’t have jobs.

All that said, I come back to the stink bomb this announcement by Gillard pretty clearly seeks to leave on the doormat of The Lodge as a welcome present for the Abbotts.

I’ve already hinted at its intent: those ghastly, hated Liberals, in their rush to bring back WorkChoices, will abolish penalty rates for hard-working folk and drive hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people below the breadline.

What an absolute load of twaddle.

Gillard probably thinks she’s being oh-so clever; it’s likely she believes she is setting up for an “Abbott Attacks Workers” campaign destined to render him unelectable.

Firstly, this will be the third consecutive election Labor has attempted to fight on the back of WorkChoices, and the second at which the Coalition has pledged to never reintroduce that Howard-era industrial policy.

Second, Gillard’s promise of legislated industrial change — less than five months before the dissolution of Parliament for the election — is unlikely to be passed whilst Labor is in government, and the bills will be thrown out very early in the order of business of the incoming Liberal administration. The point, in practical terms, is moot.

But third, people don’t really believe Gillard any more, and no longer take her seriously; she is widely and rightly perceived as a manipulative, dishonest hypocrite who will say and do anything in the name of short-term expediency, and whose promises are as durable as ice in the desert.

Don’t believe it? “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.”

It took six months to openly break that promise, and Gillard’s word to the unions need only hold good until or unless she secures re-election in September: an extremely dubious prospect indeed.

I think people will see through this, as they increasingly see through all of Gillard’s “initiatives” these days, and recognise it for what it is.

And that, my friends, is a slavering pledge to her trade union masters to save her arse as Prime Minister, and an absolute disregard — even contempt — for the very workers she professes to be acting for, and for the hard-working business people who employ them.

Bring on 14 September. There is still six months of this to endure.

 

 

*I want Julia Gillard to remain Labor leader, right up to to 6pm on election day. 

“Please Leave Me Alone:” Craig Thomson Just Doesn’t Get It

Hot on the heels of his reprehensible speech to Parliament this week — which may bring more self-inflicted trouble than anything — Craig Thomson played the misery card again today, begging the opposition and media commentators to leave him alone. They shouldn’t, and they won’t.

There are people in this world who genuinely believe themselves to be beyond scrutiny or reproach; people who think they can do whatever they like, to whomever they like, at whatever cost, and that they should walk away scot-free if their travails are ever uncovered, with neither consequences nor responsibility, and with ultimate accountability to nobody.

It increasingly appears, and not least by the man’s own words and deeds, that Craig Thomson is such a specimen.

In what is (for Thomson) a rare media appearance indeed, he conducted a doorstop interview in Canberra today, imploring those in pursuit of him over scandals at the HSU, his alleged use of prostitutes at union expense and the misappropriation of $500,000 of HSU monies to back off.

Thomson went on, identifying nine different inquiries, investigations and legal proceedings against him that are underway involving the courts, Parliament and Police.

“Enough is enough, really,” he said. “Is this about trying to push someone to the brink?”

Really? Really?

We’re going to see exactly why Thomson should not be “left alone” under any circumstances; but I would first make the observation that his remarks today are an insult to those in the community who really are suffering depression, feeling suicidally miserable, and so forth.

People on the brink of self-harm — or worse — tend not to prate of it; they simply go ahead and do it, rather than looking for attention, sympathy or, in this case, a reprieve from scrutiny.

Ever since Thomson started to talk a couple of weeks ago — and even then, it was only to evade censure in the House of Representatives — the “woe is me” theme has been prevalent in his utterings; the clear impression is that Thomson wants everyone to feel sorry for him, and that his alleged misdemeanours should be quietly dropped and forgotten.

The general message is that Thomson should be able to skip off into the sunset, and that anyone standing in his way is, quite simply, a bastard.

Well, I have a message for Craig Thomson: this column won’t leave you alone until either you satisfactorily and credibly explain your purported innocence of the allegations you face, or you are prosecuted.

And I have a small inkling that the Liberal and National parties, the vast majority of those in the mainstream media, a similar proportion of commentators here in the new media space, and maybe — just maybe — the odd federal Independent who has been “solid” for Thomson until now don’t intend to leave him alone either.

Collectively, we can’t — Thomson must be held to account.

Here’s a little rap sheet, and some reasons why the scrutiny Thomson clearly despises is not going to go away — and nor should it.

What was supposed to be a watertight explanation of all allegations against him in his speech to Parliament was nothing of the sort; at first glance, those passages dealing with the allegations seem guided by saying something — anything — against each accusation in turn rather than by any requirement for a credible or even cogent overall account.

And defences to specific allegations — such as inviting investigators to secure CCTV footage from escort agencies that only provide outcall services — fool nobody.

In point of fact, they merely make Thomson appear like the idiot he seems determined to play everyone else for.

In the past 72 hours Thomson has smeared several people both under parliamentary privilege and, through a leak to the Murdoch press, outside Parliament; those people consequently may not have recourse against Thomson, even if they can show they were defamed. But Thomson — having tried to settle scores by throwing stones from a glass house — expects and believes his address to be a repercussion-free exercise.

Thomson, in rattling off the details of the various inquiries and investigations into his conduct that are currently underway, claimed that “these (investigations) are the appropriate places for these matters to be dealt with.”

Yet he has repeatedly frustrated or otherwise refused to co-operate with them, especially two current inquiries (and one that lapsed as a result of his failure to co-operate) being undertaken by the NSW and Victorian Police.

The headkickers of the ALP are lining up behind Thomson to do his bidding; Leader of the House of Representatives Anthony Albanese, in particular, seems determined to terminate any further scrutiny of Thomson and to protect him, and the government, from any further fallout from the scandal.

Indeed, Thomson can’t even be said to have made a credible stand in his own defence; until last week, his security of tenure has largely rested on the refusal of the Prime Minister to do anything other than to reaffirm her full confidence in him.

Whenever challenged on the ethical or legal implications of allegations surrounding Thomson, Gillard has attempted to talk about Tony Abbott, or to ignore the question.

More recently, she has simply walked away — be it to an overseas conference, or out of question time when the subject matter of the discussion is not to her liking.

All this comes as the Nine network prepares to air a segment on its A Current Affair programme; Nine says it has located and interviewed one of the prostitutes who allegedly slept with Thomson, and who claims to have details of credit cards and other incriminating material to prove that Thomson was with her.

The programme’s executive producer, Grant Williams, visited Thomson in Canberra yesterday and offered to allow Thomson the opportunity to view the ACA segment and to respond if he saw fit.

Oddly — and, I would have thought, unbelievably — Thomson declined.

For the record, Nine has emphasised that it did not pay the prostitute to appear; and this also comes as Melbourne’s Herald Sun reports that Police have been told to look into whether Thomson used American Express cards on escorts:

“Detectives in NSW are believed to have referred to Victoria Police fraud squad detectives information about an American Express card allegedly linked to Thomson…sex industry sources in Victoria have (also) told police to look into Thomson’s use of that card, and not only (other) records checked by Fair Work Australia.”

It was also reported today in the Murdoch press that a payment account linked to a Sydney sex industry supremo appears to have allegedly had funds deposited to it by Thomson during his time in charge of the Health Services Union, and that when asked specific questions about payments to that account, Thomson refused to answer.

I could go on…but what would be the point?

Aside from sympathy, why would anyone back off Thomson when he can’t give a straight and honest answer to questions about matters in which he is implicated?

Why should he be let off the hook, when not a word of what he has said remotely excuses him from even one of the myriad of allegations against him?

Indeed, why would anyone have any sympathy for him at all?

Liberal backbencher and retiring MP, Mal Washer — a doctor of medicine — has attempted to intervene this week, on account of his genuine concern for Thomson’s wellbeing and general health.

Such an intervention is not unwelcome; I actually think Dr Washer should be commended for coming forward despite the fraught, charged political atmosphere and the highly partisan nature of the events that are playing out.

But Thomson must face scrutiny; until or unless he is either exonerated or prosecuted, the matters in which he is alleged to have engaged in misconduct must be rigorously pursued.

I note — near the end of my remarks tonight — that the opposition’s focus is now turning more sharply towards Julia Gillard — as it should.

The conduct of a Prime Minister in office should always be unimpeachable; in the current circumstances of minority government, the need to uphold standards is ever-more critical, with parliamentary numbers so finely balanced and the overriding requirement for the country to remain governable.

Yet Gillard — with her selective honesty, smart answers, glib slogans, questionable ethics and deceptive manipulations — has directly facilitated the trashing of the reputation of Parliament as an institution, and in so doing has provided a grub like Thomson with a safety house in which to shelter, free from the repercussions of his alleged actions.

I’m not a brute; simply a plain, no-nonsense Tory. I think it of paramount importance that any and all legitimate methods of investigation in the Thomson matters required to establish the truth — once and for all — must be utilised.

I am not insensitive to any health issues that may afflict Thomson and I really don’t think the likes of Abbott and his MPs or the media community are either, but I would point out that Dr Washer’s idea to offer care and observation can easily be carried out simultaneously with ongoing investigations, and that both should proceed.

But if Thomson wants people to back off him, I will make this offer:

  • Immediately submit to full co-operation with all outstanding Police inquiries;
  • Provide any and all material and intellectual evidence as demanded by such inquiries, including under oath as reasonably required;
  • Seek to make a personal explanation (or similar) to Parliament, on the next available sitting day, substantially retracting in full the speech made on Tuesday;
  • Utilise whatever options are available to have the Hansard record of the speech struck out; and
  • Citing the irreconcilable incompatibility of ongoing, protracted allegations and investigations with the effective representation of a federal electorate — and irrespective of any potential political ramifications — announce the resignation of the seat of Dobell in the House of Representatives, effective from 6pm on Friday 1 July, 2012.

If Thomson is prepared to do all of those things — effectively turning his back on the ALP protection racket whose favour he has enjoyed, throwing himself on the mercy or the law and proper process, and leaving the Parliament, albeit in disgrace — then this column will make no further critical comment of him.

It seems fair: with so many questions to answer, and the apparent weight of evidence against him almost overwhelming, if Thomson wants a break then he’s going to have to give something for it.

Of course, this won’t happen; Thomson wants everyone to know exactly who the bastards are and why they’re such evil people, and he wants the world to lavish him with pity and sympathy and “understanding;” but he refuses to take responsibility for his actions — either as determined by Fair Work Australia, or otherwise alleged.

I’m sorry, this bozo simply doesn’t get it.

Contrary to what he and others in the ALP might think, this is not a game.

Standards of governance in this country are lower than at any time since 1975, or perhaps ever; there is a great deal at risk the longer this goes on.

And hypothetical questions about what Tony Abbott might do if the shoe were on the other foot are — irrespective of their merit or otherwise — irrelevant.

Craig Thomson is an utter disgrace to this country; the sooner he leaves Parliament — one way or the other — the better off Australia will be for it.

Enough is enough, all right, Mr Thomson. It is time for you to go; your legitimacy as a member of Parliament has long since expired.

And if your departure results in the fall of the government and an election, then so be it.

Hypocritical Gillard “Disgusted” — But Not Disgusted Enough

The two faces of insincerity, crisply personified by Julia Gillard, have been on display yet again this week; Gillard ranted about her “disgust” at events at the Health Services Union in front of a roomful of trade unionists yesterday, yet stubbornly fails to address the issue with action.

It strikes me that the Prime Minister is possessed of a rare talent; in some quarters and in some company, her aptitude for saying precisely what her audience wishes to hear is formidable.

Her speech yesterday to about 1,000 delegates at the ACTU Congress in Sydney was, all things considered, an excellent speech.

It hit all the notes the occasion demanded, playing to an audience of her faithful: the leadership of the trade union movement, Labor’s most loyal constituency, which more than ever is the only constituency apart from long-term welfare recipients that the ALP can rely on.

Confronting the issue of the scandals at the HSU head on, Gillard told her audience she was distressed that the saga was damaging the reputation of the union movement, saying the misconduct of one union risked tarnishing the lot, and that “that dismays you and it dismays me as well.”

Gillard added: “Members have been let down very badly – instead of the sole focus of those union officials being on those members.”

Gillard went on, belting the tired old can of WorkChoices five years after an election signalled its demise, and claiming that her government had “eradicated the days of fear in workplaces that Mr Abbott and his friends brought.”

There was more of this, typically predictable enough to make me feel it’s pointless to  regurgitate more of it — readers get the point, and they know the story only too well.

It underlines my point that in some quarters — be it the unions, the Greens, the Independents (prior to the betrayal of promises to them), the faceless hacks in NSW Labor’s Sussex Street bunker, and others — Gillard is adept in saying exactly what people wish to hear.

But where it really matters — in wider electorate, talking to the silent majority of her countryfolk — her message is anathema; polls over 18 months consistently indicate nearly two-thirds of Australians disapprove of Gillard’s performance, and this is driving close to 60% of the electorate toward voting for the Liberals and Nationals.

The Coalition primary vote is at or near 50%, a level last achieved at a federal election by Malcolm Fraser in 1975.

And the reason? Simply, people are looking for answers from the Prime Minister, and they don’t like what they hear.

Carbon tax? Some will be “compensated” and some won’t; but never fear, nobody will notice the carbon tax when it begins anyway. Oh, and we’ll block its repeal in the Senate — even if the pending Liberal government has a mandate to get rid of it.

Serial dishonesty and broken promises? Talk about Tony Abbott and WorkChoices.

The intensifying public demand for an election? Tell people you’re proud of “achievements” such as the carbon tax, which have no mandate and no legitimacy, and say you’re going nowhere.

Peter Slipper? Get him to stand down, but keep paying him at $160,000 per annum more than the rate for a backbencher.

And Craig Thomson? Repetitively state full confidence in the member for Dobell; when that wears thin, get him to “voluntarily suspend himself” from the ALP to sit on the cross-benches.

People are being treated as fools; Julia Gillard is no fool — let there be no mistake — but she is a cold, calculating, dishonest and wilfully manipulative individual who wears the two faces of insincerity as one.

People might cut her a little slack on the carbon tax if she acknowledged economic times are about to get rocky, admitted the electorate should have its say on the policy after all, and — giving her Communist Green allies the shaft — agreed to defer the policy until after an election.

People might forgive some of the bumbles and stumbles of her government, were it not for mishaps like members of her staff attempting to start a race-based riot into which to dump Tony Abbott.

People might even cut her a little slack over her own appalling ineptitude as Prime Minister and the clear incompetence, as a whole, of her government if they stopped treating voters like idiots, stopped the smear campaign against the opposition leader, stopped parroting on about WorkChoices at every opportunity, and started behaving with a little more integrity.

Indeed, speaking of Tony Abbott, I note a unionist this week — whom I will not name — has instituted a defamation action against the opposition leader; apparently this fellow has taken umbrage with Abbott’s description of him as “a thug” and with other slurs allegedly made against him by Abbott.

Whether or not that case is upheld, I wonder — I just wonder — how this fellow feels about the smears and lies that are constantly thrown at Abbott, by the ALP, in the name of its constituents.

Or how he feels about the distortions and misrepresentations that are made of Abbott’s character by government figures including the Prime Minister; or even — despicably — the airing of a 30-year-old sexual assault allegation against Abbott that he was acquitted of at the time, raised for no reason other than to illegitimately and dishonestly damage him.

Does the unionist in question approve of these tactics?

But in returning to the hypocrisy of Gillard, Thomson and Slipper represent the ultimate proof of it, yet both provided opportunities that Gillard thumbed her nose at in the interests of political expediency, to the great outrage of the majority of voters.

Firstly, a story.

As opposition leader in 1995, John Howard was confronted with a rogue Senator from WA, Noel Crichton-Browne; the short version is that after the Senator disgraced himself by behaving inappropriately with a female journalist, threatening to “screw the tits off (her),” Howard saw to it that Crichton-Browne was excluded from the parliamentary Liberal Party, and from all Liberal and Coalition meetings in Parliament during sitting weeks. He was also disendorsed.

At the time, Howard was roundly criticised in the community: why was Crichton Browne still in the Senate, and why wasn’t he charged?

Howard explained that he had done everything the Liberal Party’s constitution empowered him to do, and that charges could only be brought against the Senator if the Police laid them, acting on a complaint.

The criticism abated very, very quickly.

Today, we have a Prime Minister — now confronted with findings of breaches of civil law against the member for Dobell, Craig Thomson, by the inquiry undertaken by Fair Work Australia.

Thomson has not been expelled from the ALP (an option open to her under that Party’s rules that was not available to Howard); Thomson has not been disendorsed at the Labor candidate for Dobell; the ALP has been paying Thomson’s legal expenses; he has enjoyed the oft-stated support of the Prime Minister; and he has repeatedly refused to co-operate with Police inquiries into his activities.

The government also made no attempt to impose any type of deadline on FWA at a ministerial level that might have drawn these proceedings to a close years ago.

The public is baying for Thomson’s blood, yet the ALP merely asserts that he is entitled to “the presumption of innocence” — a presumption which, in an excellent essay by shadow Attorney-General George Brandis, SC, and appearing recently in The Australian, it was shown that such a presumption neither applies nor exists in the Thomson case.

Then there is Peter Slipper; faced with potential civil and/or criminal charges if complaints of sexual harassment and misappropriation of travel expenses are upheld against him, he is simply asked to stand aside — on full pay as Speaker, whilst retaining the title.

Gillard’s handiwork in achieving this “solution” to the Slipper problem has led to the farcical situation in which Deputy Speaker Anna Burke is now performing the role, but has not been appointed “Acting Speaker” by Parliament.

And this means Slippery ‘ol Pete can, in practice, slither back into the chair and control the House of Representatives whenever he sees fit; Burke, is quite literally a seat warmer — and an impotent one at that.

Yet Gillard has told voters that she fixed both problems; that in Thomson’s case at least, a “line had been crossed” and — without stipulating what that line was, or where it was, simply asserted she had taken strong and decisive action to resolve the matter.

Unlike the ACTU delegates the voters aren’t buying it, and won’t — and that’s the point. Gillard tells voters what she wants them to hear; voters listen to this and disagree with everything she has to say.

And that is what happens when political hypocrisy — coloured by malicious intentions and expediency and shaded by dishonesty and self-interest — is taken to its logical, inevitable conclusion.

And whilst all of this has been going on, in other news concerning Gillard — and on a related yet different subject — a “500 day countdown” as been commenced by the Prime Minister today as a lead-up to the coming federal election.

(Whether Gillard and her government even survive 50 days, let alone 500, is another question altogether).

Its date, at the expiry of 500 days, would fall on 28 September next year: coinciding with the 2013 AFL Grand Final, as well as with school holidays in various parts of the country.

After the story had a run in the morning media — and the requisite, overwhelmingly negative feedback began to pour in — Gillard issued a statement saying she could rule out an election on Grand Final day because “(she) will definitely be at the MCG cheering the Bulldogs on to a very notable victory.”

There are two points to make in relation to this.

Firstly — to quote former Foster’s boss and President of the Liberal Party and of the Carlton Football Club, John Elliott, Footscray has only ever won one premiership in its tragic history (in 1954), and I don’t see that tally being added to any time soon.

And secondly, the last time Gillard rattled on about the Footscray Football Club — in 2010, stating that there was more chance of her playing at full-forward for the Bulldogs than there was of her contesting the ALP leadership — we all know how that storyline ultimately played out.

This woman is a hypocrite, and anything she says is, frankly, beyond belief.

She should not be trusted in any circumstances.

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.