PAUL SHEEHAN May 21, 2012
In the months leading up to the 2007 federal election that ended the Howard era, the NSW central coast was alive with a political blitzkrieg.
The union movement and the Labor Party poured resources into the adjoining seats of Dobell and Robertson. They were marginal and crucial. No effort was spared.
''In all the years that I have worked on elections, that was the heaviest I can recall of busloads of people coming in,'' John Abel, a former Liberal MP, told me.
In 2007, he was chief-of-staff to Jim Lloyd, a minister in the Howard government and the member for Robertson. ''The electorate was alive with ALP workers. It was alive with unionists. I recall it vividly,'' he said.
A constant stream of Labor heavies came through Dobell and Robertson, led by the opposition leader Kevin Rudd, to support the Labor candidates: Craig Thomson in Dobell and Belinda Neal in Robertson. Former prime minister Bob Hawke visited Dobell four times.
''I had never seen so many shadow ministers coming through. We had one every day,'' said another Liberal campaign worker, who preferred not to be named. She saw plenty of the Labor field general in Dobell, Michael Williamson.
Williamson was operating from deep within the Labor machine. He was, and is, the national president of the Health Services Union, where Craig Thomson had been national secretary for five years. He was on the executive of the ACTU. He was a vice-president of Unions NSW. And a director of the SGE Credit Union. He would be elected national president of the ALP in 2009.
After Julia Gillard became prime minister, she employed his daughter, Alexandra, as a media adviser. Senator Mark Arbib, believed to have been a key figure in organising political and legal protection for Thomson, rented a Canberra apartment with Alexandra Williamson for two years.
In the 2007 election campaign, Williamson concentrated all the resources he could marshal on Dobell. He spent much of his time operating out of the Thomson campaign office at Long Jetty. He deployed resources from the HSU, Unions NSW, the ACTU and the ALP. He organised scores of union members into the electorate and booked dozens of motel rooms for campaigners.
Many of the details of the 2007 campaign can be found in the report by Fair Work Australia into the activities of Thomson. The Dobell campaign office was largely financed by the HSU with help from the Transport Workers Union. Staff from the HSU national office were seconded to the campaign. The ACTU set up a Work Choices campaign office across the road from Thomson's headquarters.
So blurred were the lines between Thomson, Williamson, the unions, the ACTU and the Labor Party that when Thomson gave his first speech in federal Parliament on February 19, 2008, he said: ''The support I received from the entire union movement but in particular from Unions NSW, the TWU , the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union] mining division, the PSA [Public Service Association of NSW] and, of course, my own union, the Health Services Union, was phenomenal. Michael Williamson, the HSU national president, was a marvel in relation to the long-term support he provided to me.''
Labor would do it all again in Dobell in 2010, more than a year after the Thomson scandal was exposed by this newspaper. Thomson re-contested and won Dobell in 2010, a victory that saved the Gillard government.
Labor owns Craig Thomson. In every way.
Strange, then, that Thomson is now accusing Williamson of being one of those who engaged in an improbable conspiracy to ruin his reputation through associations with prostitutes and misappropriation of union funds.
Last week, when the Victorian police fraud squad invited Thomson to name those he believes are involved in the conspiracy, he declined to do so. Responding via the Labor Party's law firm, Holding Redlich, he said he would name people in Parliament.
That day has come. Thomson is scheduled to address Parliament at midday. He will seek to place reasonable doubt into the narrative that has thus far condemned him. The level of scrutiny and scepticism will be intense.
The whole soap opera around Thomson has succeeded in postponing any legal day of judgment until after a full three-year term has run its course. Thanks to these tactics, used by the Prime Minister on down, and thanks to the support of Thomson by the Greens and independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, the Labor-Greens-Windsor-Oakeshott coalition appears unlikely to ever breach solidarity over Thomson.
As for Thomson naming names, he has already criticised Williamson and Kathy Jackson, who succeeded Thomson as national secretary of the HSU and blew the whistle on the rorting inside the union. She is also the only HSU official paying her own legal fees, at a personal cost of $40,000. Such is the life of whistleblowers in Australia.
Thomson may also name Jackson's former husband, Jeff Jackson, as part of the conspiracy against him. He has also criticised Terry Nassios, the Fair Work Australia delegate who compiled the 1100-page report into irregularities involving the HSU. The report contains multiple recommendations adverse to Thomson.
Thomson is not short of venom, as his maiden speech made clear in 2008, but one sentence sticks out in retrospect: ''As a Labor government, we cannot afford to treat the electors as fools through political spin. We need to be honest and forthright.''
Today is the day. If, while using the protection of Parliament, he does not present a credible case, he will add misleading the Parliament to the list of questions raised against him. And the cost to the Gillard government will keep rising as the electorate contemplates a government that would rather live with shame than go into battle with honour.
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