If I’d been asked to predict how Julia Gillard’s minority government might be pushed to the precipice, I would not have said that it would be over the issue of brothels, of all things. My prediction would have been that one of the independents or the Greens decided not to support a particular proposition on principle. Although all parties (Labor, independents and Greens) all want to stay where they are, so there’s an incentive to come to an agreement on what must be done!
Instead, it looks like a Labor MP, Craig Thomson, is potentially in big trouble. And if he has to stand down from his seat, it’s unlikely Labor will be returned in that electorate. Veteran political commentator Michelle Grattan explains:
Craig Thomson, the former national secretary of the Health Services Union who won the NSW seat of Dobell in 2007, looks physically hail and hearty – he’s only 47. But the opposition is homing in on Thomson as the potential weak link.
The central issue is the alleged misuse of union funds. Thomson’s union credit card (which was in his name) was used to pay for Sydney escort agency services. Vouchers were signed with his name, with his driver’s licence number as verification. In addition, calls were made from his mobile number to the agency. Allegations (of which there are now several) against Thomson surfaced in 2009. He denied he used the escort agency services and any wrongdoing with union funds. He subsequently sued Fairfax in a civil action over its reports, but dropped the action in April this year.
Despite the controversy swirling around him, Thomson easily beat off a challenge for preselection before the 2010 election. The issue went quiet, until revived by his August 1 interview with Michael Smith on 2UE, in which he admitted he authorised the credit card bills.
Smith put to him: ”Your signature is on that voucher. Your driver’s licence has been transcribed on to the back of it. How did all that get there?” Thomson replied: ”I’m not saying that’s my signature.” Asked whether someone forged his signature he said: ”Well, it certainly wasn’t me.”
So did he report the improper use of the card to the police? ”The union reached a settlement with another gentleman who paid back $15,000 in relation to use of credit cards at an escort agency . . . I don’t know whether he forged my signature or who forged my signature.”
Then this week News Ltd reported that the NSW ALP had provided Thomson with more than $90,000 as well as a loan for his legal bills in the Fairfax case. Reportedly, it feared he could go bankrupt – which would have put him out of Parliament. Thomson only declared the assistance on the pecuniary interests register when approached by the media.
On Tuesday, Gillard told Parliament that Thomson was doing a ”fine job representing the people of his constituency . . . I look forward to him continuing to do that job for a very long, long, long time to come”. On Wednesday, she affirmed her ”complete confidence”; she added, about the late declaration of the NSW donation, that all MPs were obliged to abide by the declaration rules, but noted that others had declared things late. Yesterday she again expressed ”full confidence” in him; she wouldn’t be drawn on when she’d first been consulted about the NSW ALP payment.
Gillard is no doubt keeping fully up to date, but propriety will come a bad second to survival in relation to Thomson. Given the government is hanging on by its fingernails – or his fingernails – Labor will overlook a lot. So long as Thomson doesn’t face any charges, it will hold its nose and defend him.
While the Coalition is stoking the fire under the Labor MP, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is being very careful. He is refusing to say Thomson should be sacked. In these cases, best to personally stay on the high ground and leave the messier work to some of your troops. But the opposition knows the affair has caught media attention; it also looks to a Fair Work Australia investigation under way into the union’s affairs.
The government (to say nothing of Thomson himself) will remain on tenterhooks. In these sorts of situations, especially where other people are involved, anything can happen at any time. Assuming, however, Thomson survives, what is Labor going to do about his preselection? An exquisite dilemma. If Labor dumps him for the next election, it would be, in effect, conceding he was not a fit candidate. But how could it run him again? That would be extraordinarily disdainful of the people of Dobell, who might have something very sharp to say about it.
Thomson should not be re-endorsed. And the Labor Party, as it weeps for the $90,000 plus it has had to shell out, should reflect on the very important lesson. The scandals that plagued the former NSW Labor government and the Thomson affair show the ALP in that state needs much better vetting procedures for its candidates. That is the least it owes to the voters.
I concur with Grattan. What fools NSW Labor are allowing this guy to be preselected! I don’t care that this guy visited brothels (he can do whatever he wants in his own time, as long as it’s legal and on his own dime). I do care if it turns out that he (a) misused union funds and (b) was dishonest about the allegations. As a union member myself, I’d be damned unhappy if I found out that someone from my union used my dues to pay for prostitutes for himself rather than to help members. And it links into our recent conversations on this blog about the ethics of public officials who represent us. If those who govern us and purportedly represent us are dishonest and get away with it, what message does this send to the community? All very disappointing.
I’m not particularly happy with the Gillard government for a variety of reasons — but I’m certainly not keen about the alternative either. A plague on all their houses, as I often seem to say these days. If the government goes down on this one…what a silly, mucky reason!