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Tuesday, 26 June 2012
Page: 4525

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South Wales) (17:39): I will follow on from Senator Ronaldson's comments. Since August last year, since I have had responsibility for Dobell as patron senator, I have placed on the record in a series of 12 speeches the sordid history that has become the saga of Mr Thomson and not just his dealings with the HSU but a whole range of other activities—his associations with Mr Williamson and the various connections between Mr Thomson, Mr Williamson and former Senator Arbib and other members in this place.

Senator Ronaldson made mention of the payment of legal fees. I put this on the record five times last year when I asserted that Senator Mark Arbib had brokered the payment of a quarter of a million dollars for Mr Thomson's legal fees. Not once did Minister Arbib come into this place and refute the assertion that I had made. The reason he did not is—certainly this has become very common knowledge in New South Wales circles—that that is precisely what the Labor Party did. There were payments that were made before and there are payments which have subsequently been made to cover Mr Thomson's legal expenses to prevent him from going bankrupt and therefore having to leave this place. So it is not surprising at all that Senator Abetz's motion today was not supported either by those opposite or by their Greens alliance partners.

This evening I would like to make some comments in relation to the bill before us, the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2012. The revelations surrounding the HSU demonstrate that there is an absolute need to ensure accountability for the hard earned union fees paid by members. Just before, I spoke of workers in the aged-care sector. What is now emerging as another grubby little deal that has been done is in relation to the workforce compact in aged care. Let us see who is going to be the beneficiary of that workforce compact, because you can bet your bottom dollar that is going to help one of the three health unions, the HSU, back into business.

We know that some organisations have used money for inappropriate purposes and breached existing rules. This is why the law desperately needs to be changed. We know that the investigation into the HSU took three years. We have seen the failure to cooperate with the police and Fair Work Australia claiming that they could not prepare a brief of evidence to the DPP. This bill does not go far enough and it fails to deal with the real issues that were brought up over the course of this investigation.

What are the issues with this bill? Well, Fair Work Australia is still in control. This bill will continue to allow Fair Work Australia to be responsible for registered organisations. Given the concerns that have been expressed in relation to Fair Work Australia's ability to do its job, that is a real issue. In this bill we are seeing Bill Shorten's plan, a former union boss who is going to regulate for unions—

Senator Polley: Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Moore ): I take your point of order. Senator Fierravanti-Wells, you should refer to the minister as Minister Shorten or Mr Shorten.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I will now go into this and look at some documents that have been released to Senator Abetz which also form part of the documentation that was additional to the Fair Work Australia report. Having had the benefit of reading all that material, I would say to the Senate that it is not just the two volumes of the Fair Work Australia report that list a litany of problems that need to be rectified. When one looks at and reads all the supporting material—the seven folders of material that back up what is in that report—the sordid saga is even more colourful than what is in the public arena already. One of those documents is an email dated 30 June 2009, the day before Fair Work Australia came into existence. In that email, the industrial registrar told the investigating officer to refer this matter to the police. That email from Mr Doug Williams to Terry Nassios was copied to three other people, one of whom, Ms Carruthers, was an integral part of this investigation. The email says, 'There should be a clear plan and actions arising from the outcome of the inquiries to date, including inter alia any actions and referrals to other authorities—for example, the police because of identified malfeasance or to professional licensed bodies.' And so on.

Fair Work Australia already had in its possession documents provided by Slater and Gordon, which are referred to in the HSU report. In a letter from Slater and Gordon to Mr Nassios dated 16 June 2009 there was enclosed the BDO Kendalls report, which I have had the benefit of reading. And it makes for very interesting reading. That report explains why Mr Williams told Mr Nassios that he needed to pursue police inquiries, and that was back in 2009. Fair Australia had that within their purview—they had that information—and they went on a go slow, and the rest is history. But it is very clear that, as at June 2009, criminal investigations needed to be undertaken. It is also very clear what has happened since then.

One needs to understand the Fair Work investigation to understand the background to this bill. The coalition has been critical of the investigation. The final report is substantive—it has 1,200 pages, 900 of which deal with the former secretary of the HSU, the now member for Dobell. Chapter after chapter deals with unauthorised expenditure of union funds for Mr Thomson's personal benefit in his campaign to become the member for Dobell, as well as with major contraventions by him in relation to the HSU national office.

If Fair Work Australia went on an institutional go slow, the Australian Electoral Commission went on an institutional fast forward, because they could not wait to get rid of this matter and did so as quickly as they could. It is very clear from the evidence that has been given at Senate estimates that the Australian Electoral Commission, notwithstanding the material that was on the public record, failed to take proper action to prosecute in relation to breaches of the Australian Electoral Commission legislation pertaining to Mr Thomson's efforts in Dobell. If I was able to find information pertaining to Coastal Voice, why wasn't the AEC? More importantly, why didn't the AEC pursue the matter so that prosecutions could be undertaken? They let three years pass and now throw their hands up in the air and say, 'Sorry, we can't prosecute because the time has passed.'

These documents report lavish expenditure. As Senator Ronaldson, as shadow minister for ageing, has said, the funds of many low-paid age care workers have been wasted on escort agencies, travel, restaurants and cash withdrawals. Indeed, from reading the report and the seven folders of support material it is very easy to see why Fair Work Australia concluded that the evidence of Mr Thomson was false and misleading. I invite those opposite—and I am sure that you do not have the courage to do this—to read all these documents. But if you do you will know why that conclusion was reached. This man totally and utterly abused the trust of some of the most low-paid workers in this country. And it compounds the injury his outrageous expenditure caused them for them to then see the many pages devoted to Mr Thomson's bottom of the garden fairy stories. As Senator Ronaldson put it, Mr Thomson claims are even worse than the excuse of 'the dog ate my homework'.

We have seen over the years repeated attempts to shut us down at estimates and close down questioning. But eventually, when Mr Thomson is no longer politically valuable to those opposite, they will drop him like a hot potato. Then he will be out there fending for himself, potentially facing the investigations and dealing with any matters flowing from those investigations, particularly in relation to the ongoing New South Wales and Victorian investigations.

When one looks at those records, particularly the ones in relation to the escort agencies, they not only tell the story of misuse but also raise questions that will eventually be answered. Were these services used by Mr Thomson? We know he was the sole cardholder who paid for the services. One very big question is: was Mr Thomson the only user of those services? He was clearly the person who paid for them, but was he the only person who used those services? One very big question needs to be answered: was Mr Thomson alone or were there other people involved? I am sure that at some stage history will reveal whether there were other people with Mr Thomson at the time and whether this was not just misuse of funds but a cover up to protect those other people. I can assure those members opposite that there are certainly people out there who do know what is going on and one can only hope that the New South Wales and Victorian investigations disclose those matters to us so that we can reveal them on the public record. Let us now look to the amendments that are proposed by the coalition. It is very clear that this legislation is not going to achieve what needs to be done. Therefore, Senator Abetz will be proposing a series of amendments that will go to rectifying the major deficiencies in the bill—that is, bringing penalties in line with the Corporations Act, and Senator Abetz has discussed those. What is very important and is clear from the documents I have read is that there needs to be proper procedures in relation to disclosure of information to the police. It is vitally important that it be made abundantly clear that the general manager and staff of Fair Work Australia must be able to fully cooperate with police at all stages of an investigation, including proactively providing information to police. Certainly, the government's amendment in this area does not go far enough.

One only has to look at some of the exchanges that occurred between Victoria Police and Fair Work Australia. They are absolutely ludicrous. Victoria Police asked: 'Can you provide information and material in relation to investigations of allegations of Craig Thomson's actions by the Health Services Union? This is required to assist in the progress of the current Victoria Police criminal investigation. Specifically, can you assist me with answers to the following questions?' We then get some mealy-mouthed response from Fair Work Australia that totally and utterly demonstrates their lack of willingness to cooperate with the police—they hid behind some spurious, silly responses.

As a former officer at the office of the Australian Government Solicitor I must say that whoever wrote that report ought to go back to law school. Quite frankly, it is absolutely ridiculous that an organisation in Australia like Fair Work Australia can say, 'We cannot help the police when we are conducting a major investigation.' That really does need to be tightened up.

Then there is the issue of disclosure of information to the Director of Public Prosecutions. We had the ridiculous situation where Fair Work said, 'We cannot provide briefs.' But if you go back to the annual report of Fair Work Australia you can see that in the past Fair Work Australia has spent money in preparing briefs to legal bodies. So why couldn't they do it with the HSU investigation? I will leave that question open.

Before I conclude my remarks I would like to go to the importance of this legislation. You can bet your bottom dollar that if this sort of thing was happening in the HSU it also was happening in other unions. We have seen this in comments made by former Attorney-General Robert McClelland in relation to another union that point to circumstances that ought to have been investigated. Most particularly, the Herald Sun said that Mr McClelland revived a 1990 union scandal that Ms Gillard must have thought she had buried. It is one that involved her then boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, accused of misappropriating $500,000. The Herald Sun said:

This is a story a furious Gillard last year managed to shut down, shouting in private calls to newspaper executives and obtaining the retraction of an entire column in The Australian.

   …   …   …

And in Parliament on Thursday, he [Mr McClelland] finally did speak up—saying just enough to hint at one reason he may not think Gillard should be Prime Minister.

He spoke during debate on the Government's Registered Organisations Bill, brought in to crack down on corrupt union officials in the wake of the Health Services Union affair …

McClelland told Parliament the Bill did not go far enough, and should also force the guilty to pay back what they'd taken. Then came the sting. McClelland said his thoughts were influenced by a case involving Gillard when she was a solicitor.

The article quoted McClelland:

"I know the Prime Minister is quite familiar with this area of the law, as lawyers in the mid-1990s we were involved in a matter representing opposing clients. Indeed, my involvement in that matter has coloured much of my thinking."

The article continued:

McClelland specifically cited one of many legal moves in an Australian Workers Union factional brawl at the time, with AWU Victorian secretary Bruce Wilson named as a respondent.

McClelland is listed as a solicitor in that matter, but Gillard or her firm are not, suggesting McClelland was referring generally to the union fighting …

A litany of articles have been written about this. It is a matter that has surfaced in the past and I am not surprised that the Prime Minister has sought to bury it, because as the Herald Sun article points out:

One AWU official McClelland represented, Ian Cambridge, even called for a royal commission, but the union ran dead on the case and no one was charged.

Gillard appointed Cambridge a Fair Work Australia commissioner in 2009. Gillard is involved in the scandal not just because she was Wilson's partner, but also because she gave him legal advice, with her firm Slater & Gordon acting for his union.

You can bet your bottom dollar that if it happened in the HSU it also happened in other unions, and that is what needs to be investigated.