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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 6072

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales) (12:59): Mr Acting Deputy President Sinodinos, I too add my congratulations as a fellow New South Wales senator on your new position as an acting deputy president.

I rise today to relay to the Senate another chapter in the sad and sorry saga to do with the Central Coast Group Training skills centre that was to be established in the seat of Dobell. As the Senate would recall, on 21 March this year I asked Senator Kim Carr, representing Minister Garrett, a question in relation to documents that I was seeking pursuant to an order to production. Most specifically, I asked Minister Carr questions in relation to correspondence that Mr Thomson had written to Minister Garrett on 20 July 2011 making unsubstantiated allegations about the interaction between Central Coast Group Training and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Specifically I asked whether Mr Thomson had sought to interfere in the process. Senator Carr avoided answering the question. I took a point of order. Minister Evans intervened. I still did not get a straight answer.

I then moved my order for production of all documents pertaining to allegations made by Mr Thomson to Minister Garrett or Minister O'Connor regarding Central Coast Group Training. The government and their Green alliance partners refused to order their production. Indeed, they were so determined to cover up for Mr Thomson that when I sought, pursuant to contingent notice, to suspend standing orders, Labor and their Green alliance partners shut down the debate.

I have already outlined how the member for Dobell, Mr Thomson, has pursued a personal and political vendetta at the expense of unemployed people on the Central Coast. I repeat what I said then: this is a grubby tale of broken promises, of personal favours being sought and of threats and political thuggery with jobseekers being the pawns.

Some of this sad and sorry saga of the promised youth skills and employment centre or jobs incubator in Wyong was traversed on the 7:30 programon 20 March. Last August, using FOI I sought copies of documents about the jobs incubator, including representations by Mr Thomson from DEEWR. Eventually I received 44 folios, mostly of blank pages. Key parts were deemed conditionally exempt because they traversed business or professional affairs. Pertinently, the decision maker noted that certain such sections contained unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct or unlawful, negligent or improper conduct but ruled that there was more public interest in non-disclosure than disclosure.

A short extract from one of the otherwise blank folios provided under FOI states that on 20 July, 'Mr Craig Thomson wrote to Minister Garrett raising concerns about interaction between and DEEWR'. Given the stench that has surrounded this matter, clearly the balance of public interest demanded that these documents be released immediately and be released in an unredacted form. If this government had nothing to hide, why did it refuse to release the documents under FOI and stonewall my attempts in the Senate to obtain them.

Given that the government was suppressing these documents, I then approached Wyong Shire Council and sought formal access to a range of documents under the New South Wales Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009. Lo and behold, the documents which the Australian Labor Party sought very much to hide from this chamber and from public scrutiny were produced for me by Wyong Shire Council. I have now received a comprehensive array of documents—as you can see from the folder in front of me—which make it blatantly clear that Mr Thomson has been playing a double game on the youth skills centre for a long time.

As I have long suspected, Mr Thomson has been outrageously duplicitous. On the one hand he was supposedly—and I stress 'supposedly'—supporting the youth job skills centre, while behind the scenes he was sabotaging the operation. Let me remind the Senate that this is the very jobs centre that Mr Thomson threatened on 15 July 2011 to stop when Greg Best, CEO of CCGT and a local councillor, made certain comments on local radio on the unrelated matter of the debacle of the GP superclinic on the Central Coast. Shortly thereafter Councillor Best received a text message from Mr Thomson which said, 'Bye-bye jobs incubator'.

Let me also remind the Senate that Mr Thomson had in March of that year also lobbied unsuccessfully for a job for his ex-wife at CCGT. It is clear that since then Mr Thomson has been assiduously working behind the scenes in what has emerged as a tale of revenge with the youth of the Central Coast as the pawns in this sad and sorry saga. Having now received these documents from Wyong council, it is clear Mr Thomson was trying to sabotage the skills centre to undermine CCGT's CEO and chairman and make sure that it would not go ahead as a joint venture between Wyong council and CCGT as was promised by Minister Albanese at the 2010 election. Despite the departmental correspondence affirming that it could not go ahead other than as a joint project as per the announcement, still Mr Thomson was working behind the scenes. His comrades in the council were putting up alternative proposals all designed to undermine the process behind the scenes.

Letters from Mr Thomson to Minister Garrett and to Wyong council's general manager, Michael Whittaker, on 20 July 2011, five days after his threatening text message to Councillor Best, show the extent to which Mr Thomson was prepared to go to ditch this project. On 20 July 2011, Mr Thomson wrote to Mr Whittaker, the general manager, and said:

I am writing to request an investigation into the activities of Mayor Doug Eaton and Councillor Greg Best about potential conflicts of interest between their roles as councillors and their positions as Chairman and CEO of Central Coast Group Training respectively.

His base, unfounded and false assertion was that somehow Messrs Eaton and Best had, in a meeting with officers of DEEWR, given the wrong impression that they were representing both CCGT and the council and were seeking alternative funding proposals for the skills centre. Indeed, on that day Mr Thomson wrote to Minister Garrett in the same terms and copied this letter to the general manager at Wyong Shire Council. Mr Thomson's letter to Minister Garrett is a litany of unsubstantiated allegations against then Mayor Eaton and Councillor Best for the sole objective of undermining their credibility with the objective, as I have said, of making sure that this project did not go ahead. The letter alleges that the council and CCGT were in disagreement about the model for the skills centre and that Mayor Eaton did not represent his council's preferred position. Yet council did not resolve to terminate its involvement in the project until 10 August, some 20 days later—no doubt after strenuous lobbying by the member for Dobell, details of which I have already put on the record.

Mr Thomson's 'poison pen' letter to Minister Garrett also referred to other organisations in his area which could benefit from federal funds. So who could Mr Thomson have had in mind? I refer to a webpage for the member for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek, updated 12 July 2011, entitled 'Federal member for Sydney visits', which contains photographs of Craig Thomson at Youth Connections' Tuggerah office. And guess who is the work placement officer at Youth Connections and who in 2010-11 was an employee of Youth Connections? None other than Mr Thomson's former associate Ms Criselee Stevens—yes, the very same one who was one of the stars of the infamous Fair Work Australia report into the HSU. Yes, the same Criselee Stevens who was paid with HSU funds to work on Mr Thomson's Dobell campaign and who was with Mr Thomson in Coastal Voice—that other scandalous episode in the sordid HSU saga—and who then joined his staff. Thanks to the institutional fast-forward by the Australian Electoral Commission, no action was taken against Mr Thomson and Coastal Voice. Given that the three-year limitation period is over, nothing will happen—all very interesting, and too coincidental given the incestuous connections of the whole sordid HSU/Thomson scandal!

What is very clear from Mr Thomson's letter to Minister Garrett is that he is angling for an out—namely, 'The funding promise that was made in the 2010 election should not go ahead with CCGT and let's proceed to alternative organisations and an alternative skills centre model.' So what hypocrisy by Mr Thomson when on 9 March this year he put out a press release entitled 'Thomson keen for youth skills project to go ahead' and saying:

I look forward to Wyong Council and Central Coast Group Training agreeing on the best option for a site and the exact model for the youth skills and employment centre in the very near future …

But, of course, 7.30 was onto his duplicity and machinations behind the scenes with Wyong Council to scuttle the project. This media release can only be described as duplicitous and treacherous given that the documents now show that, whilst Mr Thomson on the one hand out was professing his undying support for the project, behind the scenes he was engineering its destruction.

So, Mr Thomson having approached Minister Garrett and the council for both entities to undertake an inquiry into alleged conflict of interest, let us see what both did. Having referred both these documents to Councillor Eaton and Councillor Best, I have been advised by both gentlemen that, as I suspected, they have never been formally or informally approached over these allegations by either DEEWR or the council. Clearly DEEWR ignored Mr Thomson's assertions, although they have been referred to in ministerial correspondence which I have previously raised. Clearly that did not deter DEEWR from continuing to press for the jobs incubator project to proceed in the form promised. Wyong Council's general manager responded to Mr Thomson on 5 August 2011. Incredibly, his letter refers to a meeting that Mr Thomson had with the council's internal ombudsman and various other council staff on 29 July 2011 in relation to Mr Thomson's complaint against Councillors Best and Eaton. Despite this, Mr Thomson was told that council was not the appropriate authority to consider any complaint alleging breach of pecuniary interest and he was referred to the Director-General of Local Government should he wish to pursue the matter further. Alternatively, in relation to any potential breach of council's code, Mr Whittaker writes:

… there is presently insufficient grounds for me to trigger the commencement of the referral process under the Council's code

So I come back to Minister Carr's response on 21 March:

We do know that the usual communications have occurred between local members of parliament and ministers in regard to progress on projects in their electorates. However—

and the minister goes on to give me certain assurances. Minister Carr, let me be very clear: Mr Thomson's letter of 20 July to Minister Garrett can in no way be described as 'usual communications'. It is a series of unsubstantiated allegations born of spite, designed to impugn the integrity of Messrs Eaton and Best and derail the jobs incubator. The documents reaffirm Mr Thomson's unworthiness to be a member of parliament. They shows the depths that he is prepared to stoop to in what has been a vicious and malicious vendetta against these two gentlemen, the project and CCGT.

They say, 'Birds of a feather stick together,' and so it is here. Not only did the Greens and Labor vote down a motion to suppress these documents; only recently they voted not to condemn Craig Thomson's misuse of HSU members' funds, as found by Fair Work Australia. What else can you expect from Labor senators, three-quarters of whom are ex-union bosses? But, most sadly of all, the Central Coast still does not have its youth skills centre. In an area where youth unemployment is so high, it is absolutely scandalous that this government has failed to deliver on this promise, two years after the promise was made. The government should be condemned for its failure to act on this project and Mr Thomson should be condemned for his treachery and double-dealing in the matter. The sooner an election is called the sooner the people of Dobell can be rid of Mr Thomson and the sooner they can put a close to what has been one of the most disgraceful chapters in Australia's political history and in the history of the seat of Dobell.