Michael Williamson, former national president of the Labor Party and the Health Services Union (HSU), was sentenced in the NSW District Court on March 28 to seven- and-a-half years in jail with a non-parole period of five years for defrauding union members.
The sentencing judge described Williamson’s dishonesty as “a parasitic plundering of union funds for pure greed”.
Earlier in the week, a protégé of Williamson’s, former HSU national secretary and federal Labor MP Craig Thompson, was sentenced to three months jail for misusing union member money. The sentencing magistrate remarked on Thompson’s greed and “brazen arrogance and sense of entitlement”. This was duly on display as he immediately appealed the sentence and was freed on bail.
The behaviour of Thompson and Williamson will do the Coalition government no harm in pursuing its Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has denounced the commission as a witch-hunt. As former head of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), one of the specifically named unions to be investigated, a union known to have operated employer-funded slush funds, it is not implausible that Shorten will be called to appear before the commission.
And as Dean Mighell, former Victorian secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), said in an opinion piece for the Australian on March 28, “One wonders why Paul Howes chose the timing of his imminent departure as head of the AWU.”
Although the Royal Commission, which starts with a preliminary hearing on April 9, involves five unions, its terms of reference are extraordinarily wide. It is entitled to inquire into any person or organisation outside the union movement in any allegation of union corruption.
The one organisation that will definitely be subject to inquiry is the ALP. Former and present officials of the AWU and HSU have publicly declared that they will also give evidence before the commission.
Employment Minister Eric Abetz and Attorney-General George Brandis are said to be “ecstatic” at the number and diversity of approaches their offices have received from people giving anonymous tip-offs and volunteering to give evidence before the inquiry.
Abetz told the Australian: “They’ve been union officials, primarily, especially aggrieved ones.”
The commission will also examine corrupt deals entered into by employers. The government has been encouraging companies to publicly admit to any wrongdoing rather than have them exposed at the inquiry because this will bring accusations of a cover-up.
At least two big building companies are believed to have conducted their own inquiries into suspect union deals and are seeking legal advice on whether they should issue public statements before April 9.
The ALP is worried about what the damaging headlines coming from the Royal Commission’s evidence will do to its standing in the polls and its future electoral prospects.
The union movement will inevitably be damaged by any adverse allegations even before charges that may proceed from the inquiry are tested in court.
Six years ago, Senator John Faulkner, luminary of the Socialist Left of the ALP, warned
that the shared venality and exclusionary politics of ALP groupings had taken them beyond factionalism. “It is feudalism and it is killing the ALP,” he said. On the available evidence it is killing the union movement too.
But as Mighell points out, the unions at least have a remedy for the guilt by association that comes with ALP affiliation. They can ask their members if they want to sever the association. When the Victorian Branch of the ETU did so, 87% of them voted to disaffiliate.