Tangled web of Health Services Union in spotlight

March 13, 2014
Bankruptcy trustees want former HSU president Michael Williamson in the federal court before then.

The ex-Labor Party federal president and former national president of the Health Services Union (HSU), Michael Williamson, is now in jail after pleading guilty in October last year to defrauding union members of $5 million.

When he was granted bail after his conviction he immediately filed for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy documents declared he had almost no assets to his name. This is despite his annual salary at the union ranging from $290,000 to more than $500,000.

His generous superannuation payment of $1.8 million was given to his wife as part of a divorce settlement, even though he continued to live with her at their luxury NSW Central Coast home until he was involuntarily relocated to Silverwater prison last week when his bail was revoked.

His wife, Julie-Anne Williamson, has not been subject to police charges even though the investigation that led to her husband’s conviction found that Williamson paid $338,000 of HSU member’s money to her over three years for "filing work". Although she was the highest-paid filing clerk in the country, no filing work was actually ever done.

Bankruptcy trustees are expected to question the Williamsons in the federal court as to whether their convenient divorce was a sham.

Two of Williamson’s children are also expected to be questioned.

His son, Christopher, was on the union payroll as a media officer. For part of this time, he lived in a union-owned warehouse that was fitted out with a recording studio, built at his father’s insistence for $786,000. Christopher, a sound engineer, paid just $72 a week rent for the property. When police raided the HSU offices he was recruited by his father to remove a suitcase containing “fraudulent invoices.”

Williamson’s daughter, Alexandra, may also be questioned. Her working life demonstrates the incestuous-like link between union officials and the Labor Party. She started work in the office of Eric Roozendaal when he was NSW Labor treasurer.

After Labor lost the NSW state election in 2011, she transferred to Canberra to work in the office of then-prime minister Julia Gillard. While in Canberra she shared digs with a factional ally of her father, Senator Mark Arbib, who was instrumental in Williamson’s elevation to Labor national presidency.

Williamson’s creditors include the SGE Credit Union, where he was a director. He owes a $2.7 million mortgage debt to the credit union, and $5 million to the HSU.

He will be sentenced on March 28 and bankruptcy trustees want him in the federal court before then. Access to him after this date could be somewhat limited given the long sentence he is expected to receive.

The scandal in the HSU became the trigger for PM Tony Abbott’s announcement on February 10 of a Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, headed by former High Court judge Dyson Heydon.

Although widely perceived as a witch hunt by many in the union movement, Fairfax Media said “senior labour movement insiders have broken ranks to offer unprecedented cooperation to the Abbott government ahead of its Royal Commission on union slush funds and corruption.”

Just days after this report, the Employee Ombudsman appointed by the South Australian Labor government, Stephen Brennan, was arrested and charged with 67 counts of fraud, amounting to $180,000, allegedly committed while he was an official of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union. Like the HSU, the textile union represents some of the country’s lowest paid workers.

The political capital that the Abbott government hopes to gain from its Royal Commission is the link between union slush funds and Labor. But the real scandal is that most unions do not allow their members a vote on Labor affiliation. If they did, the Royal Commission would find only slim pickings.

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