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Uncivil Unions

By Daniel Brooks on September 26, 2011 in Other

The credit card expense scandal that has engulfed Craig Thomson is another reminder of both the fragility of this government and the difficulties of the close relationship between the ALP and the trade union movement.

Craig Thomson has a classic Labor resume: a former assistant secretary of the Health and Research Employees Association of NSW, he made his name representing ambulance and hospital workers in industrial actions. In 2002 he was elected national secretary of the Health Services Union – a fractious collection of 77,000 of some of the worst paid but most important services workers: hospital clerks, orderlies and cleaners. In this position, as seems to be the general trend for most union leaders, Thomson spent his time cutting his teeth in the bloodsport of union politics and factional struggles. In surviving he prospered, proving adept in an environment where the end has long since been forgotten, and so any means goes. He is, however, credited with revising the union’s branding and organisational structure while he was there.

With his strong pedigree it was only a matter of time before he followed the well-worn ALP path from trade union official to a seat in federal parliament. And sure enough, in 2007 Thomson left the HSU and was elected as part of the Ruddslide that year to represent the blue collar marginal seat of Dobell in NSW, winning the seat from the incumbent Liberal member in an important strategic contest. The choice of Dobell as his seat was a good fit for Thomson’s background – honest, blue-collar demographics concerned mainly, according to its AEC-listed industries, with manufacturing, farming and the occasional tourist. Unfortunately for Thomson, this is not where the story ends.

In 2008, the new leadership of the HSU raised allegations of financial discrepancies relating to Thomson’s years as national secretary. According to the HSU, Thomson’s HSU credit card had been used to withdraw a total of $101,533 in cash, as well as to pay for prostitutes or escort services on multiple occasions and to meet a variety of other personal expenses.

Thomson has always issued vague denials to all the charges and it has been subsequently alleged that the raising of the allegations was an act of political retribution by the incoming leadership of the HSU to settle old scores or run up new ones. Irrespective of their motives the allegations raise valid questions that need to be answered – answers that have never been given by Thomson, either to the HSU members or to Parliament.

As a politician, Thomson has bungled his response in such a way as to raise serious questions not only about his character but about his basic competency too. After the Herald published the first reports of allegations of impropriety, Thomson sued Fairfax for defamation, only to quickly abort the case, reportedly after seeing the body of evidence collected by the Fairfax lawyers in their defence, including evidence not only that the card had been used, but also that details of Thomson’s driver’s license had been noted on the credit card receipt, that Thomson’s phone records showed calls to two phone numbers associated with a Sydney escort agency and that the same records actually placed Thomson in Sydney in one instance at the relevant time. Most disturbingly, after dropping his case Thomson told colleagues in the parliament either that he had reached an out of court settlement, or, in the words of one minister, “He looked me in the eye and told me he won”.

The relevance of all this, apart from the questions about Thomson as an individual, is that it brings into focus some harsh realities for the Labor Party: that its minority government seems unavoidably stuck in constant crisis until the next election, and that the specifics of its relationship with the trade union movement in Australia need to be carefully reviewed and probably revised. The first problem is temporal and unmanageable; the second is not.