Somewhat anti-climactically, today’s speech by Craig Thomson to federal Parliament changed nothing, resolved nothing, and certainly failed to clear his name. Yet there will be consequences; for this speech could be construed as one of the greatest abuses of Parliament since Federation.
And in what proved little more effective than a baby throwing a tantrum, Thomson lashed out in every conceivable direction, throwing allegations and barbs and insults around under parliamentary privilege, but it was the unconvincing speech of a man with little to lose, and little left with which to fight.
Indeed, an associate who missed the telecast asked me for a summary this afternoon. “Two sentences,” I replied. “Everyone’s a bastard. Everyone should feel sorry for me.”
And that was about the extent of it.
I’m going to work through some of what Thomson had to say, and why the only person he is likely to have damaged — apart from the Prime Minister — is himself; and then outline why I think the exercise in the House of Representatives this afternoon was a flagrant, co-ordinated and outrageous abuse of the Parliament.
The one surprise in today’s speech is that Thomson did not attempt to table incriminating material under privilege, which would have rendered it useless in any future legal proceedings; it would be a very low act indeed were that to have occurred, but this entire drama is such that nothing whatsoever would surprise me now in terms of the tactics that might be used to protect Thomson.
Again, readers will see what I mean later in this article.
In kicking off proceedings by reading out various threats he and his family had received, Thomson quickly rounded on the opposition and the media, saying “you have unleashed the lynch mob. And you have fanned it. And for that, you all, ultimately, are responsible.”
The allegations against Thomson first surfaced years ago, when raised in the Fairfax press and slapped with a defamation action for Uncle Fairfax’s troubles; after the action was settled — Thomson claims he was instructed to settle by the ALP — they have been the subject of endless inquiries and investigations, some of which Thomson has deliberately and consistently refused to co-operate with.
Amid suggestions of a cover-up — and with little forthcoming from Thomson or the government — it always seemed obvious that the media and/or the opposition would pursue him; after all, investigative journalism is exactly that, and one of the roles of an opposition is to hold a government to account and subject it to scrutiny.
Just because Thomson doesn’t like that fact, or that others are simply doing their jobs, does not mean he has been subjected to a “lynch mob.”
Indeed, Thomson has had many opportunities and avenues over long years through which to clear his name if he could do so; the first of these was the defamation action against Fairfax that was subsequently withdrawn.
Thomson’s assertion that it had been a mistake to do so was entirely unconvincing; if one has been defamed, and is suitably aggrieved to defend oneself by way of writ, one does not settle because someone else says so. In any case, the allegations to which the dropped action related are still of current import some three years later.
Many more opportunities to account for himself would follow.
And to attack Tony Abbott — for doing no more than his job — as “(not merely) unfit to be Prime Minister, he is unfit to be an MP” reeks of the pot calling the kettle black, and is the sort of desperate taunt doled out when there is literally nothing else to say.
Thomson held good to his threat to name names in Parliament; it had already leaked this morning, as we discussed, that he would name Health Services Union deputy secretary Marco Bolano, who angrily refuted the claims, describing them as ”fantastic and dishonest.”
Not content with that, Thomson went on to name his successor at the HSU, Kathy Jackson, and former HSU President Michael Williamson, accusing them of this and that and making various allegations against them.
He also took aim at Jackson’s partner, Fair Work Australia deputy president Michael Lawler, accusing him of interference into the FWA investigation into allegations against him and accusing him of having “a role” in the Liberal Party.
Unsurprisingly, all are outraged, and all are seeking the right to respond before Parliament; given Thomson has used the coward’s veil of parliamentary privilege to smear them, they know they can’t sue him.
Of course, had he made his allegations and declarations outside Parliament, Thomson would be subject to the laws of the land; but given so much effort has been expended in shielding Thomson from precisely that, today was clearly not going to be the day he voluntarily opted to face the music on that score.
But there is another point here, and one which nobody seems to have picked up on; it is, very simply, this.
Who cares — today, at least — about Jackson, Lawler and Williamson? It is allegations of serious official misconduct and financial misappropriation against Craig Thomson that are being investigated. Thomson might think himself clever for smearing them under privilege, but it did nothing whatsoever to remove the question marks hanging over his name.
And saying such things like opposition leader Tony Abbott had claimed that “I am not entitled to the presumption of innocence because I am clearly guilty” is — to use an ironic phrase — complete crap, and Thomson knows it.
Indeed, all Abbott has done is to call for answers in this matter; and for Thomson to satisfactorily explain himself and for the various investigations into him to run their course.
In the absence of that — three years later — Abbott has been asking other questions: for example, why Gillard continues to place her confidence in Thomson; why Thomson has systematically failed to co-operate with Police inquiries; and, more recently, if Thomson had all this information that would clear his name (which we found out today, he didn’t) why he didn’t come forward with it years ago?
Indeed, banging on about the presumption of innocence (a concept the ALP has bastardised to the point it is now almost as noxious a phrase as “moving forward”), Thomson chose to “name names” in Parliament today; yet just a week ago he refused again to supply those details to a NSW Police inquiry into the allegations against him — an investigation that may yet result in criminal charges being laid.
You can’t have it both ways. If you’re innocent and you can prove it, you do so, especially in such a diabolical case as this one.
Thomson expressed frustration that the general public appeared to have decided he is guilty. Doesn’t he realise that this is a matter of public outrage, and that people are very, very angry? From the very members whose fees have been pissed up against a post, to ordinary hardworking folk making an honest struggle to survive on less than Thomson earns, and to anyone with a shred of decency, the entire Thomson/HSU episode is an affront.
Tony Abbott is a voice for what is overwhelmingly the public mood; that does not make him unfit to be Prime Minister. Indeed, and especially lined up anywhere near Thomson, the complete opposite is the case.
Labor types today were making much of the fact that a courtroom was the right place for judgements to be passed on Thomson: my message is that if that’s the way they feel, then they should get him into a courtroom quickly. Convincing him to co-operate with Police instead of thumbing his nose at them would be a good start.
And as for the allegations concerning prostitutes, Thomson readily admitted he couldn’t answer for many of the calls made from his mobile telephone to arrange trysts with purchased companions. But the CCTV tape defence got a run; and as I flagged this morning (not least given one of the escort agencies — Sydney Outcalls — was not a brothel and would therefore possess no such footage) such a defence is a joke.
Thomson knows that, too; but behind the parliamentary barrier, he could say whatever he liked.
From an overall perspective, today’s operation involving Thomson was a sham; and I believe it badly abused Parliament, and amounted to no more than an attempt to continue the cover-up.
Thomson announced he would make his speech a week ago; in other words, he has had seven days to cook up one final attempt to sweep all of this under the carpet of parliamentary privilege — and leave it buried there.
He spoke for an hour, and what portion of the speech wasn’t concerned with throwing allegations and aspersions at people he clearly detests was spent on red herrings like his prostitute defence: incredible, unsatisfactory, and entirely unconvincing.
Prior to the speech, key Independents indicated that no matter what transpired, their role was not to judge Thomson; in practical terms, this meant that irrespective of what was said, they would continue to vote in support of the Gillard government, and would not support any move against Thomson unless it was shown he had misled Parliament.
After the speech, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese opined that he felt it was now time “for the Craig Thomson matter to be left alone;” in other words, the subject should not be discussed further, and should now be put to rest.
And subsequently — as the opposition sought to discuss Thomson’s speech, by way of a motion to suspend Standing Orders to make such discussion possible — the Gillard government repeatedly attempted to gag Tony Abbott, moving that he not be further heard, and to shut down proceedings.
If those five paragraphs, collectively, don’t spell out a concerted attempt to use Parliament and its privileges to knock the Thomson matters out of the arena once and for all, I don’t know what does.
Apparently, the great effort to protect Thomson — all to avoid a single by-election defeat that would trigger The Big One, and electoral Armageddon — continues unabated.
The whole thing was an abuse of process, pure and simple.
And the government knows it, too.
What will the ramifications of today’s proceedings be?
In my view, nothing will change. Thomson will eventually face the music over the findings of the FWA investigation into the HSU; the various Police inquiries will eventually conclude, resulting in Thomson being cleared, charged with criminal offences or charged with some kind of obstruction charge; the HSU figures named today will pursue recourse, and may or may not achieve it; and the Gillard government may or may not survive until the scheduled election time next year — with or without Thomson.
Whether the government survives or not, it is the only direct loser apart from Thomson: now guaranteed that the Thomson matters will continue indefinitely, it will have to deal with sensationalist headlines and scandalous, scurrilous revelations for as long as these matters play out.
And of course, Australian democracy is a loser, but it has nothing to do with Tony Abbott — it is a simple consequence of what happens when those in authority attempt to evade responsibility.
By means such as gutless attacks from within the sanctuary and immunity of the glass houses of parliament, for example.
And that will have consequences: for Thomson; for Gillard, whose increasingly shaky grip on the Labor leadership won’t withstand much more of this kind of thing; and for the ALP generally, whose electoral stocks are low, but which will test new depths if scandals such as this continue to afflict it.
In closing, I return to Thomson’s teary-eyed lament about the threats he and his family have faced, invasions of their privacy (especially his wife’s privacy), and to the apparently earth-shattering revelation that someone even dared to graffiti his gate.
All of this is Thomson’s fault, and Thomson’s alone; he could have co-operated with every relevant inquiry, expeditiously and candidly, and all of this would have been over years ago.
If he is innocent as he claims, he would have been exonerated and held faultless.
If guilty, he would probably have been charged and convicted, thrown out of Parliament, and perhaps jailed.
But either way, the fact all of this has dragged on so long is solely Thomson’s responsibility; and if he now wants to complain that the manifestations of public anger, which so palpably is at boiling point, are affecting his family then perhaps he ought to apologise to them.
After all, you’ve got to take responsibility for something sometime — even if you’re Craig Thomson.