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.