Planet Jackson: Power, Greed & Unions
Melbourne University Press, 2016, 328 pages
Former top dog at the Health Services Union (HSU) Michael Williamson used to joke that “nothing’s too good for the workers – and their representatives”, as he brazenly defrauded the union to the tune of $5 million.
Just one lavish, boozy lunch with his cronies would burn through the annual dues ($600) of one of his low-paid union members – hospital cleaners, orderlies, clerks, porters, etc – writes journalist, Brad Norington, in Planet Jackson.
Williamson’s thieving was accomplished through misuse of his union credit card, handing out business supply contracts at grossly inflated prices to companies fully or partially owned by himself or his family, and nepotism and cronyism (he put eight family members on the union payroll while his mistress received $155,000 a year for two days ‘work’ a week).
For a creative flourish, Williamson claimed reimbursement for false claims of muggings and burglaries of union money.
Obviously, the poor chap must have been struggling to get by on his annual salary of $700,000.
Other senior HSU officials aped his example.
Craig Thomson, a protege of Williamson, pocketed $250,000 to fund his successful 2007 Australian Labor Party federal election campaign, and embezzled $24,000 to spend on prostitutes, sporting memorabilia and firewood – just some of the dishes on offer from the smorgasbord of personal goodies supplied on other people’s dimes.
Kathy Jackson was a $1.4 million financial embezzler in her mentor’s mould. Her favourites from the corruption buffet were fashion, medical services, hi-fi gear, groceries, liquor, camping equipment, shopping trips to Hong Kong and divorce settlement payments to her ex-husband.
During the 2004 Boxing Day sales, Jackson ran up $7000 in a single day on her union credit cards.
Jackson was the most cynical of the three, blowing the whistle on Williamson, but only as part of an internal power struggle – even that act of honesty was self-serving. Noble whistleblower was the “perfect cover” for her own corruption, says Norington.
The HSU thieves were all addicted to greed. Even when Thomson faced ignominious defeat in the 2013 elections, he decided to stand again as an independent just so he could milk taxpayers by claiming a “resettlement allowance” of $97,000 for defeated incumbents.
Jackson, when publicly disgraced, tried to mine a new income stream by getting her hooks into a retired, dementia-suffering QC for a share of his $30 million estate, while having herself appointed as executor, which gave her access to his bank accounts.
Norington examines in minute detail every sordid nut and filthy bolt of the HSU leaders’ corruption, but only occasionally lifts his eyes to examine a greater corruption than that of a few light-fingered union officials, namely the industrially and politically corrupting intersection of the ALP and its affiliated unions.
Williamson, Thomson and Jackson bartered their union bloc votes for factional influence and potential plush parliamentary careers, while Labor politicians needed their factional union allies, even the crooked ones.
Prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, opportunistically motivated by retaining office, publicly covered for Thomson while the party paid his enormous legal bills to keep him from going bankrupt, losing his seat and bringing down the minority Gillard government.
The HSU Three, even while they were shamelessly diddling their union members, saw the ALP, the self-proclaimed “party for the workers”, as a suitable political home for themselves.
That tells us something unwholesome about where the ALP’s loyalties really lie – with the labour elite, at the expense of the workers they claim to represent.