Union corruption: don’t shoot messenger

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Union corruption: don’t shoot messenger

Kathy Jackson

April 10, 2012


Craig Thomson.Prior warning … Craig Thomson. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

When, in May 2009, I brought evidence of what I thought to be financial impropriety by Craig Thomson to the Health Services Union national executive, most of them were stunned.
Everyone knew these allegations were very bad news for the union and would be magnified by Thomson’s role as a man on the rise in the federal Labor caucus. The executive commissioned an exhaustive investigation by solicitors and accountants, at a cost of more than $250,000, which it provided to Fair Work Australia.

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We also warned Labor. When the then-future NSW state secretary, Sam Dastyari, contacted me before preselection for the 2010 federal elections, I said the Thomson allegations were likely to be publicly established during the life of the next Parliament. Other senior ALP figures were given similar warnings.
It was one of the labour movement’s worst-kept secrets, which makes the ACTU’s grandstanding – four years later – even more galling.
Where has the ACTU been for the past four years, when we needed them? For example, after I took allegations about HSUeast, the branch of the union that covers NSW, to NSW police in September, did the ACTU join me in calling for an independent inquiry? Not on your life. Indeed, several senior officials of ACTU affiliates joined the whispering campaign that it was just part of “faction fighting”.
My threat of a members’ plebiscite finally forced what became the Temby inquiry, but with no help from the ACTU. The ACTU never joined the pleas of HSU officials for Fair Work to quickly finish its separate inquiry.
Even at Thursday’s ACTU executive meeting, where the still-secret Fair Work report was used as the pretext to suspend the HSU, there was no call for the report to be released. The ACTU secretary, Jeff Lawrence, says that the union must demonstrate that it now has its house in order, but in the past four years he has never remotely interested himself in the measures we’ve already taken to do so.
But the ACTU’s leadership did know what was going on. I met Lawrence and the president, Ged Kearney, months ago and briefed them, particularly, on my allegations about HSUeast. Yet the ACTU has uttered not one word of support for my stand in the seven months since I went to the police.
So why the suspension of our union now? It’s thought that the report of Ian Temby, QC, is imminent and will bring worse news than even the Thomson allegations. So the ACTU is belatedly scrambling to look proactive on corruption. In effect, the ACTU has suspended the federal HSU for the anticipated corruption findings against a NSW union (HSUeast) unaffiliated to the ACTU. It’s a complicated point and the ACTU is relying on the media and the public not to get it. When they do, the farce becomes even clearer.
But HSUeast is affiliated to Unions NSW, so I’m hoping the NSW body will not ape the ACTU suspension. Ideally, they’ll work instead with the HSU’s majority of honest officials to help the union rebuild.
What should the ACTU do to really address corruption? First, it could call for a regulator with teeth. Fair Work has shown itself, at best, incompetent. It’s in unions’ own interest that there’s a regulator with beefed-up powers of investigation, enforcement and, particularly, prosecution.
Second, it could develop its own standards for affiliates, tougher even than the regulator requires. An ACTU committee of accountants and lawyers would supervise compliance. The Thomson allegations themselves would have caused a more effective ACTU leadership to commence on this path years ago.
Third, it’s time to look at elections. Big-money union elections and the advantages of incumbency have combined to ensure that many unions have, essentially, ”one-party” government. That’s unhealthy.
Corruption has existed in the HSU national body but was flushed out from 2007 onwards.
Other unions are right to be concerned that my union’s controversy will unfairly affect them. But what happened at the ACTU executive on Thursday gave only the appearance of action and hurt those in the HSU who are fighting corruption.
The measures I’d like to see might be difficult, even controversial. But we need true ”zero tolerance” measures that will last for a generation, not just until the next press conference.
Kathy Jackson is the national secretary of the Health Services Union.
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