By Peter Chiltern
LAUNCESTON — Federal Police and Taxation Department officials raided the Unemployed Workers Union here on March 19. Police seized hundreds of documents and about $17,000 worth of computer equipment from the UWU's offices and wholefood shop, and from an organiser's home.
"Despite the scale of the police operation, no-one has been charged with any offence and no-one has even been questioned", says Bill Bartlett, whose home was raided.
While police have refused to cite a reason for the raid, there has been media speculation that it is related to allegations that a bank account was operated under a false name. The UWU acknowledges that one of three signatories to two of its accounts is an alias, but says no law has been broken and all of its accounts require at least two signatures.
Bill Bartlett says Federal Police in Melbourne have "let slip that the operation was a fishing expedition, admitting that any charges would depend on evidence seized as a result of the raid". Police have said they intend to sift the documents thoroughly. They include diaries, phone lists, bank statements and correspondence.
Police have rejected UWU requests to copy the relevant contents of the computers onto floppy disks and return the machines, which are vital to the group's operations and its desktop publishing business. Bartlett says they seem to be hanging onto the equipment because their own computers are incompatible with the union's Macintoshes. "On the same principle they might decide next time to seize private motor vehicles in order to transport the files back to their office."
The union says the police should hire equipment for their investigation, and has initiated legal action for the return of its machines. "Can anyone imagine Federal Police forcing the operations of, say Westpac or the ANZ Bank, to an abrupt halt by confiscating their computer equipment during an investigation?", asks Bartlett.
Police initially refused to supply the UWU with a copy of the warrant for the raid, but later relented. They have rejected union offers to cooperate with the investigation by supplying passwords to the computers.
Bartlett says the raids were politically motivated, and "were preceded by a rather vicious campaign of rumour and innuendo". A director of the Tasmanian Council of Social Services was told "in confidence" about the Federal Police investigation some months ago.
Since the UWU was set up in the late '70s, it has made some powerful enemies in the course of its work for unemployed people, says Bartlett. "Hatred of the UWU is particularly venomous in some sections of the Labor Party ... They have never forgiven me for my part in publicly humiliating Brian Howe, then minister for social security, during his visit to Launceston during the last federal Tasmanian Senator Michael Tate, minister responsible for the Federal Police, is also known to bear a grudge against the union, says Bartlett.
The UWU is urging people to protest to federal justice minister Michael Tate, Parliament House, Canberra. Messages of support for the union and donations to assist with legal expenses may be sent to: UWU, 103 Wellington St, Launceston Tas 7250. Phone (003) 31 7682 or 34 2903. Fax (003) 31 6515.